Interview: Calum Hill on qualifying for the US Open

Scotland's Calum Hill secured his spot at this week's US Open through a sectional qualifier in New Jersey. Photograph: Mike Schoaf/Southwest PGA
Scotland's Calum Hill secured his spot at this week's US Open through a sectional qualifier in New Jersey. Photograph: Mike Schoaf/Southwest PGA
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He came through the ranks in the background but is about to step into the spotlight. Calum Hill’s US Open appearance at Shinnecock Hills this week is testament to his golf game having come on leaps and bounds since starting a college stint in America after cutting his teeth in the shadow of players like Bradley Neil and Ewan Scott on the Scottish junior circuit.

“I doubt it, honestly,” replied Hill to being asked by Scotland on Sunday if he felt an opportunity to play in a first major would have been forthcoming if it hadn’t been for his spell at Western New Mexico University, where he graduated recently with an MBA in business administration, having also spent the latter two years as the assistant golf coach at the Silver City campus.

“I was in the background just trying to get better when I was in a Scottish Golf coaching group with the likes of Bradley Neil, Josh Jamieson and Ben Kinsley. Aside from winning a couple of Perth & Kinross county events, I didn’t do anything crazy or spectacular at all as a junior and wasn’t even off scratch. I don’t really know what happened when I came out here. For some reason, the American style of golf suited me instantly and I’ve just got better and better.”

The 23-year-old, who was introduced to golf by his dad, Neil, at Aberdour when the family lived in Dalgety Bay before becoming a Muckhart member when they moved to Kinross around a decade ago, offered a hint about how much he’d progressed when winning three professional events in the US last year. The most notable of those successes came in the San Juan Open, joining two of his compatriots, Martin Laird and Jimmy Gunn, in landing that prize.

Now Hill is set to test himself against the best in the world, having secured his spot in the season’s second major along with three fellow Scots, Russell Knox, Richie Ramsay and amateur Ryan Lumsden, by sharing top spot in one of the US Open sectional qualifiers at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, New Jersey. Having already come through a regional qualifier in New Mexico last month, Hill is rightly feeling proud of himself and is aiming to do himself justice in the biggest test so far in his career.

“I’m arriving at Shinnecock Hills on Sunday night, so my first practice round will be on Monday,” said Hill, who ended up at Western New Mexico University after seeing Scott Crichton, a fellow Aberdour member as a junior, blossom into a full Scotland internationalist during his stint there. “I’ll obviously need to get to know the course as quickly as possible but, at the same time, I need to be careful that I don’t burn myself out. I’ve been on the website checking out the course and it’s going to be around 7,500 yards and a par 70. It looks relatively narrow, but usually I hit it pretty straight so I shouldn’t have problems finding fairways. The key will be course management. I want to make sure that I go out and enjoy it. It will be quite an experience, I think.”

His phone has been red-hot since last Monday. “It’s been a bit mental,” he admitted. “Loads of people have reached out to me and that’s been really kind of them. It’s overwhelming, to be honest. Now that I’ve got replying to people out of the way and got everything fixed up for next week, I am really looking forward to playing in the US Open and it’s just a case of getting ready for the tournament.

“Having attended The Open as a spectator many times, including the 2015 event at St Andrews, it would definitely have been the major I’d have wanted to play in, but, unfortunately, I’ve just not been able to coordinate my time to get back from the States to try and qualify for it. I think I will be back in July this year, though, and my dad has mentioned there’s now a Scottish Open qualifier, so I will try and get into that as playing in my home Open would also be great.”

At the moment, though, his focus is entirely on the 118th US Open and heading to Long Island to cheer him on are his dad, mum Debbie and younger brother Ian, as well as his godparents from St Andrews, and his lifelong friend, Cameron McLay. “There will be plenty of people out there supporting me and it will also be nice for them to share the experience,” he admitted.

Beyond next week, Hill is looking closer to home to see if he can make a living out of being a touring professional. “My current plan prior to getting into this event – and that plan may change depending on how I play – was to play in some more State Opens and then try to get a status on either the European Tour or the Challenge Tour through the Qualifying School,” he revealed. “I’d like to play a full season somewhere and see how I get on. Until now, I’ve been combining tournament play with school and work and just played bits and pieces here and there. It would be good to concentrate for a spell on just playing tournament golf and see where that takes me.”

A week ago, there wasn’t a single Scot in the Shinnecock Hills line-up, but Ramsay, pictured inset, Knox and Lumsden, who is a junior at Northwestern University outside Chicago, also booked their berths by coming through sectional qualifying. Ramsay passed the test at Walton Heath for the second year running while Knox and Lumsden were among those successful at the venues in Columbus, Ohio.

“It is a great honour to be flying the flag for Scotland in an event like this and it’s brilliant that Richie Ramsay, Russell Knox and Ryan Lumsden have made it through as well,” said Hill. “For me, it’s great that Muckhart has been getting some publicity over the past few days. It’s great to put your home club on the map, even if it might be for just a short time. We moved to Kinross when I was 11 or 12. It was at Aberdour that I got my handicap but all my junior golf at county level was in Perth & Kinross.”

For now, he’s definitely no longer that background boy.