Aaron Cockerill racked his brain and let out a sigh. It was clear that he was stumped. The question was to name the last Canadian-born golfer to play the European Tour full time.
“I can’t think of any,” was his final answer.
Cockerill, who hails from Stony Mountain, Man., about 10 kilometres from Winnipeg, is the latest golfer from this country to earn status on the European circuit and begins his tour of duty this week in South Africa at the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
He can be forgiven if he couldn’t name another Canuck who played in Europe. It’s been a while. Austin Connelly, a duel U.S.-Canadian citizen from Texas, has been plying his trade there with some success the last three years.
But the last Canadian-born golfer to play a full schedule on the European Tour was Danny Mijovic, who did so in 1993. Before him there was Jim Rutledge, and before that, Jerry Anderson, who enjoyed their best days in the 1980s.
You have to be of a certain vintage to recognize those names and Cockerill didn’t hit his first golf ball until those guys had packed up and moved back to North America.
Now, however, he’s ready to tee it up all over the world after getting through the Tour’s qualifying school, a grinding 10-round, two-week affair.
It will be his second season across the pond. Last year he played on the Challenge Tour, the junior circuit for the European Tour, and enjoyed some solid late-season success after a slow start.
The decision to try Europe was born out of the frustration of the PGA Tour’s hierarchical structure that Cockerill believes limits a golfer’s opportunities.
“I did the Korn Ferry Tour school two years ago and I got to the final stage,” he stated. “I didn’t finish inside the top 40, so they said I had conditional status but that’s not really worth anything – I had nothing. That’s what made me do the European school because I was kind of upset with that system.”
Cockerill was a late bloomer in golf. His first success came when he was 15. He was playing in a baseball tournament and a friend was nearby about to play a golf tournament. He joined in and won the event.
“I was hooked from that point on,” he said.
He was good enough to play three years at the University of Idaho and turned professional after graduation. Without any sort of a serious plan, he teed it up on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada where he had some decent results.
After the frustration with the Korn Ferry Tour experience, he headed off to Europe. That came with a steep learning curve for a guy who had never been too far from home.
“I’d never really been outside Canada or the U.S.,” said Cockerill, “Since I went over to Q School last year, I’ve been to 25 countries on four continents. It’s just wild with the language, different cultures, and some of the ways they operate in these countries. People aren’t always as friendly as they are in Canada.
“They say it’s the European Tour but it’s basically the everywhere-except-North-America tour.”
His tour of duty took him from Kenya to Slovakia to Finland and China, as well as a lot of places in between. He hasn’t had to add pages to his passport just yet, but that day is coming.
Last year, after qualifying for Hainan Open, Cockerill spent three days at a tour stop in Ireland trying to get a visa that would allow him into China. When the Canadian embassy couldn’t help him, he ended up flying to Hong Kong the week of the tournament where he obtained the visa. He then had to go over land into China and then on to his tournament.
The travels are only one part of the equation of playing this tour. The courses and conditions can also be new to a guy from small-town Manitoba. But at every stop, he’s banking the knowledge, which he hopes will help him down the road.
“I think it’s toughened me up a little bit,” he said of his adventures. “The guys on the PGA Tour have got it pretty good. It’s a different route but I think it shows you different grasses, different climates, different altitudes. The weather is typically not as good over there. Everything toughens you up a little bit.”
Cockerill points to players such as Brookes Koepka and Peter Uihlein who cut their teeth in Europe before transitioning to the PGA Tour. The experience they gained has only helped their careers.
Stepping up to the big circuit this year will make things a little easier with arrangements but also bring with it better competition. That’s something about which Cockerill is excited.
“Playing in these bigger tournaments and playing against better players will be great,” he said. “I was looking at some of the guys playing in this first event and there’s Ernie Els and Charl Schwartzel. I’m still pretty young and I remember watching these guys on TV and now I’m getting to play against them. It’s pretty cool.”
After South Africa, he’ll head to events in Mauritius and then to Australia, before finally getting back home on Christmas Eve where he’ll be re-united with his fiancée Chelsea Scrivener. The two will be married next year.
To be sure, Cockerill is off on an adventure – one that a Canadian-born player hasn’t traveled in some time. Clearly he’s showing there’s more than one way and one place to make a career out of playing golf.