It all started in 1997 as a 5 years old, after my mom and dad were introduced to the game on holiday in South Africa. On their return they took me, my sister and brother to a local golf course, Witbos Golf Club. Together with my siblings, I spent summer after summer practicing, having fun and, most importantly, fishing golf balls out of the 5th hole water hazard to sell to fellow members. The golf club was our second home, and soon became the stage for some good old-fashioned sibling rivalry. I had the disadvantage of being younger than my brother and sister, so at that age they were hard to beat, but the defeats didn’t last long. I soon topped my age categories in Belgian golf events, being coached by Bart Bollen.
At the age of 14 I decided to take golf to another level and I quit playing soccer and basketball, my other two passions at the time. I chose to go to the VVG Topsportschool in Hasselt – a boarding school funded by the Golf Association of Flanders (Belgium), where I could combine golf with my studies. The programme provided me the opportunity to train during school hours and compete in international golf events, while still being able to get a fulltime education.
Despite having a lot of knee problems due to a massive growth spurt, I never used this as an excuse to justify bad rounds, and I became a scratch player at the age of 15. I punished myself by training harder and by always being the last person to leave the practice facilities. I kept on making progress over the years and by the time I graduated high school, I was one of the best European players under the age of 18. Something I’ve always remembered and what still makes me smile is when people would come up to my then-coach Bart and ask him how big a talent his player was. His answer was always: “He’s 40% talent and 60% hard work”. This is probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received.
In the Summer of 2010, I joined the University of Illinois’ golf team, coached by former PGA Tour player Mike Small. Adjusting to the American way of life was really tough for me at the start. I suddenly realised that my English, learnt primarily at school and from the sitcom ‘Friends’ wasn’t good enough, and suffering from cruel homesickness in my first semester made me almost not want to return to the US after the Christmas break. My parents eventually convinced me to go back, and by the time my freshman year was over, I couldn’t wait to go back and start my sophomore year.
The next two years at Illinois were crucial in my development as an amateur player. I won the individual 2011 Jack Nicklaus Invitational, the individual 2013 Big Ten title and the individual 2012 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship at the famed Riviera Country Club. I was also named two-time All American and was the first Belgian ever to compete in the Palmer Cup, where I represented the victorious European Team in the 2012 edition.
In addition to that, during my time at the University of Illinois, the team amassed a total of 13 titles, winning the 2013 NCAA Fayetteville Regionals and being the Runner-up at the 2013 NCAA Nationals as the absolute pinnacle.
In June 2013 I decided to forgo my senior year, and I made my professional debut at the prestigious Alstom Open de France in July finishing T29. I also played one more European Tour and 6 Challenge Tour events in 2013, before teeing it up at stage 1 of Qualifying School.
As I look back on it, Qualifying School was a real test. It took a lot of mental toughness to get through, especially when I got really ill after the 1st round of Q-School Final. Despite feeling absolutely miserable, I was so close to earning that European Tour card, so the last thing on my mind was to throw in the towel. I eventually got the 20th card (out of 27) and had never been more proud in my life. My whole family flew in to celebrate with me and it was a moment I’ll never forget. A Fun fact: A total of 968 players took part in the Qualifying School across the 3 stages and I was one out of 6 who came through all three stages to gain a card. One month later, with excitement and ambitions for the year ahead, I made my debut as a full member of the 2014 European Tour.
The first few months didn’t go as planned and adjusting to tour life wasn’t easy. Flying across the world was quite overwhelming and it took a lot out of my body both physically and mentally. Mentally, the turning point for me came at the 5th hole during the second round at the Malaysian Open. I was +5 for the tournament, when my caddie turned around and said “Stop this sh*t! Let’s play these next 13 holes 7 under”… It’s hard to explain why, but I got an immense confidence boost and I did what he said. In the end, I was -14 on the following 50 holes, finishing in a tie for 8th for the tournament. My first top 10 on Tour!
A couple of weeks later, and back at the scene of my Q-school graduation, I just lost out to Miguel Angel Jiménez in a play-off at the Open de España. Four further top-15 finishes later in the season helped me comfortably keep my tour card in 83rd place.