In this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, St Andrews-based Laird Shepherd reflects on his early steps in the professional game after a successful amateur career, why he believes his game suits links courses and his remarkable comeback victory at the Amateur Championship last year.
It is brilliant to be able to play in back-to-back DP World Tour events in the UK, starting this week at the Cazoo Classic before the Hero Open at Fairmont St Andrews – the club I am attached to. Links is a style of golf that I am pretty comfortable with, and I am looking forward to testing myself this week at Hillside in Southport. I feel my experience of playing links golf courses growing up gives me an advantage over some of the field. But I am of course still in a phase of building competition experience week by week as I begin my professional career.
I have never played Hillside before, but I have played at Royal Birkdale, and I am familiar with the golf landscape on the Northwest coast. I am expecting the conditions to be firm and fast, so my strategy for the week is going to be a key part of my preparation before the first round gets underway on Thursday. I have only heard great things about Hillside and the challenge it will provide.
It will be a completely different style of golf to what I faced on my professional debut at the BMW International Open in Munich last month. That week was a rollercoaster of emotions. I ended my amateur career the weekend before at the U.S. Open and then flew straight to Germany. However, my golf clubs didn’t arrive, and I didn’t get to play a practice round either. Not the ideal preparation for your first event spending your Wednesday evening in a demo centre getting equipped. Despite all this I felt as if I played solidly but I missed the cut by one. I birdied my last hole in my second round and thought that would be good enough to reach the weekend, but it wasn’t to be.
It’s difficult to know exactly what your immediate goals should be when you first turn pro. Is it realistic to expect myself to win so early on? I am a competitor, and my objective is to try and win whatever tournament I am playing. I have stepped into one of the most competitive Tours in the world and there are a lot of talented players with the same goals, so I am fully aware that the transition from amateur to professional might not be smooth sailing.
Last year I won the Amateur Championship at Nairn. That earned me exemptions into last year’s Open Championship at Royal St Georges, along with the Masters Tournament and the U.S. Open this year. I was playing well last summer and there was a part of me that thought it would have been the ideal time to turn pro just after competing in The Open. But I didn’t want to forego the opportunity to play against the reigning United States Amateur in the Georgia Cup and miss out on The Masters and U.S. Open. I did feel as if I was waiting for months and months to play in these few events and that was tough psychologically. It’s easy to reflect with hindsight but I wish I could have performed better in the Majors. Now, it is about using those experiences and progressing my golf career.
My victory at the Amateur Championship last year was an example of momentum that nobody, including myself, could have imagined. The first stage of my comeback was just to accept the situation. I had my back against the wall, six down after 18 holes of the 36-hole final against Monty Scowsill. Despite a slow start to the second round, I kept believing even when I was four down with four to play. Despite the honour that title brings and the opportunities with it, I was more nervous making my professional debut in Munich last month than trying to overhaul that deficit.
I had seven months to prepare for The Masters which was a blessing and a curse. It felt as if it took for ages to come around. I went to Augusta National and played a few practice rounds at the start of the year. I was so nervous playing those first few holes, even if nothing was on the line. The history of the course is intimidating, and you can’t escape it despite nobody being there. The week of the tournament was incredible, the return of Tiger Woods and the coverage that generated made the experience all the more remarkable. It is pretty cool to be able to say I have played in the same golf tournament as Tiger, someone I grew up watching.
Due to the pandemic, I haven’t played a lot of competitions as an amateur so building that competitive sharpness in pro events on both the DP World Tour and Challenge Tour is my main focus. I intend to go to Qualifying School to try to earn my place on the DP World Tour for the 2023 season. If I can get a few top tens beforehand then all the better!
I’m friends with Craig Howie, who went to the University of Stirling like me, and Cormac Sharvin so seeing them make the step gave me the belief that I could compete when I did decide to turn pro. The next step after that is to win on Tour. I played briefly against Ewen Ferguson in the same amateur events, and he won his first title this season in Qatar. But for some of them it has taken several years to get to the point where they are a winner. It’s a balancing act between not expecting everything to come at once but also being determined to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided to me for the remainder of the season.
Being based in St Andrews, I was able to watch the 150th Open Championship at the Home of Golf. It was great to take it all in from a viewers’ perspective after playing last year at Royal St George’s. Watching the event unfold brought back memories of me playing last year. The Open is the pinnacle for a golfer. It is just the best feeling in the world having hundreds of thousands of fans watching you and the other players. It has only reinforced my determination to be back in the field at Royal Liverpool next year.
I come from a very sporty family. My twin brother Callum is a professional flat jockey. We both took part in a number of sports growing up, ranging from football to sailing. I started to play golf competitively when I was 13 years old but even at that stage, I didn’t have in my mind trying to make a career of it. It was not before I went to the University of Stirling and the high-performance environment there that I really began to make progress with my game. The biggest benefit of having a brother who is also involved in elite sport is seeing first-hand the challenges that it can provide, including how to deal with setbacks and criticism.
During the pandemic, I worked in a Tesco call centre. It took me completely out of my comfort zone and has proven to be a great benefit giving me greater perspective of the challenges some of the vulnerable members of public face and how we should all look to treat each other. It certainly challenged me but I’m very happy now to be going after my dream of being a golf professional.