NICK Cullen buries his feet into the sand, readying to hit a most difficult shot. Through the tense quiet which has enveloped Metropolitan's 18th green, he hears a jeer from the grandstand. He has to decide between getting angry or hitting the ‘Shot of a Lifetime’.
He chooses the latter.
“I don’t ever want to have to have that shot again because I honestly don’t think I would be able to produce what I did there,” says Cullen.
However, not only did that famous bunker shot lead him to victory at the 2014 Australian Masters, it gave Cullen an invite to the lucrative WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Ohio.
In a sport that offers much less to those just below the top tier, Cullen now has an opportunity to, again, make himself known in a crowd of bigger names.
The 31-year-old is currently based in the United States. Atlanta to be precise.
Love forced the move after he became engaged to American girlfriend Megan during a romantic trip to Italy in May.
But there are other, golf related benefits to basing yourself in a country with the best golf tour in the world.
“It’s just where you want to be as a pro-golfer,” Cullen says. “Being in the US and having a bit more access to Web.com Tour events and PGA Tour qualifiers.
“Ideally, I’ll get a tour card over here and try and work my way up. Hopefully, after Bridgestone, I’ll have a clearer idea about what I’m doing.
“I’ve got final stage Web.com Tour qualifying school at the end of the year if I need to go to that. “
It hasn’t been an ideal preparation for Cullen heading into the biggest and richest tournament he has ever played.
During a wet, cold Atlanta April, Cullen decided to practise his swing by hitting over 2000 golf balls off mats at a local driving range while under cover and out of the rain. The result was a bruised fourth metacarpal in his left hand, a bone that makes up what is commonly referred to as the ring finger.
Later that month, and before knowing the full extent of the injury, he played the China Open. Pain in his hand at impact meant he baseball-gripped his clubs, but Cullen still made the cut and finished in a tie for 56th.
MRI scans on his return to Atlanta identified the bruised bone and Cullen took time away from competitive golf, including skipping US Open qualifying.
After believing the injury was healed, he headed to Japan for June’s ISPS Handa Global Cup but, despite making the cut, withdrew due to pain from the problematic bone.
In a dent to his preparation for Firestone, those two rounds in Japan are the only competitive golf he has played since teeing up at the China Open in April.
“You think it’s innocent and it’s not going to be a problem,” says Cullen of practising off the artificial turf mats.
“All of a sudden you’re out for three months and you’re struggling to get back to fitness and missing the game. You really appreciate your health when you don’t have it.
“The swing felt great, too. It was really coming together. I just didn’t do it the right way.”
Despite the injury, which hasn’t fully healed, and a lack of competitive golf, Cullen still has a positive outlook about his chances at Firestone next weekend.
The tournament doesn’t have a cut and, providing they finish their four rounds, every player is guaranteed a share of the prize money.
“I’ll play one-handed if I have to,” he says of the AU$12.65 million purse on offer.
“It’s definitely not ideal preparation for a massive event, but I guess you deal with what you’ve been given.
“My short game feels great. My putting feels great. It’s just trying to get the swing tempo going and trying to get the ball going straight as I’ve been a bit crooked with the driver of late.
“I don’t think there is much pressure on me at all. I’ve barely played in three months and you’ve got the best players in the world there.
“Anyone in the field, if they’re playing their best, can win it. If you’re playing your best, you’re always going to be in contention. It’s just the guys like Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, when they’re not at their best they’re still able to compete at that level.
“I’m just looking forward to having a good week and going back out there and playing golf because I really do miss it.”
His caddie at Firestone will be his best friend, Beau Brown, who also caddied for Cullen at the 2013 Australian Masters at Royal Melbourne.
They both joined the Grange Golf Club in South Australia as teenagers and formed a friendship over many a game of golf.
When Cullen decided to go to University to study International Business and International Studies, Brown did a traineeship at Royal Adelaide, though has since swapped the clubs for spanners and is a plumber in Naracoorte.
“He knows what he is talking about when it comes to golf,” says Cullen.
Being based permanently in Atlanta means Cullen misses Beau and his other friends. Though he has formed friendships since moving abroad, it’s not quite the same.
“It’s great that he is here and it’s definitely going to be a lot of fun to hang out with him and relax during the week.”
