The Bel­gian Ry­der Cup star proves his views are as big-hit­ting as his drives.

Golf World (UK) - - Contents - In­ter­view John Huggan Por­trait Stu­art Franklin, Getty Im­ages

The Bel­gian Ry­der Cup star gives his per­spec­tive on golf and life – a unique per­spec­tive with no punches pulled.

There isn’t much of a golf cul­ture in my home coun­try, but my fam­ily was al­ways into sport. My fa­ther played field hockey. As soon as I could walk, I had ei­ther a tennis rac­quet or a hockey stick in my hand. When my dad took up golf at 45, I went with him. I got started with a cut-down 7-iron. I re­alised I had some abil­ity for golf when I was about 12. I was able to do stuff the oth­ers had a hard time do­ing. I could hit the ball as far with a put­ter as I could with a 3-wood. I could hit all the shots, with all the spins. To be hon­est, I could “see” the course in ways my friends could not. I had the feel in my fin­gers and the imag­i­na­tion in my head. I made it into the na­tional team when I was 14. But to take my game to the next level I had to get out of Bel­gium. If you stay too long, you are go­ing to pedal in the mud. So I started to travel when I was 15. I played in all the big Bri­tish events like the Lytham Tro­phy and the Brabazon – all the while stay­ing in B&Bs on my own, al­beit with the fed­er­a­tion’s money in my pocket. I had to grow up quickly. I can’t say I had that much suc­cess as a young am­a­teur play­ing in the UK. There wasn’t much coach­ing in Bel­gium back then, but they did recognise I had po­ten­tial. I was given some money to go play and raise the Bel­gian flag on the am­a­teur cir­cuit. I am grate­ful for that. But if it hadn’t been for my par­ents chip­ping in I wouldn’t have been able to go. I’m an only child so I’ve al­ways been happy do­ing my own thing. But I made friends on the am­a­teur cir­cuit. I go way back with guys like Nick Dougherty, Marc War­ren and Barry Hume. I spent a lot of time with the UK boys, more than with the con­ti­nen­tals. I have, for a for­eigner, a pretty good sense of how the UK mind and sense of hu­mour works. I started to learn English from lis­ten­ing to mu­sic. My par­ents love Mo­town and Wood­stock-type stuff. And I was al­ways sur­rounded by English-speak­ing peo­ple. When I was 16, I had a Scot­tish ac­cent. Lan­guages have al­ways been easy for me. I am flu­ent in French and English and can get by in Dutch, Span­ish and Ital­ian. English-speak­ers are al­ways ac­cused of be­ing lazy when it comes to lan­guages. But that is un­der­stand­able. They don’t re­ally need any­thing else. On the other hand, look at

the Swiss. A lot of them speak French, a lit­tle bit of Ger­man and a lit­tle bit of Ital­ian. Brus­sels, where I grew up, is the same. It is so cos­mopoli­tan. My par­ents are as Bel­gian as you can get. My fa­ther grew up in Brus­sels. My mother is from a half-French, half-Flem­ish speak­ing fam­ily. So I am ba­si­cally a true na­tive of Brus­sels. I can also speak the lan­guage peo­ple use there, a mix­ture of French and Flem­ish. My dad has be­come a de­cent golfer af­ter a late start. He has won the Bel­gian Se­nior Cham­pi­onship and has been a mem­ber of the na­tional se­nior team, too. My sport­ing abil­ity comes from his side of the fam­ily. My mother’s side? Zero. She was a pho­tog­ra­pher, as were her par­ents. My pa­ter­nal great-grand­fa­ther, Jean Jacques, rep­re­sented Bel­gium in wa­ter polo and bas­ket­ball at the 1920 Olympics in An­twerp. There haven’t been too many top-class Bel­gian golfers. Be­fore me, only Flory Van Donck, Don­ald Swae­lens and Philippe Tous­saint had won on the Euro­pean Tour. My coach grow­ing up was an as­sis­tant to Flory, who I sadly never met. I’m not sure he and I were of sim­i­lar per­son­al­ity (laughs) but I have great re­spect for what he achieved. Flory Van Donck has an in­cred­i­ble record. Be­fore Seve, I’m not sure there were many con­ti­nen­tals who could com­pete with him. He had 40-odd wins around the world. He won the French, Ital­ian and Swiss Opens. And he won in Venezuela and Ar­gentina. I laugh when the French bring up Jean Gar­i­alde. He had nowhere near as good a record as Flory. I am very proud that I was part of the Euro­pean Ry­der

