Chris Paisley reflects on becoming a European Tour winner and sets his sights on the next step on the ladder. Dean Bailey caught up with him
At the close of 2017, Chris Paisley was in need of a new outlook.
Now at the end of January, it’s in need of another update.
The first four weeks of 2018 have been the best of Paisley’s career as a professional. His first win on the European Tour – at the BMW South African Open with wife Keri on the bag – was followed by a tied-fifth place finish at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a fifth place finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and a tied-27th finish in the Maybank Championship.
His statistics are equally impressive. A combined 66 under-par for four events, Paisley has risen to 82nd in the Official World Golf Rankings and sits fifth in the Race to Dubai when we meet near his family home in the North East, a world away from Africa, the Middle East and Malaysia on a snowy February morning.
“It’s still surreal, even four weeks later,” says Chris having watched the highlights of his win for the first time earlier that morning.
“Everything about the win in South Africa was perfect. I played pretty flawless golf against one of the best players in the world. I stuck to my gameplan of being aggressive off the tee and conservative into most of the greens, and got the job done. It felt quite easy while I was in it all, which sounds so odd looking back at it now.
“The first time it started to sink in was on Thursday morning in Abu Dhabi. I got quite emotional reading all the messages from people. A lot of the guys came over on the range and said how impressed they were with my final round, which is a great feeling. To hear that from guys like Henrik Stenson, Rory, Justin Rose and Ernie Els was incredible.”
Chris, who followed in the footsteps of Hartlepool’s Graeme Storm – winner of the South African Open in 2017, was without his long-time caddy Sean Russell in South Africa – his wife Keri picking up the bag for the week and becoming a star in her own right.
“It was an interesting week without Sean but we worked really well together.
“I had to work out the numbers myself and it made being decisive that little bit easier. Keri did a great job all week – though we’re both happy to have Sean back on the bag now,” adds Chris as Keri nods in agreement after an exhausting week.
The win kicked off 2018 in grand style following a disappointing 2017, which saw Chris maintain his European Tour card through the Access List despite finishing outside the top 110 players in the Race to Dubai.
That experience in 2017, another season where Chris admits he spent too long looking over his shoulder rather than looking forward, set Chris on the road to winning his first European tour title.
“It started while we were waiting for the flight away from the last event of the year,” says Chris.
“Without realising it consciously, I had become happy with keeping my card and being a bit of a journeyman. Generally, I’d start the year slowly, step it up in the middle, then fade away at the end.
“We talked about it a lot this winter, about pushing on and stepping up. We set some high goals for the year – to get into the world’s top 100, get into the majors, win a tournament and get into the top 60 in the Race to Dubai.
“Having those specific goals really improved my focus over the winter. I’ve always been one to work hard and put the hours in but I had started to go through the motions a little bit. For the first time in a while, I felt driven and had so much more clarity to what I was doing.
“There were a lot of contributing factors. The forward mindset change was first then it was about bringing more pressure into my practice, which helped me feel sharp as soon as I turned up in South Africa. I also made some big swing improvements with Nico [Andrew Nicholson] over the winter to simplify things and strengthen my impact position. The last piece was combining 12 new clubs and a new ball from Callaway with a change in my setup to get four wedges in the bag to focus my mind on sharpening my short game back up to where it should be – as a big strongpoint in my game.”
That approach benefitted Chris throughout January – his scoring average, driving accuracy, driving distance and greens in regulation stats all up on his averages from his previous four years on tour – and ensured he kept performing in the following weeks.
“In the past I’ve been one of those players who can play poorly after a good finish – I worked hard on not letting that happen this time and it paid off.
“I was clear I didn’t want the win in South Africa to be a freak result which defined my career. I see it as a step along the way to a great career.
“In Abu Dhabi and Dubai I wasn’t quite as sharp as I was in South Africa but Sean was fantastic and my game was still in excellent shape. By the time we got to the weekend in Malaysia I was exhausted and made two silly double bogeys on Saturday, which was disappointing. Without a doubt, that four weeks was the greatest run in my career so far.”
Moving up the ladder really begins with Chris’ next European Tour start, the WGC Mexico Championship in March.
“Who knows where things are going? You see it every year, the likes of Tyrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood in the last few years, stepping up the ladder quickly having got that first win. I need to keep doing what I’m doing, stay focussed and not settle, and maybe it’s my turn to do all that. A good result in Mexico will give me a big world ranking boost, then maybe I get into the WGC Matchplay, do well there and I might get into The Masters… All these tournaments are on my radar now and those steps up the ladder feel a lot closer than they ever have done.
“It feels very achievable now. It feels so much better to see the carrot rather than the stick.”
Admitting that he is often the last to believe in himself, Chris is now ready to take on the best players in the world week-in week-out, and he’s setting his sights on the biggest prizes.
“I suppose it’s my personality; I’m quite shy and have almost been apologetic about being successful in the past. It’s time to push on and show the world what I can do – even something like getting into the Ryder Cup team feels achievable right now.
“Having got a taste of winning, I want to do it again. There’s no more looking over my shoulder.”