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