With another 290-yard drive thumped down the middle of the manicured fairway at The Wisley, Jimmy Bullard turns around, pumps his fist and shouts: “I just love this game!”
The 35-year-old no longer performs among football’s millionaire elite in front of packed houses at Old Trafford and Anfield. Instead, he gets his kicks trying to make his name in golf. The former Premier League star turned pro in 2013 after a persistent knee injury wrecked his first career. But he is under no illusions about the tough task ahead and admits he will have to work as hard as he has ever done if he is to make a go of his second sporting life.
“It’s so hard when you play football for a long time and all of a sudden you’ve got no direction,” he says. “You’ve got no team, no manager, no chairman. You haven’t got a buzz in your life like you once had. It’s cut short so sharp, it’s strange, a weird feeling and can be quite depressing – not depressing, that’s the wrong word… down at times. But this is brilliant. My main reason for being here is to get a bit of direction. Since I finished in football I’ve had no sport in my life, no football. I’ve always been geared towards something for the weekend, always had competition. I’ve always loved my golf so I thought, ‘why not give it a crack?’ That’s what’s giving me a buzz now. I want to hear people turn round and say ‘he can play. He’s tried his arm at another sport and delivered’.”
Of course, former footballers attempting to make their way in the world of golf is nothing new – former West Ham and England full-back Julian Dicks is among those who went down this route (and failed). The chirpy Bullard knows this better than anyone, but is determined – and confident he will succeed whether others have failed. That, in fact, is what is driving him on. “I want to be known as a golfer as opposed to a former footballer,” he stresses. “I just want a bit of recognition and to prove to myself I can play golf as a professional and win some money at the same time.”
Though he doesn’t fall short in the confidence department, Bullard is taking it slowly. “Yes, I’ve got the belief, but I’m a realist as well. You can get carried away. I’ve always said that without belief I’d never have achieved what I did in football. You can have all the skill in the world – and I’m not saying I did – but if you haven’t got the belief, you’ll only be half the player you could be.
“God knows how far I can take it,” he reflects. “But I plan to give it a really good crack next year – I want to qualify and play in as many EuroPro tournaments as I can. I know the main European Tour is too far away. Am I that good yet? No. But I’d love to one day be competing at the top end of the EuroPro which would put me in touching distance of the Challenge Tour. One step at a time,” he insists.
Bullard is deadly serious about his golf – he’s a daily figure at the exclusive Surrey club (“it’s my office these days”) – and on the verge of taking tuition for the first time.
“I’ve never had a lesson, but the time has come to change that. I’ve had a good look around to see who is available and the best coach for me. I’ve a few in mind and will narrow them down in readiness for next year.” For a brief while the jokes and laughter stop as the former Wigan, Fulham and Hull midfielder points out: “Whatever I go in for I give 100 per cent. I’m not just there to make up the numbers. Call me silly or whatever, but I actually believe I could win a EuroPro event.”
Clearly it’s a different ball game in more ways than one. “I’ve had a reality check,” he admits. “At one EuroPro tournament I got chatting to a young lad and asked him where he was staying. I was in a swanky hotel and he said he was staying in a tent. It cost him £270 to enter and his digs were a tent and he even brought his own food! That’s how hard it is, but at least he had the last laugh as he managed to qualify.”
Bullard, though, does know what it takes to make your way up from the bottom. “I’ve played in every league in England from the basement to the Premier League and I know I’ve played against players in the First Division who could easily have played in the Premier League. So surely that works for golf as well?”
How do his EuroPro rivals view a former footballer on their patch? “It’s been sweet, they’re a good bunch,” he says. “Some are so focused they don’t say a lot, but that’s their way. I haven’t met into any wrong ’uns yet.”
Bullard is simply thrilled to have some drive again, even if it is a world away from the cauldron of the Premier League. “It scared me when I finished football. Because it came to a sudden stop, I hadn’t anything planned,” he admits. “There was nothing to give me a spark and buzz like football did… but golf has definitely helped.
“Obviously it’s not the same but competitive golf gives me a good percentage of the buzz. Competing against the EuroPro boys gave me a bit of excitement and something to focus on, although clearly not at the same heights as I achieved in my footie career.” At his peak, Bullard was bought for £5m by Hull and made five England squads… but without stepping onto the pitch.
“I’m as competitive as they come,” he stresses. “I love fishing as well, though I only take part in match fishing competitions which proves that competition is the only thing that turns me on.”
That probably applies to all footballers who have graced golf at amateur level, playing off single-figure handicaps and regularly winning monthly medals. But not one has enjoyed success at pro level. Bullard is trying to break new ground…
“Footballers make good golfers due to their skill and hand-eye co-ordination,” he explains. “They’re around a ball, admittedly a moving one, all the time, but a ball is a ball. Footballers generally finish for the day around 1pm so what other sport can they go and play after training?”
A host of European Tour players – including Paul Casey, David Lynn and Francesco Molinari – are Wisley members. “There’s usually a Tour player around and often I join up with them,” says Jimmy. “I’ve learnt by just watching. You play the game your own way, although I’ve always tried to pick ideas off other people and that’s what I did in football too. My eyes and ears are always wide open.”
He’s relieved many members of “a few quid – I’ll play for anything. It adds a bit of extra spice.” Thankfully there was nothing but pride at stake in TG’s game with him; on the final green he had his arms aloft after sinking the winning putt. “I love winning – even though we’re not playing for anything. I love winning!”
It will be interesting to see how far that passion takes him.