By Neville Idour
After his first win in Europe in late 2021 and early form in 2022, Daniel Hillier now sits 221 in the world rankings as the second-highest New Zealander next to Ryan Fox.
His quest for a full DP World Tour card is five events into the season and it has been a promising start with finishes of a third, tied for eighth, tied for 12th and two missed cuts in South Africa.
With a big year ahead of him, the 23-year- old was happy to talk with NZ Golf Magazine about his career and where it all began, with some icing on the cake from partner Siobhan.
I was born and bred in Wellington and always lived there,” Hillier said, “My Dad was a pretty good sportsman and he got me involved in a bunch of different sports. When I was younger I played football and cricket and did a bit of swimming…..and obviously golf as well.” “My first time playing golf was when I was four years old at a nine hole course at Pauatahunui. Dad played golf socially with his workmates so he took me out. There’s actually photos of me whacking it around and ever since then I had the bug and began playing junior competitions when I was about nine years old. From there I started getting more competitive and played interclub golf and Junior Rep stuff.”
“When I was 15 or 16 I went on my first overseas trip with the NZ Junior squad to the Australian Boys Amateur Champs in Adelaide. I managed third placing in what was my first Rep fixture so it was a great start for me at that level. Just got me hungry for more I guess.”
As a 16-year-old, Hillier won the NZ Amateur title twice and the first time was the youngest ever winner, beating Danny Lee’s record by a few days. A year later Hillier’s record was beaten by Australian Louis Dobbelar. “This success gave me a few opportunities when I started as a professional at the end of 2019. I turned pro at the first stage of the European Q School. I managed to win the first stage. Unfortunately, I didn’t get through the second stage but I had a couple of tournaments to play in on the European Tour. I didn’t play my best golf but it was a good eye-opener for what it was like for the steps I had to take to get to the next level. It was a great learning experience,” Hillier explained.
“I came home and Covid hit so 2020 was a quiet year although I was still fortunate to be able to play a few events around New Zealand to keep that competitive edge going. The Charles Tour events are great and excellent preparation for when I go overseas.”
So how did Hillier get to play on the Challenge Tour? Did he need to qualify? “I was fortunate to receive some invites to play on the tour because of my previous play over there. My management company applied for invitations on my behalf so getting a few invites at the start of the season was great.” “I managed to play quite well and got myself to a point where you have seven invites for a year unless you get a win or make enough money where there is a category that allows you to get unlimited invites for the remainder of the
season. I managed to do that and kept being invited for the rest of the season. I was playing decent golf and picked up my first win at the end.”
Hillier was tied for the lead heading down the 18th on the final day of the Challenge Costa Brava with a good opportunity to make a birdie after a good drive. “I hit a two-iron which ended pin high right, just off the green and managed to get up and down for the win.”
Hillier looked back at his narrow loss on the full European Tour in Ireland when he was tied for the lead earlier in the year with a few holes to go and finished up third. A win may have got him his full card. “Obviously I would like to have won, but for dropping a couple of shots coming home. But probably it was the best thing for me. When I look back, if I had won, it would have been great for my ego, but it might have given me an inflated idea of how good I was.” So what went wrong? “My short game let me down so after
that I decided to see a short game coach in London and had a couple of good sessions with him. So for the back half of the season, my short game improved dramatically and I was in contention a lot more and my game was holding up better under pressure. I think I learned a lot more from that loss in Ireland.”
What was the touring life like for Hillier who was alone for much of it? “I went over in April 2021 and for the first two months we weren’t allowed outside of our hotel rooms. It was from the hotel to the golf course then back to the hotel. Golf itself was normal but otherwise, there was no outside life whatsoever.” It was a lonely life but Hillier said he was lucky to know a few of his fellow players and could socialise with them. “The first two months were pretty dull with no sightseeing or whatever, being confined to the hotel room. However, the Tour realised it was taking a toll on some of the player’s mental health so they decided to open it up because of that, but still ensure the necessary restrictions were in place to keep us all safe. They allowed us to get a bit more freedom from the middle of the year. It was tough for some guys who virtually spent the whole season locked down.”
