by Graham Otway
Five or six years ago when Andy Sullivan was stacking the shelves in his local Asda store he could only dream about the golf he will be playing at Whistling Straits next week.
In his early twenties, he was playing off a low, single-figure handicap, but just did not believe that his golf was good enough to make a living in the professional ranks.
And to a certain extent, that same unassuming attitude was still in his head when the current Race to Dubai began in December last year.
Although in his third full season on the European Tour he had banked €1.1 million with a string of top-ten finishes, including a runner’s-up spot at the Trophee Hassan 11 in Morocco, he thought he was still some distance from joining golf’s top flight.
“At the start of the year,” he recalls, “if someone had told me that next week I would be playing in my third Major of the year, I would have snapped their fingers off.”
But it is the rapid progress that Sullivan has made in the same year that Danny Willett, Tyrrell Hatton and Matt Fitzpatrick have been challenging for titles that has suddenly given English golf a potential new generation of stars to follow over the next few years.
And in Sullivan’s case, the broad smile that’s on his face after every good shot that he hits is a refreshing change from the cynical scowls often seen from top players in so many sports.
The big turnaround for the 29-year-old came in the South African Open at the Glendower Club near Johannesburg in January, at the European Tour’s first event of 2015.
Going down the stretch looking for his first tour victory, and challenging for the lead, he was in the shadow as far as the South African fans of local favourite Charl Schwartzel, not only the possessor of a Green Jacket after winning The Masters in 2011, but who could count two South Africa Open victories among his seven career wins.
But while Sullivan shot a confident 67, Schwartzel made a series of errors in a 74 and in a sudden-death play-off the Englishman sank a 12-foot birdie chance to seal victory. And any suggestions that might be a one-off were destroyed at the end of February, when he returned to South Africa and won the Joburg Open at the Royal Johannesburg Club, two shots clear of the rest of the field.
That was a defining victory. With it Sullivan climbed into the world’s top 100. It was not enough to earn him a place at Augusta, but it ensured he would be playing in the year’s three other Majors, and some World Golf Championship events.
He has approached them with growing comfort after the organisers of the Dubai Desert Classic paid him a huge compliment by placing him in the top marquee group for the first two rounds at the Emirates Club with superstars Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer.
“Playing with them for two rounds did so much for my confidence,” he recalls. “It’s something I had always wanted to do, and playing well helped me believe that I could perform at the highest level. Now I just want to be playing alongside them every week.”
To say he played well under the gaze of the huge Dubai galleries and in the presence of two of the world’s best golfers would be an understatement.
Setting up his path to a Sunday night victory, McIlroy shot 66, 64 and Kaymer 67,69. And Sullivan’s own contribution, which saw him sandwiched between that pair on the halfway leaderboard, was 65, 68.
Since then he has also gone out and produced sixth-place finishes in the rain and fierce wind of Royal County Down during the Irish Open, and at the French Open where the tough Golf National course at Versailles was designed especially to test the world’s best during the 2018 Ryder Cup.
Sullivan’s staggering progress through the ranks over the past nine months – he now lies 55th in the world and 18th on the current Race to Dubai – can be attributed to both mental and physical developments in his life. Having earned more than two million euros in the past, he is now a very different person to the young man who stacked shelves to finance his amateur golf.
“I haven’t bought anything special with the money,” he says. “But perhaps I do now deserve to go out and treat myself. But with the money in the bank I feel much more relaxed in myself about things financially, and looking after my young family.
“I am much more relaxed when I go out to play golf, whatever the tournament. All I have got to do is go out and think about my golf and not have things in the back of my mind. And we all play better golf with a free mind.”
But what has really made a difference to has been teaming up with Scottish-based South African coach Jamie Gough, a regular contributor to the Improve Your golf column in The Golf Paper.
“When I was younger, I was a big drawer of the ball,” says Sullivan. “Which gave me length, but not great control. “But I have been working for two years with Jamie on hitting a left-to-right shape for more control, and over the last seven months that has begun to feel a lot more natural.
“It’s been like going from one extreme to another, but it has definitely made my play far more consistent.”
And last month, an extra thought went into golf at St Andrews where on his debut at The Open he was challenged by playing in heavy winds with little ‘positive’ experience of playing links golf on his CV.
He decided to leave his day-to-day 10.5 degree driver in his car boot for the week in Scotland, and took out a model with just under nine degrees of loft instead.
As a result, he hit the ball lower with less spin and more control, and having made the cut shooting a 68 in the third round Sullivan managed to finish in a tie for 30th place.
And that same driver will be in his bag again, ready to take on the elements if as expected the wind gets up and blows in off the sea at Whistling Straits next week.
“Going up a grade, I have had to do quite a lot of work changing my original European Tour schedule for this year,” he says. “But it’s turning out to be a great year.
“I have won twice, played in Majors and WGCs and have played in tournaments on the US Tour – it’s all very exciting.
“I played half decent at The Open, now it would be great to do well in my third Major.”
*This article was originally published in The Golf Paper in 5 August 2015.