Rising to the challenge

IT'S BEEN said before, but professional golf can be a cruel business at times. While obviously and outwardly glamorous, the European Tour's almost worldwide schedule can be little more than a relentless treadmill for those outside the game's privileged elite. The rewards are great in both material terms and notoriety, but the level of competition in such a high-profile sport inevitably leads to struggles for the majority. Where there are winners, there have to be losers.

Callum Macaulay isn't a loser, of course, far from it. But he isn't yet a winner either. Not as a professional anyway. The 2008 Scottish Amateur champion and perhaps the most promising member of the three-man Scotland side that returned from Australia as world champions at the end of that same season, the now 26-year-old from Tulliallan sailed through all three stages of the European Tour school – a remarkable feat of endurance involving 252 holes – and immediately left the unpaid ranks. Then, in only his fourth European Tour event, he played the last nine holes of the Madeira Islands Open in an astonishing eight under par to finish second behind Argentine Tano Goya. He was, it seemed, off and running.

But he wasn't. Hampered by the lowliness of his ranking, Macaulay, like all rookies, struggled not so much for starts – he eventually made 22 appearances on tour last year – but for the right sort of starts. "Relegated" to the lowest-paying prize funds (Madeira, by way of example, is the smallest event on the European Tour), retaining that coveted tour card is both a reasonable and difficult target for every first-year player. And Macaulay, sad to say, came up just short. Despite performing steadily – he made more than twice as many cuts as he missed – his final ranking of 134th on the Order of Merit wasn't quite good enough to attain all-exempt safety. Then, even worse, he returned to the tour school in Spain and missed out by one agonising shot.

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"My first year was always going to be tough," he concedes. "I hit the ball well for most of the year until near the end. I'd been working on my short game all season and it finally came around – but only at a time when my long game went on holiday! Which is typical golf, but it stopped me from getting that one week where everything came together at the one time. A huge week is so important these days. There are plenty of guys surviving on tour on the back of one great event every year. And that same sort of thing is so important for young guys setting out, like me. It kick starts your whole career.

"In baseball terms, it is all about hitting home runs. I hit plenty of singles last year, but none of them ever got me to home plate. But don't get me wrong, mine isn't a hard-luck story. I knew what I was getting into. And at the end of the day I just didn't play well enough. I got myself into a few good positions and Madeira obviously sticks out. But I was going well at the Czech Open – I had a putt to take the lead in the second round – before falling away a bit. I still finished 11th but it could and should have been better. Had I been two or three shots lower, it would have made a huge difference to where I am now."

Where he is now is facing a season spent mostly on the Challenge Tour – from which the top-20 money-winners will gain promotion to the European circuit – with a few major league events thrown in. But it is also a season in which the likeable and endearingly down-to-earth Macaulay is determined to learn from the disappointments he endured in 2009.

"I played pretty well in quite a few weeks and I feel like I hit the ball well," he continues. "But at tour level you just can't afford to be mediocre on and around the greens. And that is what I was. My putting average has improved by almost a shot in the year and a bit I have been a pro, yet I'm still one of the worst on tour. Everyone else is just so good at chipping and putting. That's where everything is won and lost.

"The big problem is that living in Scotland is no good for putting practice. It's too cold at this time of year and the condition of the surfaces is no good. So all the work I get done is when I'm on the road. At home there is nowhere to practise. Plus, my coach, Ian Rae, can't be with me every week. So I end up working on my own."

Macaulay is also mature enough to recognise that his attitude on and off the course needs some work. Like so many others used to success, he found himself lapsing too often into self-criticism when things weren't going quite as well as he hoped they would. "Missing out so narrowly at the tour school (where he actually shot one shot lower than in 2008) was a kick in the teeth and quite hard to take," he admits. "I felt like I'd let myself down. But, on the other hand, I was far too hard on myself last year. I got really angry, which is not like me, especially in the last third of the season when I knew what was at stake. I stopped enjoying it. I was out on the course and getting angry with myself and with my Dad, who caddies for me. I'd get angry at anything really. It stopped being a game I love and became a job I was struggling with."

Still, at least on the temperament front, Macaulay has an example to guide him in 2010. Compatriot Richie Ramsay, fourth in the Dunhill Links Championship – "that was his home run," says Macaulay – and winner of last month's South African Open has seen his performances improve dramatically in the wake of a change in attitude.

"I still see 2009 as a disappointment because I set my goals high," says Macaulay. "But my main aim this year is to stop being so hard on myself. I need to enjoy it more and play as if I'm having fun. I look at Richie and see how he has changed. He was always hard on himself but he seems to be over that now. I've noticed a huge difference in him over the last six months. He's a lot more relaxed. That's how I want to be."