The Golfer of the Year – an award Ballesteros won on three occasions in 1986, ‘88 and ‘91 – is voted for by the golf media. He beat off competition from Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Rookie of the Year Jon Rahm...
‘The Open – that’s the one I want’
Andy Sullivan has impressed on the team stage. But now it's all about individual honours.
He had announced himself as part of GB&I’s victorious 2011 Walker Cup side, where he had faced other players who are now household names – notably three-time major champion Jordan Spieth.
At the 2016 EurAsia Cup he had the chance to show Captain Clarke what he could offer at Hazeltine and he went three-for-three as Europe trounced their Asian counterparts.
He has also represented England at both GolfSixes and the World Cup.
Tell us a bit about your Walker Cup experience…
I was late to the professional game because I felt it was something I really wanted to do before turning pro. It’s the amateur version of the Ryder Cup so it was always a big ambition of mine and to do it at Royal Aberdeen and be on the winning team against an illustrious American team. To play against the likes of Jordan in the singles was unbelievable, and the memories of that week will last a long, long time.
Do you think the windy conditions helped you that week?
The amateur season is predominately links here in the UK so a lot of us were used to that. I think we were more adapted to that than they were and the front nine helped us because it was into the wind all the way down. It was really tough for them to try and keep the ball down and that’s where we got the upper hand and going down the back nine we could stroll it out.
Jordan was only 18 at the time. When you were shaking hands, were you thinking, ‘This guy is going to win majors’?
The weirdest thing about it is you can never really tell, one thing about Jordan is he was the nicest man in the world then and he still is now. There were a few guys in that team who you thought could go on and do that and were pinned as the underdogs in that Walker Cup. To go on and do what he’s done is massively inspiring and hopefully players in the GB&I team can get that inspiration from that and crack on with it. He’s an unbelievable guy and a great character for the game of golf. He’s up there with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. The game of golf is in good hands.
It was an unbelievable week. Nigel Edwards was a great captain and something I’ll take with me for a long, long time – even though I lost to Jordan so thanks for reminding me about that.
What is it about team golf that you particularly like?
When it’s team golf you’re playing for the other lads, whether it’s 10, 12 or just the partner you’re playing with. There’s just something about that added pressure where you have to keep your end up and no matter how bad things are you just have to be on it all the time, you don’t want to let anybody down and that’s the big thing.
When you win you get to share it with 10 other lads or your partner and that’s the special bit about it. We play so few team events it’s a pleasure to share that with other people. The camaraderie in the European team is one of the biggest reasons we have won so many Ryder Cups. There are 12 guys out there that are united as one, while in the American sides you can see they have fractions.
The worrying thing going forward is that they look more of a team than they have ever done.
How good a preparation was the EurAsia Cup for your Ryder Cup debut?
I was feeling that it was my time to show Darren I was good enough to get in that team and show him what I was about. I wanted to go out and win all my matches and show him I was ready for the Ryder Cup team and being a good team member, like coming forward and voicing my opinion, and when you’re in a team everybody needs to know how you’re feeling whether it’s good or bad.
It was a massive eye-opener for me going from Walker to EurAsia to Ryder Cup. It was a step up every time and the intensity got more and more every time, and if you want to play at the top of the game that’s something you have got to want to do. I loved every minute of it.
Away from the singles you only played in one Ryder Cup match. Was that frustrating?
When I was there I was playing well so I thought I should have been playing more, but after Thomas Bjorn pulled me to one side and said, ‘Prepare to play five but could only play one’. I look back think that’s the attitude I should have gone in with and that’s the way you’ve got to approach those things. That’s the sacrifices you have to take when you play in a Ryder Cup team.
The captain’s decision is the biggest one and they’re not doing it to single out anyone, they’re doing what’s best for the team. That’s part of being in a team and you’ve just got to cheer on the rest of the lads. Thomas helped me look at it in a different way.
I was frustrated but anyone who didn’t play five games wanted to play five games. It was unbelievable to play in that amphitheatre of noise.
How did you deal with the abuse from the Hazeltine crowds?
It was a f–king nightmare! I was a rookie and they didn’t particularly know a lot about me. The attention was on Danny [Willett] who was booed from start to finish. I felt sorry for him really, especially on his debut. It was pretty hard for him.
We have sent him some flowers…
From that it got ramped up and because they hadn’t won in so long you could feel the crowd wanting that. I felt sorry for the likes of Rory [McIlroy], Sergio [Garcia] and Lee [Westwood] because they were getting a lot of the attention from the crowds. Even when you are trying to block it out it will get to you eventually and when there is 100,000 people on top of you it’s difficult.
It’s part and parcel of playing in a Ryder Cup. We knew it was coming, but it was ramped up a bit more and you knew we were going to have a hostile atmosphere to play in.
How was Clarke as a captain?
Really good. The way I saw it, he gave you a kick up the arse when you needed it and put an arm round you when you needed it. Some guys get more out of it by getting a bollocking and some guys get more out of it with a bit of sympathy and getting nice things said to them.
