Whenever I drive along Golf Course Road in Blairgowrie, I always imagine what it must be like to head up Magnolia Lane on the way to The Masters. It’s something that every golfer dreams of – to play in what is arguably golf’s most prestigious event at Augusta National, and follow in the footsteps of the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.
On this particular journey, I was headed to meet a golfer who has had the privilege of making that journey down Magnolia Lane. As I pulled up to Blairgowrie Golf Club, I was greeted by one of Perthshire and Scotland’s biggest golfing prospects – who like me, had spent his weekend watching the action at The Masters unfold.
Bradley Neil is still young but he has already achieved an incredible amount in his short career. The former Amateur Championship winner is now a professional on the Challenge Tour and has aspirations to get back to playing at the biggest golfing events in the future.
For Bradley, the journey to becoming a professional golfer started at just three-years-old. His dad was a keen golfer, and he used to take him and his older brother Connor out on the course with him. This early exposure to the game with his brother helped him to progress quickly.
“My love for the game stems from those early outings with my dad and brother. We used to play on the Wee Course at Blairgowrie and hit balls at the driving range at Carsie. My dad was always trying to improve our game and he’d often ask for advice from some golf pros he knew as well! It was a nice introduction to the game and I am very grateful.”
The next step was to join Blairgowrie Golf Club, which he did, aged seven. It then became apparent that, along with his brother, Bradley had a natural talent for the game and he would require different coaching to realise his potential.
Along with being coached together at the same club, the brothers had their own sibling rivalry and this is something that Bradley believes helped to bring his game on.
“We were always competitive and we wanted to beat each other. Connor is three years older than me but I was always playing a few age groups ahead of myself so it didn’t bother me. I think he finally admitted that I had the better of him when I was about seventeen – although I think I knew I had him when I was fourteen and beat him in the Club Championships!”
Bradley entered the Scottish Academy U16s set-up when he was just twelve and was coached first by Spencer Henderson and then by Kevin Hale – who is still his coach today.
When it comes to the sacrifices he had to make to become a professional, he doesn’t think he had to make many until he moved to the Challenge Tour. However he now believes he is making sacrifices in his life in order to take his game to the next level.
“I think when I was an amateur I had a pretty normal life. The way the amateur card is I could still see my friends every day and I didn’t have too much travelling to do as the events were in the UK. So I think up until the point of turning pro, the only real sacrifice was having to give up football to concentrate on golf!
Now though, it’s a bit different. I’m away from my family and friends for 4 to 6 weeks at a time and it can be quite a lonely experience – especially when things aren’t going well. I’m often living out of a suitcase and that’s probably the toughest part. The other thing is looking after myself now and watching what I eat. For me, that’s a sacrifice because I have a bit of a sweet tooth!”
In Bradley’s glittering career to date, he has appeared in some of golf’s biggest events as an amateur. After winning The Amateur Championship, he was granted entry to three of golf’s four majors – The Open, the US Open and The Masters. The latter in particular was something he will never forget.
“It was a tough week in terms of focussing on putting in a performance because I just wanted to soak it all in really. It was incredible to be there though – Augusta is such a magical place. I was paired with Sandy Lyle which was brilliant. He’s a Scottish golfing legend and although I wasn’t born when he won The Masters, it was great to be in his company. I know it was quite a big thing for my dad seeing me playing alongside Sandy!
I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rory McIlroy and it’s given me a taste of where I want to go with my career. I am hungry to get myself to that level to compete on golf’s biggest stage.”
Sadly, he didn’t make the cut in any of his major appearances but still gained invaluable experience. Being in the media spotlight was a completely new experience for him and something he had to get used to. The Open in particular sticks in his mind as a tournament where he didn’t feel ready and would have liked to have played it with the mind set he has now.
“I think I was too young and the whole lead up to The Open was hectic. I’d just won the Amateur Championship and I was straight in the spotlight for St. Andrews a month later. It didn’t feel like a month – it didn’t even feel like a week!
I wish I could go back to that tournament now and play it again but with the experience and the game I have now. I think I would do much better!”
With the stunning setting of Rosemount golf course in the background, our attention shifted back to 2014 – when the Junior Ryder Cup came to Blairgowrie, and Bradley represented Europe against the United States at his home course. It’s an event he remembers fondly despite Europe losing out 16-8 to their American opponents.
“As soon as we knew that Blairgowrie Golf Club would be hosting the event and that I was still eligible, it was all that anybody would talk about. It was a lot of pressure! It was a special occasion though and it was great to represent Europe in front of my family and friends.
The atmosphere was incredible – I was so proud that our little town could host such an event and generate such a buzz. It will always be one of my best golfing memories.”
Scottish golf is in a good place at the moment, with many professionals playing across Europe and the United States. However, Bradley is keen to see even more young players breakthrough and he has some tips for any aspiring youngsters in Perthshire.
“Get out and play! That’s the only way to get better! I was very fortunate that my dad took my brother and I out from such a young age and we loved it. It can be difficult sometimes because golf is maybe not perceived as a ‘cool sport’ in the same way that football is, but I believe that once kids start playing they really will love it.
My other tip would be not to get frustrated. Golf is a frustrating sport but you have to understand that you are not going to be an expert straight away. It takes practice but if you work hard you will notice a big difference!”
Having spent the afternoon chatting with Bradley, it’s clear from speaking to him that he is as determined as ever. He has learned from his experiences and is ready to make his mark on the game. He heads to Turkey next and he is focused on achieving the goal he has set on the Challenge Tour this year – a top 45 finish and entry to the Grand Final. If he can achieve that, it may not be long before we see him mentioned alongside golf’s biggest names again.
Bradley's next tournament is the Turkish Airlines Challenge held at the Gloria GC in Antalya, Turkey from 20th to 23rd April 2017.