What a time it is to be a Kiwi golf fan.
Ryan Fox, Lydia Ko, Steven Alker, Michael Hendry and Danny Lee need no introduction. And now Daniel Hillier’s making waves on the European Tour as a 24-year-old rookie.
Not that Hillier’s eye-catching form and ability to mix it on the world stage will have surprised those who have followed the two-time New Zealand amateur champion through the years.
Indeed, Hillier has long been one of the country’s most promising golfers, a tag he is more than living up to in his first season on the European Tour.
After all, with the top-10 on the season-long standings granted 2024 PGA Tour cards, Hillier’s maiden win catapulted him 63 spots to 14th.
Given some of the players ahead of him already have PGA Tour cards, including Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, Hillier is right in the mix.
Of course, it’s early days, but after this year started with Fox and Hillier both plying their trade on the European Tour, it’s not a wild fantasy to envision both playing full-time on the world’s largest tour in the coming years.
Talk about what would be a dream come true for the man who hails from Porirua, the same city as Kiwi 2005 US Open champion Michael Campbell.
Having dropped other sports to focus on golf as a 13-year-old, Hillier was a member of Judgeford Golf Club and Manor Pak Golf Sanctuary, before later joining Royal Wellington.
He flourished as an amateur, winning New Zealand junior under-19 championships in 2015 and 2016, and the Australian junior championship the following year.
Hillier was a co-medallist at the US Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach in 2018, the same year he finished 13th at the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship in Singapore. He also nabbed his second Bledisloe Cup in 2018, the award for the highest finishing amateur at the New Zealand Open.
Ranked as high as 13th in the official World Amateur Golf Rankings, Hillier turned pro in September 2019, only to be limited to a handful or tournaments in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, he won several Charles Tour events and the 2020 NZ Order of Merit, before taking his game to the Challenge Tour (European Tour’s second-tier) in 2021, a year he started with just seven tournament invitations.
However, by the end of it, he’d recorded his maiden win and finished 23rd on the rankings, giving him a full Challenge Tour card in 2022.
Needing a top-15 spot to gain full European Tour status, Hillier finished 2022 in seventh to set up the past six months.
Afterwards, Alker, who won the season-long Charles Schwab Cup on the PGA Tour Champions for golfers aged 50 and over last year, raved about his fellow Kiwi’s swing.
Fair enough, too. After all, Alker repeatedly watched Hillier uncork booming tee shots, before his caddie, Steve Williams, marched down the fairway to plan his approach.
Since finishing tied for 12th at the national open, Hillier hasn’t just shot up the European Tour standings, he’s also scorched up the world rankings.
Ranked 269th to start the year, Hillier has powered to world No 136, making him the second-ranked Kiwi behind Fox (43), after a few top-five finishes.
Hillier sure has got hot since late June, when he finished tied for fifth at the Dutch Open, before nabbing a share of third at the BMW International Open, and winning the Sir Nick Faldo-hosted British Masters.
The three results earned him a cool £701,000 (NZ$1.2 million), hard-earned cash after grafting through a testing start to his pro career.
So, what next?
Hillier had planned to play a couple of PGA Tour events. However, he’s scrapped those after his maiden European Tour win booked him a start at the British Open at Royal Liverpool, starting July 20.
“Late change of plans, but I’m not complaining. It’s going to be a pretty awesome experience playing the Open again, so I can’t wait,” he said.