Nick Poppleton arrived at Huddersfield with a very real chance to change his financial life. All he needed to do was make six birdies
Nick Poppleton’s previous biggest pay day was £3,000 when he was third on the EuroPro Tour at Frilford Heath last year.
His rookie season finished in 24th spot on the money list with £9,612 from 15 starts – Mikael Lundberg was the runaway leader with earnings of nearly £37,455.
If you want an example of the gaping chasms in the professional game then Aaron Rai, who spent two seasons on the EuroPro in 2014 and 2015, collected just under £900,000 for his win at the Scottish Open the day before.
It’s the Tour Final of the 2020protour’s inaugural season at Huddersfield GC, a campaign that was nearly floored by a pandemic before it had barely began, but is now preparing itself for its 22nd and final event of the year.
Poppleton, from Wath GC in South Yorkshire, has been at every single one. He and Moortown’s Nick McCarthy can barely be separated on the money list but that is merely a sideshow – should Poppleton make six birdies then he will receive a whopping £20,000 bonus!
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He’s sitting on 94 birdies and should he raise his driver and make it to the ton then any money worries for 2021 and probably beyond will be very quickly put to bed.
Hang around the European Tour for any length of time and it’s noticeably quite weird, players generally do everything possible to avoid any eye contact and conversations are clipped short.
Hang around this type of mini tour and it’s neighbourly and friendly. Rai’s win is greeted with genuine pleasure – he’s done it the hard way and he’s one of their own. Hence why Poppleton is offered good luck messages from all corners of the practice putting green and hence why his peers are genuinely hopeful of him reaching his goal.
The idea for the Race to 100 Birdies came from the insurance broker McClarrons Sport and an underwriter in London was found. They researched the scoring on the one-day tours, factored in the level of players involved and came up the perfect initiative. If you were to play in all 22 events then you would need to average 4.54 birdies per round.
“Once Covid-19 hit and high-level players couldn’t play on the higher tours we saw a dramatic increase in established golfers entering the 2020protour, which we didn’t foresee! Poppleton and others were flying after eight or nine events and we were preparing for an early claim, however the rationale and analysis worked out and a dip did happen as we anticipated,” explained Tom Landale of McClarrons.
Poppleton’s best haul came at Worksop where he had nine birdies in his closing 14 holes – which still wasn’t enough to beat an in-form Andrew Wilson – and with half a dozen events to play all eyes were already on the century.
“It’s been really quite strange as it took my attention away from the order of merit with Nick (McCarthy) and, for the last six rounds, I’ve not really thought about playing golf and I’ve just thought about making birdies.”
At Halifax West End there were six of them, Low Laithes five, Rotherham four, Bradley Hall three and Bradford a further five.
“I’ve fancied it the last few weeks, I liked the look of Cookridge but that had to be switched to Bradley Hall which was completely understandable. I’ve not played Huddersfield that well before but you should be able to hit four or five shots inside 10-15 feet and take advantage of the par 5s. And my putting is normally good.”
There isn’t much of Poppleton but he gets it out there. The first par 5 is ticked off with two comfortable putts and two drivers get within a couple of yards of the next one at the 5th before missing from a couple of feet.
The return also stays above ground but that needn’t matter today and the 2018 Brabazon champion curls another one in at the 6th. Two from six and bang on track. At the 9th, a 453-yard par 4, he reduces it to a kick-in birdie after a particularly precise wedge and he’s halfway there.
The group in front crane their necks to watch his progress, family and friends do likewise and everyone’s pulling for just one outcome. Poppleton himself maintains the same cheery outlook; his legs might have been paddling away under the water but, above ground, he’s unaffected.
He keeps tucking into his lunch box – ‘pork and stuffing sandwiches from a leftover roast’ – and his sweet-sounding irons keep throwing up 20-foot putts.
Putts, though, which keep slipping by. But the par-5 14th is dismantled with the minimum of fuss which leaves Poppleton, after 392 holes on a tour that wasn’t on anybody’s radar 12 months ago and a tour that has been like a breath of fresh air in terms of playing opportunities, needing two birdies in four holes to change his financial life around.
On the plus side he didn’t really miss a shot; fairways were split and irons were brought to attention 15-20 feet away but they weren’t dropping.
One last throw of the dice at the 193-yard 17th very nearly brought about a grandstand finish but, like much of the day, he would graze the edge of the hole. Small margins and all that before another straightforward two-putt birdie at the spectacular 18th and what might have been.
“Coming off the 9th I was thinking there were opportunities coming up and to keep playing the shots as they came along but I never really got the putter warmed up – I struggled a bit with either the green reading or the surfaces and maybe I got a bit too aggressive which threw my read out. Mentally I had pencilled one in on the 18th so I told myself to just keep giving myself chances and that was pleasing.”
As for the order of merit Poppleton again came up one short as McCarthy edged him out 1,646 points to 1,612. But the smile was still in place and there were nothing but positives after what was most likely the most surreal round of his life.
“In April my girlfriend was working for the NHS and I was thinking would I be able to play at all this year and I was applying for jobs. Last winter I did some bar work over the winter and I’ve saved up and been as tight a Yorkshireman as I could be so I’m just happy to just be able to play golf. I’ve become a better player over the year, whether I won 20 grand or not I still get to go home to my missus and my dog and I’m still doing what I love. It’s easy to lose perspective and I’ll use this a positive experience.”