Looking back over the debut season of Sami Välimäki – the 2020 recipient of the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award.
From turning professional to winning the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award in the span of under two years, Sami Välimäki has had a quick start to life as a professional golfer.
Following success as an amateur, the Finnish player turned pro while he was finishing up a five and a half month spell doing National Service at the start of 2019, where he was limited in the golf he was able to play.
“I was still in the army when I turned professional,” said Välimäki.
“I was there for five and a half months, and I realised I felt a lot more comfortable on the golf course than in the army, so I thought maybe now is the time to try to become a professional, and I declared it while I was there."
He went on to compete in the Pro Golf Tour – where he won four times – and then came through the Final Stage of Qualifying School to earn his card and his rookie season on the European Tour.
The 22-year-old’s first season comprised seven top ten finishes, including his victory in Oman, a runner-up finish in Wales and a top five in the season finale, which helped him finish 11th in the Race to Dubai Rankings presented by Rolex.
Here's how that season unfolded.
Starting out on Tour
Välimäki had only played in one European Tour event prior to earning his card, and made his season debut at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December 2019 with rounds of 77 and 76.
He then made his first cuts in his next two events- the Australian PGA Championship and South African Open - and admitted that it was during those first three events that he learned a really big lesson about playing on the European Tour.
“It took me two or three events to learn that the biggest key to being out here is playing your own game," he said.
"It’s really tough to do that when you start on Tour, because the first time you play somewhere you’re going to look up to the guys and look at what they are going to do. You might think that you should hit the 3 wood from the tee but all the guys are hitting driver so you then think you also need to hit driver, but if it doesn’t suit you have to trust your own style, and just hit the 3 wood."
It was a valuable lesson, and in Välimäki's next event he recorded his first top 10 of the season at the ISPS Handa Vic Open in February.
A maiden victory in just his sixth start
He returned a few weeks later for his sixth start on Tour in Oman, where he opened with a disappointing 74. He moved back into contention with a 67 on Friday, and the turning point was a stunning 64 on Saturday which ensured Välimäki would enter the final round in a six way tie for the lead.
“That eight under on Saturday in Oman was probably the best round I played all season, because it gave me a good chance to play for the win on Sunday” he said.
“I played really really good golf that day, and I think it could have been even lower.”
Both he and Brandon Stone held their own throughout the final day, but it was Frenchman Adrien Saddier who initially set the clubhouse target at 12 under. Stone had then celebrated wildly as he holed a 20 footer on the last to get to 13 under but drama followed as Välimäki holed from similar range for his own closing gain and a round of 70 to take the contest to extra holes.
The duo halved the 18th in pars twice but when Stone sent his second shot crashing into the stand on the third trip and failed to get up and down, a par was enough to hand Välimäki victory.
“I didn’t expect to win so quickly,” he wrote in his Player Blog earlier this year.
“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.”
Returning after the break
When Sami initially returned following the four-month break in the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic he missed his first three cuts in a row, and had admitted in his blog that he 'thought that I was ready, but I wasn't".
He went home for two weeks to practice with his coach, and started to get a good feeling about his ball-striking again before he teed up for the two back-to-back events in Wales. He finished in a tie for sixth at the Celtic Classic, and almost won his second Tour title with a runner-up finish during the ISPS HANDA Wales Open, before following it with his third top 10 in a row during his next event in Valderrama.
“I thought I had a really good chance in Wales, in both events, and it was the same thing in Valderrama. I had a really good chance in Valderrama, but just couldn’t finish on the back nine there."
Earning his way into his first Major Championship field through his runner-up finish in the inaugural UK Swing, Välimäki made his way to Winged Foot Golf Club for the 2020 U.S. Open.
"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." he wrote in his blog. "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."
It turned out to be a tough week, but a good learning experience.
“Winged Foot was really special," he said. "It was really tough, I didn’t play well so it was hard to say it was a good week but I think I learnt a lot from that week and I’ll be better next time.
“I learnt that I need to be more ready, and maybe need to think a little bit outside of the box. I made it harder for myself mentally I think, so next time if I hit bad shots I know that I can be a little easier on myself.".
A consistent end to the season
It wasn't until the final few events of the year that Välimäki considered he could have a chance to win the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award, and it was in those events he produced his most consistent spell of golf.
"I thought if I play good in the last couple of events I might have a chance to win, and it kept me motivated," he said. "It wasn't my main goal at the start of the year, but it had really been on my mind for the last few events of the season."
A tie for 13th at the BMW PGA Championship was soon followed by a top 10 at the Aphrodite Hills Cyprus Open, and a tie for 18th at the Aphrodite Hills Cyprus Showdown. In the penultimate event of the season, the Golf in Dubai Championship, Välimäki ended the week tied for 13th - which put him in 18th place in the Race to Dubai Rankings ahead of the season's final event.
Impressing at the Season finale
With the race for the Rookie of the Year award coming to a head at the final event of the season, Välimäki was in need of a strong finish to beat out fellow challengers Rasmus Højgaard and Collin Morikawa to the award.
He impressed from the beginning, carding an opening round 69 that included a hole-out eagle on the par five 18th.
“On that first day, on the 18th hole, was probably the best shot I hit all year," he said.
"I hit an eight iron from 142 metres, and it was straight down the line of the flag. I saw it bounce twice, and we had a small crowd of people behind the 18th green and they started screaming ‘go in, go in’, and then we heard the cheer. It was a really nice feeling.”
The 22-year-old added three more rounds of 69 to finish the week in fifth place, three shots behind DP World Tour Championship winner Matthew Fitzpatrick, to move up in to 11th place in the final Race to Dubai standings.
“I really liked the course," he said, admitting that finishing well in the final event of the season has given him a big boost in confidence.
"My my own game was really solid too, and to know that I can play well in the biggest competitions against some of the world's best players is a big boost for my confidence."
Finland's first Rookie of the Year
Despite his strong end to the season and a high finish in the Race to Dubai, a different set of circumstances surrounding selection for the 2020 Rookie of the Year award meant Välimäki left Dubai unsure whether he had done enough to win this year's crown.
"It was a really hard choice, and I know they had Collin and Rasmus to choose from too, so I wasn't sure who they were going to pick - I was just hoping they would choose me."
Chosen by a committee, Välimäki found out he had won this year's award while flying back to Finland.
"We flew out of Dubai at 1am and I think I found out in either Frankfurt or Helsinki airport. It's a really good feeling to win, to be the first player from Finland, and to join an impressive list of former winners.
"I hope that it will create some more opportunities for golf in Finland, and that it shows you can be a really good player out here even when you come straight out on Tour."
Sami Valimaki, Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year 🥇— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) December 14, 2020
So what's next for Sami Välimäki? He has now reached a career high of 69th in the Official World Golf Rankings, and is hoping things will only get better as he sets big goals for the future.
"For the future, I have a lot of big goals," he wrote in his player blog. "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, which is one of the hardest things to do, and my goal is to win them. 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.