When the 29-year-old John Catlin won the Estrella Damm Andalucía Masters and the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in the space of three weeks, his speeches were as much to be admired as his play. Instead of coming across like one more American who could not wait to graduate to the PGA Tour, he sounded as a man whose heart and soul were in what he was doing at the moment.
There was a two-part explanation for his easy mastery of the speaking side of things.
As a child in California, Catlin had a stutter which was sufficiently pronounced for him to need help from the National Stuttering Association. In the knowledge that Catlin was a Tiger Woods fan, the staff at the NSA let John know that Tiger, too, had had a stutter – and that he had worked as hard on the remedial exercises as he had on his golf. Catlin followed suit.
Woods spoke about his stutter in an interview with 60 Minutes, with the way he described his impediment as follows: “Words were getting lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth.” Catlin, for his part, talked last week of how his stutter had made life tough during his high school years, but that he had sorted it out while at the University of New Mexico. He never backed out of the speeches he was expected to make in class, nor did he shy away from those that were needed to accompany his many sporting feats. For the record, he won State Match Play championships staged by the Northern California Golf Association in 2010 and 2011, the NCGA’s Memorial Amateur championships in 2011 and 2012, and was on one occasion his college’s Student Athlete of the Year.
An All-American academic in the realm of general business studies, Catlin did not do the conventional when he turned professional in 2013. He started out in Canada on what now is called the Mackenzie Tour, and from there headed to Asia, beginning with the Asian Development Tour and moving on to the full Asian circuit in 2017. To him, the Asian route represented a better business model than its PGA Tour equivalent.
“I looked at it this way … the Asian qualifying school was a two-step affair against the four-part event it was in the States, while the everyday expenses in Asia were going to be cheaper than at home,” Catlin said.
At the same time, he felt the need to get out of his comfort zone: “Without a doubt, going to Asia on my own gave me more confidence.”
He found himself a base in Hua Hin whilst playing and practising at Thailand’s Jack Nicklaus-designed Springfield Royal Country Club, the club to which he remains attached. And when he wasn’t working, Tiger-like, on his golf, he would go for walks along stunning cliff tops and beaches.
“Not least because of my golf, I’m a big believer in staying in the present, in paying attention to what’s there in front of me,” Catlin said.
How he played the par-5 18th in Ireland testified to that. His concentration never wavered when he had a ridiculous amount of time to contemplate his second to the well-bunkered green. As it turned out, he proceeded to unleash his shot of the week, paving the way for his third birdie in four holes and a closing 64 to win the Irish Open by two from Aaron Rai.
“That shot was so satisfying,” he said. “It was 268 yards to the hole. It was cold and it was damp out there. I needed to hit a big high draw, a shot I know I can hit. But to do it in those conditions and in that situation is hard to put into words.”
Catlin, who had beaten Martin Kaymer by one in Andalucía, is from a golfing family. His older brother, Ben, played Division I golf at Santa Clara University; his father played to single figures “and my mother tagged along with the rest of us.” Indeed, it was a family holiday they spent in Scotland which did its bit to convince the then 12-year-old John that all he wanted in life was to be a professional golfer. The four played all the Open Championship courses, along with other famous links such as Royal Dornoch and Nairn.
At this summer’s English Championship at Hanbury Manor, Catlin demonstrated that he was rather less up to speed with the UK’s COVID-19 protocols than the Rules of Golf when he left the tournament bubble to have dinner with his caddie. He made no excuses and accepted that disqualification was only what he deserved. Since then, he has stuck religiously to the regulations.
Does it bother him being stuck in a British bubble? “Not at all. It’s just the times we live in. … You have to find ways to make it work.”
He stays in the same hotels and has his meals with Dom Fernandez, his caddie-cum-friend whom he first met in Asia. And when there is a break in the golf, he does as Fernandez in basing himself in Stoke-on-Trent.
Adamant though he is that it never does for a golfer to get ahead of himself, Catlin has given the odd thought to when he wants to return home and play on the US PGA Tour. “As I’ve said, I’m entirely happy where I am,” he said. “However, my dream is one of playing in my first major in 2021 and of one day playing closer to friends and family.”
That Catlin’s coach lives in Sacramento, California, would be a plus were he to go home, though the fact is that the two are never in regular contact when Catlin is away. “We don’t need to be,” he said. “We spent so much time together and he taught me so well that I’m nowadays able to make changes on my own where necessary.”
Meanwhile, as Catlin is taking his sudden success in his stride, his manager, Van Harrison from Sport 5, is being run off his feet. Which is only what you would expect of a manager whose player has sped from relative oblivion to No. 84 in the world rankings.