PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | Had you been looking, you could have watched the present and the future of English professional golf in one pairing in the last round of the Players Championship. On a grey, windswept day that owed more to Britain’s climate than Florida’s, there was Justin Rose, 38, who seems to be world No 1 on alternate weeks and in contention every other week and there, alongside him, was Eddie Pepperell, 28, a stocky, curly-haired Englishman who didn’t look at all out of place in such exalted company near the head of the field at this prestigious event – on his debut in it. Everyone knew Justin; no one knew Eddie.
They do now. The way they chanted his name when he sank a long putt across the 17th green on TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course meant Americans had taken Pepperell to their hearts. “Ed-die, Ed-die” they shouted, taking advantage of the two syllables of his first name in much the same way as they lauded “Se-ve, Se-ve” in days gone by and shout “Ro-ry, Ro-ry” now. Pepperell’s putt, nearly twice as long as a cricket pitch, had to go over the shoulder of the hole’s only bunker and when it dropped below ground it was Pepperell’s seventh birdie of the day, his fifth of his inward nine holes, and it took him to the very tall cotton territory of 14-under par, at that moment only one stroke behind the tournament leader. With a 66 in his last round, he posted a 274 total and finished joint third in only his 12th start on the PGA Tour.
There should be some talk now about young English professionals and if there is, then it starts with Tommy Fleetwood, another who has been taken to the hearts of American fans. Fleetwood is well known, well liked and not so well barbered. “Shampoo? Conditioner?” they shout at him and he takes it as he takes almost everything that comes his way, with a smile, a flick at his long locks and completely in his stride. Surely about to win his first tournament on the PGA Tour, Fleetwood, 28, is the leader of a quintet of really promising young men from the country of St George. Fleetwood is ranked 11th in the world, Matthew Fitzpatrick, 24, is 34th, Matt Wallace, 28, is 35th, Pepperell is 36th and Tyrrell Hatton, 27, is 37th.
If you include Rose, who is ranked second, Paul Casey, 41, who is 15th and Ian Poulter, 43, who is 32nd, then it means that there are eight English golfers in the top 50, a pleasing change from the days not so long ago when there was only one in the top 100. And five of those eight are younger than 30.
“I have chipped and putted my socks off this week to be fair,” Pepperell said at the end of the Players. “I love this course. It suits me. There is so much going on. If you are playing well you can shoot a good score. If you are not playing well it is going to be tough. There is a lot of excitement. A lot of the par-3s are very gettable. One thing I did do today was I hit some key tee shots with my driver. This week changes a lot. This prize fund is a lot of money. Lucky me.”
“His short game is what impressed me today – and his composure. It was a brilliant finish, some key up-and-downs. … I love his temperament.” – Justin Rose
And that putt on the 71st hole?
“I said to my caddie that might be the highlight of my career. I imagined my dad and everyone at home and in the golf club going absolutely mental. That went through my mind. I was laughing walking up the last picturing them. I imagine there was beer going everywhere.”
Pepperell was at the end of a four-week foray into the US, his first to that country and at the start of that journey American fans didn’t know any more about him than he knew about their country. He spent a week between tournaments in Austin, Texas. “I loved Austin. It’s a great city. I liked everything, the food, the golf courses. All the courses over here have been great. They have been tough. The competition is stern. I am sick of hotels. I am ready to get home even though I love it here.”
With one exception. While in the US with Jennifer Rhodes, his girlfriend whom he had met at 16, Pepperell’s mind was half on Gus, his Vizsla dog, left at home in Oxfordshire. Vizslas are of Hungarian origin and said to be loyal and to want nothing more than to be loved. In that case, Gus and Pepperell are a perfect match for one another.
Pepperell was asked why he liked Gus so much. His face registered surprise as if it was a silly question. “He’s a dog” came the reply. “I want to get a second dog. A Pointer. Be nice to change it up a bit. Maybe I am biased but I think a Vizslas are the best. They’ve got everything. They are good looking, very affectionate, athletic, short fur. And they’re dogs so they don’t think like humans.”
After the Players, Pepperell would be back home in England for only a few days before turning round and returning to the US for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club. That form of golf could be up Pepperell’s street. By his own admission he is not the straightest driver. However, his short game, and particularly his putting, can be sensational and at match play one easily sees him chipping and putting his way past an opponent who might have hit more accurate drives.
“I played with him some years ago and remember that he was a fantastic putter then,” said Nigel Edwards, the former Walker Cup player and captain who is now director of coaching for England Golf.
Rose noted this same characteristic as he and Pepperell played at TPC Sawgrass. “His short game is what impressed me today – and his composure,” Rose said. “It was a brilliant finish, some key up-and-downs. The only chink I can see in his game is hitting it off the tees. He has got to drive it better, straighter and further. That is the only missing link. I love his temperament, his short game. He strikes the ball well. I am not saying anything behind Eddie’s back. If he was standing next to me he would say the same thing, I am sure.”
Pepperell first came to notice during a tournament in Dubai a few years ago when he was practising by hitting one-armed, 75-yard pitch shots with remarkable accuracy. On the Tuesday night at TPC Sawgrass, after an unsatisfactory nine holes, he returned to the practice ground and worked with Mick Doran, his caddie, as the sun was setting. Again and again he did another drill he likes – putting his left hand below his right and swinging and hitting shots like that. He did the same drill, left hand below right, several times before stepping up to hit his drive on the 72nd tee, too.
“It is really a backswing drill to try and get my left arm to climb on my right early. I am trying to get the plane of the shaft a bit flatter on the backswing.”
Pepperell, who boasts nearly 80,000 Twitter followers, has an enquiring and unusual mind. He is worth talking to and his blogs are worth reading. His most recent was all about his time in Florida and it ended: “TPC Sawgrass is so good.”
So was he when he was there, and that performance, surely, is only the first of many such.
Eddie Pepperell, right, and Justin Rose shake hands after finishing on the 18th green during the final round of the Players Championship. Photo: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
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