Almost two years ago to the day, the European Solheim Cup captain Lotta Neumann announced her wildcard selections for the upcoming event at the Colorado Golf Club.
Among them was Charley Hull – a 17-year-old Ladies European Tour rookie who would become the youngest player ever in the cup’s history. “I find her energetic and fearless,” said Neumann at the time. “She’s just a great competitor.”
What did Hull herself make of the news of her historic call-up?
“It was my first year as a pro and I was just going with the flow,” she tells Sport in an exclusive interview. “That’s always the way I’ve been, really – I didn’t expect too much. So, when I heard, it was a case of: ‘Yeah, I’m in the team – that’s good.’
“Before the team was picked, though, I remember not being too fussed either way – it was my friend’s birthday that weekend and I didn’t really want to miss the party. It was almost like I wouldn’t have been disappointed to not make the team, because there was something else for me to do away from golf that weekend. But then I was selected and it struck me that playing in the Solheim Cup was a pretty good reason to miss my friend’s birthday.”
As things turned out, Hull merely replaced one celebration with another. Europe dominated from start to finish to claim a first ever Solheim Cup victory on American soil, and the 17-year-old played her part – two points from three matches, including a staggering 5&4 demolition of former US Women’s Open champion Paula Creamer in the singles. “Yeah, that was a lot of fun,” she smiles at the recollection. “I really enjoyed it.”
Putts and parties
We meet Hull, now a veteran of 19, on a warm summer’s afternoon at Buckinghamshire Golf Club in the picture-postcard village of Denham. She bears the relaxed demeanour of an old pro at absolute ease in her surroundings, yet answers questions with the breathless rapidity of an ingenue desperate to reach the end of her sentence. A reminder that, for all her abundance of talent, she is still a teenager.
“I felt like I got on a roll, but I wasn’t really thinking about that much as I went round,” says Hull when we ask her about the breathtaking finalround 62 that helped her to her first tournament win as a professional: the 2014 Lalla Meryem Cup, in Morocco.
“Actually, what I remember most is thinking about what I was going to wear for my birthday, which was the week after. I was wondering what I might find in Topshop, because I needed to get a dress, but then at the same time, I kept rolling in birdie putts. I started to realise that I was going along alright and should probably start concentrating. I found myself in a playoff, then hit a 4-iron to, like, three feet and holed the putt for birdie.”
Victory in Morocco earned Hull a tidy €67,500, and was one of nine top-10 finishes that saw her top the European Order of Merit standings for 2014. “That was good too,” she reflects. “Although I didn’t really realise I was even leading it until the last couple of events – I hadn’t really been taking too much notice.”
The more she talks, the more it becomes clear that Charley Hull is no ordinary sportsperson. The energy and fearlessness described by her Solheim Cup captain Neumann are both evident, but so too is an insouciance all too rarely seen in a sport of obsessives.
“Playing golf is something that just feels natural to me,” she says, recalling the plastic club her father brought home for her to play with at the age of two. “I’m so used to it, and I always felt that this is what I was meant to do. I remember when I started going down the golf club with my dad. He would play the full 18 holes, but my legs would get tired after about 13, so I would jump up and sit on his electric trolley the rest of the way round. I remember the first time I beat him, too… yeah, I enjoyed that.”
Hull’s competitive spirit may in part hail from her maternal grandmother, a Polish immigrant who escaped from a Russian labour camp in Siberia during the Second World War. “She was always very strong-minded,” says the granddaughter now. “My mum’s the same, and she could have been a really good tennis player when she was younger – but my grandparents couldn’t really afford to help her.”
It is impossible to spend time with any young sportsperson and not contemplate the role played in their success by his or her parents. The image of a young Charley having a club thrust into her hands by a golf-mad father carries with it echoes of Tiger Woods, but she is quick to dismiss any idea we might have of an intense, demanding paternal presence.
“My dad is just the most laidback person I have ever met in my life,” she insists. “It’s crazy. Some girls are not allowed boyfriends and that, but my dad is like: ‘Why haven’t you got one?’
