Andy Sullivan, has learned to look on the bright side of life. He narrowly lost out to Rory McIlroy at the DP World Tour Championship, tells us about his surge up the world rankings
The rise of Andy Sullivan
Andy Sullivan (opens in new tab) says he feels ten feet tall. He’s 5ft 9 and 3/4 inches. The fraction seems important. Professional sport is all about fractions. And weighing in at just 72kg (or a touch over 11st in old money), the 28-year-old’s diminutive appearance doesn’t give the first impression that here is an elite sportsman.
He is sitting on a leather sofa in the clubhouse of the Montgomerie Maxx Royal Golf Club in Belek on the eve of the Turkish Airlines Open in November. With his cheeky chappy grin, wide-eyed boyish enthusiasm and scraggy Bob Dylan beatnik beard, Sullivan could be mistaken for a shelf stacker in a supermarket. Which is just what he was doing five years ago at Asda in Nuneaton to supplement his income as an amateur golfer.
He checked out, turned professional in 2011 and earned his place on tour. This year, in just his fourth full season, he won three times on the European Tour – only Rory McIlroy (opens in new tab) matched that feat – thanks to victories at the South African Open and Joburg Open in January and March, and the Portugal Masters in October. A first victory is always a confidence booster, but Sullivan did it by defeating 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel in a play-off in the South African’s back yard.
Victory propelled him inside the world’s top 100. His heroics at the season-ending DP World Tour Championships in Dubai [which took place after this interview], where he narrowly missed out to McIlroy, mean he is now safely inside the all-important top 50 heading into 2016.
Things really started to change in Sullivan’s mind at the Dubai Desert Classic in February, when he was grouped with McIlroy and Martin Kaymer. Sullivan had hit the big time. “Playing with them for two rounds did so much for my confidence,” he says. “Playing well helped me believe I could perform at the highest level. Now I just want to be playing alongside them every week. They bring out the best in me. You watch them on the telly, winning Majors, playing in Ryder Cups, and then you’re playing with them. It’s a dream come true.”
Sullivan now finds himself named by 2016 Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke as someone he is keeping an eye on as a possible rookie in next year’s team heading to Hazeltine in Minnesota. Clarke also named Matt Fitzpatrick, Thomas Pieters and Eddie Pepperell as four to watch. Add Danny Willett, Shane Lowry, Chris Wood, Tommy Fleetwood, Thorbjorn Olesen and Lucas Bjerregaard to that list.
“There are a lot of very talented youngsters who will be pushing hard and I am on it and will be watching them,” Clarke said. “I am getting their stats every week.”
Sullivan is trying not to look that far ahead. It’s a mistake he made when re-assessing his goals after his early season form saw him win twice before the end of March. “You find yourself wanting to achieve more instead of carrying on with what got you to that point,” he says. “I lost sight of that. It was a big learning curve.”
So the last thing he wants is to start letting the Ryder Cup (opens in new tab) dominate his thoughts. But you can’t stop a dream. “I’m not going to lie, I’d love to play in the Ryder Cup,” he says.
“But I’ve just got to go out there and enjoy my golf and if it happens, it happens. Just to be named in these groups is brilliant. It makes me feel I belong. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was ten. I’ve watched the guys play in the Majors and Ryder Cups and there’s nothing I want to do more,” he says.
A taste of success
And Sullivan has pedigree when it comes to teams. He was part of the Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup side that beat the Americans with Jordan Spieth as the star player in 2011. “There’s nothing better than representing your country or Europe in a team event. And I’ve had a taste of that with the Walker Cup,” Sullivan says. “You share the success and try 100 per cent harder for your team mates.”
Sullivan says he has been inspired by what Spieth has achieved since turning professional. “It’s no surprise that Jordan has gone on to win Majors so quickly,” he says. “He was unbelievable, and humble, and you could see he was destined for stardom. But it was not just Jordan in that team. There was Harris English, Russell Henley, Patrick Rodgers. Looking back, I don’t quite know how we beat them! In the back of your mind, you think, if they can do it, so can I.”
Unlike Spieth’s meteoric rise, Sullivan says he has always been someone who gets better slowly. Contrary to this season’s hat-trick of victories and his star performance in the Walker Cup amid a stellar amateur career that included victories in Argentina, Australia and at the Scottish Amateur Open Stroke Play Championship success has not always come easy. Sullivan was often overlooked by England for amateur honours. Understandably, it affected his con dence. “I wasn’t really in favour with the England squad and I felt I was good enough,” he says.
“I went to a golf day where Lee Westwood played a few holes with me and afterwards he pulled me aside and told me I was good enough to achieve things in the game. And that was a massive inspiration," Sullivan says.
“When I got out on tour, Lee helped me. Justin Rose has been brilliant, too. I played practice rounds at the Majors with him, and he gave me a lot of advice. Darren Clarke has been a superb help,” he says. “I have been fortunate that experienced guys who have won a lot have come up to me to share their knowledge. I find myself being a sponge and trying to learn as much from them as I can."
Sullivan says the tour can be a lonely place. “As an amateur, you knew everyone and travelled with the same guys all the time. You knew every week, pretty much, there were 15 guys you had to beat,” he says.
“Now there are 150 who can win.”
In his early days, Sullivan used to get angry when things went wrong. “I used to be terrible – throwing clubs,” he says. But he sought help for two years from sports psychologist Lee Crombleholme, who he credits with helping to manage his oncevolatile temper.
“Mentally, I might be one of the strongest out here now,” Sullivan continues. “I used to get upset when I hit a bad shot. I used to think I had to hit 66 perfect shots. But that never happens. My acceptance now compared to then is one of the biggest reasons why I have gone on to do so well. I enjoy my golf now. It has allowed me to show my personality.”
And everyone on tour says what a lovely fellow Sullivan is. He passes the ‘Would I Have a Drink With Him?’ test with flying colours.
“Some people need fire in their belly to play. Others need to just enjoy it,” he says. “It’s about finding out what gets the best out of you. That’s what all the top guys do.”
Sullivan has now also started to work with a fitness instructor. “I’m just trying to gain little one per cents to give me the edge,” he says. “I want to get better and better. You see that with Rory and Tiger, winning Major after Major, they want to get better. You can’t stand still.”
This year, Sullivan played in his first-ever Open Championship – at the Home of Golf – and finished 30th. “It was a big eye-opener to see all the stars there,” he says. “Wow, unbelievable. Should I play or just watch them? I felt at times like a spectator. But I learned from that. If you want to get to the top, you’ve got to be around these guys and compete with them.”
Pride and passion
Sullivan says he often thinks back to the advice and motivation of his Walker Cup captain, Nigel Edwards. “Every morning, we walked out of that team room ready to go ten rounds in the ring. We were so pumped up for it. And it was all down to him,” Sullivan says.
“He had so much passion. When we won, he said: ‘Just enjoy this moment.’ I always think about that. It feels like everything goes by at a million miles per hour. You just want to bottle it and keep it.”
Sullivan won a trip into space last year with a hole-in-one at the KLM Open. It earned him a nickname. But ‘spaceman’ is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. “I’m not going to take the trip,” he says. “There is too much training involved. Maybe when I get to 80 and I’ve had a good life, I’ll go up.”
For now, his mission is all about carrying on his fantastic winning streak.
“The more you think about winning, the harder it becomes,” he says. “Every time you win, and you finish all your media, and you sit down – your body’s done, all your energy drains away. That says a lot for the guys who win regularly,” Sullivan says.
His secret to winning? “If you are angry, go out and play angry. If you are happy, play happy. Happy seems to work for me.”
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