Lucas Herbert has made a knack of putting himself in contention at the biggest events in Australian golf and the long hitter will hope to do the same on the world stage this week, as he makes his Open Championship debut.
The Victorian town of Bendigo has a strong sporting history primarily rooted in Australian Rules football and cricket, with the AFL’s Selwood brothers among the town’s most famous exports.
However if Lucas Herbert’s form of the past two years – where he has risen from outside the top-1,000 in the world ranking to as high as No.143 and earned two major championship starts – is to continue, Bendigo could become equally famous for its golfing pedigree. Interestingly, the 22-year-old admits now he originally planned to take the well-trodden path into a team sport with dreams of donning an AFL jumper or a baggy green cap.
“If you asked me in winter, it was I wanted to be a Brownlow medallist and the captain of the Western Bulldogs. And if you asked me in summer it was I want to be the captain of the Australian Test team,” Herbert says of his sporting aspirations growing up.
“Then I think I made the junior primary school’s team in grade four and I’d always kind of played golf because mum and dad and everyone in the family sort of played it. And I had good hand eye co-ordination.
“But then I really enjoyed playing the tournaments I guess, and I was always kind of a small kid, so I was always going to struggle playing footy just because I was going to get knocked around … so golf was just going to be a bit easier on my body that way and I think just the individual aspect of it.”
The decision to hang up his footy boots and focus on golf was a good one for Herbert, as he prepares to take part in the 147th Open Championship starting on Thursday at Carnoustie having made his major championship debut at Shinnecock Hills last month.
Herbert first rose to prominence over a couple of fairy tale weeks in 2014, starting at the Australian Masters, where he finished T11 as an 18-year-old amateur.
Firing a course record third round of 65 at Metropolitan Golf Club then leading the likes of Adam Scott at one point on Sunday, before a double bogey at the 72nd hole cost him a spot in the following week’s Australian Open.
Not to be deterred, and showing the exuberance of youth as well as the endless dedication of parents, Lucas, father Lyndon and mother Meredith piled into the family car and drove through the night to Sydney, via Bendigo, for Australian Open pre-qualifying.
Having slept the whole way, a somewhat refreshed Herbert repaid his parent’s efforts by firing a 67 to earn one of the final places in the field at The Australian Golf Club, where he finished T23.
"I played a UK summer with the amateur guys back in 2015 so I played Carnoustie, played Panmure, which is right next to Carnoustie, it’s a very links golf course as well, played St Andrews, I played Troon and I played Birkdale whilst I was over there, so sort of got enough experience to kind of see what links golf is about." – Lucas Herbert
The Victorian’s 2014 performances offered a window into his future as a big event player – a characteristic which has improved through his work with mental performance coach Jamie Glazier, who has brought structure to a sometimes intentionally unstructured player.
“I started working with Jamie pretty much as soon as I turned pro, that was the end of 2015,” Herbert said.
“I’m pretty relaxed, so trying to keep structure is really hard for me, I tend to free wheel it a little bit and maybe not quite to the intensity it needs to be, so he’s been really good in putting enough structure in there for me, because too much structure I kind of … it’s almost to the point where if I’m supposed to be putting at 10 o’clock I’ll do anything other than putting at 10 o’clock just because I can’t stand working to a schedule like that.”
Herbert’s relaxed attitude is indeed one of his greatest assets, and was on full display at last year’s Australian Open playing alongside Jason Day over the weekend.
Fresh off a runner-up finish at the NSW Open, and later confessing to being “nervous as hell” at the prospect of playing with Day, Herbert performed admirably and took more positives than negative from his tie for sixth, despite missing one of three spots in The Open. An ability he acknowledges was lacking in his early days as a professional.
“As much as I was nervous and whatnot playing with him, I actually thought there was maybe a couple of things mentally that I thought I did a little bit better, that maybe might have had half a shot or one shot difference coming down the stretch on Sunday,” he said. “Obviously, I think he had me covered in a lot of different areas, but it was good to see, in person as well, how he hits the ball, what sort of ball flight he takes, what sort of shots he is picking for all sorts of different situations. I really liked that side of the experience.”
And it didn’t take him long to apply what he had learned from Day, earning his place alongside him at Carnoustie through a tie for eighth in January’s Singapore Open, won by Sergio Garcia, who the Victorian also teed it up alongside at the 2017 Australian PGA Championship, where he shared seventh place during his breakout summer of golf.
Two European Tour top-fives since have further elevated Herbert’s standing as he prepares for his first Open on a familiar course and for a style of golf he understands and believes will suit his power game.
“I played a UK summer with the amateur guys back in 2015 so I played Carnoustie, played Panmure, which is right next to Carnoustie, it’s a very links golf course as well, played St Andrews, I played Troon and I played Birkdale whilst I was over there, so sort of got enough experience to kind of see what links golf is about,” Herbert said.
“I’d watched British Opens beforehand and you’re seeing guys putting from like 50 yards off the green and I just couldn’t understand and I was like why don’t they just pitch it like a normal shot. But then once you get over there you realise why they’re doing that and how everything’s played so differently over there.”
