Staplecross golfer Ben Evans to play top tournaments in 2016
PUBLISHED: 14:44 21 March 2016
Ben Evans, a golfer from Staplecross in East Sussex, will play all the top tournaments this year. Clive Agran met him to find out about his dramatic entry into the upper echelons of the fiendishly fickle game
In golf, as in life, timing is crucial and I hadn’t picked the best moment to interview the normally relaxed Ben Evans. Ten minutes earlier he had an ugly double bogey on the very last hole to spoil what up to then had been a fine opening round in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. So instead of a very impressive four-under par 68, he had to settle for a merely rather respectable 70.
He looked a little agitated but as we chatted in the pleasant evening sun the smile returned. For during the nine or so years Evans has been a professional golfer he has learned to cope with the ups and downs of this fiendishly fickle game. Indeed, he recognises that it was largely thanks to a remarkable piece of good fortune that he was in Abu Dhabi teeing it up alongside the likes of Rory McIlroy, world number one Jordan Spieth, Ricky Fowler and countless other big names competing for a share of nearly £2m. In the end, he finished a respectable 33rd.
Before we discussed how he finally managed to break into the big time, he explained how he first picked up a club when just ten years old and a pupil at Sedlescombe Primary School near where he still lives in Staplecross, East Sussex. “Group lessons were organised for us at Sedlescombe Golf Club,” he recalled. “I still play there now, as well as at Rye, and receive tremendous support from the members of both clubs, for which I’m extremely grateful.”
Evans evidently found the game a lot easier than most of us. When only 12 and already with an impressive handicap of five, he was selected for the Sussex under-16 side. And while still a pupil at Claremont Preparatory School, he made it into the county under-18 team. International honours quickly followed and he played for England at various levels before graduating onto the full England amateur team.
He won a great many individual competitions, most notably one in the Faldo Series for four years in a row, culminating with the Faldo Junior Series Under-21 Trophy in 2007. Later that year, with a handicap of plus five (which is five better than scratch), he turned professional and went straight onto the Challenge Tour, which is at a level just below that of the main European Tour.
“Although the season doesn’t get started until April, it was good. We went to a lot of strange places and I really enjoyed it. It’s a great tour.” The chief problem is that the prize money is only a fraction of what it is on the main tour and with all the travel and hotel expenses it’s hard to make a living. Although he enjoyed a number of good performances and won a fair bit of prize money, Evans admitted: “I stayed there much longer than I wanted. You need to get onto the main tour as soon as you can, really.”
The top 15 players on the Challenge Tour money list at the end of the year graduate onto the much more lucrative European Tour the following season. In 2014, Evans came desperately close. “It all came down to the final putt on the last green in Oman,” he recalled. “I played really well but just missed out.” He finished the year having won €75,381 while Jason Barnes, who picked up the final spot in 15th, earned a mere €1,500 more than him.
Although understandably disappointed because he only just missed out, Evans had the consolation of being placed in a reasonably good category for 2015. All tournament professionals are put into one of 21 categories depending on past performance. For example, if you win a major championship you go into category one and are eligible to play in everything. Broadly speaking, the category Evans was in enabled him to play in the less lucrative events on the main tour plus as many as he could fit in on the Challenge Tour.
From late February until the middle of May, he made the cut in all seven of the European Tour events in which he participated, picking up five-figure cheques in four of them. “I played consistently well in the early part of the season and then hit a poor patch for about four weeks before I improved again.
“The Russian Open was the turning point. My game suddenly came together. Prior to that I was driving the ball well but my iron play was appalling.” Although consistently smashing the ball over 300 yards off the tee and landing on the fairway roughly three times out of four, Evans wasn’t hitting enough greens with his approaches, let alone knocking the ball close enough to the hole to make birdies. All that changed in Moscow where he finished 11 under par in a tie for eighth and brought over €22,000 home with him to East Sussex.
Now playing with a great deal more confidence, Evans received a sponsor’s invitation to take part in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland. With considerable links experience gained from knocking it round the wonderful course at Rye, he performed exceptionally well, finished in a tie for 19th and enjoyed the biggest payday of his career (€47,536). The winnings rocketed him up the rankings and, with just two tournaments to go before the end of the season, there was an outside chance he could squeeze into the top 110 on the European Tour and enjoy full playing rights the following year.
He made the cut at the Portugal Masters but finishing 53rd only earned him €7,200. And so it all came down to the final tournament, the Hong Kong Open. Rounds of 69 and 71 enabled him to just make the cut but left him a long way down the field. He needed to do very much better to stand any chance of fulfilling his dream. A sparkling third round 66 put him right back into contention. Then disaster struck. “I don’t know what happened but suddenly my shoulder hurt. I may have leant on it awkwardly and could hardly move it on Saturday night.” Uncertain whether he would be able to swing a club, he received physiotherapy treatment on Sunday morning. “She [the physiotherapist] was amazing, got the shoulder moving and I felt I could just about make it round.”
Evans did quite a bit more than just make it round. He was five under par for the last eight holes and his magnificent 65 gave him cause to hope. However, just as in the previous year, he narrowly missed out and was devastated to discover that, despite winning €31,000 at this last event, he had ended up 111th on the Order of Merit, a miserable €1,000 and one solitary spot away from achieving his ambition of being a full member of the European Tour.
He was still in Hong Kong the following day and cycling with his father Glyn, who dutifully caddies for him wherever he tees it up, when word reached him that all was not lost. “I got a call to say they thought I might be 110th but they weren’t 100 per cent sure. Then they phoned again to say I was in. We couldn’t celebrate properly because we had a flight to catch but I was ecstatic.”
Brooks Koepka, an American who was number 12 in the world at the time, had been removed from the rankings because he had failed to complete the minimum number of required events, thus elevating all those below him one place.
And so Evans will play in all the top tournaments this year, Abu Dhabi being the first. Showing the same useful ability to perform when it matters most, he birdied the final two holes in the second round to make the cut. In the end, he finished 46th and banked another five-figure cheque.
“It’s great playing in all these wonderful tournaments all over the place,” he said. And now he’s earning quite a bit more, the 6ft 3in tall Evans intends to treat himself and fly business class whenever he can so that he arrives at the next venue more refreshed and relaxed. “But no matter where in the world I go, I’m always happy to return home to Sussex. I really love it.”
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