Harrison Gilbert would’ve loved to play collegiate golf in the United States but never quite reached the amateur heights that warrant scholarships to the ultimate finishing school for aspiring professionals.
Still, once he graduated Monash University in hometown Melbourne with an International Business degree, the intention was always to pursue the touring life. Then a pandemic went and put everything and just about everyone on ice.
Suddenly the pathway to the pro game, let alone the big time, was blocked at every turn and the 23-year-old Victorian had to hurry up and wait to pursue his dream.
The frustration finally ended when the Asian Development Tour (ADT) and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Tour announced in mid-April the Beautiful Thailand Swing. The four, quickfire 54-hole events in Phuket promised a combined US$300,000 in prizemoney and OWGR status and, even more importantly for Gilbert, an opening.
“I had the Beautiful Thailand Swing come up and essentially I couldn’t say no,” said Gilbert who paid his dues to become a MENA Tour member.
“I really didn’t have a better opportunity coming down the line so I thought, why not, let’s just make the turn to become professional and try and make a name for myself out in a worldwide tour.”
Fast-forward to Phuket and the kid from fabled Royal Melbourne is learning the nuisances, many of them uncontrollable, of his new job on the fly.
“It was a whirlwind experience I’ll put it that way,” Gilbert says of his pro debut in the $75,000 Laguna Phuket Challenge which ended last Thursday.
“I was so nervous, my first tee shot, I was shaking, I was just really trying to get it down there in play.”
It turns out Gilbert, teeing off on the 9th, managed only two shots before a weather warning at Laguna Golf Phuket sent the players scurrying for the clubhouse. When he got back out an hour later he made it no further than the 10th green before an additional 2½ hour delay.
“So I’d played two holes in just about 3½ hours of golf so that was not exactly nerve settling.”
Gilbert was one of those forced to come back the next morning to complete his first round and he admits his eventual five-over 75 was the result of inexperience. “I just wasn’t focused.”
With just a 25 minute turnaround till his second round, Gilbert gave himself a silent talking too and “it’s safe to say I turned it on.”
He eagled the 9th to turn in 29 strokes and got it to eight-under for his round only for a flier lie on the 17th to send a 9-iron hurtling 206 metres into trouble before a plugged lie in a greenside bunker on the last meant he had to settle for a 65. It all added up to a maiden missed cut…by one, agonising stroke.
“I’ve learnt that amateur golf and professional golf is just a stark contrast,” Gilbert said. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to be a professional but it is another thing to come out here and try and shoot good scores.
“You just have to be patient, like you just have to execute good shots under pressure. You might think that a six-footer in round one doesn’t mean too much but if it’s the difference between making the cut or missing the cut… every shot does count at the end of the day.
“That’s my main takeaway and honestly just to enjoy myself because those first two rounds, I was just so stressed thinking about making the cut.”
After a topsy-turvy and ultimately even-par 70, Gilbert looks a good chance to make his first pro-cut in the Laguna Phuket Cup which started in typically tropical conditions back at Laguna Golf Phuket on Sunday.
He got it to two-under with a birdie on 14 but was left unsettled when his Thai caddy collapsed on the next hole, a suspected bite “of some kind” leaving the Aussie rookie to push his trundler for the three final, steamy holes. A bogey-double bogey reverse followed although he regained some momentum with a long birdie putt on the 18th.
“From these first four tournaments, the Beautiful Thailand Swing, firstly I just want to get the crux of professional golf,” he said afterwards.
“Obviously the dream is to be that No.1 golfer in the world. I really would like to make a real name for myself because obviously everyone has Tiger as the idol. I’m not going to stand here and say I’m going to be Tiger Woods that is for sure but I really just want to make a name for myself and really prove to myself that I am as good as I think I am.”
For now, it’s tentative Thailand steps toward the ultimate goal that is the Asian Tour.
“Obviously coming from Australia it’s a long way to get over to Europe and the PGA Tour so the Asian Tour is definitely a dream and would love to be there.
“I’ve got a few friends on that tour, Will Heffernan and Travis Smyth, and really it’s just taking it one step at a time. It would be a dream to get there but I’ve got to achieve those short term objectives to try and reach those long term goals.”
Patience. Resilience. Executing under pressure. Turning stress into fun. Gilbert is learning is craft in Phuket and for that opportunity, he’ll be forever grateful to the MENA and ADT.
[IMAGE: MENA Tour]