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When Chubby met Rika

Batibasaga at the Australian Open (Photo: Bruce Young)
Chance meetings are often the way that great relationships begin. Whether of the business, friendship or romantic variety, the most enduring can often begin in the most unusual of circumstances.

25 year old Queensland golfer, Rika Batibasaga, is a case in point. When responding to a question raised by Open Champion, Darren Clarke, and iconic player manager, Chubby Chandler, at the Australian PGA Championship in November of 2011, Batibasaga could not have imagined that their initial dialogue would, potentially, set up his professional career.

On the driving range at Hyatt Regency Coolum just before his opening round of the event, Batibasaga hadn't even noticed Clarke and Chandler walking behind him as Clarke prepared to practice after his disappointing opening round earlier in the day.

That Batibasaga was even playing in the tournament adds another element to this story and further highlights the random nature of the meeting. Batisbasaga had shot 62 in pre qualifying at the Wynnum Golf Club in Brisbane on the Monday to secure one of just three places available from a field of 105 at that venue to gain access to the event.

Batibasaga recalls what happened a few minutes after Clarke and Chandler arrived on the practice fairway. "I was warming up and after a while Darren yells out to me "˜Why don't you have a (expletive) big bag with your (expletive) name on it'." Clearly Clarke was so taken with what he was seeing of Batibasaga's ball striking and classy golf swing that he could not believe he was watching an un-contracted player or one who had not bothered to put a name on his bag for identification purposes.

Initially a little taken aback by the comment from one of the game's superstars, Batibasaga responded. "Mate I am just a rookie starting out, I am a big fan of yours and have a great week." Clarke would then go on to say that that was the very reason he (Batibasaga) needed his name on the bag. Still a little in awe of the circumstances Batibasaga said, "Thanks mate and (again) to have a good week."

Fortunately for Batisbasaga, his Gold Coast based coach, Kevin Healey, had been observing Clarke and Chandler watching his client and was aware that they seemed to be impressed by what they were witnessing. Healey takes up the story. "Chubby was having a coffee and a pie and Darren was having a cigar and and a coffee and as Rika worked his way through his bag I could see they were watching. He was hitting it well and you could sense they were taking notice.

"As Rika got to the longer clubs it was then that Darren shouted out, in a complimentary way, about his name on the bag."

As Batibasaga left the range Chandler called Healey aside and asked if he was Batibasaga's coach. When that was confirmed Chandler asked for more details starting with the unusual name, which in itself was a tricky one, but clearly Chandler had been impressed by what he had seen and wanted to know more about this "˜talented unknown'. Clarke chimed in at that point.

"That kid makes a nice move and that is pretty impressive ball striking." Chandler then asked if Healey could email him with some details as he and Clarke were keen to follow Batibasaga's progress and gave Healey his business card.

"I didn't want to tell Rika immediately as he had a tournament to play and I was keen to keep it from him for a couple of days," added Healey. "When Rika first heard of it he was clearly excited but we kept things under wraps as we were all a bit unsure as to where it would lead and didn't want to get ahead of ourselves.

"I then sent Chubby some details but didn't hear back until early January when I got an email from him asking where the information was. I quickly sent it off again and within a few days he messaged me saying he wanted to have a chat as he was keen to run some thoughts by me.

"While all this was going on Darren Clarke had been keeping an eye on the progress of the Victorian Open as having played here in Australia over the summer he was aware of the schedule and knew it was on. Rika played well at the event and in fact was in contention after the first couple of rounds.

"When Chubby and I finally got talking over the phone he said that Darren had been going on about Rika in fact he hadn't stopped and was still talking about the fact that he had not had a name on his bag, that he was so impressive and that he had made a good start at the Vic Open.

"He (Chubby) indicated that there was something about Rika that they wanted to explore further. "Chubby asked me what the plans were for Rika and I explained that after the Victorian Open he was off to Asian Tour School and then we would see where things went from there. Chubby then said to have a think about a plan he had for Rika.

"He asked me to put the idea to Rika of coming to the UK where he (Chandler) would give him the use of a car, the use of an apartment above his office near Manchester, a card with a limited amount of cash to bankroll things, some starts on the Euro Pro Tour and hopefully an occasional start on the Challenge Tour."

Perhaps understandably, Healey's first response was to ask Chandler if he was serious as it seemed almost too good to be true. Clearly he was and so at that point Healey decided to tell Batibasaga of Chandler's offer. "I thought it was great when I first saw Chubby's (business) card at the PGA but imagined things would not evolve for a few years," said Batibasga.

"Then when Kevin outlined the actual offer I was still not totally convinced. When Chubby called me during the Victorian Open it became obvious that it was for real."

So what was it about the 25 year old Queenslander that appealed to Chandler? "I was sitting next to where Rika was hitting," said Chandler. "As always I was watching a few guys in the immediate vicinity and while there was still not a lot of culture about Rika he was a very impressive hitter and the sound off the club was very good. After watching him for a few minutes I told Darren to have a look. He started watching him and it was at that point that Darren started the conversation about the name on the bag.

