Golf Monthly takes a trip to Nuneaton Golf Club to catch up with three-time European Tour winner Andy Sullivan at the place where it all began...
Andy Sullivan Exclusive: “Nuneaton is more than a club to me. It’s home”
It’s September 7, 2016 and Andy Sullivan is three weeks away from the biggest moment of his career. He has secured automatic qualification for the European Ryder Cup team and will soon tee off alongside Rory McIlroy in the opening round of matches, with several thousand watching in person and 230 million other golf fans glued to their televisions around the world.
While some people use this time to retreat into their own little world of meticulous mental and physical preparation, Sullivan has taken an altogether different approach. He has decided to compete in the Nuneaton Golf Club mid-week Stableford – the club allows him to play off a plus-5 handicap. As he plots his way around the course, the glitz and glamour of the Ryder Cup couldn’t be further from his mind.
“I managed to get it round the front nine in five under and I thought to myself, ‘hang on a minute, this is on’. In the end I missed a 15ft eagle putt on the last for a 59. It was so frustrating! The good thing is I feel like I can build confidence up by playing here. If I shoot a low number I go into the next event thinking ‘I’m playing well’; I go in with a different mindset,” he says.
This story tells you a lot about Sullivan. Born in Nuneaton in 1987, he started playing golf here at the age of ten when his dad would bring him up to the range. As Andy’s interest grew so did his time on the course, and soon he was a fixture at the club – often choosing to skip school to work on his game instead. Golf was at the heart of his formative years.
“My mum and dad practically lived at the end of the drive,” he explains. “I’d say, ‘Right mum, I’m off to school’, but instead of going to school I’d come up here and practise. Luckily it worked out for the best, but had it gone the other way I’m not sure my mum and dad would have been that forgiving! I never particularly appreciated school and being talked to like a child. I always felt like I learned more life skills out of school than I did in it. It just didn’t appeal to me. Being away from school and playing golf with adults, that was my key. Academically, I just didn’t apply myself. I wasn’t interested,” he adds.
“I was missing a lot of school to come up here between the ages of ten and 13. I was hanging around with a lot of adults and I think that has made me the person I am today – fun-loving and bantering. You have to wise up very quickly; they are going to take the piss out of you and you are going to have to get used to that!”
A lifelong attachment
Many of today’s top professionals are ‘attached’ to golf clubs, but few can boast the sort of intimate relationship Sullivan has with his home club. Despite being “a little sh*t” – his words, not mine – the Nuneaton members took to him from the start. His chirpy disposition, combined with a God-given natural gift for golf, has created an enduring support that can be seen regularly on the European Tour.
My first encounter with ‘Sulli’s Army’ came at the 2015 DP World Tour Championship. On the final day of the event, Sullivan found himself in a head-to-head scrap with Rory McIlroy. Having already won three times that season, he was in the heat of the battle once again. Following his every move and cheering every shot was a group of Nuneaton Golf Club members all wearing the same ‘Team Sulli’ t-shirts. They were loud, proud and impossible to miss – it was good to see.
In his own inimitable style, the man himself smiled his way through that final round. He may not have won, but the second-place cheque went a long way to securing his place on Darren Clarke’s team the following year. Great support and a happy-go-lucky demeanour have become Sullivan trademarks.
“The members here have seen me progress throughout my career. I mean, a lot of them used to come and follow me at amateur level,” he reveals. “When I played in the Walker Cup in 2011, there must have been over 100 members there. To have that following from your golf club makes you feel like you are at home. Nuneaton is more than a golf club to me – it’s a home and the members are almost like a family.
“These people work all year round and they spend their hard-earned cash following me – I mean, that adds a bit of pressure! I want to go out there and play well for them. But to have that backing when things aren’t going so well, it does give you that extra boost. What this golf club has done for me, how it supports me, is unbelievable.”
Given how central this place is to both his success and his life more generally, it’s fitting that our interview is taking place in Sulli’s Bar. It’s a relatively small members’ lounge adorned with some of Sullivan’s most valuable career memorabilia, including a plethora of signed flags, his Ryder Cup golf bag and even three gold putters given to him by Ping to mark his three European Tour wins. It doesn’t take long for me to locate his name on the honours boards, either. Sullivan’s two Club Championship wins in 2009 and 2010 were achieved with two-round scores of 131 and 132 respectively. The next best I can find is 138.