On the Sunday of the Australian Masters last year, Brown drove five hours from Naracoorte to have breakfast with his close friend. That evening they shared a celebratory drink together and Brown skipped work on Monday.
Together, they share a love of golf even if their paths differ after their time at the Grange.
“I turned pro when I was 25,” Cullen says. “So, definitely a lot later than guys these days.
“I didn’t really trust my game when I was younger and I didn’t think I was good enough.
“I always had a quick swing. I guess the belief wasn’t there.
“But I worked harder and played better and turned pro then had to start from scratch again because it’s a whole different world when you get out there.”
Despite being a three-time winner (the 2012 Indonesian Open, 2013 Queensland Open and the 2014 Australian Masters), Cullen still struggles to find tournaments to play with status only on the OneAsia and Australian tours.
“When golf is going well, it’s amazing. There is no better job in the world,” says Cullen.
“But when you’re not playing so great and you’re down a little bit, it’s definitely a hard way to make a living.
“It’s very lonely, too. Living out of your suitcase and missing your friends and family – it’s got it’s ups and downs. But I love it.”
Only a limited number of aspiring golfers ever make it as professionals, something Cullen is well aware of noting he has a number of friends he thinks have better swings than him.
“There’s so many awesome players that haven’t made it,” says Cullen.
“It’s just not that easy. There’s a lot more to it. You really have to put in. You don’t realise how hard you have to work until you’re struggling and you don’t have a choice.
“Everyone thinks when you’re a professional golfer it’s sunshine and rainbows, but there is definitely another side to it. It’s just like any job.”
And that job reached its best moment so far when, last year, he clinched the Australian Masters with a tremendous up-and-down from one of the toughest spots imaginable.
“You practice those shots a lot and when it comes down to it you go blank and you just do what you normally do and hope it works out,” says Cullen.
Even with a patron in the grandstand trying his best to put Cullen off his game, he believes how you play golf shouldn’t depend on the moment.
“You do it every other day whether it’s to win a tournament, whether it’s the first hole of a tournament or playing with your friends on a Friday,” he says.
“You should be going through the same process.”
During the presentation at Metropolitan, Cullen was visibly emotional when he thanked his family for the support they had shown him in the difficult years prior, when he was trying to make it as a self-sufficient professional.
“They’ve always been there. I wasn’t one of those guys that came out when I was 17 and won everything and did great.
“I definitely wouldn’t have been in that situation and had the chance to win a golf tournament if it wasn’t for them.”
It’s well known that his twin brother Dan represented Australia in cricket at test and one day level and Cullen says his brother has also been pivotal in his golf success.
“We have a very competitive nature being two boys growing up together,” says Cullen.
“One of the reasons I took up golf more seriously was because he kept beating me at cricket. I wasn’t going to lose to him all the time!”
During his earlier years as a pro, Cullen was playing a pro-am in Queensland and three-putted the final hole to fall from an outright victory to a tie for first.
More importantly to Nick at the time, it meant less prize money.
He was angry at himself, but Dan told him not to worry.
“It’s not about the money.” Dan said. “You went there to win and you did. The money doesn’t matter.”
“Looking back, he was totally right,” says Nick.
“The more you worry about the money, the harder it is. It’s just about trying to win and he definitely helped me realise that.”
The advice on how to win a tournament eventually led Cullen to the triumph at Metropolitan and an invite to an illustrious and rich event in the United States.
As for defending the Australian Masters at Huntingdale Golf Club, it looks unlikely as it clashes with European Tour qualifying school.
Cullen will still play the Australian Open and PGA Championship, but that doesn’t take away the disappointment at the tough career choices a professional golfer has to make.
“It’s really disappointing, but you have to focus on trying to move your career in the right direction,” says Cullen.
“Unfortunately defending the title is a sacrifice I’ve got to make for that.”
Just like making a choice between his career and defending a title, Nick Cullen made a choice between letting one person affect him before he hit that ‘Shot of a Lifetime’ out of the bunker at Metropolitan.
If his choice to skip this year’s Australian Masters is as rewarding as not taking a backward step when one person tried to bring him down, then Cullen still has a long and successful career to come.
He will now tee it up at one of the biggest tournaments at the world.
Being an outsider before winning the Australian Masters, Cullen knows one thing for sure.
Anything can happen.
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