EXACTLY two years ago, Bradley Neil was among around 250 hopefuls setting out in the Scottish Boys Championship at Monifieth. Yesterday, in his first public practice round for this week’s Masters, Neil found himself sharing the same stage as the world No 1.
Far from being fazed or a nervous wreck through being in Rory McIlroy’s company at the start of the week in which he will bid to complete a career grand slam, the 19-year-old from Blairgowrie savoured every minute. He pitched in for an eagle at the second before earning another hearty cheer from the huge crowds when achieving what McIlroy failed to do by skimming his shot across the water on to the 16th green.
Rory always gets a crowd and the fact that I got to taste that was greatBradley Neil
It was a perfect preparation for Neil as he lines up along with six other amateurs in the season’s opening major, starting on Thursday. He is ready for whatever added pressure comes from playing in front of a big crowd. He is ready to stand on that first tee feeling positive. He is ready to give it his all in a bid to become just the second British amateur after Peter McEvoy 40 years ago to make the cut.
“It was a bit like coming here for the first time. It exceeded all my expectations,” admitted Neil after playing the full 18 holes with McIlroy “He’s a really nice guy and made me feel really comfortable. Rory always gets a crowd and the fact that I got to taste that was great. I doubt I’ll play in front of a crowd like that during the rest of the week. It’s going to be easier now.”
The practice round had been arranged when the pair bumped into each other in the breakfast room at Augusta a week past Friday. Neil was there early for his dream date, looking nice and relaxed as he chatted to some people around the practice putting green.
With every passing minute, he was probably wondering if Rory would turn up. As well as a class act, though, he is a man of his word. Just after 9am, McIlroy appeared. As he exchanged pleasantries with Neil’s caddie, Phil McKenna, the teenager continued putting, even though his instinct must have been to rush over and say, ‘hello’.
“Who’s this guy?” asked one American fan standing close to the iconic big oak tree in front of the clubhouse as Neil hit first, impressing that particular onlooker straight away. “Look at that, right down the middle,” he added of the majestic blow, though McIlroy wasted no time putting the youngster in his place by hitting one 30 yards longer.
As the pair walked up the fairway chatting like good pals, it is doubtful there was a prouder man in the world at that moment than Neil’s dad, Rodney. “Just being here is great, but seeing that on the first tee? It was awesome,” admitted Rodney. “Not quite tears, but there might be on the first day. We’ll see.” Neil’s mum, Mandy, his older brother, Connor, and his girlfriend, Rosie, are also here. So, too, are some family friends from Blairgowrie. They didn’t have to wait long for Neil to deliver their first magical Masters memory. From around 100 yards short of the green, he pitched in for an eagle-3 at the second. It was greeted by a mighty roar and was celebrated with a hand slap with a smiling McIlroy.
There was more to that than met the eye, as Neil explained afterwards. “The day we met here I did the exact same thing and he was on the third tee,” he revealed. “He said ‘just don’t bother going for the green, just lay up all the time’.”
This pitch in made more than the player himself feel that all the hard work he’d put in to earn this chance as the Amateur champion had been well worthwhile. “When I took Bradley and his brother Connor out to play golf at the age of three it wasn’t about this [coming to the Masters],” said Rodney. “It was just getting them out playing, enjoying it and meeting people. I was into golf and it was great to take them out, watch them hit balls, get better then take them out to tournaments. It could have been fishing they were doing, but it might not have had the same effect as coming here.”
This week and beyond, Neil won’t find a better role model than the man he spent five hours with yesterday. Later this week, McIlroy will bid to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career grand slam. He is also bidding to win three majors in a row.
“I know what is in store for him. He has a chance at history,” said Neil. “But he’s just a normal person. Everyone here doesn’t view him like that but he’s so down to earth and a great guy. We talked about a lot of things.”
Anything in specific? “Well, I’m 19 and he’s only a few years older, so we were talking about girls and stuff like that,” added Neil. “Just little things to let the time pass.”
Watching Neil as he played with the game’s latest superstar was his coach, St Andrews-based Kevin Hale. “There’s not really anything you can say as coach to prepare someone for playing with the world No 1,” said the man who has worked with Scotland’s top-ranked amateur for the last four years.
“But I think he’s the type that will thrive in an occasion like this rather than being scared by it. That’s the attitude you want. It’s natural that he’ll be nervous, though he didn’t seem to show that with the tee shot he just hit on the first tee. That’s all part of the test. It’s about how you deal with it and I think Bradley will embrace that this week.”
He already has some new admirers. Some fellow golfing scribes, many of whom had not met him before, were quick to comment about how good an impression he’d made in the post-round chat under the aforementioned oak tree.
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