For many professional and aspiring professional golfers, competing on the biggest Tours and in the biggest tournaments in the world is a long-held dream, and when opportunities to explore such dreams come along, the natural instinct is to â€œgrab the bull by the hornsâ€, as the old adage goes.
But not all that glitters is gold.
Five years ago, a 26-year old Michael Palmer was one of the hottest players on the Big Easy Tour, notching up a fourth spot finish in the Order of Merit in a season whose highlights included two runners-up finishes, three top-fives and three top-10s. Having turned professional in that very season and with the Sunshine Tour Qualifying School beckoning, Palmer had one idea in his head.
â€œI played really well in 2015, arguably some of the best golf in my career,â€ he says from his home in Johannesburg. â€œBetween the IGT Tour and the Big Easy Tour. I gained a lot of confidence that I would be able to compete on the Sunshine Tour. I actually managed to get my European Tour Challenge Tour card at the end of 2015. That was a huge achievement for me because I started to believe that I could possibly compete on tours around the world, never-mind just the Sunshine Tour.â€
And, so he went!
A host of new challenges lay ahead as he set his sights on transferring his now-oozing confidence to an international stage, and possibly making a success of himself on the European Challenge Tour â€“ with whom we now co-sanction three tournaments.
â€œMy form dropped,â€ he says of his immediate challenge in Europe. â€œAnd my lack of experience was evident in the situation.â€
He had made only four cuts all season long and for a player who now knew he could compete against the best of them, these were tough times.
â€œThe 2016 season on the Challenge Tour was an eye-opener for me. It showed me the extent of travel that is involved. Spending months away from home and adapting to new countries, and conditions. It was a great learning experience for me. You learn a lot about yourself travelling alone and being exposed to those challenges.â€
Ever so strong through adversity and trying times, Palmer still had an ace in his hand: despite what he admits to being a miserable season abroad, he still had his Sunshine Tour status back home.
â€œI managed to salvage what was left of my Sunshine Tour season,â€ he says with aid of hindsight.
â€œI was disappointed with my efforts in Europe and felt despondent about my future as an international competitor. Since I flew back home from Europe, it took me almost two years to get my game to a place where I could play with freedom and confidence again.â€
Those two years was the same 2016 and the 2017 season when he finished 86th on the Order of Merit.
â€œA natural reaction to any kind of adversity is to try harder and attempt to fix the issues,â€ Palmer says of his next move from a place heâ€™d found himself in.
â€œI went “searching”. Searching for the answers in my swing, in my routines, in my equipment, anything that I could use as the “thing” to get my game back.â€
His results in the first seven events of the 2018/19 season didnâ€™t offer much hope as he missed every cut but then, boom! His breakthrough victory in the KCB Karen Masters in Nairobi in July of 2018 and then everything seemed to fall in its right place. The win was followed by a second-place finish in the Royal Swazi Spa Challenge and a fifth-spot in the Sun Carnival City Challenge the next month. Three more top-10s â€“ eighth in the Zanaco Masters of 2019, fifth in the Royal Swazi Spa Challenge and third in the Vodacom Origins of Golf at Sishen and while he could not defend the title, his 15th place finish at the KCB Karen Masters formed part of the seasonâ€™s highlights.
â€œI played some of my most consistent golf of my career leading up to the season, and fortunately, that form continued onto the next season,â€ Palmer notes.
â€œI think the most important factors in the success of the 2018/19 season was the growth and building that was done leading up to the season. For two years I improved my swing, mental approach, expectations and that all added up to small incremental improvements that gave me the confidence I needed to play better golf.
â€œI felt that I was heading for another high finish on the order of merit in 2019. I had a busy schedule towards the middle of the year. I decided to pursue sponsorship opportunities in the states, I competed in the Alfred Dunhill Links in Scotland, played in the Durban stretch in SA, attempted to qualify for my card at the European Q-School in Spain, rushed back for the Alfred Dunhill at Leopard Creek, and finally playing in Mauritius to cap off a stretch of miserable golf and nothing to show for my efforts to compete on tours around the world â€“ my head was fried!
â€œGolf is a fickle game, one moment you are seeking new avenues to further your career and the next you are tumbling down a negative spiral of disappointment. I got ahead of myself and very quickly I learned you cannot take any achievements in this game for granted.â€
Through all that, and even against a season of two-halves such as the one he had before golf was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Palmer yearns for one thing.
â€œI love competing and the rush of being in contention down the stretch of the final round is addictive,â€ he states.
â€œEspecially when the outcome would mean a drastic change to your career. Everyone on the Sunshine Tour is able to win an event. We have world-class players on our tour and it makes it so difficult to be consistently successful. Even with the “winners’ mentality, you have to get lucky and hopefully the week your game decides to come together is the week you get the good bounces.â€
He is home nursing an injury to his arm right now but he will hope the return of professional tournaments will coincide with his own recovery, and just maybe he might just get the bounces once more. Moreover, up to this point, returning back home was not such a bad idea after all.