"When we started to talking to Kevin I thought there might be something we could do to help. I said to Darren we should work out a plan for him and so we will set him up to play over here. To bring him over costs us an airfare and we have an apartment here and he will be surrounded by a lot of people his own age some of who are in our office."

Chandler's office is of course that of sports management company ISM who not only manage Clarke but golfers such as Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen amongst others. "We will give him a chance - not at a high level to start with but allow him to find his feet on the Euro Pro Tour and with a couple of Challenge Tour starts," added Chandler.

"If he gets good results we will help him move on and if he doesn't then we will help him find his right level. All this will be with a view to going to Tour School in September.

"We will have a pretty good marker as to how good he is and how well he will settle in. The last thing we want to do is throw him in out of his depth. It will be different for him. The weather will be different and he will be a long way from home.

"Rika is quite excited because I am a rugby league supporter and we have a little box at Warrington and we do quite a lot of sport. We go to Manchester United and Bolton games so there is a lot to keep him interested and he will have an existence, in addition to his golfing pursuits, which is so important.

"Darren is very much involved in this and will take a close interest in Rika's progress. Although Darren did not play all that well at Coolum, he had such a great time there he was keen to put something back into the local golf and it could be said that this is a way of doing it. We had a great time there."

So just who is Rika Batibasaga? Even without the amazing story above, Batibasaga's golfing journey is already an extraordinary one for many reasons. Batibasaga's father, Asaeli, was a rugby union winger for Fiji before settling in Australia to play rugby league. His mother Bev is an Australian and although their marriage did not last long, the sporting genes have been significant in Batibasaga's development as a sportsperson and a golfer.

Batibasaga played rugby as a junior but turned to golf at about the age of 12 and became serious at the age of 14. Batibasaga first began to play golf as a youngster at Albert Park in Melbourne where his mother and her new partner Michael moved after the earlier marriage had broken up. On his return to Brisbane Batibasaga played golf throughout his amateur career at Indooroopilly Golf Club where, in 2007, he won the Queensland Amateur Championship.

It was at Indooroopilly that Batibasaga was taken under the wing of coach, Martin Gould, who coached him until he joined Kevin Healey twelve months ago. During his time in amateur golf Batibasaga was a player good enough to win the 2005 Fiji Open and the 2007 Queensland Amateur Championships.

In 2008 Batibasaga decided to test his skills on the Gateway Tour in the US, a Pay to Play series of events, his particular series in 2008 played on the east coast of Florida. He finished third in an early season event that year but soon after suffered a psychotic episode and found himself in an institution.

"I had a mental breakdown and was without sleep for six days," said Batabasaga. "I have since been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I have had treatment for it but at the time it was awful. I felt it coming on but had no clue what was happening as there had been no history of it in our family."

Batibasaga spent time in a psychiatric facility in the US and again back here at home but with the opportunity to get assistance and (eventually) a clear diagnosis, he was able to work his way through it. Amongst other things and as part of his recovery he spoke to schools about his plight, partly to help himself but to help others also. It took Batibasaga nearly two years however to get to the point where he was able to compete again.

"I always wanted to get back into it but the medication I was on actually keeps you down a lot and my motivation was low. Once the medication became unnecessary I started to get the drive to want to play sport and golf again."

Batibasaga was, and still is, a good friend of Jason Day's and, having spent time with him in the US prior to his meltdown, saw what is possible at the elite end of the game. In 2010 he returned to competitive golf and began to regain some of the form that saw him as such an achiever in earlier times. He actually played his way into a successful Australian Nomura Cup side in 2011.

After an unsuccessful tilt at qualifying for the PGA Tour in mid 2011, at a time when he was clearly not ready for it, Batibisaga set his mind to the PGA Tour of Australasia with the aim of earning his card there and building his professional career off that.

Entering the WA PGA Championship at the Vines in October of last year, Batibasaga Monday qualified for the event and led after the first round with an opening 66. He finished well back but again he had displayed just what a talent he is. Importantly for his capacity to handle what lay ahead and taking into account his past, Batibasaga's coach, Healey, had the foresight to introduce him, via Skype, to renowned England based Mind Coach Dr Karl Morris.

That connection would help later too as Darren Clarke also works extensively with Morris, providing yet another level of synergy in the relationship between Chandler, Batibasaga and Clarke. Morris described what it is he and Batibasaga worked on.

"Great players understand the need to control both the golf ball and the self. We have worked on key strategies with Rika to this end in particular to make sure that what he does even before he steps into the ball is firmly planted as a routine in his mind. "Also to make sure that in practice he 'simulates' the game in a way that puts him under pressure as opposed to just bashing golf balls. He is, though, clearly a great talent and a pleasure to work with."

A few weeks later Batibasaga managed to earn his playing rights for the 2012 PGA Tour of Australasia and while, at this stage, his ranking will not necessarily earn him starts in the bigger events, it will earn him the chance to play the Tier 2 events and events such as the New Zealand PGA Pro Am Championship which he plays next week.

It might just be, however, that the lifeline that has been thrown to him by Chubby Chandler and Darren Clarke provides another fork in the road to a successful career in professional golf.

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