Make way, the ‘hat man’ cometh!

Arguably, every professional golfer who gets to play on the major Tours harbours ambitions of being among the best, if not the No 1 in the world. But, what sets many apart are personal idiosyncrasies. This Finnish player exhibits his own

By SHIV DAS

Tapio Pulkkanen, 28, of Finland is tall, all of 6-ft-3-inch, but it’s his hat that tops his presence.

And it’s no ordinary hat, a trilby, narrow brimmed, angled down in the front and slightly up at the back. It was popular in the 60s and even worn by film stars Frank Sinatra and Peter Sellers.

“I’ve always liked different types of hat, using them when I was 16,” he said on the sidelines of the 2019 Maybank Championship played at Saujana Golf and Country Club from March 21-24.

The captain of his home club, who has an American wife, is fond of stetsons — the wide brimmed, high crowned hat worn by cowboys — and somehow, it triggered a hat obsession in the teenager. He has 25 hats in his collection, but the trilby is now very much a part of him on the golf circuit.

He had started playing as a nine-year-old, his 14-year-old brother leading the way. His grandparents were into it, “so it’s kind of in the family and that’s how it all started”, he says.

At age 12, he had the thrill of scoring a hole-in-one. But it wasn’t till he was 15 that he decided to go with golf, instead of football, and made it to the national amateur team a year later.

He reigned as national champion for two years, before turning pro in 2013 and was the first Finn to be crowned Europe’s Challenge Tour No 1 in 2017, after winning the Kazakhstan Open.

He was here for the Maybank event because he had played with Ernie Els’ manager in the pro-am of the 2018 Joburg Open in South Africa, and it was Els who got GlobalOne’s John Eu, the Championship promoter, to extend an invite to the young Finn.

There’s no denying Pulkkanen has the classic golf swing of Els and for heroes, he counts legends Sam Snead and Ben Hogan among them. “I’ve always liked old music as well, so I am a little bit behind, maybe…”

He’s not been spared the disappointments in this stage of his career. He failed to make the cut at the Championship here and headed off to India for the Hero India Open to try and make amends. Too bad, he fell short there again.

“When I am playing good, I play really well, but when I don’t, I struggle,” said the, nevertheless, seven-time winner on the European circuit.

Disappointments aside, he’s holding onto his dream even as a youngster, of “winning big in golf”. He’s seen pros coming into their own in the 30s, so he’s not putting undue pressure on himself.

At the Maybank event, he wasn’t able to master the grass around the greens for his short game and also paid the price of trying too hard to avoid the cut.

Right now, he’s figured out he needs to work on his irons, as statistically it’s not been great since last year. Putting, too. With Callaway Golf Co supporting his equipment needs for the past two years, he’s determined to make good.

“Perhaps, next time, I will come out a week or so earlier, and put in more practice.”

Currently, his ranking has slipped. It was 299 after the Maybank and Hero events, down from 167 once. Consistency is the issue. Earlier this year, he was tied 42nd at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters and tied 20th at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

His best finish in 2018 was fourth in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

He has his own concept of dreams and goals. Dreams are something bigger. “My first dream was to win the US Masters and, as I grew older, I have added winning the British Open.

“My goals are more practical. I want to be in the top 100 in the world in one year. Just win two tournaments, that’s it.” It meant playing in more tournaments, including those out here in Asia. He’s already played three tournaments in China and one in Hong Kong.

“I need to learn more about playing on grass in this region. It’s different and I feel I cannot trust my shots, unlike when I am playing in Europe.”

To win the Masters, he needs to be in the top 50 in the world. That has to be a midterm goal. “It will be fantastic if I can do that in two years,” he adds.

Playing well on the European Tour should see him achieving his top 100 goal. He has the PGA Tour in his sights for going further.

To share in his goals and dreams, he has Finnish caddie, Riku Mattila, 33, along for the ride and who’s been with him since he won the Kazakhstan Open.

Mattila was caddying for another Finnish player, who didn’t make the cut at the tournament, and since Pulkkanen didn’t have a caddie of his own at the time, Mattila switched “camps” and has been with the tournament winner since.

He sees himself as a “child of the moment” and happy to go with the flow that’s entwined with Tapio (The Hat) Pulkkanen.