"You should see him out on the course when I’m in a tournament. Look for him in the crowd, and he’s the one lying under a tree with a cigarette, not giving a care in the world under the sun somewhere. He is so relaxed about life.”
Nando’s and Northampton
As if to prove the point, Hull’s father Dave strolls past in the background. He is carrying her clubs over to the golf buggy in which we shoot her, utterly unruffled by the fact his teenage daughter is being interrogated by a print journalist.
“Golf has always been fun for Charley,” he says when we introduce ourselves. “The longer it can stay that way, the better. She could be travelling the world winning tournaments for the next 10, 20 years – she doesn’t need to be taking it all too seriously just yet.” Even the most cursory of glances at Hull’s Twitter feed reveals a refreshingly balanced approach to her life and career. “2 biscuits, 3 slices of carrot cake and a bowl of chips down,” she tweeted before her latest top-10 finish at last week’s Ladies Scottish Open. “Ibiza body preparation going good for 2 weeks time…”.
“Doing all the regular stuff is definitely part of my life,” she tells us. “I love a cheeky Nando’s, and not just the chicken – I love the potato wedges in there too, or the sweet potato mash. I’ve been trying to eat a little more healthily recently though, so one time I actually just went in and had the salad. It seemed a shame to go and not have chicken, but I stayed strong.
“I don’t really like going to the gym – I eat pretty healthy and try to do yoga every morning – but I can be quite strict with myself and what I do. The main thing is that I’ve always wanted to be a golfer. When I’m at a tournament, I don’t go out at all. I like to concentrate on my golf and wait until I’m home – but I also know how to switch off when I’m not on the golf course.
“I have great friends and family around me, so I really enjoy being home with them – and I love going out and dancing. There’s a place called Balloon Bar in Northampton, which plays really good house music. I love a night in there.”
The long game
Hull also loves a challenge, and is quick to speak out against the idea that courses should alter their set-up for women’s tournaments.
“I’d prefer harder golf courses, really,” she says. “I play really well on the tougher courses, so I would like to see them set up [to be] a bit more challenging. I’m a good scrambler, and I really enjoy playing in the wind and the rain. I hope it does get harder – you shouldn’t be shortening courses for the women’s game. Keep them long and let’s see the best players come to the top.”
The very best players are likely to come to the top at Turnberry this weekend, as the Ricoh Women’s British Open tempts the world’s best over from the LPGA Tour in America. Those lining up against Hull will include world number one Inbee Park – one of a remarkable 20 Korean golfers in the world’s top 50 – and fellow teenage prodigy Lydia Ko of New Zealand.
“It’s very simple – they are hitting the ball very straight and holing putts,” says world number 48 Hull when we ask her to explain the proliferation of Korean stars at the top of the rankings. “I like to take the more adventurous route – when I’m watching golf, I feel it’s more interesting to watch a proper shotmaker. But I don’t really look at the opposition, I don’t think like that. I look at the course.
“You look at the course, you meet with problems and you need to find a way to solve those problems. That’s the fun part – and if you can find a way to beat the course, then you may also find that you are beating everyone else out on it.”
All play, no work
How much golf does Hull watch away from the course, we wonder? “I tweet a lot about it, but I couldn’t sit in front of the TV watching it all day,” she says. “I’ll watch a couple of holes or something, but then I would have to go and do something else. I enjoy watching clips more on YouTube – that’s the way I watch it.
“I do love watching Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods, though. I like Ian Poulter, too, because I think he has a great short game, and when he gets on one of those rolls you can really see the emotion come out. Of the ladies? I love watching Carlota Ciganda because she is just like a Lady Seve. I also enjoy Lexi Thompson and, of course, Laura Davies.
“Laura has always been a bit of an idol for me. As a kid, when me and a friend were out on the course, we would always pretend to be others: he would normally be Seve and I would always be Laura. That was it, though. I have never watched that much golf on TV. I always just wanted to be out there, playing.”