A highlight of the year was The Open Championship and the special caddie who carried Hillier’s bag after that event. “I qualified for the Open and my family was on the phone straight away and my partner Siobhan was there. She asked me if I wanted to have a friend for the Open to keepme company. I said that would be great so we chatted and realised there was a risk she could get stuck over there
with me. Still, she came and that was amazing although she did get stuck. So what was meant to be a one month stint turned into four months and being together for the remainder of the season. I wasn’t disappointed because it was great to be able to enjoy that time
together It was nice to see a bit of Europe together and it sure made the second half of the season infinitely more bearable for me.”
“Siobhan jumped on the bag first in Ireland and because of that good result, we decided to keep it going. She helped me a lot in high pressure situations being a calm and collected person.” However, it will not continue. “It would be nice but she has her own job teaching. However hopefully with a lift in restrictions, she might be able to come over for a couple of weeks here and there.”
2022 is geared toward getting a full European tour Card. “I want to play well and get the card. I will get a few full tour starts through
my category. Hopefully, if I can have some good results it will make things easier for me. A win would get me there otherwise a top
115 on the full tour which would need at least a couple of top fives and other good results.
For a young player on tour it can not only be physically and mentally draining, but the finances can also take a hit. “My management company has helped me gain sponsorships with Titleist and Hugo Boss. They have been great. The company is Alpha Sports Management and the owner worked for IMG for about 11 years before starting up. He also manages Ernie Els, Antoine Rozner, Matthew Jordan and Romain Langasque. It is a small group but we are all doing pretty well.”
Siobhan explained some more about her experience in Europe. “I went over for the sole reason to support Daniel at his first British Open. I had no idea I would be stuck there for four months because of our MIQ system. The Open was a surreal experience. We got
to walk inside the ropes supporting him, seeing some amazing golf and experience the incredible crowds. They are nothing like you get anywhere else.”
“When I found out I didn’t have an MIQ spot Daniel put me to work on the bag. I had caddied twice before for Daniel on the Charles Tour at Muriwai and for his win at Pegasus in October 2020. My first job in Europe was on the Challenge Tour in Italy and I learnt on the job. Admittedly being a bit slow to start I had to learn not to walk on people’s lines on the putting green, how to rake bunkers properly, ‘take the flag Siobhan’, and all sorts.”
What about distances and club selection? “Daniel is a good golfer so I didn’t need to tell him his yardages or what club to hit. He knows what to do. Just having that support and someone to take the weight of his bag helped him. Throughout the season I learnt and I grew as a caddie. I even got to caddie on the main tour which was a highlight for me. Both of our families were excited to see me on the TV coverage.”
“Overall it was an amazing experience for me. It helped me grow as a person and to appreciate a lot of golf now. I’m not a golfer m myself but I got to learn a lot and I am really grateful for that.”
At the time of talking, Siobhan was relief teaching so would have been able to give Daniel any needed support had he been able to play the NZ Open.
Siobhan grew up in Warkworth, a lovely part of New Zealand. “There are a lot of beautiful beaches up there plus Tara Iti which I loved. I grew up around surfing and living a good beach life. I did my degree in Auckland, moving there for three years to do my
Bachelor of Science. Then when I met Daniel I moved to Wellington to do my Masters in Teaching.”
“I wanted to go teaching because I always wanted to give back whatever I could, whether it was climate change or the next generation coming through. Also with Daniel’s career, having school holidays I would be able to travel when I needed to, especially having six weeks off at the end of the year. So that career choice is a kind of a win-win. I must say it was hard to move from Auckland to Wellington as I do miss my family.
On that note it is clear Daniel and Siobhan are an excellent team and we can only wish them both well for continued success together.