Down deeper and down - what's up, Tom?
CADDIE'S ROLE:Despite winning on only his third start as a professional last year, Tom Lewis has struggled badly since. As he prepares to defend his Portuguese Masters title, a good final round at the Alfred Dunhill has raised much needed hope. Does the comeback start here, asks COLIN BYRNE
WHAT CAN you say to a young professional golfer who reached the heady heights in his profession almost instantly but since then has suffered nothing but disappointment?
It is the grey area of caddying where there are no guidelines or yardage books redirecting you back to winning ways. You need to be a sympathetic psychologist while carrying out the more fundamental, labour intensive duties of carrying the bag.
It seems like we have been carrying the weight of a successful introduction to professional golf on our shoulders for exactly a year now.
I started caddying for Tom Lewis 12 months ago. He had enjoyed a high profile British Open in St Georges in July of last year, shooting the lowest opening round. Being easy on the eye and an attractive new English hope, there was lots of goodwill for the aspiring Lewis and an enormous amount of aspiration.
Carrying other people’s hopes for you in the world is arduous enough for a hardened campaigner. To live with huge expectation at the tender age of 21 is understandably stressful. This, of course, is coupled with your own expectation as an instantly proven winner. Where do you go after such a perfect start to a new career? Well, on hindsight the answer is down.
This is a new and dark space for a hopeful youngster to inhabit at a stage of life when the only concern should be having fun. I understand why those looking from the outside assume travelling the world in relative luxury to play the game you love (sometimes) and earn a good living to be a dream existence. It is a good life on tour, but to finely tuned performers, missing cuts is like forgetting your lines during your dramatic soliloquy on stage, every night you perform.
The last time Tom made a cut was at the start of June this year. We have had four months of floundering with only a couple of rounds under par and the rest way off the mark. This is hard to take for any new player, least of all an ambitious 21-year-old who won his third event as a professional.
It was mooted after his astonishing victory at the Portugal Masters last year that perhaps young Tom had “won too early”. I saw it only as a positive with his playing rights secured for two years and a chance to plan his initiation to top international golf. He had given himself breathing space in which to learn the intricacies of his difficult profession.
I recall asking him almost exactly a year ago on a wet, windy and generally unpleasant day at St Andrews after a bad final round if he was sure he wanted to be a professional golfer.
As the rain dripped from his peaked cap he looked at me unconvincingly and said he thought so. I replied that days like we had just endured, although not the norm, were a common occurrence when you play golf for a living.
It is about dealing with the tough days that define you as a successful pro. Playing to the best of your ability is the easy, enjoyable but sadly infrequent reality of life on tour. The art of longevity is about handling yourself when you are not playing well and things are not going your way. Enjoy the glory but get used to the reality.
So we returned to the Fife coast last week for our first anniversary as a player/caddie team and without either of us admitting it, after four lean months the outcome was almost predictable.
With this amount of time of failure it is sometimes difficult to see any positive future. We started with a double bogey on a mystically serene morning in Carnoustie on the 10th hole hitting a nine iron into a greenside bunker from the fairway. The ball bounced in and still plugged. There is no doubt that when you are down, things go against you in golf.
We had a disastrous day, as if our fate was sealed on arrival. At least the weather was fine. We played with Louis Oosthuizen the next day in Kingsbarns.
Tom hit the hole about seven times with good putts that refused to go in. We finished eight over in total for two rounds and even if we had shot 60 at St Andrews the next day we would still have missed the cut.
We played with Charl Schwartzel. Charl pointed out he had a wonderful first year on tour and almost lost his card the next year. Justin Rose, who had a similar dramatic entrance to the arena of hope in the British Open, spent years in oblivion before he re-established himself as a serious contender.
There is a long list of players who have risen and fallen, some on numerous occasions, only to re-establish themselves out of will, determination and belief. Four years ago Nicolas Colsaerts didn’t have playing rights anywhere in professional golf. A couple of weeks ago he was a Ryder Cup hero.
It is not enough simply to have talent in golf, you need overpowering self-belief, all day, every day and particularly when your ball plugs again in a bunker. You need to keep performing until the curtain comes down on the 18th hole and you sign your card, no matter what happens.
With 31 putts, a lot of encouragement from our amateur partner in the Dunhill Links Challenge, Kieran McManus, and effortless golf, Tom shot 65 in St Andrews on Saturday. We didn’t make the cut but the seven under par round reminded Tom he can actually play the game.
Talent is always there, but belief can be evasive. You cannot suppress talent permanently but you need to believe you are talented in order for it to come true.
As we re-visit the scene of our greatest victory in Portugal this week it would be a fitting arena in which to rediscover a belief in Tom’s undeniable talent.
I wonder what I’ll say to my struggling young pro when we start the defence of a life altering victory in the Oceanico Victoria golf course next Thursday?