Lucas Herbert has enjoyed a banner year in 2018. He excelled in Europe, gaining a full Tour card and making it all the way to the final event of the season in Dubai. But the kid from Bendigo is happy to be back in his homeland for this week’s Australian PGA, where a good week could improve the year – and his 2019 Presidents Cup chances – even further.
As the words came out of his mouth it felt as though proud Aussie Lucas Herbert had misspoke when we caught up at Metropolitan last week.
“To be honest, I don’t really care how I play when I come back to Australia,” he said.
But the pause that followed was merely the soon to be 23-year-old carefully choosing how to finish his thought on playing at home for the first time since February at this week’s Australian PGA Championship on the Gold Coast.
“It’s just the fact that I am here and supporting Australian golf and making sure that everyone sees me play back here,” Herbert continued. “And hopefully at some point I’m top-10 in the world and everyone sees me play on TV and everyone gets a chance to watch me when I come back here and play in some of the Australian events.”
Despite readily admitting he is not yet at the level to raise gate takings when teeing it up in his homeland, Herbert has just come off his best year as a professional to date. And having fallen ill in Dubai at the DP World Tour Championship, in part due to fatigue, it would have been tempting to start the Christmas break early and look towards the lucrative events in the desert to start his maiden season as a card carrying member of the European Tour.
But that simply isn’t in Herbert’s nature.
Herbert will tee it up at Royal Pines this week to support his home Tour, while also hoping for a good finish and perhaps his first piece of silverware in the pro ranks that would go a long way towards his goal of entering the top-50 in the world rankings and perhaps a place in Ernie Els’ International team for the 2019 Presidents Cup in his adopted hometown of Melbourne.
“If there is no pressure on me to play well because I’ve got my Tour card then I can easily sit back and relax and say, ‘Hey, what’s it matter I don’t need to play well, I’ve already my card for next year’,” Herbert said. “But I certainly don’t want to be like that. I want to get the season off to a good start. If you’re going to have to earn 350,000 points next year to keep your card and all the different marks for the playoff events, Australia’s a great chance to get myself off to a good start.”
"I'm going to have to try and get in that Presidents Cup team next year, because seeing tournaments back here at the Sandbelt is awesome. I want to be part of one." – Lucas Herbert
Listening to Herbert talk of next season, however, and it is clear to see that simply keeping his card is not his high watermark.
Having amassed six top-10 finishes on the world’s second-biggest Tour this year, while also making his major championship debut at the US Open, Herbert is aiming even higher for 2019. With another debut at the top of the list.
“The first person I saw when I walked in today was Kiradech (Aphibarnrat),” Herbert said during the World Cup of Golf. “I know Kiradech quite well, and watched him hit a shot, and I was like ‘I’m kind of jealous right now, that he’s playing the Melbourne Sandbelt and I live here and I don’t get to play’. I’m going to have to try and get in that Presidents Cup team next year, because seeing tournaments back here at the Sandbelt is awesome, I want to be part of one.”
Herbert knows that before he is to be included as a genuine chance for International team selection he must play well, but that hasn’t stopped him broaching the subject with team captain Ernie Els.
“If I play good golf, I’ll probably qualify anyway, if I don’t play good golf I won’t qualify and I probably don’t deserve to get picked,” he said.
“I spoke to him (Els) at Fiji, then I saw him again at the Dunhill, just caught up with him. I said to him from the start, ‘I’m not asking for a spot in the team, but if there is any way you think I can better my chances of getting in, tell me, because I’m really keen to play. If it’s go and play an event here or there or whatever it is, just speak to me about it’.”
The Australian PGA at Royal Pines wasn’t likely to be on the list of tournaments to play from Els, but there was no chance the South African would have had any success convincing Herbert to skip this week and his only chance to play at home, after he was forced to miss the Australian Open two weeks ago.
Lucas admitted to mixed feelings and second thoughts when his good play at the Portugal Masters earnt him a start at the limited field Turkish Airlines Open – and a likely place in Dubai – held the same week as the event which launched his recent success in 2017. The Neangar Park Golf Club product once again thought beyond his own self-interest when making the decision.
