MATTHEW BALDWIN tees up in South Africa today after the shortest closed season in sport.
Just 11 days after the final putt was sunk in the DP World Championships in Dubai to round off the latest European Tour campaign, the 2013 version springs into life with The Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa at Royal Durban GC.
It has meant little respite for the Southport golfer, who is looking to build on the impressive foundations he laid during his rookie season among Europe’s elite.
Baldwin finished 72nd in the rankings with prize money of more than 300,000 euros, missing out on a place in Dubai by just 12 places. But with appearances at both the US and British Opens on his CV, the 26 year-old can take great satisfaction from his performances after making the step up from the second tier Challenge Tour.
It was in South Africa 12 months ago that Baldwin – now attached to the De Vere Club – laid down an early marker of his rich promise, finishing 10th at the Africa Open. It set up a year in which he went on to play all four rounds at both Opens with the only blemish being an unfortunate injury that took the edge off his game during the closing months.
“I had taken a break after the Open, been away with some friends for a holiday but when we got back I slipped and fell on my own driveway in a thunderstorm,” he explained. “I damaged my shoulder, like I had suffered a dislocation but not as bad
“However it stopped me from practising so that I played a couple of tournaments under prepared. I probably should have left it to heal for longer.
“Two weeks was probably too early to be playing again when I could barely swing a golf club, but the experience of dealing with injuries is all part of learning about life on Tour.
“The first half of the season was really special, and while the second fell a bit flat, overall it was a good year.”
That end of season frustration could not detract from the achievement in comfortably keeping his card while his debuts in the biggest events on either side of the Atlantic will live long in the memory.
“I have never experienced anything like playing in the US Open,” he said. “I went there never having played a major before, yet the atmosphere was fantastic. People were so supportive and knowledgeable; they knew all about me as a golfer. It was surreal at times and to play all four rounds meant I learnt the most from that week.
“I knew what our Open would be like having grown up watching it, but I came away disappointed with where I finished. I was so close to a top ten. But walking down the 18th watched by family and friends is like no other walk in the world.”
Baldwin – part of Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler’s ISM stable – feels the season saw him come of age as a player.
“I learnt that I had to grow up quickly,” he said, “and that patience was the most important thing out there. Rather than trying to force things to happen on the course, it is better to let it unfold.
“I think there was a definite improvement in my attitude to my golf – I was always the sort to get down in the dumps if things were not going my way, but I have learnt not to let a few bad shots effect me. Even a player like Rory McIlory managed to miss a couple of cuts, so that sort of thing is going to happen over a season.
“If you play 25-30 events , then hopefully there will be seven or eight good performances. the same number of average displays and the rest you may be battling to make the cut. So you have got to make the most of the events you are playing well in.”
Baldwin did that with four other top 20 finishes – Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open (5th), Volvo China Open (14th), Trophee Hassan II (17th) and ISPS Handa Perth International (19th). But he knows the margins between success and failure are so fine, having identified a key area for his own improvement.
“I’m working hard on my putting,” he said. “If I could knock just one putt a round off my score then I should have a better year.”
Reflecting on the year, the former England Boys captain added: “I would have been disappointed if I had not kept my Tour card, but in my first season out to play all four rounds in two majors has made it a bit special.
“It has been a great year and hopefully I can move forward from here.”