Dean Bailey talks to NE/NW PGA champion Mark Ridley to learn about his journey into professional golf and what lies ahead as he prepares for his first Staysure Tour event
There are many routes into professional golf. Some players come through the amateur ranks, play college golf in the US and set out on mini tours with the dream of making it to the European Tour. Others leave school, maybe play for the county and then train with the PGA and become club pros. Few spend 20 years in a print factory before signing up to the PGA’s four-year course.
That unconventional route was the one chosen by Mark Ridley, who at the age of 40 started out on his PGA training having joined his friend Shaun Cowell, who he grew up with playing golf at Beamish Park, at Custom Fit Golf at South Moor Golf Club.
Jump forward to 2018 and Mark now holds one of the North East’s oldest golf titles, the Northumberland and Durham Open, and the NE/NW PGA’s Championship, which he won at Brancepeth Castle Golf Club.
Ridley also came within a shot of winning the Silversea Senior PGA Championship at Foxhills. He lost in a playoff to Lindrick’s John King, though the result booked his place in the Staysure PGA Seniors Championship at The London Golf Club alongside the likes of Colin Montgomerie and Paul McGinley later this year.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season,” says Ridley.
“I’ve played some really good golf since the start of the year with a good result out in Abu Dhabi and a second place finish in the NE/NW PGA event in Spain before we even got underway locally.”
From those events, Ridley’s form continued as the PGA calendar got underway with events around the North East and Cumbria.
“It was great to win the Northumberland and Durham Open at City of Newcastle. It’s one of our biggest events and you want to play well, particularly with some of the region’s best amateurs competing alongside us. I had to fly the flag for the pros with so many of them playing really well on the day.
“At the PGA Championship I kept the score ticking over all day and just got through a really tough day with the heat and a challenging setup at Brancepeth.
“The key so far this year has been keep everything tight and staying in contention through every round. Apart from that, it’s been very tidy golf most of the way. I’m really pleased with the way I’m playing, I hope I can carry it on for the rest of the year.”
Ridley’s no stranger to winning – he’s a former Durham County Champion and held a handicap of plus-two before turning pro. He also counts himself lucky to be playing the game having found out his heart was in an irregular rhythm late last year.
“We had a test day at the golf club, they hooked me up and found my pulse was all over the place. “After a few more tests I ended up in surgery having my heart shocked back into rhythm. That was pretty scary but it was two days before I went to Abu Dhabi, and since then I’ve felt great and my golf has been excellent.”
Back on the golf course, Ridley’s got a lot more golf to look forward to this summer. A trip to qualifying for the Senior Open Championship at St Andrews will be followed by his visit to The London Golf Club and a first appearance on the Staysure Tour.
“Qualifying for The London Golf Club, having been eligible for just a couple of years, is fantastic. I’m really looking forward to going down there – it should be an interesting spell, particularly if I make it to St Andrews in the middle of it all. It will feel like I’ve hit the big time if I can play well in all of those.“
Ridley’s career as a pro has been filled with success so far. He’s claimed 29 professional wins to-date and combines his playing career with work at South Moor.
“We’ve got an excellent local PGA scene in the North East/North West PGA with some very good pro ams and some supremely talented golfers turning up week-in week-out. I’ve got to balance golf with working five days a week in the shop with Shaun, which is tough, but it all falls into place and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
“Some guys who’ve only ever played golf sometimes lose their understanding of how lucky we are to play tournaments and make a living from golf. I like to think I’ve got a great understanding of it having been on the other side for so long. It really puts what we’re doing into perspective and there’s not a day where I think I’d rather be back in my old job.”
The choice to leave the printing job was an easy one, and Ridley has never looked back. “It was an easy decision when Shaun mentioned he was looking for somebody to come and work in the shop and train as an assistant professional.
“It was hard work getting the books out after 25 years and doing the studying for the PGA degree programme but my wife Michelle was a great help. I was definitely one of the oldest graduates in my year. I played in the Assistants Championship with a lot of very young lads, some of which were young enough to be my sons!
“I was very happy and proud to be a county player and a good amateur. The route to becoming a pro wasn’t obvious back then, there were very few players on scholarships in America and there weren’t the opportunities to play mini tours.
“I’d never thought about turning pro or training with the PGA before Shaun mentioned it. It’s definitely been the right decision and I’m really happy to be lucky enough to be out here playing golf.”
In the long term, Ridley hasn’t got a concrete plan other than playing locally and heading to a handful of national PGA events. “I’ve thought about going to qualifying school for the Staysure Tour but I haven’t had a run at it yet. I’m not writing it off in the future. Who knows, if I have a good couple of weeks in the PGA event and qualify for Senior Open I may be out there a lot more.”
There’s a lot more golf in Ridley’s calendar this summer and who knows, we may see him walking over the Swilken Bridge on the 18th at St Andrews any day now. Not too bad for an ex-printer from Lanchester who turned his hobby into a career.