“After I played well in Portugal that pretty much had me in at Turkey, and I was almost thinking ‘I don’t know that I really want to play that well at the end of the year, because then I will be in Dubai and I won’t be able to play the Australian Open’,” Herbert said. “Early on I was like, ‘No I want to go home and play’ and then once I saw the opportunities that Dubai could give me, then I realised I kind of had to play.
“And then if I get to top-50 in the world and my career progresses quite quickly and this time next year we are sitting in a position where I am quite a lot higher ranked in the world and I’m a bit more of a household name in Australian golf, then that’s when I can have a better opportunity to come back at the end of the year and play the Australia Open and hopefully attract more crowds and hopefully bring a bigger hype to the event.
“As much as it was annoying to miss this year, in terms of giving back to Australian golf it could actually do me and the country some good if I was to play well.”
Although it is to be admired – and if things progress as Herbert plans, appreciated – his love affair with tournament golf in his home country might come as a surprise to some.
The Victorian has not always had the best relationship with governing body Golf Australia. But now, as one of the organisation’s Elite Squad, and with recent memories of his own time outside the ropes, Herbert’s desire to support golf in Australia offers a unique insight into the importance of events like this week’s PGA Championship and the legacy of Adam Scott, who is among the noticeable absentees this week.
“I just see myself as a country kid from Australia, and I loved coming to these events at the end of the year,” Herbert said. “I remember coming out and watching John Daly at Huntingdale and watching Tiger at Kingston Heath and at Victoria, Scotty when he won The Masters and came back.
“I really enjoyed watching those guys play the big events, so I know what it’s like and it was quite recent for me to be on the other side of that experience. And I guess I feel like all the Australians get behind Adam Scott the most because, some part of it has to be, he comes back so much, not as many guys get behind Jason (Day) because we just don’t see him. I think it’s pretty important to have a strong following from your home country and I think the best way to do that is by coming back and play our events to give back to Australian golf.”
Day is a constant topic when it comes to golf in this country – and while his appearances in recent years have been few and far between, his last visit for the 2017 Australian Open was an important learning curve for Herbert, who played the final two rounds alongside the former World No.1.
“Probably the Aussie Open last year when I played with Jason that kind of changed a lot for me. From trying to work hard to get to be a world-class player to sort of seeing I was a lot closer to it and having a lot more confidence and belief. I’d say that has probably been the biggest difference,” Herbert said of what has changed most in the past 12 months.
“I really enjoyed watching those guys play the big events, so I know what it’s like and it was quite recent for me to be on the other side of that experience.” – Lucas Herbert
While Herbert might have changed, the venue for the PGA Championship hasn’t. Which provides yet another positive for the loyal Herbert homecoming.
“It’s long, that’s a pretty good start as to why I’m going to be advantaged,” Herbert said of the layout. “I think it being long, and smaller greens, if I’m getting down there further and having shorter clubs in, it is going to give me a better chance to hit it in those smaller target areas. If you can fly it 260 metres, there is a big difference between that and 240, where are a lot of the other guys are, because a lot of the bunkers out there are at 260 carry, so if you are carrying them it’s pretty wide open.”
Despite sitting as the fifth favourite this week, in front of multiple PGA Tour winners, and both Herbert and his game maturing – as well as a potential Presidents Cup start in his future – there is still a twinkle in his eye and plenty of the brash kid from Bendigo apparent when he touches on his motivation and goals for his 2019 European Tour season, which gets underway this week.
“I’d say that if I’m in the top-50 in the world it’s going to be pretty hard to miss the Presidents Cup, so top-50 is definitely the goal by year’s end,” Herbert said.
“But it’s so fluid, everything changes so much, if I had of said at the start of this year I want to be top-50 in the world I would have laughed, that’s so far down the track, but just with the way everything’s gone, the results I’ve had, it’s not unrealistic. It’s going to be hard, but it’s not unrealistic for the end of the year.
“And I feel like we can have some pretty good after parties as well if I win.”