Cup team in 2012 at Me­d­i­nah. At the flag-rais­ing cer­e­mony it hit me that I was rep­re­sent­ing all of Europe in some­thing much big­ger than any­thing I could have imag­ined grow­ing up. I was pretty com­fort­able, though. I had earned the right to be there. I had played re­ally well that year and even if I was a wild­card I knew I could make a solid con­tri­bu­tion. The Ry­der Cup team room is a fas­ci­nat­ing place. You get to see inside peo­ple a lot more than you would nor­mally. It’s like the shield that peo­ple hide be­hind comes down for one week. All of a sud­den, guys will tell you what they are work­ing on. The ex­changes be­tween play­ers, cad­dies and

coaches is amaz­ing. Stand­ing on the tee with a team­mate who you know is 100 per cent with you is quite a feel­ing. In the match I played with Lee West­wood against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, I made so many putts. At one

stage, I lost count of how many birdies I had made. I re­mem­ber Tiger look­ing at Lee, ba­si­cally ask­ing, “Who the f**k is this guy?” Lee just shrugged. He knew what I was ca­pa­ble of. Tiger was re­ally nice. He said, “Well played” at the end. All Stricker said was, “Great putting!” He’s a lovely guy, but on that day I don’t think he took it too well. It was dif­fi­cult to back-up that great per­for­mance. I strug­gled the next day with Ser­gio Gar­cia. He and I had never played to­gether in a group be­fore, never mind as four­somes part­ners. We re­ally only met prop­erly in the car on the way to the golf course.

I made a point of be­ing the last man stand­ing at the af­ter-match party. The only other guys there were cad­dies and some of the staff. The other play­ers were soft­ies, which didn’t re­ally sur­prise me! To be fair, some took it too deep too early and couldn’t cope later. I re­mem­ber singing on the bus on the way to the air­port the next morn­ing. I’d been to bed for maybe half-an-hour. The best thing was that some­one had packed my suit­case for me! My PGA Tour ex­pe­ri­ence was a dis­ap­point­ment for me. My game is “made’ for Amer­ica, but I couldn’t han­dle be­ing there all the time. It was too much the same for me – I missed the changes in scenery you get in Europe. Don’t get me wrong, the fa­cil­i­ties are amaz­ing and the play­ers are treated like kings. But it was do­ing me more harm than good. It wasn’t for me. By 7.30 ev­ery night I was back in my ho­tel room. There was no con­tact with any­one. I got lonely. I think it’s harder for a con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean to go there. The cul­ture is so dif­fer­ent. In San An­to­nio, I was lis­ten­ing to a tour guide on the River­walk say­ing that some­thing dated from the 1800s. They were like, “Wow”. I just laughed. The great cities of Europe are so much more en­rich­ing. I grew up in the cen­tre of a ma­jor Euro­pean cap­i­tal, sur­rounded by cul­ture. So stay­ing in a ho­tel in the mid­dle of Ohio wasn’t go­ing to do it for me. It is just too shal­low. My per­for­mances in ma­jors have been dis­ap­point­ing,

although I led two US Opens on the third day. Au­gusta Na­tional is a great course for me. So are some of the US Open cour­ses. What peo­ple don’t un­der­stand about me is that I grew up play­ing old-style cour­ses. Yes, I can play long, mod­ern cour­ses but they’re not what I know best. And I play much more con­ser­va­tively than peo­ple think. One course I don’t en­joy, though, is Muir­field. Be­fore I went, I was told it is one of the “truest” links. But all the en­trances to the greens were slop­ing away from me. It was just way too f***ing hard at the 2013 Open. The ground was way too firm. Then they wa­tered it too much. I took an eight on the par-4 15th and missed the cut by two. The R&A says a course set-up should stay the same through­out a tour­na­ment, Then they do the op­po­site. Hyp­ocrites.