As he was taking these club competitions by storm, he was also being noticed at the elite amateur level. The potential was clearly there, but a Ryder Cup appearance just six years after that second Club Championship win? Even the man himself finds it hard to believe.
“It’s the weirdest thing. It happened so quickly, it didn’t seem like it was happening. Six months after Hazeltine I suddenly thought, ‘Wow, I’ve played in a Ryder Cup and I’ve only been on tour four years.’ It’s something I’m massively proud of. Once you’ve played in one, you don’t want to miss another. It’s so special. It’s the pinnacle of any golfing career – to test yourself under that pressure and intensity,” he says.
Related: A golden generation for English Golf
“One of the best things about being on tour is that when you’re doing well, your peers congratulate you. But two months after the Ryder Cup, nobody cares and they all want to beat your arse! That’s the best thing about the tour – everyone is aspiring to be as good as they can be. There are 100 guys every year who are trying to keep their card, and if you don’t keep your appetite for it, there is a kid waiting to fill your boots. It keeps you on your game. They don’t care who you are – they just want to come out here and beat you.”
As he strives to fend off the young guns making their own way through the ranks, Sullivan now has a wealth of experience to call upon. Indeed, his formative years in the professional ranks taught him some important lessons –most notably, perhaps, an understanding for how much practice is enough. When you are trying to improve, as all golfers are, and a tournament week lasts seven days, it is easy to start working too hard. The more you put in, the more you get out, right? It isn’t as simple as that in golf, but it takes a strong dose of self-confidence to walk away from the course when your peers are grinding away on the range.
“I think the fault of modern-day golfers is that they want to grind, grind, grind on the range,” he explains. “But at the end of the day, where do you make your living? You have to be able to put a score together on the golf course. I’m not a massive practiser. For me, it is about concentrated practice. Intensive work for half an hour or 40 minutes is enough. Then I need to do something different. You can stand there on the range all day and grind something in, but you need to test it under pressure. I’m not the sort of person who can concentrate for more than half an hour – I mean, I can’t sit still for more than ten minutes!
“One thing I noticed during my first year on tour is that you never saw the best players grinding their nuts off. They’d get their work done and they’d be gone. But it’s easy to fall into being a range rat – grinding and grinding. I understand the temptation because we all want to get better, but you can grind yourself into bad habits.”
Bucking The Trend
Sullivan’s ability to walk away isn’t the only way he bucks the modern trend. Golf’s leading bodies currently find themselves in a battle, with a host of other sports vying for your attention on a Sunday afternoon.
Of course, central to the success or otherwise of our game in the modern age is the players. And yet, for many, the only way to succeed, it seems, is to close themselves off. With cap and shades on, it can at times feel like a competition for who has the stoniest expression. Give nothing away.
Thankfully, Sullivan isn’t one of those. He might be in the midst of a successful career that’s gathering yet more momentum, but he is also acutely aware of his role in growing the game. The shortened GolfSixes format, showcased earlier this season on the European Tour, was the perfect environment for Sullivan’s personality to shine through.
“The idea of GolfSixes was to introduce new people to the sport and show them that it is fun. It’s not an old fuddy-duddy game,” Sullivan says. “I love interacting with the crowd and having a laugh. We are not robots – we can talk to people – and I think other events can learn from that. As professionals, we have a duty to be more accommodating to crowds. That’s been the biggest misconception with golf. Crowds have to be respectful to the player, yes, but it works both ways.
“It doesn’t take a lot to engage with a few kids and it will make their day. Golf tournaments need to be a day out for people where it isn’t all about the golf. We want people to go away saying, ‘I had a great day at the golf’. The whole event needs to be great, not just the golf.
“On the way round people will give me a bit of heckling, and I love it. I give them banter back. There have been a number of instances this year when I’ve not being playing well and people have said, ‘Oh Andy, are you struggling a bit?’ And I’ll respond with something like, ‘Yeah, you got any tips?’ It’s great fun and I love that part of it. Good or bad, it’s fun.”
Golf at the highest level can feel like a world away from the version the rest of us play. The courses, the money, the shots – it’s a far cry from the mid-week Stableford. Thankfully, there are players like Sullivan who seem capable of bridging that gap and are just as at home on the first tee of the Ryder Cup as they are in the club bar. In many ways, they resemble us… until they hit a golf ball, that is!