(Photo by Masam Ali)
As the youngest player to win an Official World Golf Ranking event, Josh Hill clearly has game. But it’s the MENA Tour stars’ unflappable demeanour that truly sets him apart
By Kent Gray
Josh Hill is hamming it up for the cameras in a studio just off Dubai’s hectic, 14-lane Sheikh Zayed Road.
While his contemporaries are busy doing what most kids do on Thursday afternoons in the emirate – clock watching at the end of the high school week – the 15-year-old is making deliberate air swings on demand. Like his trademark flat-line demeanour on the golf course, Hill shows no hint of emotion despite being in the midst of an exciting media frenzy that has followed his historic victory at the Al Ain Open the previous afternoon.
The scene is about as far removed from the teen’s natural habitat as he can imagine – “really weird” as he puts. This is the domain of paid fashion models pouting for glossy woman’s magazines, not a 15-year-old amateur golfer who famously requested a feed of fried chicken to celebrate the day of his young life the night before. But Hill is handling the Golf Digest Middle East cover shoot, minus any media handlers or even his parents who are at work, with aplomb. It’s not every day you get your first cover for Golf Digest so he’s happy to swing and smile on request, and to accept the offer of a ride home afterwards. He can drive with the best of them, just not a car and certainly not on the bumper-to-bumper highway in earshot.
Hill has ticked off countless interviews already and will head to an in-studio radio appearance later in the evening to talk about what it is like to see you name whiz around the planet courtesy of newsflashes from the likes of the BBC, the Golf Channel, Golfweek and ESPN.
“I got loads and loads of messages from friends, fellow competitors and family and there’s lots of people wanting to do interviews as well. It’s been pretty hectic but hopefully it’s what it will be like when I’m older,” Hill said. “It does feel really weird, I don’t know how to do it. It’s a good thing though. I get that.”
There are no guarantees in life, much less golf but it seems Joshua Hill’s career is going to play out before the cameras more and more. In eclipsing Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa as the youngest winner of an Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) event – at 15 years, six months and 27 days old – Hill announced himself to the wider golfing world. It came as no great surprise to those in the Middle East though who have tracked Hill’s steady ascent from promising junior, to scratch handicapper just before his 13th birthday, to serial Emirates Golf Federation title winner and now to MENA Tour champion.
Joe Marshall sensed something special was afoot when he settled down to read an online preview to the Al Ain Open by Arena on the Monday of the week that changed Hill’s life.
There had been a hint at his star pupil’s return to form in a T-6 finish at the tour’s previous stop in Abu Dhabi a fortnight earlier, Hill’s best result since he heroically scraped on to the circuit despite opening Q-School with a round of 80 in Aqaba. But it was words rather than actions that piqued the interest of the Claude Harmon 3 Performance Golf Academy head coach.
“I won’t be surprised if someone shoots a 59 this week,” Hill told the tour’s media manager, Joy Chakravarty.
While some dismissed the comments as hyperbole from an inexperienced teen coerced into helping provide some column inch filler, Marshall knew better. After all, Hill had carded a 62 at AESGC to capture back-to-back Faldo Series Middle East Championship titles earlier in the year and is the two-time defending champion of the EGF-sanctioned Al Ain Men’s Open. More pertinently, he was talking like the young Hill of old.
“I have said to a few people that I am not surprised at all by the victory, not after how he was feeling that week, how he was talking about the score-ability of the course and all the good quality work he has done, not only this last month but over the last two years,” said Marshall. “It was bound to come together at some point. Still, I guess to actually see him doing it is just incredible, especially in such emphatic fashion.” Emphatic just about does Hill’s closing round at Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting & Golf Club justice, an eight eight-under 62 allowing him to overcome a three-shot overnight deficit to win by two over English pro Harry Ellis.
Hill had been battling a low, left miss off the tee throughout his summer in the UK, a campaign Marshall doesn’t sugar coat despite some handy international results for England Boys’ and a T-11 placing at the European Young Masters in the Czech Republic.
“Josh had a very mediocre summer, to put it politely, but this is all part of the journey to becoming the best you can be,” the Dubai-based Yorkshire coach said.
While he never stopped seeking a solution to his misery off the tee, it wasn’t until he returned to Dubai and the tutelage of Marshall that things really started to look up.
The tee ball respite wasn’t before time for the teen whose mood started to match the ugly low hooks that took Hill to the darkest recesses of some of Britain’s finest links, not a place you want to be.
But the Dubai-born and raised teen insists that wasn’t what was getting him down, rather the isolation from his fellow range rats at The Els Club in Dubai. It was okay when he was on international duty with England Golf but the days between tournaments spent practising back at the family base in the small port town of Exmouth, Devon was lonely, as comforting as it was to have mum Jo and sister Francesca to come home to in the evenings.
“I wasn’t enjoying living in England. It wasn’t that I was homesick, it was just I didn’t have any friends I could practice with, there were no fun rounds and the weather and facilities for practice aren’t what we have here in Dubai,” Hill said. “I’ve got heaps of friends in England but they were nowhere near and I get bored quite easily when I can’t do as much as I’d like with everyone around. Toby [Bishop], Arjun [Gupta], Steve Kelbrick [the two-time defending EGF champion], Ali [Claude Harmon fitness guru Allister Parlane] and Joe, all my mates. When I’m with them, I’m happiest.”
That certainly correlates with what Luke Joy, a two-time MENA Tour winner, has seen of Hill.
“I’ve watched him work up at Claude Harmon and he puts the hours in, works hard but does it with a smile on his face,” said the Yas Links-attached English professional. “He seems to have a great approach to his practice, gets his technical work done and then has a playful mindset with his mates around the chipping green. I think that comes with being a teenager and loving golf for the game that it is.”
