SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND | Conor Gough, the 16-year-old British Boys’ champion who had an invitation to this week’s Betfred British Masters on the European Tour at Hillside Golf Club, had earlier described the British Boys’ Championship – it was last year’s instalment at Royal Portrush – as the most pressurised week of his golfing life.
It goes without saying that people were looking for signs of stress on Thursday as the teenager teed up alongside Jacques Kruyswijk and Bernd Ritthammer in what was his first professional tournament. As it turned out, there was nothing to suggest that he was even vaguely out of his comfort zone.
Alastair Scott, the official starter, made the same observation. He knew plenty of seasoned professionals who still exhibited first tee nerves. “You get a few who have the same stare on their faces as that of a rabbit in the proverbial headlights. And you get some normally chatty individuals who can’t speak. Conor, though, went straight to an iron for his opening tee shot (the first hole is a par-4) and delivered the shot he had in his mind’s eye.”
The round did not always run smoothly. The lad holed nothing longer than 3 feet, while a plugged lie in sodden sand resulted in a dropped shot at the fourth and again at the fifth. Out in 40, he finished up with a 77 on a day when Matthew Jordan, a rookie professional who was similarly the beneficiary of an invitation, nipped round in 63.
“Some people might find that stressful but I see it as a challenge.” – Conor Gough, on defending amateur titles
Unlike those of the game’s top-notchers who are seldom at their diplomatic best following a bad round, Gough emerged from the scorer’s hut with a wry grin on his face. “Five over today but I’ll be aiming at 5 under tomorrow,” he said.
It was while Gough had been having those twin mishaps at the fourth and fifth that Marc Grimsey, who has been at the helm of the junior squads in Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire golf since 2010, was moved to talk about the player’s strongest suit, his temperament. “With Conor,” he said, “you’ve never been able to tell whether he’s 6-over par or 6 under, and in all the time I’ve had him on my squads, I’ve never seen him swear or throw a club.”
There was more. “When he’s competing, he tends to get stronger mentally at a time when others are beginning to wilt.”
Of course, 16 is no longer outrageously young in a professional context. Ye Wocheng played in the Volvo China Open at 12 a year after his compatriot Guan Tianlang played the same tournament at 13, while Michelle Wie was 14 when she played in the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii. Still more improbably, she was only one shot away from making the cut.
The thing with Gough is that he has years of experience of being a golf nut. As a small child, he would tag around after his brother, John – who is five years older – when John was starting to take lessons. He knew all his brothers’ golfing pals and, by the time he was 12, he was beating not a few of them in Nike Futures Tour events for their age groups as well as his own. At 13, would you believe, he broke the professional record at Stoke Park with a 62 from the back tees.
Today, Gough is one of 30 or so English boys who are attached to that non-profit organisation – Golfing4Life – founded by Jimmy Byers and Bill Curbishley. Curbishley is the manager of the legendary rock band The Who and a man for whom a 15-year prison sentence for an armed robbery (it was one in which he says he played no part) has been balanced to no small extent by his legendary charitable donations.
Both of the bosses at G4L had sons in the amateur game and it was during those years that they came across families who did not have the means to give their offspring a decent golfing start. As Curbishley told The Telegraph, “We formed G4L and started backing elite golfers who needed assistance. It’s mushroomed from there.”
All he and Byers ask in return is that the boys have a plan B on the grounds that only a small handful will ever make the grade.
Gough has been keeping his side of the bargain. He had his school books at Hillside and was going to spend the evening of his 77 revising for the religious education exam on Monday which will be the first of his eight O Levels. After that, there will be a trio of A Levels and, maybe, a US college.
He is not worried about staying around for long in the amateur game, even though he plans to defend his title in events such as the Fairhaven Trophy, the British Boys’ and the Major Champions Invitational he won in Florida earlier this year. “Some people,” he said, “might find that stressful but I see it as a challenge.”
This is presumably the approach Tiger Woods brought to bear as he bagged three US Junior Amateur Championships in a row before doing the same at the US Amateur.
Conor Gough, pictured in the 2018 British Home Internationals, shot 5-over-par 77 Thursday in his first start in a pro event, but observers say he looked like he was in his comfort zone. Photo: by Jan Kruger, R&A via Getty Images
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