The MENA Tour’s ‘Three Amigos’ aren’t about to let a pandemic derail their carefully plotted paths to golf’s big time
By Kent Gray
We’re not sure if Josh Hill, Toby Bishop or Arjun Gupta have ever studied the deeds of Winston Churchill in history class but the Dubai schoolboys have, at least unwittingly, heeded one of the former British Prime Minister’s famed quotes.
While top-flight professional golf is back, sans spectators, the world’s elite amateur events are only slowly creaking back into life courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic. But channelling Churchill’s circa 1940 “Never let a good crisis go to waste” war cry, the MENA Tour teens are working harder than ever. Indeed, they haven’t really stopped, escaping into the desert for socially-distanced practice sessions even before lockdown when courses were deemed out of bounds to teens for health and safety reasons.
There’s no need to suddenly try salvaging something from what is essentially a lost year when you don’t see it that way. Rather all three have kept on keeping on with carefully plotted progression plans.
Hill is working with a new coach, Bishop is invigorated after committing to the University of Florida and Gupta has refreshed by hitting his school books – knowing the sooner he sorts his education the sooner he can get on with chasing his pro golf dream.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know the teen trio were dubbed the ‘Three Amigos’ by the MENA Tour in a nod to the 1986 American comedy-western starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. You need to draw a long bow to connect Hill, Bishop and Gupta to the Hollywood stars in a golf context, perhaps other than giving this period a movie moniker, something like 2020 global-horror.
But together the talented 16-year-olds have kept smiling and getting on with their young lives, looking forward to the mooted conclusion of the MENA Tour season in Jordan in mid-October to late-November. And brighter, ‘new normal’ times beyond that.
The way Josh Hill’s unforgettable 2019 rolled into 2020, you’d have thought the English Boys’ representative would be cursing the big amateur golf shutdown caused by the coronavirus. Quite the opposite for the +6.5 handicapper (not a misprint!) as it turns out.
As a refresher few will require, Hill earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records when he won the MENA Tour’s Al Ain Open last October. The youngest winner – at 15 years, six months and 27 days – of an OWGR event went on to qualify for a European Tour debut in Abu Dhabi and played the following week in Dubai (courtesy of winning the MENA Tour’s amateur Order of Merit), keeping his name in lights. But his game was in a slightly darker place thanks to an uncooperative driver which saw him miss the cut at both Desert Swing events.
“Even though it was frustrating going into lockdown, I felt it came at a good time,” Hill reveals. “I was doing a lot of changes in my swing to help me control the ball better and this probably would have been harder to do whilst playing in tournaments.”
Those changes, instigated by new coach Rob Watts, took some inventiveness to bed in, first during lockdown in Dubai and later, when flights resumed, at the family home in England.
“Even though I was in a small apartment in Dubai, I tried to keep myself busy and keep improving. Before lockdown, when juniors weren’t allowed to practice at the clubs, we went into the desert to hit balls which was fun. Once we were in lockdown I would hit balls into a net in the communal area of the apartment and I ran in the underground car park and did the best gym session I could with the equipment I had.
I cannot thank them [Joe Marshall and the CH3 Dubai team] enough for what they did but sometimes change is good and challenges you.”
“I still did a bit of swing work [in Dubai] but it has been nice to see the ball flight again to know that what I had been working on was working. I played some really good golf before leaving for England and was shooting some good numbers around Trump. Hopefully, I can keep doing this up in the upcoming tournaments.”
Golf news, much less Middle East amateur golf news, has been scarce since the COVID-19 outbreak but if there was a headline popper, it was Hill’s decision to end his relationship with Joe Marshall at the Claude Harmon 3 Performance Golf Academy at The Els Club, Dubai.
“Joe and the CH3 team really helped me in the three years I was with them. They helped me progress and get some good results. I cannot thank them enough for what they did but sometimes change is good and challenges you,” the 16-year-old says.
“Rob Watts has a lot of good players and I feel since we met, he has a lot of confidence in me and we have a good relationship. When I was in Dubai, we would do Skype calls from the range which worked well and now that I’m back in the UK I see him every couple of weeks.”
The initial feedback from the new partnership has been encouraging after Hill made the cut at the prestigious Tillman Trophy and eventually settled for a share of 20th at leafy Foxhills Country Club in Surrey.
“I felt a bit rusty but it was good to get the season going and I cannot wait for the next few tournaments.”
Will that include the MENA Tour’s mooted five-event, six-week encampment at Ayla Golf Club, or part thereof? And later, maybe following pal Toby Bishop to college in the U.S.?
“I hope I will be able to play in the rest of the MENA tour season as it is such a great tour. But I also need to see what is happening with school and go from there.
“I feel for me college golf is definitely a possibility and I have spoken to some of the coaches and am working towards this but it depends where my game is when the time comes.”
With Josh Hill creating history and headlines around the world and Toby Bishop learning to become a serial winner too, it is easy to cast Arjun Gupta as the third Musketeer. Don’t be too quick with the supporting role tag though.
With a closing 66 to snare fourth place at the Ghala Open in mid-February, the Dubai-born Indian earned his best finish on the MENA Tour. It underlined the potential the +3 handicapper had shown by capturing the Faldo Series Middle East Championship at Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf Club in April 2019.
Gupta played his final 36-holes in Oman in an impressive 11-under-par to seal his second amateur title on the regional development circuit after he shared that honour with Hill at last November’s MENA Tour Championship. He also came within a shot of earning his first-ever Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points. We suspect they will follow soon enough.
“I want to win the Amateur Journey to Jordan this year and this is a good step in that direction,” Gupta said at the time.
A year 12 student home-schooling through iCademy Middle East, Gupta spent the two months of lockdown in Dubai but unlike golf-focused Hill and Bishop.
