In this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, John Catlin talks about being inspired by Tiger, why choosing to play in Asia was the best decision he has made, and the influence of his coach.
I probably started thinking about playing professional golf for the first time when I watched Tiger Woods win the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach. I was around nine at the time, but I remember watching and just being amazed to see someone dominate the sport. I was already into golf because my dad had taken it up as a way to spend time with my older brother and eventually me, and it was a big part of our family. My brother is nine years older than me, so when he was 12 I think I was the only three-year-old out there for hours, but I loved it and loved to play with him.
But my interest was really sparked watching Tiger. By the time I was 12 I told my mom that I wanted to go professional, and my goal was to have the opportunity to go head-to-head with Tiger one day. He had such an impact on me and in my opinion he’s the greatest golfer that’s ever been. We’ve all been somewhat inspired or affected by what he has done for the game of professional golf, and I know we are all thinking about him after what happened earlier this week.
I remember my mom was like ‘really, are you sure that’s what you want, that’s going to be a lot of work’, and I said I was 100% ready to take it seriously. She was the person in our family who was least interested in golf, but she basically became my manager and gave up her job to help me get to tournaments and organise contacts with college coaches. I really gave it everything I could in high school, and college was another level, but I was so grateful for my family’s support.
I had a bit of a rocky start to professional golf. I was trying to find a path that I could take to earn money and give myself a chance to play on the now-Korn Ferry Tour. I hadn’t considered anything else, because there’s something of an ingrained mentality in the U.S. geared toward the PGA TOUR. I think people are a little afraid to travel, so I went to Korn Ferry Tour Q-School for two consecutive years, then went to play in Canada because I felt like it would give me a good opportunity to get there. But it’s a tough school, and I found it really hard to support myself. In 2014 I finished in the top 15 on the Order of Merit and was playing decent, but even though I was staying with host families, making my own food and driving to tournaments, I still wasn’t making money.
In the middle of that year I started working with my coach Noah Montgomery, and he was a big proponent of me going to the Asian Tour. He started doing research about where else I could play that I could afford, would give me Official World Golf Ranking points, and could give me enough reps to help me become the golfer I was capable of. He’d already helped me a lot on and off the course so I trusted him, and even though at first I was scared and didn’t want to, the more I considered it and looked into it, it became clear it was going to be a good opportunity.
I think things that are worth doing often seem a little scary when you start them. I remember landing in Bangkok for the Q-School in 2015 and being surprised because there wasn’t as big of a culture shock as I expected. I’d been worried about it and at times it felt very different, but Thailand is really well developed, there’s a lot of places to get food, and there’s plenty of people who speak English so it actually felt like one of the easiest places I could go.
I made it through Q-School for the 2015/16 season, and that year turned out to be a big growing experience for me. I was ambitious. I tried to play on both the Canadian and the Asian Tours, which was a bold strategy and a lot of air miles, and Noah was also hard on me as he talked me through things I needed to work on an pay attention to. I quickly realised I couldn’t maintain the level of golf or focus I wanted to on both Tours while travelling back and forth, and I ended up losing my card in Canada and was really close to losing my status in Asia.
It was at the end of that year that I started wondering if this was for me, or if I really wanted to play professional golf anymore. I had just played in the Indonesian Open, had barely made the cut, and shot a final round 77 to finish bottom of the pack. It was only my second cut in four and a half months on either Tour and I was struggling mentally. There was a tournament the week after on the Asian Development Tour an hour and a half drive away, and I remember the Tour telling me there was a space on the bus for me to go at 3pm if I wanted to play. At 2.57pm, I was staring on my phone at a ticket to fly home. All I had to do was click agree and purchase. But there was a little voice that said don’t quit, you’re not finished yet. I went, and I won that tournament, and that was when I decided to move to Thailand and really commit to give it everything I’ve got playing in Asia. It’s crazy to look back now and realise that the inner drive I have to fight through it literally stopped me from making a choice that would have altered my life massively.
But also, I didn’t ever get into golf with a back-up option. I never thought oh I could sell insurance, be a coach, or have something to fall back on. So, when I was looking at that flight I was thinking ‘what am I going to do when I get back?’. Because of that, I didn’t hit agree, I went to the tournament and I won. I might not have done that if I hadn’t decided I was never going to give up.
That win changed everything, but so did my decision to commit to Asia. I earned status for 2017, then I won twice that year, then three times in 2018 to earn my European Tour card for 2019. That year I kept the last card for category 19 for 2020, and then I obviously won twice in 2020 on the European Tour, and now have full playing rights. It’s been a crazy journey.
But truthfully, I don’t know if I would have ever won in Valderrama last year if I hadn’t gone to the Asian Tour and proved to myself that I could do it. If I hadn’t had the past experiences of winning to draw upon, I don’t think I would have had that confidence to be comfortable that I could beat someone like Martin Kaymer. Because of my other wins, I knew that if I could stay within my process I could give myself a chance, and I was the one that ended up holding the trophy that day. And then in turn, the confidence of that helped me on Sunday in Ireland.
I think it’s why I like going back to Thailand too, because it’s nice to go back to a place which holds a lot of good memories that I associate with moments and milestones I’ve accomplished. It’s a place that inspires confidence, because I know that now I don’t care what life or golf throws at me because I know that I can make it through.
I pretty much lived there from the end of 2016 until the start of COVID, when it became difficult to go back while competing. But it’s a place that really helped me to develop as a golfer, and really focus on a work ethic. As Hogan once said, if you can’t out play them you better out-work them. And I worked hard. In Thailand, six or seven days a week I’d be work from 8am until 5pm on different parts of my game, and I’d set up work stations in different areas of the practice area, and then test those things on the course.
I thank Noah so much. I honestly think if you’re going to play professional golf, one of the most important choices you will make is who your coach is. He’s going to be your sounding board, the person in your corner fighting alongside you and encouraging you when you are out there on your own practicing for seven or eight hours, who you can call about parts of your game or your mental game. I know I’m lucky that I can call Noah my best friend. I also know it’s difficult to have that, but, if I didn’t, I’d be striving after it.
I don’t think I ever expected to travel as much as I have, but it’s a path I’d encourage. If you told me eight years ago I would live in Thailand for three and a half years and play golf in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, South Africa, Morocco, I would have laughed you out of the room. But unless you’re a world class player shooting 65 every time you tee it up in your early teens or 20s, I’d say do it. You have to find a place where you can afford to play, be self-sufficient, but also somewhere that will give you opportunities to earn higher status, work your way up the rankings and give yourself confidence that you can win, and then win at a higher level. It doesn’t really matter where you are, you just need to be able to get enough experience that you can make yourself feel comfortable enough to play great golf no matter where you are, or who you are playing against.
I think following a path like this will also teach you things about yourself. It has for me. Work ethic when things got tough and I was barely hanging on financially was a big part of that, but I think golf also really reinforced that never say die attitude I have. If I hadn’t played golf, I might not have discovered that about myself, that I am the sort of person who is going to give it everything I’ve got, work hard and hold myself to a high standard.
I’ve really become a believer that if it’s not this week, it will be the next week, or the next week, and I’m still putting in hard work. I’ve still got goals and dreams and things I want to accomplish going forward, and I think it’s important to do that. Right now it’s to crack that top 50 in the World, but it’s a never-ending process, and those goals just continue to evolve as my career evolves.