The me­dia puts too much em­pha­sis on the ma­jors. It is as hard to win in Abu Dhabi as it is to win the US Open – golf-wise at least. You have to drive straight and putt well to win just about any­where. The same can be said of the big­ger events on the PGA Tour. Is it that much harder to win the US Open than the Me­mo­rial, where ev­ery as­pect of your game is tested to the limit? I don’t think so. It is dif­fi­cult to get the mod­ern ball to move in the air. To hit a 10-yard draw with a 7-iron you have to curl it like an an­i­mal! When I’m play­ing in a strong cross-wind, I won­der how far off-line did we have to aim be­fore? Just about ev­ery­one on tour is tal­ented enough to ad­just to fit any ball but it is so much more dif­fi­cult to be a shot-maker now. So no-one even tries. There is no in­cen­tive. It is sad. I would limit the size of the heads on woods, get rid of the “res­cue” clubs and knock a few yards off the ball. The

res­cues re­ally piss me off. I stand on the tee at a par 3 where the pin is only a few yards on the front of the green and know I have to hit a great shot with a long iron to get close. Then I watch some guy with a 21˚ res­cue knock his ball up in the air. Where is the skill in that? I’ve never been one to write down goals but there are a few events I want to get my hands on. I want to play well in the events I grew up watch­ing. Went­worth for ex­am­ple. The DP World Tour Cham­pi­onship is played on a course where I should al­ways play well. I want to play in at least one more Ry­der Cup. It’s great to play one, but you re­ally be­come a Ry­der Cup player when you have been in two. It’s nice af­ter be­ing on my own for 15 years to have a cou­ple of young Bel­gians on Tour in Thomas Pi­eters and Thomas Detry. It’ll take a few years for us to pro­duce more, but we’re not do­ing badly. Look at Holland. They have never had a Ry­der Cup player. France has only had three. Ger­many only two, the same as us. A typ­i­cal night out on the PGA Tour means go­ing back

to your ho­tel room and try­ing to find some­one from Europe who is at that event. You go out for din­ner at 6pm and get back to the room around 7.30. Then you watch some non­sense on ESPN about sports you don’t care about. Next morn­ing you eat a taste­less omelette in the player’s lounge, where all the play­ers are sit­ting at dif­fer­ent ta­bles. Oh, and you get asked for your pass five times from the mo­ment you ar­rive to the mo­ment you get to the locker room. On the Euro­pean Tour you walk around and say hello to peo­ple. You ask how life is go­ing and what they’ve been up to. In the evening, we are all in the same ho­tel. I wan­der down­stairs, bump into some­one then go have din­ner with him. Those who don’t care about any­one else are few and far be­tween. It’s a health­ier en­vi­ron­ment – one that makes this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­is­tence a bit more sane. I went to Glas­gow re­cently to speak to the Scot­tish PGA.

I was flat­tered and hon­oured to be asked. To be recog­nised in front of a knowl­edge­able, up­lift­ing au­di­ence was great and, in a way, mov­ing. It was nice to talk to peo­ple who love and know golf. It is im­pos­si­ble to find a crowd like that in Bel­gium. I en­joyed giv­ing some in­sight into what it is like to play golf for a liv­ing. We don’t do enough of that as a group. I am too “black and white” to be on the Euro­pean Tour Tour­na­ment Com­mit­tee – too straight­for­ward and too hon­est. Take the re­cent change that has guys only hav­ing to play four events on our tour to re­tain mem­ber­ship. Re­ally? Come on dudes, get your fat a**es over here more of­ten and shut up. Is it re­ally go­ing to change your life; your life is made. Do us a favour and do where you grew up a favour and show some sup­port a few times a year.

I like the changes to the Ry­der Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Now you re­ally have to be an a**hole to not be a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Tour. Or at least a mar­ginal in­di­vid­ual to think four events is not easy to do. I mean, come on. Do you want to be part of some­thing ex­cep­tional? Yes? Then do a lit­tle bit. Play your part. We want you there, but if you are not pre­pared to put in even a lit­tle ef­fort, go f**k your­self. I don’t think I’ll ever be a Ry­der Cup cap­tain. Too much work! I would make a good as­sis­tant, though. I know the guys and can make them laugh. As much as con­ti­nen­tals have been such a big part of the Ry­der Cup – without us at the last one the de­feat would have been even worse – we get ig­nored a lot. I was at a player’s meet­ing re­cently when the new fine struc­ture was an­nounced. And it was in pounds. Why is that? What about Euros? We get paid in Euros. Things may have been dif­fer­ent at the last Ry­der Cup if that stupid-ass brother had not writ­ten that story. And I felt sorry for Sully. He was thrown into the lion’s den on the first morn­ing, hit one bad shot and was benched un­til the sin­gles. That was harsh. If he had hit the green on the 17th, maybe Europe would have won. Who knows?

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