08 Oct 2021 | Industry news |

Aussie golf's purple patch

by Contributor

Lucas Herbert Irish image
Lucas Herbert's Irish Open win was one of a string of Australian triumphs. Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen, Australian Financial Review

Two years ago, Australian golfer Lucas Herbert was down in the dumps. Although he had been a professional golfer for four years, 2019 was his first year playing overseas, and he was miserable.

“It was my first experience of life on tour,” the 25-year-old says. “I didn’t miss many cuts in tournaments that year, but I’ll admit that I had some torment. I wanted to be with my friends at home. The thing is that professional golfers’ friends think they are travelling the world playing golf, so what is there to complain about? The reality is very different. It’s kind of like we are living other people’s dream life.”

Everything changed in January last year, on Australia Day no less, in the United Arab Emirates, when Herbert won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic – part of the European Tour – beating South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff, netting a cool US$542,000.

He backed it up this year, when he won the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet in County Kilkenny in early July, beating Swede Rikard Karlberg by three shots. His winnings: 485,000 euros.

All of a sudden, his life has turned around. Herbert is now the 51st best player in the world according to the Sony World Rankings – one of eight Australian men in the world’s top 100 (and we have four women in the top 100) – and he recently won his way onto the USPGA Tour, the world’s richest golf tour.

Extraordinarily, Herbert was just one of several young Australian winners around the world during the month July.

In an urgent fortnight Sydneysider Cam Davis won the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club, part of the USPGA Tour, Steph Kyriacou – also from Sydney – triumphed at the Big Green Egg Open at Rosendaelsche Golf Club in the Netherlands, part of the Ladies European Tour, while Perth-born Min Woo Lee won the Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club in North Berwick. The amateurs were doing smart things too. 2021 men’s Australian Amateur winner Louis Dobelaar won the North and South Amateur Championship at Pinehurst, North Carolina, while the current women’s Australian Amateur champion, Grace Kim, had a three-stroke victory at the Texarkana Children’s Charities Open – a professional tournament – in Arizona. Add to that a win by 25-year-old Minjee Lee (Min Woo’s sister) at the Evian Masters on the European Tour in late July, one of five women’s majors each year, and you have a bunch of young Australians – men and women, professional and amateur – with the golfing world seemingly at their feet. What is behind this renaissance in Australian golf? Herbert feels it’s a simply a reflection of the deep talent pool in Australia. “Quite simply we have lots of world-class athletes in Australia, and we punch pretty well per capita, a bit like South Africa,” he says.

“Australian golf hasn’t had such a monumental month for many years,” says Brad James, head of high performance at Golf Australia. James’ department nurtures Australia’s best young golfers, putting them through a program to prepare them for the rigours of life on tour – both in terms of playing the game and dealing with life outside the ropes, which includes issues like dealing with homesickness and all the aspects of running a small business, including managing staff, travel and finances.

He says the magical month of July underlines that the program is working.

“Young Aussie golfers are generally well-travelled and autonomous,” he says. “There are negatives about being Australian – we are so far away from the USA and Europe – but that comes with positives too. We are used to travelling and being away from home. We try to produce golfers who are resilient, not reliant. They need to learn to face and overcome challenges by themselves. Outside of your caddie every other person at a golf tournament wants you to fail, so golfers need to be able to thrive in that environment.”

James, who has just completed two weeks’ hotel quarantine after returning from the Tokyo Olympics where he accompanied the four members of the Australian golf team, says there is no doubt that momentum is a big thing in golf. “The younger athletes see their cohorts win around the world and they gain inner confidence from it. It creates belief for them. If Adam Scott wins the US Masters, all sorts of Aussies believe they can do it too. It’s hard to create that culture but it can create itself. The Aussies are so well connected with each other and they get along so well.”

In particular he is delighted that three of the four Australian players at the Olympics – Cam Smith, Hannah Green and Minjee Lee – were graduates of Golf Australia’s high-performance program, and the two women were major championship winners.

He says the decision by Golf Australia to rent a house in Orlando, Florida – run by Australian Luke Mackey – for Australian golfers to use between tournaments is another important factor. He acknowledges the Kinghorn Foundation and the Australian Institute of Sport for their support.

“Aussie golfers can come to Orlando between tournaments and eat, sleep, use the gym, prepare for upcoming events and hang out together,” he says. “They practice with each other, have dinner together and talk to each other. Golf is a competitive environment – they are all competing against each other – but they also have each other’s backs. I would love to have a similar set-up in Asia and Europe for our golfers there.”

Importantly, Golf Australia has done a deal with Orange Country Golf Course in Orlando for the players to use for practice. They can also play at Bay Hill and Isleworth clubs.

James says the aim of the high-performance program is to give young Australian golfers the tools to reach their potential. “Most of our golfers turn professional between 18-23 years of age, so travelling around the world by themselves often for ten months at a time can be extremely challenging. Many have to cope with homesickness and loneliness. We give them the structure, support and resources that enable them to go on the journey and ideally have success for a sustained period.”

Players also need to learn the skills to manage a support team, which often includes a coach, caddie, physiotherapist, and strength and conditioning coach. “They are basically running their own businesses as well as trying to play good golf,” James says. “If they can get structures set up for the outside-the-rope stuff, success on the course can become so much more attainable.”

Lucas Herbert’s mind coach, Queensland-based Jamie Glazier, echoes James’ thoughts. “Professional golf is not glamourous. It’s a taxing and brutal way of making a living,” he says. “Players need to go to the root reason of why they are doing it – that it is a fun game that they love playing.”

He says the two key components from a mental point of view are flexibility and gratitude.

“The game is full of variables so young Australian professionals have to learn to be flexible and adapt, not just in a tournament but throughout the year. They need to be psychologically flexible – to be able to manage things as they come up.”

And gratitude, he says, must be part of a golfer’s mindset. “Golfers must remember to be grateful that they are simply able to compete, because a lot of their pals back in Australia can’t compete. Getting overseas is really expensive and they need to enjoy it because nothing lasts forever.”

The game, after all, will always be full of triumph and disaster. “There are nuggets of similarity between golf and life,” Glazier says.

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