The 26-year-old Englishman has plenty of talent to become a European Tour star. If he only didn’t try to outthink himself.
By John Huggan
It is July 2015 and the Scottish Open is taking place at Gullane in East Lothian. It is windy, as it tends to be in bonnie Caledonia at any time of year, making the opening hole (normally the second) a difficult test in the fierce right-to-left blast.
One of European golf’s leading players is about to hit his approach to the green. The ball is lying on a slight upslope. He swings, launching the ball high in the air. The wind catches the shot and sends it maybe 30 yards left of the distant putting surface.
“Clueless,” thinks former Ryder Cup player Andrew Coltart, now an on-course reporter for Sky Sports television.
In the next group is Englishman Eddie Pepperell. His drive finishes in pretty much the same place, leaving him almost exactly the same problem.
“It was beautiful to watch,” Coltart says. “Eddie’s shot never rose more than six feet off the ground and ran up onto the green to about 10 feet from the flag. He saw the shot and hit it perfectly, one we hardly ever see in professional golf these days.”
That touch of artistry in an ever-more scientific game is typical of the 26-year-old Pepperell, who hails from the university city of Oxford. While it is almost unanimously agreed that former U.S. Amateur champion Edoardo Molinari owns the highest IQ on the Old World circuit, Pepperell is unquestionably one of the most interesting characters out there.
“I’m definitely more artistic than scientific. And that is how I’m playing golf this year. I’m matching my golf with my character. I got away from that for a while—too much emphasis on technique fried my brain.” —Eddie Pepperell
How do we know this? His blog—eddiepepperell.wordpress.com—provides a fascinating and revealing insight into both life on tour and the inner workings of an active and intelligent mind, on and off the course.
“If you look at my career I’ve always done better on tough courses, especially when it is windy,” Pepperell says. “That’s not because I play any better. It’s because just about everyone else plays worse. What I mean by that is my game doesn’t vary much. I can shoot the same score on a calm day as I would shoot on a tough day. I play the same way whatever.
“When I need to flight a shot a particular way in a strong wind, I hit the shot I would hit if there was no wind. Not many guys do that. But I’m used to doing it and that gives me an edge.”
Not in 2016 it didn’t. A little more than a year after hitting that memorable shot at Gullane, Pepperell was sitting in a hotel room crying his eyes out. The double bogey he made on the final hole of the second round in the Portugal Masters (he shot 64-76) meant he would miss the halfway cut and, more importantly, lose his European Tour card. It was a dramatic fall from grace for the former World Amateur Team Championship player. But the darkness he felt, as so often in life, had a positive side, too.
“My writing improved markedly last year when my golf was so bad,” says Pepperell with a smile. “I tell people I don’t want to be blogging. When I’m playing well, I don’t think as much or write as much. And when I do, it isn’t from a place of such deep reflection. Last year, when I was feeling low I was able to articulate my thoughts more honestly. So I think the difficult thing for me is writing like that when I’m playing well and not sounding arrogant.”
There was no danger of that over the last few months of a disastrous 2016 season in which he failed to qualify for the weekend 12 times in 21 starts.
“For a short moment, it did feel as though my world was crumbling down around me,” Pepperell wrote in the immediate aftermath of losing his card. “I had to spend 15 minutes in solitude reading every news app I had on my phone at the time, just to escape my own thoughts and immediate emotions following my double-bogey finish. I only cried once I got back to my hotel room. This shows how gut-wrenchingly painful it was for me a year ago, because I still felt these emotions in spite of being very aware of how it was only a moment in time. And one that I knew wouldn’t define me as a golfer, only refine me.”
Within that obvious despair, there was also insight you don’t often get from the modern tour professional.
“I never envisaged that struggling on the course with my golf would have the impact it did on my mood,” Pepperell wrote. “My quality of life waned as my golf deteriorated gradually and became more frustrating. I considered myself rounded enough not to let anything golf related affect my personal life. But the truth is, I had to eliminate many aspects of life to enable me as a golfer to succeed in the first place. I had to become my own best friend because growing up I sacrificed relationships for my golf.
“That’s also why I’ve always maintained that the most important thing in life is to be a nice person, because careers come and go, but if you sacrifice being a good person in order to become a great achiever, you’ll experience the unintended side effects once it’s all over. And loneliness will probably top that list.”
Pepperell was able to take his momentary despair and make it just that, momentary. He went to European Tour school last November—“a humbling and terrifying experience”—and regained his card. Less than 12 months later, he is a man transformed. In 21 European Tour starts in 2017 entering this week’s Turkish Airlines Open, he has seven top-10s and a credible T-16 finish at the U.S. Open. Having begun the year ranked 309 in the world, he has risen to 161st and currently sits 45th in the Race to Dubai money race.
“I’m not a big believer in turning games around through confidence,” he says. “Confidence is a structural thing, an end-product of a process that has to be put in place. Last year you could give me a driver in a left-to-right wind, ask me to hit the fairway and I would have no chance. The technical aspect wasn’t there so it didn’t matter how confident I was.
“Lack of confidence becomes a mental thing only after the technical issue emerges, which is how things unravel. Fixing that means re-winding. So you work on the technique first. I’m definitely better in that respect this year.”
So life is good. But how far can Pepperell go in the professional game? Does the modern emphasis on length and almost constant repetition in terms of shot-making work against someone with his temperament?
“I’m definitely more artistic than scientific,” he says. “And that is how I’m playing golf this year. I’m matching my golf with my character. I got away from that for a while—too much emphasis on technique fried my brain. The hard thing for me is to just keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve never been very good when I’m doing something well at just staying with what I’m doing.
“I’ve had six months of really good golf. My stroke average has been much improved. And if I keep doing that for another 12 months I suspect I will be in the world’s top-50. Can I do it? I think I can. But it’s about knuckling down and realizing that is what a great career looks like.”
Currently standing for election to the European Tour’s tournament committee, Pepperell is not afraid to voice his views on subjects affecting the game at the highest level. Take slow play. The news that next year’s Austrian Open will feature a 40-second shot clock, at first glance a positive initiative, gets the thumbs down from Pepperell.
“I have misgivings about this,” he says. “To me, how long guys take to hit a shot is not the issue. Take the event we played in Denmark this year. The first two rounds each took five hours and 20 minutes. But it wouldn’t have mattered much if everyone had hit within 40 seconds. It still would have taken close to five hours to get round. It would have taken that long because people were losing balls. There are many long walks between greens and tees. And the course was set-up with a few short par 4s and reachable par 5s. So it took ages.
“The best that can happen with a 40-second shot clock is that we go from 4½ hours to four hours. It’s still going to be four hours. Which is still slow. But even that won’t happen. Slow play is a product of the difficulty of the courses we play and the length of the courses.”
As for the future, Pepperell has a typically unstructured view of what lies ahead. But, as ever, his take on himself is interesting and different.
“I haven’t set goals for a long time,” he says. “Although maybe I should, my problem would be caring about them. It’s all very well setting a goal, but it has to mean something. I’m so apathetic towards so many things, I’m not sure it would mean anything.
“Let’s say I set a goal of top-20 in the world. Then tomorrow I go out and struggle. I’m such an ‘in the moment’ kind of person, I find it difficult to step back and think about the bigger picture. I get impatient. And the truth is I’d go home and wonder how much the top-20 actually means to me.
“It’s enough for me to say I want to be a world-class golfer. That might sound a bit generic, but all I want is for people to watch me play and go away thinking ‘that was impressive.’ ”
Indeed. Andrew Coltart was just the start. Keep an eye out for young Pepperell. He’s interesting.