The World Amateur Golf Rankings tell us that Patrick Cantlay is the No. 1 ranked amateur on the planet and has been for almost a year. If you look closely enough, however, the rankings will show that the hottest amateur in the world is a young Australian named Daniel Nesbit. His is an instructive story.
Nesbit has been on a tear during the 2012 summer amateur season down under. He began the year ranked No. 174, and since has climbed 134 places to No. 40. This jump was fueled by a second place finish at the Master of the Amateurs, followed a week later by a runner-up finish at the Australian Amateur, and followed again by a win at the Lake Macquarie Amateur.
“It’s been a good couple of weeks,” he said recently, crediting the hard work he and his teacher, Peter Knight, have put in.
It has been an impressive performance, but sadly, no matter what Nesbit accomplishes on the golf course, there will be whispers about his “past.” Because in 2009, Nesbit made the kind of youthful mistake that can haunt you in sport for a very long time.
Nesbit, a former Australian Junior champion, was Australia’s No. 1 amateur in August 2009 as he returned from a successful trip to North America. He was stopped in customs, and a vitamin supplement was taken from him. Three months later, it was revealed that the substance contained a banned anabolic agent. Nesbit claimed he purchased it in Canada for a non-athlete friend and that the bottle was mislabeled. He never tested positive for the substance, nor was he never accused of using it. Nonetheless, he did bring it into the country and was hit with an 18-month ban from competition for possessing it. The ban, which could have been for two years, went from November 2009 to May 2011.
Nesbit, crushed and at first angry, considered quitting the game. He spent his time working behind the bar at his golf club, and eventually grew to accept his situation. Bartending became a motivator to get his life and game in order, which he appears to have done. He returned to competition at the British Amateur last summer, played a late summer schedule in America, and then returned home to continue to hone his game in the fall. Then came the explosion of 2012.
I spoke with Nesbit during the New South Wales Amateur, where it appears that he ran out of gas after an intense stretch. He sounds like a kid who has recognized the error of his ways and has grown up.
“I learned a lesson the hard way,” he told me. “It forced me to look a lot closer at my life, and I have done that. I put myself in that position, and I dragged my family and friends through all of it. I regret that.”
Now comfortably among the top 50 amateurs in the world, Nesbit has his sights set on playing in Great Britain this spring and early summer before heading to America this summer; he is pointing toward the British and U.S. Amateur championships. He also hopes to be selected to represent Australia in the World Team Amateur Championship in Turkey this fall before embarking on a pro career. “Growing up, the Eisenhower Trophy is what I aspired to qualify for,” he told me. I find his willingness to wait and roll the dice on being selected to be admirable and a sign of maturity.
Yet just when you want to believe, another head scratching incident occurs. Nesbit was left off the Australian National Team that will compete in the Trans-Tasman Cup in March. News surfaced that he was hit with a six month suspension for an incident that took place at the Australian Open last November. Nobody is talking and rumors abound, but the fact is that the hottest amateur in the world was left off his national team.
There is little question among those that follow amateur golf that Nesbit has some serious game. He has been a prodigy since he was a junior, drawing favorable comparisons to Greg Norman. According to Knight, the former director of Elite Player Development for Golf Australia, his biggest asset is his competitive mindset: “He has been very clear from a very young age that he wants to become a great golfer.”
Knight elaborated on the last two years: “Dan’s time out of the game coincided with the same time as all young men rapidly mature emotionally and socially. While he has undoubtedly learned strong lessons of the past two years, it is difficult to say whether those improvements were caused by the suspension or the natural maturation process.”
There are two mortal sins in the competitive game – doping and cheating on the course. It can take a very long time to lose the scarlet letter associated with incidents of this kind, whether they are true or not. It’s classic guilt by association. Here’s hoping that Nesbit learned from his mistakes, is truly repentant, and that he can then let his golf clubs do his talking. Because it looks like they can speak eloquently.