Austin Bautista didn’t tell anyone that he was walking away from golf in the early months of 2018.
He didn’t want to have to answer the same question over and over again: Why?
The 2016 NSW Amateur champion was regarded as one of Australia’s brightest young talents. He made an immediate impression after turning professional in 2017, registering pro-am wins at Griffith and Belmont, a tie for 12th at the Nexus Risk WA Open and a top-25 at the Asian Tour’s Indonesia Open.
Early the following year he was tied for the lead after the opening round of the 2018 Rebel Sport NZ Masters before finishing tied for 11th… and then he walked away.
Bautista would spend the next two years volunteering with humanitarian aid organisations Foundation for a Drug-Free World and The Way to Happiness Foundation in places such as Papua New Guinea, China, Japan, Thailand and war-torn Israel.
“I was watching from a distance, seeing third world countries that perhaps weren’t doing so well and I wanted to help,” Bautista recalled ahead of this week’s Canary Islands Championship, his fourth start on the European Tour.
“I can’t just be a professional golfer my whole life and not do anything for humanity.
“Israel was pretty scary, just because there are a lot of bombs that go off there.
“The person who was there doing the same thing I was doing had a bomb threat the week prior. A bomb had been thrown into the lobby and everyone was immediately in the bunker.
“That was a bit nerve-racking when I arrived a week later and they told me what had happened.”
In those two years of aid work he lost his regular spot in the Saturday comp with his mates at Bonnie Doon Golf Club in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and barely spoke to his father, the man who had fostered his obvious talent into what looked like a blossoming career as a professional golfer.
“When I came back to golf in early 2020 there were a lot of people that were upset with me, wondering where I was and what I was doing,” the 24-year-old revealed.
“I was the No.1 amateur in Australia at a point and looking at a very big career so I didn’t want to be swayed with my decision. I cut all social media ties, didn’t really speak to anyone, just went on my way and did my work.”
It didn’t take long after picking up the clubs again at the start of 2020 that Bautista began to make good on the promise he’d shown as an amateur.
After resuscitating a rusty short game and a brief battle with the shanks Bautista shot 63 in the second round of the Coca-Cola Queensland PGA Championship in his first tournament back only for the world to go into a pandemic-induced lockdown.
Recognising the need to return to America if he was going to play tournament golf in 2020, Bautista once again defied conventional thinking and left Australia hopeful of a friendly reception at the other end.
“The guy at border control when I got to America was really friendly and let me through,” said Bautista.
“Once golf opened up again there it was smooth sailing and I was ready to roll.”
The resumption of the mini tours gave Bautista his competitive outlet and after one missed cut to start he went on a tear, winning four times, Monday qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour’s Wichita Open and earning conditional status for the 2021 Mackenzie Tour in Canada (now the Forme Tour).
With Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm on their books, Sportfive (formerly Lagedere Sports) saw potential in Bautista and signed him to their management company, immediately looking for opportunities to expose him to a higher grade of competition.
“There was my own pressure of wanting to play well but I definitely knew that if I wanted to get more starts in future I had to play well in my first start, otherwise they might not look at me again,” Bautista said of his European Tour debut in last December’s South African Open.
“I was 4-under through 27 holes and like seven shots inside the cut but I didn’t know that and I was thinking, Is it possible to miss the cut?”
He qualified for the weekend that week and proved to his management team – and himself – that their belief was well founded with a top-10 finish at last month’s Austrian Open.
“Austria was bitter-sweet,” admitted Bautista, one of four Aussies in the field for the Canary Islands Championship.
“It’s seventh place, my best finish in a big tournament like that and the biggest single cheque I’d ever earned but one shot was a €17,000 difference. I had a putt for birdie on the last but I also knew I needed par to finish top 10 and earn a start the following week.
“It’s propelled me into an area that I now believe I can compete in. You put me on the European Tour and I finish top-10, I’m up there with these guys. I’m not just winning mini tour events.”
Bautista’s goals for his golf career are as big as they come: “In two years’ time I want to be top-10 in the world, competing in majors, having won PGA TOUR events.”
He doesn’t have a coach as such, instead holding onto a golden piece of advice once given to him by PGA of Australia Immortal Alex Mercer.
“He gave me the greatest golf lesson I’ve ever received,” said Bautista. “He changed my grip a little bit and said, ‘You’ve got the mechanics to play well, all you need to do is play more.’”
Taking two years off may not have been part of the original plan but Bautista has no doubt that the mindset shift brought about by his aid work will provide the foundation for any success he has in the future.
“Early on I felt like I should have been given everything. I thought I deserved a lot more than I did,” Bautista admitted of his formative years in the game.
“I’d play good in some amateur events but when I played bad I had a bad attitude and would throw clubs and stuff like that.
“Coming back now, as a golfer I’m more mature and more at ease with failure because a lot worse can happen than not hitting the best golf shot at the very moment that you want to hit it.
“Each day when I have an early morning tee time I catch myself looking at the sun coming up and excited to be out on the course.
“It’s definitely a different feeling to before.
“I’m just so happy to be out there playing.”