“Not having played as well I can up to now has obviously been disappointing,” the Blairgowrie player admitted in an interview with Scotland on Sunday at Gloria Golf Club in Belek. “I’m sure people viewing my situation from the outside will be looking at my results and say I turned professional too early and think I’ve become a worse player over the past ten or 11 months. But I would look at it completely the opposite way. I definitely feel my game is better than it was a year ago. I also feel a lot more knowledgeable about my own game and the game in general. I think it’s a case of just not having adapted yet to the professional game.”
Yesterday was a perfect example. He’d hoped a weight would have been lifted from his shoulders by making it to the weekend for the first time on either the European Tour or Challenge Tour since the Fred Olsen Challenge de Espana in La Gomera last summer. But, on “moving day”, he slipped to last spot among those to make the cut after a 77. A double-bogey 7 at the last, where birdie should almost be a gimme, just about summed up how he’s found scoring has become difficult whereas it once seemed easy to him.
“A top five, even a top ten, sometime soon would be massive for me. I would love to be able to take the pressure off myself for the rest of the year. I need to try and give myself the chance to get a proper schedule out here. But, from a positive point of view, getting the invitations I’ve had for both the European Tour and the Challenge Tour so far means I’ve realised the things I need to do in practice and in competition to get the best out of me. To have discovered that at 20 years old is a big advantage. I think there are guys who get to their 30s out here who are still trying to discover what works best for them. I’ve never really missed a chance, either, to take advice on board. Particularly when I’ve been playing with a senior player or one of the older guys out here, I’ll normally ask, ‘what did you think I could have done better?’”
Neil has the same management company, Excel Sports, that represents both Tiger Woods and Justin Rose, pictured. He feels they still believe in him. He also reckons his manager, Paul McDonnell, is the perfect person to be leaning on at the moment. He is a close friend of Justin Rose, after all, and watched the Englishman miss the cut in his first 21 events as a professional before turning things around to become a US Open champion and a Ryder Cup stalwart.
“You hear a lot of stories about management companies promising the world and, as soon as you don’t perform, you get dropped and you are left on your own to try and work your way up the ladder. My management company, though, has been fantastic. I’ve played three European Tour events over the winter time and starts like that are hard to get, especially when you are not performing as well as you know you can,” said Neil.
“They obviously saw potential – world-class potential even – when they signed me. They know it’s there and they are just waiting for it to come. The bonus is that my manager, Paul, is Justin Rose’s best friend and he is definitely the person I have leaned on most. He knows what Justin went through at the start of his professional career. He was at his side when that was happening and knew he could get there eventually. And look at where he is now. Paul knows time is on my side, too.”
At a time when fellow 32-year-olds Scott Jamieson and Richie Ramsay are the youngest among our full-time European Tour contingent, Scottish golf badly needs the likes of Neil to not just be finding their feet on the Challenge Tour but moving up the ladder. We’ve already lost a potential superstar in Lloyd Saltman, after all, and his disappearance from the scene is a reminder that the players who command the amateur spotlight aren’t necessarily the ones who are cut out for professional golf.
Take Ross Kellett, for example. The 28-year-old Motherwell man lived in the shadow of the likes of James Byrne and Michael Stewart in the non-paid ranks yet has now jumped ahead of them in terms of a professional status. After a flawless third-round 69, he is also the top Scot here in an event being led by a Frenchman, Clement Sordet.