Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mark Hillson faces hard route on road to turning pro

Former Lothians champion Mark Hillson heads for Spain this weekend still an amateur but has his sights set on returning early next month as a new recruit to the professional ranks.
The Craigielaw player is among a host of local golfers taking part in the second stage of the European Tour Qualifying School, which is being held at four venues in southern Spain starting next Friday. Hillson passed stage one with flying colours – he shot rounds of 75, 72, 71 and 72 to progress at Dundonald Links in mid-September – and is relishing what will be his second appearance in the middle of three phases in a marathon test.
While it's been more than a month since he struck a ball in anger, the 26-year-old has been working hard with coach Ian Butcher, the man who has played a key part in Hillson's emergence as one of Scotland's leading amateurs over the past couple of years.
"It's obviously not ideal when you can't get any competitive golf when you are preparing for something as important as the Tour School, but I've been practising a lot over the past few weeks and also trying to fit in as many games as I could," said Hillson.
"For instance, one of my brothers is now living in London and during a visit to see him the other weekend I played at Sunningdale, which was lovely. I am preparing for a massive event and I have got to make sure that everything is sharp for the test that lies ahead over the next two or three weeks.
"While progressing past stage two will be hard enough, an even tougher test follows that. The final stage is over six rounds in Girona virtually straight afterwards. At the second stage last year, I finished the four rounds on four-over. Two-under was the cut, which means I have to try and be two shots better in each round this time," added Hillson, who is playing at Hacienda del Alamo near Murcia.
"I don't want to be in a position where I am scraping through. I want to be heading to the final stage with a bit of momentum."Last year was my first experience of being at such an event and, to be honest, when I was on the practice range I was half-listening to hear how I was striking my own golf ball but also half-listening to the former European Tour player who was standing behind me."
While Hillson, who beat James Ross in the final at Bruntsfield Links to claim the Lothians title in 2007, believes he has a chance of securing one of those prized Tour cards, he'll be staying as an amateur if his bid falls short again.
"As they say, you'll never know about something until you give it a shot – and this is my big shot right here," he said."This is plan A and plan B doesn't include turning pro and playing on somewhere like the EuroPro Tour as I don't see my future there.
"If I come back from Spain without a card, I will be staying amateur for another year, probably try again for the Tour School at the end of the season and, after that, I will probably have to start looking for a job in the real world. If I am still an amateur next year, trying to get into the Scotland side will be a massive goal.
"This year, after starting well out in New Zealand, where I was second in an event, and then getting to the quarter-finals in the Amateur Championship at Formby, it was disappointing that I didn't perform at the right time as far as getting into the Scotland side was concerned."
Butcher, who is based at King's Acre, has certainly helped Hillson come on leaps and bounds since they first crossed paths around five years ago.
"I was in my second year at uni and I was playing off two at the time," recalled Hillson."If someone had told me I'd be where I am now, I'd have thought it was a bit far-fetched, to be honest.
"But, thanks to the work I've done with Butch, who is a bit of a perfectionist, I'm feeling confident about my game and now I really do believe I can kick on once I get over to Spain."
Lee Harper, the former Scottish Boys' champion from Musselburgh who plays out of Archerfield Links, is also at Hacienda del Alamo for the second stage, while Raymond Russell, the European Tour winner from Prestonpans, is at Jerez along with Marriott Dalmahoy's Mark Kerr and Elliot Saltman (Archerfield Links).



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