November 2024 – Murray Downs Golf Resort

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HAYES: Knife-Edge Moments Shape Lives

It’s often said – albeit unkindly – that touring professionals are living out the dream once harboured by their “vocational” cousins in clubland.

Those club pros – even more harshly – are colloquially said to be selling Mars bars for a living.

But the vast majority of those on tour eventually come to the fiscal realisation that the guarantee of Mars sales is better than weekends off and without a cheque to balance out the enormous expenses of grinding around Australia and/or the world.

Even before the Play Today New South Wales Open began this week, it shaped as a week of reckoning for more than a handful of the field, generally in their late 20s and starting to hear the ever-louder sounds of anxious partners or bank managers.

So it’s with more than hint of irony – and no doubt angst for those involved – that so many of these “crossroads” players are near the pointy end of the field after round one at Rich River.

Chisnell Ryan 1920 20230316 NSW Open Rd1 DR 1879
Ryan Chisnall and Jye Halls shake hands after completing their opening rounds at Rich River

Gold Coast-based Kiwi Ryan Chisnall – well known to many of his Aussie contemporaries – has been around this level of event for almost a decade.

Now at 28, he finds himself near the top of the heap in Moama; the madness of that after five successive missed cuts not lost on someone who’s clearly pondering the next phase of his life.

Chisnall is a big bloke, the type you might imagine to be stoic if you weren’t aware of his warm, open demeanor.

So it’s a surprise to see a tear welling in his eye as he answers media questions that are just golf related.

After the cameras disappeared, I asked him about that “glassy” eye.

“It’s been a tough road, man. Every golfer has gone through it at some stage in their career,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I’ve been very lucky that the game has taken me to some amazing places and to have met some really cool people … it’s nice to have a good day.

And the eyes go glassy again.

Chisnall flat out admits he’s right on the edge of calling it a day on the touring side of the game.

“I am mate, I’ve been doing this for long enough now and it’s just one of those games, I can’t really describe it. When you’re playing good, golf flows nice and easy; but when you’re not, it feels so far away, it’s incredible.

“I was lucky enough to go through the New Zealand Golf system and had no money problems in that set-up as an amateur. I was travelling every week with my best mates. I miss that as a golfer … it was pretty cruisy compared to professional golf.

“It’s been a road, mate.

“Those years fly, especially with Covid flushing two away pretty quickly. But days like today shows the game is still here, I’ve just gotta make it happen every now and again.”

The next group off the course contained Jake Higginbottom, a winner of the NZ Open as an amateur aged 19 in 2012 but winless on the main PGA Tour of Australasia stage since turning pro two days afterwards.

Last week he told his hometown Newcastle Herald that his time on tour was rapidly approaching its use-by date.

He’s four under par and again in the mix – just another player with more to ponder.

Goggin Matt 1920 20230316 NSW Open Rd1 DR 0442
Matt Goggin hits his approach to the fourth hole during the opening round of the PLAY TODAY NSW Open

Mat Goggin joins the fray at five under, himself a legend of Aussie golf who’s grappling with his own comeback, its longevity and what it means.

Only a matter of minutes later, off the course wanders Ben Eccles, another of the most delightful young men in the sport.

Eccles leapt to national prominence when he won this very event in 2015 as an amateur.

His ride since has been the archetypal golf rollercoaster with flashes of brilliance dotted across three continents, but without a top-five finish anywhere since 2018.

The Victorian, now 28, knows that’s untenable in the long term.

“I’ve actually got really fond memories of this event and it’s nice to be playing well again in time for it because it has been a tough couple of years,” he said.

“Definitely there’s been more downs than ups, in the past couple of years in particular.

“But just today, I had a couple of those old swing feels out there, which was really nice.

“(That win) seems like five minutes ago, thinking back, then I was selected to play for Australia … and it was all a complete whirlwind.

“They’re very fond memories … just poles apart from last couple of years.

“Professional golf is one of the most difficult things you can play; I had 3-4 years in Europe, a full year in Asia and you realise how many good players there are and then financially it takes its toll, as well.”

Eccles is another contemplating a “bridging course” with the PGA to head into clubland as a teacher.

“Financially I’m in a position where I need to. I haven’t got any status overseas and so it’s going to be a different year that will come with its challenges. I haven’t even locked a card up here yet, so it’s a strange position.”

Then almost in the next breath, you learn to appreciate the knife edge on which his beloved career walks.

“I made a horrendous start and hit it under a tree on the first and took double, but then I remember the swing thought I had for the week and it turned around and I had a bit of a purple patch (birdie-eagle-birdie from 10-12) in the middle and you know it’s still there somewhere.

“It feels like I’m playing better than the scores I’ve been having, so it’s nice to have it come together. It needs to, to be honest.”

Just a few examples of many.

But the pain – and their amazing willingness to share it so openly – is plain.

By definition, there will be more agony than joy this weekend, but spare a thought for all the stories happening down the leaderboard – they’re genuinely moving.

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