For everyone, the last year has been one like no other. In a golfing sense, that has been especially true for Joe Long.
It’s nearing 12 months since Long savoured success on home soil to win The 125th Amateur Championship at Royal Birkdale, after the Englishman defeated compatriot Joe Harvey in an exciting 36-hole final. There were no fans to witness his triumph in the COVID-19 era and the global pandemic then prevented a good friend caddying for him at the Masters Tournament, but, overall, the last year has been one of the most memorable of his young life.
“It’s been really good to be Amateur Champion,” said the 23-year-old from Bristol. “It was a massive achievement, but I wanted to make sure I still stayed grounded, kept practicing and trying to improve. It’s been amazing, given me such a good opportunity and a great platform, but it’s not stopped me trying to improve myself.”
The Amateur victory featured in a 2020 season that saw Long achieve top ten finishes in the Brabazon Trophy and leading events in South Africa. Now ranked 35th on the World Amateur Golf Ranking®, he has the Walker Cup as part of an eight-strong England contingent to look forward to at Seminole next month. Then, after playing in The Open at Royal St George’s in the summer, he plans to turn professional later in the year. There is much to look forward to, but he is equally content to look back and take in what he has experienced.
“It’s been a tough year, of course tournaments have been cancelled everywhere, but I had events last summer and I managed to get a few European Tour starts at the end of last year in South Africa (the Joburg Open and the Alfred Dunhill Championship) after winning The Amateur,” said Long. “They were great experiences on the big stage. I missed both cuts, but we had just come out of semi- lockdown in the UK and I hadn’t competed since The Amateur. It’s been exciting to have a run of events for the year, it’s been pretty amazing.”
With his girlfriend, Tash, living in South Africa, Long based himself there over the winter and utilised the facilities at Erinvale Golf Club as he counted down the days to his date with Augusta National, with The Amateur Champion, by tradition, earning an invitation to the first men’s Major of the year.
“Before The Amateur Final last June, Joe and I stayed in the same house for the night and it was mentioned that one of us would be playing in the Masters and The Open,” he recalls. “When I won it, it was like ‘wow’. But it still didn’t feel real until I arrived and had practice rounds at Augusta.”
A torn muscle in his left glute from a first-ever surfing trip in Cape Town caused concern six weeks before his trip up Magnolia Drive, while his friend, Lex Aragon, a fireman was unable to accompany him on the dream visit after picking up COVID-19. What followed, however, was full of joy.
“Augusta was awesome,” he said. “Prior to the Masters, I played four practice rounds there and I worked with a local caddie. They had just opened up the tournament range for me when I got there. I had the whole facility to myself, the practice area, the putting green, it was quite surreal.”
While Long’s main experience of the famed course was via PlayStation games, he knows the rich history of the venue, reading Sam Snead’s book ‘The Education of a Golfer’, and is fully aware of the talented amateurs who have graced the tournament previously. Eight eventual Masters champions have lodged in the clubhouse Crow’s Nest when they competed as amateurs.
“I stayed in the Crow’s Nest on the Sunday night, which was a really special moment for sure, knowing about its history and the amateur guys that have stayed there is pretty remarkable,” he said. “The amateur dinner on the Wednesday night was special too.”
With his dad, Ian, savouring the surroundings too and well-wishers from his home club, Lansdown in Bath, sending messages of support, Long’s week began in the company of famous faces.
Memories to treasure
He recalls, “On the Monday, I played with Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia and Carlos Ortiz, which was amazing. Sergio was super friendly, giving me tips around the greens, which were so firm and fast, and sharing his stories. It was one of the most special parts of the week, standing on the 12th, hearing stories about Seve (Ballesteros) from him – that was a pinch yourself moment. The next day I was out with Lee Westwood, Matt Wallace and Danny Willett, which was great to pick their brains, and then Shane Lowry and Brooks Koepka on the Wednesday. That was crazy, they were both friendly too. Brooks’ main advice to me was ‘bogeys are fine’. I remember being on the 12th, in a bunker on the downslope at the back of the green, and he said ‘if you have a lie like that just hit it into the front bunker, don’t go at the pin as bogeys are fine’. The build-up to the event was great.”
Playing nine holes each day in practice in hot conditions on a course renowned for its undulations, Long was pleased with his preparations. If his opening round of 82 was a disappointment, he responded with a level-par 72 (including three birdies in-a-row from the 13th), thanks to his best-ever driving display, for a ten-over-par total.
“It’s one of those places you can have all the information in the world, a good game plan, but things can change quite quickly round there,” he admitted. Drawn with Bernhard Langer, the two-time Masters Champion, and debutant Will Zalatoris, who produced an impressive display to finish runner-up behind Hideki Matsuyama, Long will cherish the memories.
“In a way, I had a connection to Langer through the late Gordon Brand Jnr,” he explained. “He was a good friend of mine and helped the Gloucestershire kids growing up. He knew Langer and played on Tour with him. In fact, Langer’s caddy for the week, Terry, actually caddied for Gordon and they won on Tour a few times. Bernhard was very focused, and the same for Will. It’s one of the biggest weeks of the year and you can sense that – they were feeling nerves too. They are normal people, just very good at golf. It was a cool draw and it was nice to walk the fairways with them.”
Walker Cup countdown
Long will now take those experiences to Seminole for the Walker Cup, often regarded as the pinnacle of an amateur’s career. “We’ve got a great side, a lot of the guys are out there competing in college events which is good,” said Long, who also contested the Georgia Cup in March, losing out to Tyler Strafaci in the annual match between the US Amateur and Amateur Champions. “It’s going to be a good challenge, the team morale is good and we will go there and back each other. We just have to go out and play, enjoy it and I think we’ve got a good chance. Anything can happen in matchplay. It’s exciting to play in a team event, it’s quite rare to do that as a golfer.”
— The R&A (@RandA) April 6, 2021The US Open at Torrey Pines and then Royal St George’s in July will follow, again by virtue of his Amateur triumph. Will he use his new professional contacts, such as Lowry – the Champion Golfer of the Year – to arrange some practice rounds?
“Hopefully!” he said. “I played there around five years ago, so I do remember some of the holes but not that clearly. When I come back from the Walker Cup, I’ll try and play it and get some knowledge again. Fingers crossed, it would be nice to play in front of a home crowd and have my family come and watch me. I’ve played in a Major now and hopefully I can use that experience in July.” Long’s story continues.