Toward the end of the 2018 season Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort in Belek hosted the Turkish Airlines Open, now an integral part of the Rolex Series events which conclude the European Tour’s annual Race to Dubai.
The tournament and the region have witnessed immense change and with that in mind we chatted to players who have also found their careers in transition over the last season or so, seeking insight into not only what prompted the advances, but also what the future might hold for them.
You can find Part One here.
Ten months after winning the Masters in April 2016 the Englishman was fifth in the Maybank Championship, but he could never have guessed it would be his last taste of the top ten for 16 months. In fact he went on a run of 26 strokeplay starts with just two top 50s. T8 in the Italian Open announced a return to form and he would finish T7 in Turkey. Had he been confident of turning it all around?
“Round by round and week by week I do my own stats, having a look at where you've gained, where you've lost and if there are any trends going. It’s a results based game, but looking at stats let’s me see that the work I’m putting in is getting somewhere. The range sessions are better than they ever have been. The short game is going well. Can it come together again? Yeah, sure.
“Everything's been really positive. The putter's struggled the last three or four months, missing a lot of short ones especially. But that's an area we’re looking into now and you can make a hell of a lot of gains inside eight, ten feet if you're holing it well.
“The long game and the body are in a really good place which is nice because I worked very hard getting here and sometimes you wonder if it’ll ever come good. Finally the good shots are better than they were and the misses are less destructive.
“The game’s getting better, but what’s really making the difference is the body. I’m waking up and I’m good and that allows us to do what we’re trying to do, to make the moves that should help in the future.
“My rankings aren’t any good, but mentally and in the body things are better than they have been, especially the middle of 2017 when I was in pain, playing terrible and there didn’t seem much point. You’re flying out, with a lot of expenses, you’re not sure if you’ll be fit enough to tee it up, you’re worried you’ll sleep dodgy, then you hit it rubbish in front of people who’ve paid to come and see you watch. That’s not a lot of fun.
“The good thing is I’ve played well in the Rolex Series this year [top tens in Italy and Ireland, top 20 in Scotland; he would finish T7 in Turkey too]. They’re important now, the bulk of the tour. I feel can win again. In Italy I was close before we went over on the knee on Friday and in Ireland we were a few putts away from really getting that adrenalin rush of being back in the hunt.
“Getting with Sean Foley at the 2017 PGA Championship started the recovery. I was making pretty drastic changes. I was incredibly uncomfortable on the golf course for a long time and before that I was just in pain. I was moving poorly, swinging poorly and my mind was a wreck. Me and Foles put together a blueprint to make me pain free on the course and I was open minded to anything. Luckily I had the exemption to allow me to do that.
“There’s a calmness now. I could shoot 78 tomorrow but I’d know why. Before it was could come from anywhere and it was a negative spiral. Now there’s an explanation and I can deal with it.”
Two weeks later Willett confirmed his recovery with victory in the DP World Tour Championship.
Since first winning his ET card in 1998 the Danish veteran has never lost it. A four-time winner, his Order of Merit ranking peaked at No. 10 in 2008, but in 2014, for the first time since his rookie year he finished outside the top 100. His response? A first win in six years (the Irish Open) and 15th in the Race to Dubai. What changed?
“Simple really. I thought about it and I decided I was going in the wrong direction. With family, the kids and other stuff my commitment on the course had dropped. I decided that I either committed 100% to golf or I stopped playing. That ultimatum was what I needed. So I sort of recommitted to the game and that worked great until my back went late last year.
“Ten events into this year it was bad. I had a spell of six weeks when I couldn’t walk and it was tough. Until May I couldn’t practise. Ten events into the season I’d made only two cuts.
“If I’m honest, I panicked a little bit, but I stayed fighting. Since then the back has been good and I’ve played better, but it’s not been my best golf.
“Later in the season it improved and I’m excited for next year because six months ago I thought I might not be playing now. I’m showing signs, good signs, and I retained my card. I’m proud to be here.”
The 23-year-old Korean crashed his way into the thoughts of European Tour followers with back-to-back wins in the Trophee Hassan II and Mauritius Open in 2016. A year later he took it up a level by winning the Qatar Masters. That success was no surprise because he has an excellent record in the Middle East, but what is intriguing is that winners at Doha GC often progress to success on the linksland, something his fondness for chipping-and-running as a first option further highlights. Or does it?
“Oh yeah, I definitely I play chip and run by choice. When I was young I played a lot of short game, so much short game. All the time I’m around the practice greens, playing scramble shots from all angle. It is definitely my strength because I love it and do lots of it.
“I really like the Middle East, especially Dubai. The courses, the weather, the region. I just like everything about it there.
“I changed my swing this year. Just a little bit, but it took time to get used to and now it's getting better. I’ve ended the year more consistent so it’s good news for next year I think.
“I have goals. Oh yeah. I want to be top 50 in the world. That's my big goal. I want consistent results and I want more wins.”
The South African ticked off 11 top tens, including two wins, in his first 53 starts on the European Tour, but then it all went wrong. Another 36 appearances up to Mid-July this summer reaped not one top ten and only three top 30s. He broke the run of poor form in sensational style, carding 70, 64, 66 and a final round 60 to win the Scottish Open at Gullane. Where did the change in form come from?
“Wins are strange, they occur in different ways. That week in Scotland I felt like I was playing incredible golf and the scores just weren't reflecting it. The results were pretty terrible to be honest, but I genuinely felt so close. Then it burst big time at Gullane. But when I won Leopard Creek, wow, I felt like I was playing horrendous golf and somehow turned that round. So I’ve seen both sides really.
“I’ve not really had time to assess what I achieved that week. I did take a break after the PGA Championship, of about six weeks actually, but in the moment you don't get time and I still probably need more.
“What has happened is that it’s really changed my schedule in the next few years because I have a good exemption. That frees me up to arrange my calendar a long way in advance.
“Something else too: I can be more aggressive, play with more freedom. It will take a little time for that to impact, but I can see that happening. I have that option to really go for the low scores and the wins.”
The 22-year-old Swede first won a European Tour card for the 2016 season, a few months after leading the 2016 Nordea Masters at the halfway stage whilst still an amateur. That rookie campaign proved tough yet Kinhult responded well to a year on the Challenge Tour, graduating by right and telling Rotoworld at the Grand Final that he had learned much from the experience. He backed that up with three top tens in 2018 and 49th in the Race to Dubai. What made the difference from the first time around?
“It’s not easy to come from Q school or even the Challenge Tour and retain your card. The experience I had in 2016 was worth a lot. It was a tough year and I wasn't ready, but I learned a lot of lessons. I know how it all works now. A full CT season also made a difference. Just dealing with being in contention, having chances, even just the experience of playing four rounds.
“It’s been a good year, especially from June on. Really good. I feel more comfortable every week and have probably started living up to my expectations.
“Tough courses suit me, when I play well at least. When I’m confident I’m pretty straight, not very long though. If I can gain a few yards that will be good and I'll look to develop that through the winter. I also want to be hitting my irons closer and maybe a couple more greens per round. Those are my winter aims.
“The next step is getting into the WGCs. The Scandinavian event is back at The Hills and I live near there so that will be good fun. It's easier to plan next year now. I’m excited.”