In this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Sami Välimäki reflects on his Rookie year and getting ready for his Major debut at Winged Foot Golf Club
The U.S. Open this week is my first Major, but also my first tournament in America. It feels a lot bigger, and it’s a really different atmosphere to the European Tour because there’s a lot more people around the golf course than what we’ve had with media and volunteers. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I thought the big difference for me would be the spectators, because I haven’t played in front of crowds a lot of times before, so I feel more comfortable than I thought I would.
I arrived here on Saturday with my caddie and my coach. It’s the first Major for my coach too, so it’s nice to have all three of us here to experience the week together.
Making it to a Major was a big goal of mine, but I didn’t think I was going to make it happen so soon. I was going to try to go to U.S. Open Qualifying and try to make it that way, or try to get into the PGA, but the virus made a big difference to those plans. When I started playing in the UK Swing it wasn’t even on my mind, but I played two really good weeks in Wales at the Celtic Classic and ISPS HANDA Wales Open to get in, so earning a place in the field for my first Major was a big bonus.
We’ve played the course a couple of times now. The rough is really long so you have to hit a lot of fairways to do well; the greens are fast and there’s a lot of those slopes , so you can use those in approach shots and pitching but you have to be careful. I think it’s a pretty fair course, it’s tough but you will get rewarded with good scores if you hit good shots.
I think playing at a difficult course like Valderrama before this week has really helped my mentality preparing for this tournament. That first day at Valderrama was really tough, I wasn’t mentally ready but after that I now feel ready to play in my first Major. It made me realise if I make one mistake it’s not the end of the tournament, so I can just keep smiling and still try to make birdies.
My game is getting better, I’m getting more confident, and I think it helps that I had a pretty good couple of weeks before this. It should be a good week, and my goal is just to have four really good rounds. I just want to try to have fun and play consistently.
Being a professional golfer was always the goal for me. My parents got me in to golf, and I had a couple of good friends in my home club that I grew up playing with. I started to get more competitive and play all over Finland, and then almost straight away I was trying to make it Europe playing junior events and team events and I played a lot of Nordic Golf League events as an amateur, which really helped me turn pro.
I’m very pleased with my scoring and my game in my rookie year on the European Tour. I only turned professional at the start of 2019, and I started out playing on the Pro Golf Tour (PGT). I won three times in a row at the end of the year, which gave me a lot of confidence going into Q-School.
I didn’t expect to win so quickly. I had one goal at the start of the year, to win one tournament and have a good category for the next year. It was a great feeling to win that fast, and to do it the way that I did with a great fightback on the back nine in Oman, holing that putt and especially to win in the play-off. It was a great memory for me.
That was my sixth event, then I played Qatar, and then the Tour stopped because of COVID-19. I found those first couple of weeks really tough because we didn’t know how long it was going to take to get back playing, but I was lucky because the golf courses didn’t close in Finland so I could still practice and play.
If I wasn’t golfing I spent a lot of my time off fishing, which is a big passion of mine. I had a couple of good friends who started doing it two years ago and I went with them, and I really loved it. It helps me to relax, and I love just being in nature and outside of the cities. It’s not easy to do on Tour so it was nice to have time to do it because I only do it when I’m home.
It was tough for me when the Tour restarted because I thought that I was ready, but I wasn’t. My ball striking wasn’t ready and I knew where I needed to be better to get back confidence. After I missed a few cuts in a row I went home for two weeks, and had a couple of good practices with my coach. Ball striking is a big thing for me, so when I started getting a good feeling with that again I felt ready for the tournaments in Wales.
I think that ball striking, and my putting, have been the keys to this whole season for me – and my putting especially when I won in Oman. I think it’s something that can help me at the U.S. Open this week too, because I think there are going to be a lot of ten-footers to make pars and birdies.
My identity is a big thing for me, as a golfer from Finland. I want to be successful. It’s been a big year for golf in Finland, especially with COVID-19, because golf has become so popular. For me it’s been really good timing, because I get a lot of support from the Finnish fans, everyone gets pumped up when Finnish players are playing well so that has helped a lot.
Everyone is really supportive back home, especially from my home golf club in Nokia where I grew up. When I won we had a couple of parties, it’s really good and I love it there. I also just started a new partnership this week with Nokian Tyres, so it’s nice to have that support from a local company at the U.S. Open.
Mikko Illonen has been such a big mentor to me and other golfers in Finland. He was the first guy to really make it as a professional, and he showed us how to do it. Now there are a lot more of us. He is really involved nowadays in Finnish golf and helped me a lot when I was coming out on Tour. I’ve played with him many times and we’ve had a couple of chats about things. He always tells me just to keep playing my own game and do what I think is best for me.
For the future, I have a lot of big goals. I want to be the best. Right now, I’m just trying to make it as fast as I can into the Top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking so I can get into more Majors and big tournaments. I also really enjoyed playing in team events as an amateur, so the Ryder Cup is a big goal for me. I want to be there somehow, to be the first Finn to play on team Europe would be awesome.