A relaxing Kiwi summer and a call to an old mate has Mark Brown hungry for another crack at Europe. Mark Geenty catches up with the pride of Shandon.
A nervous phone call to the coach he'd sacked two years previously was the first step in Mark Brown's purge of a truly awful 2011.
Home in Wellington for Christmas, the clubs sat ignored for six weeks. For a player ranked 64th in the world not so long ago, golf had become a thankless chore and Brown was jobless, having lost his European Tour card after three years.
He dialled Mal Tongue's number. The longtime coach and friend he'd shown the door in late 2009 answered, and listened. Tongue – Michael Campbell's former mentor – might have been tempted to hang up. "Luckily he didn't tell me to get lost, that was a good start," Brown quipped.
So began the resumption of a 19-year player/coach relationship, which saw Brown finish fourth individual at the 1994 Eisenhower Trophy, ahead of Tiger Woods, and turn pro in 1996. Little over a year after Brown's biggest win, the Johnnie Walker Classic in Delhi, in 2008, he decided Tongue was surplus to requirements.
"It's always difficult when you split with people that you're great mates with, and that's what we were, first and foremost.
"That was a stuff-up, finishing with him in the first place. That was a mistake. It's been good being back with him and the results have been good since we've started again," he said from his temporary British base.
At 37, Brown feels rejuvenated as he eyes some second-tier European events in coming weeks, British Open final qualifying, then the crucial six-round European Tour qualifying school in November to reclaim his card.
He needed a cleansing break on home turf. Since his breakthrough Delhi win in 2008 he'd burnt himself out. He earned 1.2 million (NZ$1.97m) but played a punishing 98 tournaments in three years. Last year he played 34, starting in Abu Dhabi and ending in South Africa, with all points of Europe in between, and finished 161st on the 2011 European Tour money list with 121,005 to his name.
"I was playing too much. Averaging 33 tournaments for three years in a row is far too many when the top guys are only playing mid-20s. I got lazy and lost a bit of desire for it. If you can't be bothered to go to the gym it's a bit of a worry.
"I got what I deserved. When you don't work hard enough on a major tour like that you get spat out the bottom end pretty quick. It was good to be home over summer, to get fit and start practising again and get the motivation back."
Remarkably for a seasoned pro, Brown had never employed a manager. He took on Wellington-based Dean Eggers, toiled hard with his not-so-new coach and started hitting the gym again, the place he despised during his slide down the money list.
He enjoyed being a Kiwi again in a rare home summer; played some Charles Tour events, loved his week in Queenstown at the NZ PGA then headed to Asia. His most recent effort was a sixth and a US$27,000 (NZ$36,000) payday at the OneAsia Tour's Telecom Open in Korea a fortnight ago.
Now he's in London and will play Challenge Tour events in Austria, France, Scotland and Italy in the next month, then try to qualify for his second British Open, which starts at Royal Lytham and St Annes on July 19.
Europe is still where it's at for Brown, even as the self-confessed rugby nut keeps a keen eye on his beloved Hurricanes and All Blacks from afar. World rankings suggest Europe is the strongest tour around and Brown wants to crack it again. The money is good, but playing fulltime on the tour costs him $100,000-plus in expenses each year so the cheques need to be frequent. Brown says dollar signs don't keep him awake at night.
"For me now it's not really financial. Luckily I've still got the desire to play and win tournaments. That's the goal, to get back on the main tour and start playing well again.
"It's weird, the more you worry about the money the worse you play. If you put your energy into the gym and practising hard sometimes the results just pop up. Money's never really bothered me; I've had none and I've had a bit ... I just love playing."
But that love won't last forever. As Brown nears 40 and calls himself "an old bastard", he sees his current rejuvenation as one final career push.
"I don't think I'll be going that much further. Probably another 3-4-5 years maximum and that'll be me done. I might as well give it plenty now. Luckily I've still got the desire for it but it's a pretty draining lifestyle. The rewards are there if you play well. I'll give it heaps the next couple of years."
By then, Brown hopes his world ranking will have climbed back to loftier heights, from its current 551. Only three New Zealanders: Danny Lee (171), David Smail (373) and Michael Hendry (481) are currently in the top 500.
Brown has been in the world's top 70 and doesn't shy away from the New Zealanders' collective struggles on the world stage since Campbell's US Open win in 2005. The reasons are many, in his eyes, and start at amateur level.
"We've got a small golfing population but that's an easy excuse to hide behind. A couple of the golfing organisations back home could probably help us out a bit more, we need to play a bit more and have a few more local tournaments to play in.
"Young professionals need to be funded a little bit better. There's a lot of little things and the proof's in the pudding at the moment where none of us are doing very well."
Brown recalls his struggles as a new pro, which spawned the AMP advertisements including the immortal line: `I'm Mark Brown, from Shandon. I'm doing OK ...'
Said Brown: "You don't even think about it at the time but as an old boy now, looking at what's going on, that's the difficult thing when guys turn pro – there's not a lot of support for them. I know NZ Golf and the NZ PGA are looking at that.
"Also you've got to look further back than that at NZ Golf and amateur level where perhaps the high performance isn't doing as well as they'd like. I don't know enough about it to tell you why but obviously things need to be done a little bit better."
At A Glance
Name: Mark Brown Born: February 9, 1975, in Lower Hutt Home club: Shandon Coach: Mal Tongue Turned pro: 1996 This year: 16th on OneAsia Tour order of merit (3 events, US$37,000) Current world ranking: 551 Highest world ranking: 64 (2008) Biggest win: Johnnie Walker Classic, Delhi, 2008 (276,000) Best major finish: 24th, US PGA Championship, 2008
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