I need a telling off to get me motivated rather than an arm round me. He covered the basis really well and with the vice captains and with the age mix, I think all the areas were covered.
The Americans just played a little bit better on a course that was relatively suited for them.
And next year at Le Golf National?
It’s a goal of mine. Once you’ve played in one you don’t want to miss one ever again. At times I think about coming down the stretch of a Ryder Cup match and get goosebumps. I desperately want to be there but I need to pull my finger out.
It’s a perfect course for Europe to regain the Ryder Cup. We play the course every year so we know the ins and outs.
What did you think of GolfSixes? Is it here to stay?
I loved it. I embraced it. I don’t think it was targeted to golf fans in general. For people who already watch golf, the event wasn’t for them. The reason the event took place was to bring new people in, and young people in, to show them golf is fun and you can have a laugh with it and it did achieve that.
You need the right players with the right attitudes and obviously I didn’t take it as playing in a tournament, I just had a laugh. Me and Woody [Chris Wood] had good craic the whole way round and that’s the way you’ve got to take it – then if you got to the final you’d take it seriously.
It was a fantastic week, it brought a lot of new people in to the game and hopefully a lot of young people and it’s an alternative we can introduce to the game.
Any way we can get young kids into the game in a small capacity is good for the game and we can introduce them into playing golf normally.
Another recent European Tour innovation is the Shot Clock Masters, where players will have 40 seconds to hit each shot. What do you think about that?
I think whoever finishes without getting penalised is going to win.
The problem they’re going to have is that all the guys who are quick are going to enter and all the guys who are slow are not. I get what they are trying to do and again I think it will be fun for the fans to watch.
The only way we are going to cure slow play is if we have a referee with every group, which is difficult because obviously you need the man power.
It wouldn’t bother me, I’m quite quick, get to the ball, hit it and carry on so for me I like the idea of it but I’m sure some of the other guys have got a different opinion.
I don’t think golf should be taking five-and-a-half hours to get round 18 holes.
Are there players you get paired with and you flinch at the thought of a lengthy round?
Sometimes. If I am playing with someone with a slow routine then I walk to the ball as slow as possible knowing that he’s going to take a minute or two longer over the ball than I am. My caddie will be there ready and I’ll just pull the club and go.
There are ways of combatting it, but the best way would be if we all played at the same pace. The difficulty is some guys feel they play better when they are meticulous and others think they’re better when they’re on the go, so in terms of where we go with it, having a referee with every group is the only way we can go.
When you’re playing with your mates you can get round in three hours, so I think a reasonable time for a tournament round is four-and-a-half hours.
Where do you stand on the golf ball? Is it going too far? Should it be reined in?
I don’t think we are hitting the ball too far, obviously technology has improved a lot but to make a golf course difficult you don’t need to make it long.
We are good with the short clubs but we’re just as good with the long irons – it’s not going to make a difference.
At Valderrama, 12-under won. It’s a perfect winning score and that’s probably the shortest course we play all year. We play a 7,700-yard course in Dubai and 20-under wins every year, so we have to go back to old school: smaller greens, make it difficult for us, tuck the pins away, bit of rough and tighter fairways. Suddenly the scores come down. If people want to see a birdiefest then let’s keep it as it is.
There are too many people criticising the ball for going too far, but if you play Valderrama you could go for the par 5s in two but you don’t because the greens are too small and there’s too much danger around them, so you play them as a three-shotter.
I don’t see the big appeal for making the holes longer. I think that the ball has changed so much that it’s difficult to manoeuvre it so genuinely hitting it off line is difficult. If you had an older ball and you were hitting a cut then it’s going to go and keep going and going, but with these balls because you’re hitting them, they’re cutting and cutting then they lose their spin and straighten out. That’s the only difference I see.
In 2016 you had your best year at the majors. How do you prepare for the big four? Are you ready to make that step up in the game?
Definitely. I’ve had a really sticky year [in 2017]. I don’t feel like I’ve had a good run of tournaments and schedule-wise it hasn’t fallen into place for me. I’ve fallen outside the top 50 so I missed the Players and the US Open which I had scheduled to play.
In terms of preparing for them, I had a week off before the Masters and didn’t play very well and it didn’t really work for me.
Then this year I practised really hard the week before and set about feeling tournament ready, going through different stages, hitting different shots, playing under the cosh, and that’s when I think you know you’re ready.
I’ve always found if I play the week before and I find some form going into it then that works better for me going into the majors.
And finally, at the 2014 KLM Open you had a hole-in-one and won a trip to space…
That is just standard me. If there is anything ridiculous up for grabs then I seem to get it. I think the weirdest thing that week was I birdied that hole the first three days and holed it on the final day and it was one of them greens that was rock hard and we didn’t think we could get it close.
I didn’t realise at the time that there was a prize on that hole, but we got in and they told me I’d won a trip to space. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with that?’
And you’ve got to train for six months! So what was the point of it? When was the prize meant to happen? I think it was meant to go up this year sometime but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
They’ve been having a few technical difficulties. Luckily I binned it off quite quickly.
Give it the mother-in-law, get up there. I’m happy with my feet on the ground.