Herbert’s experience in the game’s home and habit of putting his best foot forward on the biggest stage, means it wouldn’t come as a surprise if his name was on the leaderboard at some stage at Carnoustie. Something that has surely entered his mind, despite trying to keep a lid on his excitement.
“I’m trying to sort of not get too hyped about it, just because I know that week is going to be pretty taxing on me mentally, in the way that I’m going to be so hyped up that it’s going to be hard to keep all the emotions as dull as possible and try and treat it like another event,” Herbert said.
“But yeah, from a young age obviously you want to obviously win major championships … I’ve had the yardage book out from Carnoustie when I played there a couple of years ago and sort of had a bit of a flip through it a few times now, it’s sort of sitting next to my TV just kind of there for me to keep an eye on.”
Glazier will certainly be working hard with Herbert to keep things under wraps in the lead up as part of ‘Team Herbert’ that also includes Lucas’ long-term coach Dominic Azzopardi, who has already made a reconnaissance mission to Scotland with his lone student.
“I’ve had the yardage book out from Carnoustie when I played there a couple of years ago and sort of had a bit of a flip through it a few times now.”
“Me and Dom are obviously really good mates, so I think that’s probably the main reason why our relationship works really well and I don’t think he’s really got a lot of interest in coaching three or four or 10 other guys anywhere. He enjoys doing what he does because we get to hang out, it’s not so much because he absolutely loves coaching,” Herbert said.
Watch Glazier, Azzopardi and the others around Herbert that he refers to in the Jordan Spieth manner of “we” and it is clear they all enjoy working with him, even with the regular barbs between the group, who the Victorian plans on utilising even more after his recent addition to the Golf Australia Rookie Squad – a group designed to deliver Australian major champions.
“It’s a massive one, my team that I’ve got around me they get a lot out of coming to tournament weeks, so that GA funding just allows them to get to more tournaments and be able to do more work with me,” Herbert said of the cash injection that also allows him to employ an experienced caddie.
“My caddie’s done three British Opens I’m pretty sure, he said try and play at least one of the practice rounds with the more experienced guys. They’re going to know the places to hit chip shots from around the greens and they’re going to know the putts you’re likely to have, the pin positions that are likely to be there, the winds that are likely to come up through the week.
“I would love to go and play a round with, whether it was Scotty or J Day, or any of the other Aussies that are going to be there, and try and find out as much as I can off them.”
And while he is a fast learner who is likely to quickly adapt to major championship golf, it is worth remembering that Herbert is still learning the ropes of professional golf and all that comes with it. Something that has become apparent through his use of Twitter, which he managed to successfully use to campaign for an exemption into the Australian Open in 2016 and where he has gone head-to-head with some industry heavyweights.
“It’s almost, people have to remind me sometimes that I’m in the public eye a little bit more than just your average punter off the street. But I’m just a kid from Bendigo, who still has his own views,” Herbert said.
“It’s almost, people have to remind me sometimes that I’m in the public eye a little bit more than just your average punter off the street. But I’m just a kid from Bendigo."
“I want to show that I’m just a normal person, I don’t think I’m anything special and I don’t think that I should be treated any differently just because I’m good at my job or anything like that. And a lot of the stuff with someone like ‘Clayts’ (Mike Clayton) is pretty good banter, I’ve got a different opinion on the issue and he’s got an opinion on the issue, I hope I haven’t really said that either of us are right, I just like being able to have the argument.”
Although forthright at times and perhaps overly passionate in the past, Herbert’s interest in and views on the game’s future are to be commended and displays his maturation into one of the best Australian golfers over a short period.
“I don’t think golf’s in as bad a shape as what everyone makes it out to be but it would be awesome if someone came through like what Shark did, and really made everyone love golf and really want to turn on the TVs and watch golf again,” he said.
Herbert has an opportunity to be that person if he exceeds his “vague goal” of a top-25 and joins Ben Hogan and Tom Watson as Open debutants claiming victory at Carnoustie.
An achievement which, after a long pause and with clarification, he admits he would now prefer over the Brownlow he once pined for as a youngster in Bendigo.
“Obviously I’m going to say the Claret Jug aren’t I, but everyone sort of talks down a Brownlow as well because it’s a team sport so everyone wants to spur the individual accolades. And a Brownlow Medal is votes from an umpire whereas a Claret Jug is earnt from quality of golf shots you hit out on a course and I think it’s a little bit more, not that there is a hell of a lot of politics that go into the votes for a Brownlow medal, but I guess you can say the wrong thing to an official in golf and still win the tournament,” he shrugged.
And as someone not afraid of speaking his mind, Herbert appears certain to still win plenty of golf tournaments and perhaps even Australia’s next Claret Jug.
FOOTNOTE: The start of Lucas Herbert's preparation for this week's Open was disrupted when his golf clubs failed to make it to Scotland after leaving Australia. British Airways was still trying to locate the lost baggage when Herbert arrived in Carnoustie, where TaylorMade made up a replacement set.