Norfolk’s newest golf professional Stuart Ballingall looks to finally fulfil potential in paid ranks
18:16 21 December 2012
Stuart Ballingall has taken the plunge and turned professional.
It’s a decision that has taken the 22-year-old some time to reach, especially as he turned his back on the idea, and nearly the game, not so long ago.
From being a big fish in a small pond the former two-time Norfolk Open champion will find he’s now just one of a shoal in a very large talent pool. But the plus-two handicapper is desperate to find out whether he will sink or swim in the paid ranks.
He certainly has got the amateur pedigree to back up his decision to turn pro. As well as winning the Norfolk Open as a teenager, he was also the Norfolk Amateur champion, Norfolk Boys champion, he played for Scotland Under-18s and was an English Schools international.
It’s fair to say at that point Ballingall’s future looked pretty clear and when he took the decision to study in America and play college golf, it appeared even more likely that he would follow the same well-trodden path taken by the likes of England’s former world No 1 Luke Donald and continue along that route to further success.
The Paisley-born former Framingham Earl High school pupil quickly made an impact in his first year Stateside with Missouri University, notching up a couple of wins – including shooting a round of 10 under par – and was mixing it with the likes of Rickie Fowler, who is now a star on the PGA Tour.
But Ballingall’s second year was a different story and it was at this point his golf game stalled, he lost direction and he began to question his future.
“The first year did go quite well,” said Ballingall. “I won twice in my first year. The second time it was by far the best I’ve ever played. Before I went out to the States I’d never really shot lots under par. I’d always shoot about three or four under quite comfortably but I’d never really shoot a lot under. I shot nine under one game.
“In the second year I didn’t really play that well. I was scoring OK. I was finishing all right, I was finishing top 10, top 20s but didn’t really feel that I’d improved at all.
“In the second year I found it quite hard out there because I wasn’t being coached, my coach was back here, and the golf coach we had didn’t get involved with my swing.
“I like putting the hours in practising but playing out there it was all about qualifying for matches, then the tournaments. You would play three rounds in two days, go straight back home and start all over again. You didn’t have that much time to spend on the range and try and change things.
“It kind of came to a head when in one tournament I got outscored by guys I thought I was close to in terms of ability and it wasn’t just by a few shots. It was at that point it all caught up with me. I was quite tired and just wanted a break from it. I didn’t really play that summer.
“It’s fair to say I lost my focus. I lost my way a little bit in the second year. The course I was studying was to last another two years and I didn’t think in two more years my golf would improve that much to get where I wanted to be and I wanted a break.”
It was the first major break Ballingall had taken since picking up a club at the age of 11. Golf took a back seat as he decided to look to get a “proper” job.
“I played every weekend. I just played casual golf, I was still playing all right,” said Ballingall, who lives at Stoke Holy Cross. “I got a job and then when you’re not doing something you love you think ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life’.”
The time out from competition proved just the tonic for Ballingall, though, who refused to let all the hours of back-breaking practice on the range and time spent on the course honing his skills go to waste.
“It gave me the kick up the backside I needed,” added Ballingall, who will play out of Dunston Hall Golf Club. “I think it’s helped me from a technical point of view as well because I’ve been trying to change the same thing in my swing for literally two years and it was getting so stale. I wasn’t changing anything, and had a break, saw my coach, probably a couple of months ago and we started working on new things and it clicked.
“The work was all right, it wasn’t that I absolutely hated it, I quite enjoyed it, I just thought I should be out there playing because if I didn’t, if I kept doing this for another two or three years, I might have missed my chance.
“I can always get a job if golf isn’t working out. I missed only about six months proper playing. I wasn’t totally off but longer than that and it probably would have been more difficult to get back into.”
Ballingall’s decision to turn professional was made all the more easy following a session with his long-time coach Paul Ashwell, who is rated by Golf Monthly magazine as one of the top 25 teaching professionals in the country.
“I’ve seen him since I was probably about 14, 15,” explained Ballingall. “I’d just left my job and I was trying to get into golf again, trying to think what I was going do. I went to a lesson and was hitting it really well. He said: ‘What are you doing? Just turn pro’. He phoned my dad, because my dad has always wanted me to play, and Paul told him he thought I was good enough to make a living out of the game.
“I trust him and it’s what I needed to hear. He’s coached a lot of good players.”
Ultimately, making the decision to go pro was the easy part and now is when the real hard graft begins. But if the early signs are anything to go by then he’s made the right choice.
“The point at which I turned pro was a little surreal. There was no fanfare, nothing special,” said Ballingall. “I turned up at a Jamega Tour event and finished second and won £500.
“That was it. I didn’t have to fill out any forms, pass any exams I just had to say I wanted to play for money and that was it.”
That result came at the end of last month with Ballingall finishing second to Lincoln’s Paul Streeter, who topped the Jamega Tour – a nationwide development tour – order of merit, having pocketed in excess of £20,000.
“I putted very well in that event and that is the difference. That is the club I turn to, to get me out of trouble,” said Ballingall.
Ballingall is practising six days a week in preparation for next year when he will look to play on both the Jamega Tour and the Europro Tour and hopes to book himself a place on the far more lucrative Challenge Tour.
“The Europro Tour and the Jamega Tour run side by side,” said Ballingall, a mad keen Rangers fan who is looking to mirror the Glasgow giants’ rise back up the ranks. “The Jamega Tour is a smaller tour with only two-day events every Monday and Tuesday. There are nearly 30 of those throughout the year and I think there are 15 Europro tour events.
“Once qualifying school is done for the Europro and I see how I’ve done then I can pick and choose which events I’ll play in. The Europro tour is a feeder tour for the Challenge tour.”
Ballingall is adamant that he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and dig deep for the slog ahead. He’s ready to face the possible dark days when not everything is going his way, especially as he will have the added pressure of keeping the bank manager happy.
“I’ve not set myself any targets yet. I am braced for how hard it is going to be,” he said. “It will be a lot of hours in practice for not a lot.
“The main goal would be to finish in the top five in the Europro. That gets you your Challenge Tour card. Regardless of that I will go to the European Tour’s Qualifying School at the end of the year. There will be so many tournaments so many opportunities and that’s one of the big differences from being an amateur. In the amateur game there are only a few big events. I’m looking forward to the tournaments coming thick and fast.
“People always talk about talent but I think golf is one of the sports where hard work can outweigh that. You could have all the talent in the world but if you don’t put the hours in then don’t expect to be as good or as successful as you could be.
“I want to be successful and get rewarded for the hard work I’ve put in over the years. It would be nice to get something back.”