“I went to the desert a few times to hit a few shots but, apart from that, just focused on my education. I was a bit frustrated that I couldn’t play golf that much but I got the opportunity to focus on education and health.”
I want to win a tournament on the MENA Tour and this gives me confidence that I am close.”
Gupta had planned to tee it up in events in the U.S. before the pandemic changed everything. Now he’s focused on the MENA Tour’s October- November plans at Ayla Golf Club in Aqaba.
“They are the only events I hope to play in this year. I have learned a lot from the pros and gained real competitive experience through the MENA Tour.”
The U.S. still features in Gupta’s plans but it’s unlikely he’ll follow in the soft-spiked footsteps of University of Florida-bound Bishop. Again, don’t be fooled. There is a firm plan, one where Gupta continues to let his golf do most of the talking.
“I’m happy to see Toby achieving his goals but I don’t have college plans at the moment,” said the Jamie McConnell coached Gupta. The reason? “Because I would like to turn pro and achieve my goals.”
Time will tell if Gupta’s longterm vision comes to fruition. For now he retains bold amateur ambitions.“I want to win a tournament on the MENA Tour and this [his Ghala performance] gives me confidence that I am close.”
FOR THE GATOR GOOD
Few amateurs have greater cause to lament the months of top-flight competition lost to the pandemic than Toby Bishop.
The reigning Welsh U-18 Boys’ Strokeplay champion – who doesn’t celebrate his 17th birthday until Dec. – had been riding a giddy wave of form right up to golf’s shutdown, sparked by an unlucky playoff loss in the Trump Men’s Open.
He scorched to a cool nine stroke victory at another EGF-sanctioned event, navigating the Saadiyat Beach Men’s Open with a -14 (36-hole) total that included an amateur course record 62. Later he overcame a field that included the likes of European Tour player Gavin Moynihan to capture The Els Alliance and looked on course to make the honours board at Trump Dubai after carding a 68 for a three stroke lead following the opening round of the club championship.
Then, with U-18s banned from UAE courses overnight, the decision was taken to cancel the club champs. Lockdown followed shortly afterwards and surely too angst at a white hot spell extinguished by an invisible enemy?
“My coach Jamie McConnell and I didn’t look at this break as a negative or make excuses,” says Bishop who counts the U16 European Faldo Series title he won in late 2018 among his chief triumphs to date.
“Every other player was in the same situation as me, so it was down to me to work harder than them during lockdown to improve my game and allow me to return to competitions with the same great form.”
With a win and a second in a pair of Trump medals since the reopening, and rounds of 69-75 to edge Kate Bibby by three strokes at the CH3 Collegiate Invitational at The Els Club, that was a mission largely accomplished as we went to print.
“It was definitely a weird feeling returning to competitions, mainly the tournament mentality and getting used to that again. But it’s what every player strives for. I love the pressure of the situation and enjoy every moment when I’m out there competing against my friends.”
Competition is coming in spades for Bishop who has committed to join the University of Florida in the recruiting class of 2022. World amateur No.2 Ricky Castillo is among Bishop’s imminent Gator team-mates.
“With both my parents being teachers, the collegiate pathway has always been the goal for me…and Florida has been my first choice college for a long time. It’s an environment I can’t wait to experience and look to grow as a golfer and a person during my time there. My goal is to be the best at what I do and I believe the University of Florida provides me with the best platform to achieve that.”
As he does on the range at The Els with coach McConnell, the Director of Instruction at the CH3 Performance Golf Academy, Bishop left no stone unturned before settling on the Gators’ golf programme.
My goal is to be the best at what I do and I believe the University of Florida provides me with the best platform to achieve that.”
“I ended up making contact with around 20 programs. On these calls I had to narrow down which programs met my criteria and I could not have found a better fit than University of Florida. The coaching staff there, in coach Deacon and coach Leon, have been so helpful throughout my calls and were a huge part in my decision. I will be spending four years there and my family and I couldn’t think of anyone we would rather have to develop me as a golfer and a person off the course than Coach Deacon, he is such a great role model for all his players and fellow golfers.”
It’s been frustrating having to forego a trip to the U.S. to visit collegiate campuses and play AJGA events, not to mention the full summer schedule he had planned in the UK including the Carras Trophy, the (British) Boys’ and Welsh Amateur Championships and the Boys’ Home Internationals.
Refocused, Bishop is now looking forward to entering Year 12 at Dubai English Speaking College this month and kicking off his A-Level studies. There’ll also be enough golf to keep his competitive fires stoked.
“The rest of my year will be based in Dubai. I will play in as many Men’s opens and local tournaments as I can find and we have the Dubai Golf Trophy [the Ryder Cup-style match between the top-performing EGF OOM amateurs and UAE Tour pros] scheduled for late October. In preparation for those events I will continue to follow my practice plan and work with Jamie to fine tune all areas of my game. We’re currently focusing on speed as my main goal and trying to become as sharp as I can around the greens.”
School commitments might prevent Bishop playing all the remaining MENA Tour events, if they are played in Aqaba later this year as mooted. What isn’t under debate is Bishop’s praise for the pathway provided by the regional developmental circuit.
“To be able to compete against European and Challenge Tour players across many different countries on great courses, is such a valuable learning experience. Just having to be independent travelling, learning from the pros and also learning to own my game at the same time.
“Early on during my first season, the MENA Tour highlighted areas of my game that needed improving. That enabled me to improve to a much higher level this season and structure my practice in a much more productive manner. I hope to use these experiences and the confidence gained to compete during the events later on this year.”
The way Bishop has carried on from where he left of pre-COVID, don’t be surprised if he keeps good on that goal as well.