I'm not a big fan of interviews or talking about myself, so here's my story so you know.. ;)
All the best stories start in 1992
Be aware, my humor is super dry
On my parents’ return from a holiday in 1997, they took me, my sister and brother to a local golf course, Witbos Golf Club. Together with my siblings, I spent Summer after Summer practicing, having fun and, most importantly, fishing golf balls out of the 5th hole water hazard to sell to fellow members. The golf club was our second home, and soon became the stage for some good old-fashioned sibling rivalry.
While I still enjoyed basketball and soccer, at the age of 14, I decided to focus on golf and enroll in the VVG Topsportschool. This was a great place for me to combine studies and competing in international golf events. Around the age of 15 I went through a large growth spurt and battled some knee issues that required me to persevere. I always made it a point to be an extremely hard worker and believed this was the only way to realise my potential.
When my then-coach Bart Bollen was asked about my talent, he said: “He’s 40% talent and 60% hard work”. To this day, this is probably the biggest compliment I have received. My hard work began to pay off, and by the time I finished high school, I was one of the top junior players in Europe.
In the Summer of 2010, I was recruited to play collegiate golf at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (USA), coached by former PGA Tour player Mike Small.
I had a difficult time adjusting to life in America during my first semester (I realised that my English, learnt primarily at school and from the sitcom ‘Friends’ wasn’t good enough) and was extremely homesick. In fact, during the winter break I almost decided not to return to college at all.
After some convincing from my parents and teammates I decided to return to Illinois, and I am so glad I did.
My sophomore and junior seasons in Champaign were crucial for my development as a golfer and person. While in college, I won three individual titles including the 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club just outside of Los Angeles, California.
Our team also enjoyed success; winning 13 times, including the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Big Ten Championships and the 2013 NCAA Fayetteville Regional. Our team results were highlighted by an NCAA Runner-Up finish in 2013. I was also named two-time All American and was the first Belgian ever to compete in the Palmer Cup, where I represented the victorious European Team in the 2012 edition.
While I decided to forgo my senior year and turn professional, I still speak with Coach Small and my teammates often. I’m proud to be an Illini for life.
I made my professional debut in July 2013 at the prestigious Open de France, comfortably making the cut and finishing top 30.
During that Summer I played seven more events in preparation of Q-school. I managed to advance through all three stages (together with only five others out of 968 players) and earn my Tour card for 2014. This was a gruelling and pressure-packed experience that required a lot of mental toughness. Battling sickness in the final stage, made this victory even sweeter. My amazing family flew in for the final weekend to be with me, support me and afterwards celebrate this achievement. What an unforgettable week that was.
Adjusting to life on the European Tour was difficult at first. The worldwide travel took a lot out of me both mentally and physically, and I felt overwhelmed as I was not performing as well as I had hoped.
Mentally, the turning point came at the fifth hole of the second round at the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur. I was five over for the tournament when my caddie turned around and said, “Stop this sh*t! Let’s play these next 13 holes seven under!”
It’s hard to explain but something clicked and I did what he said. I ended up playing 14 under for the following 50 holes, finishing tied eighth and all of a sudden I had my first top-ten on Tour. A couple of weeks later, I was back at the scene of my Q-School graduation at PGA Catalunya, and I just lost out to the legend that is Miguel Angel Jiménez in a play-off at the Open de España. I had another three further top-ten finishes later in the season and that helped me comfortably keep my European Tour card for another year.
I started the year off well in 2015, finishing fourth at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and feeling like my game was in decent shape.
After overcoming the tragic loss of my beloved grandfather in July, I managed to secure my first two professional wins back-to-back at the Czech Masters and KLM Open. It all happened pretty quickly but it was an incredible feeling and the memories I have from that time will stay with me forever.
As most people know, good form pays off and as a result of my recent victories, I broke into the Top 100 of the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time in my career.
We are back in the Middle East to kick start my 2016 Race to Dubai campaign and it got off to a flyer when I finished second to Rickie Fowler in Abu Dhabi. I played events here and there with some decent results but I always had my eye on the Rio Olympics. I can’t describe how proud I was to represent my country and showcase golf to a whole new audience back in Belgium and around the world. I narrowly missed out on a medal finishing fourth behind Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar, which to this day is still the biggest disappointment in my career but it was also the most incredible and unique experience, and I can’t wait to represent my country again in the future.
After the Olympics, I flew straight into Prague and finished second at the D+D REAL Czech Masters, following that up with a win at the Made in Denmark shooting 65 on Sunday for my third European Tour victory. It was the final qualifying event for The 2016 Ryder Cup and it gave European Captain Darren Clarke a few more things to think about before he named his three wildcard picks a couple of days later.
I’ll never forget the day he called. I tried to keep my voice calm and steady, but my body was totally freaking out. After that phone call, I had to lay down outside on the grass. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, it was an amazing moment of pure disbelief and joy. I was going to be a Ryder Cup rookie at Hazeltine National.
Despite losing my first match, Darren decided to draft me in for all the other games. Playing with Rory was a little lucky because we hadn’t been paired together in practice. He definitely inspired me and brought me out of my shell to help me become the first European rookie in history to win four Ryder Cup points. It was the coolest experience ever – but next time, I’d like to be on the winning team.
Having finished just inside the World Top 50 at the end of 2016, I knew I was in for a special treat. I still remember receiving the official invitation for my first Masters ever in the post. It was the day before Christmas and it was by far the best present anyone could give me.
Finishing second at the Genesis Open pretty much secured my 2017 PGA Tour card and that spring I mainly played in the US. I was happy with tied fifth at the WGC in Mexico City and tied fourth in my first appearance at Augusta National for The Masters, so it made for a pretty good spring season and it helped me finish the year ranked 20th in the Race to Dubai.
I was excited to start my 2018 season knowing that it would be the year the old ‘Belgian Open’ would return as the ‘‘Belgian Knockout’. My family embraced the European Tour’s knack for innovative thinking and brought the event back to the Tour under a new format. Knowing my family were responsible for bringing this tournament to life, I felt positive and confident for the season ahead.
After a top ten finish in Abu Dhabi, I was struggling with my game. BKO made its debut in my hometown of Antwerp and even though it wasn’t necessarily a success for me as a player golfwise, the unbelievable job my family did to deliver the entire event made me so proud of everything they had achieved, not only that week, but in the years of planning that goes with hosting an international golf tournament.
In the middle of the season I started to get my game back in shape even though my back was actually in pretty bad shape. Eventually the doctor found a stress fracture on my rib on Monday prior to the The Open at Carnoustie. Fortunately, the doctors gave me green light to finish my season and on painkillers, I managed to play that Major.
After a proper rest period, the last stretch of the season went up and down and ended in the best possible fashion. Partnered with my long-time friend, well he is kind of like a little brother to me, myself and Thomas Detry won the World Cup of Golf in Melbourne. We played so well together in Australia and it was a magical feeling to win a tournament with one of my best friends while representing TEAM BELGIUM!
To be continued…