Dean Bailey meets Caitlin Whitehead to look back on a year of international success and learn what it takes to reach such great heights by the age of 16
Caitlin Whitehead first visited Matfen Hall six years ago, a shy girl still in primary school attending a selection day for the North of England Regional Squad. Since that first visit she has risen to the top of the girls ranks in England, representing her country around the world and winning events in Norway and Hong Kong.
Her journey has been littered with achievements since those earliest days and she is recognised as the first in a growing number of success stories from the North Region Squad coached by JJ Vallely and managed by Bryan Ross at Matfen Hall, which has seen Caitlin joined in the England squad by Whitley Bay’s Rosie Belsham and Gosforth Park Ladies’ Jess Baker while more girls are making waves at regional, national and international level.
The climb through the ranks has gone incredibly quickly, but it’s a long way from those early days travelling across to Northumberland from her home club of Kendal in Cumbria as a 10-year-old with a handicap of 10.
“I was very quiet and kept to myself when I first arrived at the Regional Squad coaching,” Caitlin explains following a catch up with JJ on the driving range. “I didn’t want my parents to leave because I was so much younger than everyone else but the girls, JJ and Bryan all helped me build my confidence. To have all that support was incredible and helped me so much when I started playing in big competitions.
“I’ve not really been overcome with nerves since, I tend to just get on with playing golf now. Going away a lot, I’ve learned to be comfortable at events, even when they’re far away from home.”
This year has brought major success on the international stage for the first time. Caitlin, who is also a member of Carus Green, first represented England in 2017 and has played a big part in the national side this season, winning the girls’ European Young Masters at Hauger Golf Club in Norway before winning the girl’s individual competition and the team event, with Finnish teammate Sakke Siltala, at the Asia Pacific Junior Golf Championship at Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club in Hong Kong.
“It’s been a very busy, very exciting year competing all over the world,” she says.
“I’ve been to some spectacular places and played in some huge events, which has been very special.
“Going away with England as part of the teams, playing in events like the Home Internationals has been amazing. Individually, winning in Norway was my highlight of the year – it was the first big win of my golfing career. Qualifying to go to Hong Kong from that and winning out there was a huge bonus.”
Caitlin has also continued to improve her game this year, focussing on her putting and overcoming a serious problem with her chipping at the start of the year.
“Going away with England is a fantastic learning experience. I get to see different parts of my game from different perspectives in new environments, and I always come back with something to put into my next round.
“My main focus this season was to improve my putting having worked on understanding my stroke with England coach Mike Kanski.
“At the start of the season I also had a mental block with my chipping, to the point I was taking four to get down from the edge of a green. To overcome that and play as well as I did this year was really important. I now know that I can fix a problem and get back to my best pretty quickly. It’s not the end of the world if something goes wrong.”
Struck up on her first visit to Matfen, the partnership between Caitlin and her coach JJ is a key part of her success.
“JJ has been really important in every step of my golfing career,” she explains.
“His coaching ethos, wanting every player to own their golf swing, is so important. I understand what I’m doing and how to fix it when I’m on the other side of the world. While I don’t need to rely on his as much, he’s still a massive support and I see him regularly.”
As well as her relationship with JJ, Caitlin has built friendships with many of the girls in the Regional Squad while leading the way for girls from the programme into the national system, and continues to attend their sessions when she can.
“I don’t think of myself as a leader, I’m just part of a squad of really talented girls. It’s been great to go back to the coaching days and see the girls come through. To be joined in the national team by Rosie and Jess this year was fantastic, and knowing that I’ve been able to go from where the girls are now to competing for England so quickly is proof that they can do it too. It would be amazing to see more girls make it into the national team from our part of the country.”
This year Caitlin will complete her GCSEs, which will shorten her summer season, but she is adamant that her school work comes before playing golf – now and in the future.
“I’m quite busy but I just prioritise things. School work always comes ahead of golf as it’s more important right now. I try and practice every day and it’s just about balancing what I need to do – there’s always time to do some putting or chipping in the living room.”
Next season will see Caitlin again compete nationally and internationally, with a busy schedule following her exams. After that she’s planning to study at sixth form before going to university in the US.
“I can’t wait to get my GCSEs out the way and be able to get out on the golf course to release all the stress from my exams.
“I’d love to be able to go to university in the US in the future, but that’s a long way off.
“My dream is the same as most golfers, I want to compete on the tour, but there’s a long way to go until then!” she adds.
For now, there’s a drive back home to Kendal with dad Sean, who along with mum Donna are the most important people in Caitlin’s success to-date.
“My mum and dad are so important. My dad bought me a set of plastic clubs when I was five and I played with those in the back garden until we I went off to Kendal and played my first few holes when I was seven – it took about two hours to play four holes!
“I wouldn’t have been able to compete all over the country as a junior and I wouldn’t be where I am now without them helping me choose the right path to go down.”
It’s remarkable to chart Caitlin’s success and her will to play golf at the highest level at the age of just 16, who knows what she’ll be able to achieve in the next six years.