Of that there is little doubt. A professional career clearly beckons but for now, Hill is just a 15-year-old kid loving life.
“I feel like at the moment I just want to keep playing, having fun. By the time I’m about 17 or 18, we’ll see how I’m going and if I’m good enough to earn a main tour card, I’ll have a go. If not, we’ll look to go through the U.S. college system to develop a bit more.”
He was very quiet and reserved at first but has a cracking personality now.
– Hill’s Coach Joe Marshall
While the past summer was a “big learning curve”, Hill has no doubts he’ll eventually come to grips with the often lonely airport, hotel, golf course and repeat groundhog day that is the existence of the average touring pro. Nor was Marshall ever concerned by his temporary dip in form before the resumption of the MENA Tour’s autumn swing. Rather, he’s impressed with the kid’s ability to rebound so quickly from the lows of his British summer, something Marshall had always anticipated. This is golf, after all.
“All these situations he has experienced so far will make it easier and easier to deal with the pressures that are coming,” Marshall said. “The more he can be exposed to now the better. As a [CH3] team, we will just keep ticking the necessary boxes in the background and let him keep developing as a player, an athlete and a person. He has lots of good people around him that will make the months to come enjoyable ones.
“Let’s face it, he is in a no-lose situation having these opportunities at the age of 15. Time is on his side.”
Among those potential opportunities is a start in January’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic, the prize that awaits the winner of the MENA Tour’s amateur Journey to Jordan standings. Up to second in the order of merit after his Al Ain breakthrough, Hill had the circuit’s final regular-season stop in Ras Al Khaimah to play as we went to press as well as the Nov. 27-29 Tour Championship back at Ayla G.C. in Aqaba as he looked to haul in English OOM leader Curtis Knipes.
“The main goal at the moment is to have him in really great shape for next summer when he will go back to the UK and compete in the likes of British Amateur and British Boys,” Marshall continued. “But I would love to see him qualify for Abu Dhabi [HSBC Championship] or the Desert Classic so he can see where he sits amongst the best in Europe/the World. This isn’t something we’ve spoken about but would be a nice thing if it happens.
“The New Year he will probably play some more MENA events but school work will ramp up from November onwards as he is in his GCSE year. He understands the importance of ticking the education boxes which shows how well-rounded, well-grounded and mature the young lad is.”
Marshall has seen Hill mature, both physically and emotionally, as their player-coach relationship has developed over the past two years. A growth spurt in the past year, which sees Hill now tower over 6ft tall, accounts for some of his troubles off the tee recently. His swing speed has rocketed from 114mph as a 14-year-old to the most recent measure of 123mph and that, mixed with a still growing body, can be hard to control at times.
There are no such issues with his unflappable temperament, something noted by respected U.S. Golf Digest senior writer Alex Myers who saw a video of Hill holing his final putt in Al Ain and surmised: “That’s a pretty calm reaction for someone making history. Talk about acting like you’ve been there before.”
Again, Marshall isn’t surprised by the assessment.
“What does stand him out from the crowd is how chilled and relaxed he always is, both on and off the course…way beyond his years. Nothing seems to faze him and he just accepts the next challenge. To pull a final round like that out of the bag you need to have serious mental toughness and self-belief. I think his comments to me after his victory says a lot about his attitude. He said ‘I should have shot 59 but I don’t care, I won!’ I am going to have the fattest KFC!’”
Hill was “shy and slightly timid” when Chakravarty started working with him as part of the MENA Tour’s self-promoted “Three Musketeers” alongside Bishop and Gupta. “But you can easily sense his confidence once he opens up to you,” says the MENA Tour’s media man.
Hill did just that after his final round 62 at AESGC. “Josh was clearly upset he let go a chance of becoming the first player on the MENA Tour to shoot in the 50s after missing a few chances on the back nine. He just has an insatiable urge to get better,” says Chakravarty.
“During that third round in Al Ain, his playing partner Gustaf Kocken asked him how long he was [off the tee] for a 15-year-old. Josh’s reply was very matter of fact: ‘I am one of the longest 15-year-old in the world.’ He was also asked on Dubai Eye the day after about his long-term plan. Pat came the answer: ‘Win majors’. There was not an iota of boastfulness or dreaminess of a teenager in those two statements. They were delivered with utmost conviction.”
Once more, Marshall can only concur.
He understands the importance of ticking the education boxes which shows how well-rounded, well-grounded and mature the young lad is.
– Joe Marshall
“We have loved watching Josh evolve as a person over the last two to three years at CH3. He was very quiet and reserved at first but has a cracking personality now. If you are around him you can expect a few cheeky comments and remarks, all harmless of course. He even passed comment on my swing during our most recent knock around Trump – it actually helped too.
“We can have a laugh and a joke but he also knows when I am being serious and when I am laying down my thoughts of what needs to be done. He definitely likes it when I give my straight to the point, no-nonsense Yorkshire advice for him to go away and work on.”
And work Hill does. Tirelessly. It’s not that the work ethic is anything extraordinary on the high-quality production line that is the CH3 range at The Els Club but Hill does now face a challenge like few others.
“I will be honest here and say we are all looking forward to how he deals with the added pressure now,” Marshall said. “There is no point hiding from the fact that pressure comes with this kind of achievement. Expectations rise and they have to be dealt with.”
So far, so good. Like any shy teen, Hill struggled to truly articulate the enormity of his achievement in the immediate aftermath but gave the impression he’ll figure it all out in his own quietly confident way.
“It means a lot. Youngest winner on the MENA Tour, very special. A pro win [as an amateur] which is pretty nice and …I don’t know to be honest,” said Hill before another pause to take it all in. “I’ve not really reflected on it because I’ve still got two more events to go and it will be better to reflect on the season after that. It’s about not getting too big headed and trying to finish the season strong.”