Foursomes partners at Royal County Down in the 2007 Walker Cup matches, fellow Northern Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Jonathan Caldwell both turned professional not long after playing their parts in Great Britain & Ireland’s one-point loss to the United States. And in the 13 years since, they have made a cumulative 222 appearances on the European Tour, winning 14 times and earning €39,781,558 between them.
Unfortunately for Caldwell, the now 35-year old’s contribution to those numbers amounts to just 18 European Tour starts, only €46,903 in prize money and zero victories. As McIlroy has gone on to have the ‘can’t miss’ career his prodigious talent long made obvious, Caldwell has struggled. A lowly 243rd on the European Tour Order of Merit at the end of 2009, he lost his card. Since then and in near anonymity, he has plied his trade on the likes of the EuroPro (where he has won twice) and Challenge Tours. Search the European Tour website for his name and a trio of victories do show up. But all three came in different years at various stages of the qualifying school process. Which tells its own story of the professional existence Caldwell has endured.
“I think most people think professional golf is quite an attractive lifestyle, but when you’re playing on satellite tours and levels below the European Tour you’re doing a lot of flying on low-cost airlines, renting economy cars and staying in cheap hotel rooms,” says Caldwell, who is currently, statistically at least, the 575th best golfer on the planet. “It all adds up though, and it’s difficult to get sponsors. It’s okay when you’re playing well and making money, but if you’re missing cuts it’s all quite stressful.”
Still, life is at last looking up for the man who represents the Clandeboye club in his homeland. A 19th place finish at Qualifying School last November saw Caldwell make a long-awaited return to the European Tour, where he has safely made the cut in both of his two appearances so far this season.
Even better things might just be in prospect too. On ten-under par after consecutive 67s, Caldwell sits T-7 at the halfway mark of the ISPS Handa Vic Open. As well as the first-place cheque of €266,660, victory on Sunday evening brings with it a nearly two-year exemption on the European Tour. For someone who has been where Caldwell has been – never mind where he is now – that level of privilege represents something of a promised land.
“We are so well looked after on this tour,” he said with a smile. “I’m delighted to be back and even more delighted to be playing decently and in a position to have a chance over the next two days. That was the goal for the season. I’ve had lots of bad moments over the last ten years. But in this game you never know what your going to get with the next shot, never mind years down the line. I’m happy I persevered and hung in there. I always wanted another chance. Now I’ve got one. So it’s up to me to do better than I did last time.
“I came out here ten years ago fresh out of college in the States. I’d been pampered and looked after. So I went on tour not really knowing what to expect. It was like jumping in at the deep end for me. Looking back, I was just a little too young and immature. So I didn’t play well. I’m more mature and organised now. My game is better too. And I think that is showing.”
Which is not to say he is looking too far ahead. He might have made only one bogey in his first two rounds – at the 35th hole – but having seen the dark side of professional golf, Caldwell is happy – and savvy – enough to know he is merely taking a few steps into the light.
“I’ve been hitting it in the right places and missing in the right places too,” he continued. “When I have missed a fairway I’ve taken my medicine and played for the middle of the greens. Which is why I’ve found a lot of greens in regulation. It was disappointing to make a bogey on my 35th hole, but I’m happy enough. I’ll not be doing anything different over the weekend. It’s a case of picking my targets and trying to hit the ball there.”
Inevitably, there was mention of McIlroy. The long-ago sidekicks have not forgotten each other.
“I have never grown tired of hearing questions about Rory,” said Caldwell with a smile. “Any time I’m mentioned in the same sentence with him it has to be good. He’s a league above everybody – and he was back in 2007. He’s always had a fantastic mindset. He has gone on to do great things. We all knew he would do that. He’s the best player in the world. And he’ll be number-one again on Monday. Which is great. I hope to see him again on tour soon. I’d love to get a chance to play with him again.
Especially on the weekend. Anyone playing alongside him then has to be doing alright.
And Rory too, had kind words for his fellow Northern Irishman when news of his card-winning performance came through. Speaking at last November’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, the four-time major champion noticeably brightened when talking of Caldwell.
“I am just so happy for him – it’s brilliant,” said McIlroy. “He and I were on the tour not long after our Walker Cup, but it’s been a long ten-years for him to get back. I am delighted for him.”
All of which is nice to hear. Walker Cup players are clearly like penguins – partners for life.