PALM HARBOR, Fla. – His achievements alone would suggest Tom Lewis is racing toward stardom.
The 21-year-old from England burst onto the world scene last year at Royal St. George’s when he ran off four straight birdies late in the opening round for a 65. It was the lowest score ever by an amateur in the British Open, and he was the first amateur in 43 years to be atop the leaderboard in golf’s oldest championship.
If that wasn’t enough, he won in his third tournament as a pro with a 65 on the last day at the Portugal Masters. Tiger Woods didn’t win until his fifth tournament. Rory McIlroy waited until his 38th start to win.
But for a kid with no other aspirations but to play golf for a living, Lewis sees himself as someone with much to learn. Another step comes this week at the Transitions Championship, where Lewis makes his PGA Tour debut, his first time playing in the United States as a pro.
“I know I’ve got two years in Europe. That helps,” Lewis said, referring to the two-year exemption on the European Tour for winning. “It gives me the opportunity to come here and see what standard I need to get to.”
There are so many examples of players wasting little time to get to where they want to be.
McIlroy two weeks ago rose to No. 1 in the world at 22, the second-youngest player behind Tiger Woods to be atop the world rankings. Harris English last year won a Nationwide Tour event while still an amateur. Bud Cauley became only the sixth player to go straight from college to the PGA Tour without a trip to Q-School.
The tee times for Innisbrook offer a bizarre indicator of youth: Cauley is about to turn 22, and he’ll be the oldest player in his group.
“That’s kind of funny,” Cauley said. “I never thought that would happen.”
He’ll play with Lewis and Ryo Ishikawa, the 20-year-old from Japan who is coming off a runner-up finish last week in the Puerto Rico Open. Lewis is a European Tour winner. Ishikawa has won 10 times in Japan and played on two Presidents Cup teams.
“Golf is getting so competitive at an earlier age,” Cauley said.
Justin Rose was one of those guys. He tied for fourth in the 1998 British Open as a 17-year-old at Royal Birkdale, turned pro the following week and spent the next year missing cuts. He finally figured it out and won a World Golf Championship last week at Doral, his 10th win worldwide.
Rose spent some time with Lewis last fall in Asia, and he was impressed with what he saw.
“He seems to be in no hurry,” Rose said. “I thought it was incredibly long-sighted. I see a lot of kids, me included, who come out and think it’s so important to have your tour card immediately, get into the top 50 in the world, get into the Masters, get into the majors. That will all happen in time, and I think you need to focus on development of your game.
“I think that’s what he’s done really smartly.”
Lewis gained loads of confidence from the British Open, especially playing alongside his namesake – Tom Watson – when he opened with a 65 and was only three shots out of the lead going into the weekend. He tied for 30th.
Asked when he knew he was good enough to compete against the best, Lewis replied, “When I won.” But he always believed he would be playing golf for a living. Lewis never considered anything else.
Golf has been in blood a long time.
His father, Bryan, came from the same golfing region north of London that produced tour players Bobby Mitchell and Trevor Powell, all of them overshadowed by six-time major champion Nick Faldo. Bryan Lewis played a few years on the European Tour, enough to recognize that his son had a special talent.
Lewis also has dyslexia, which gave him a disdain of school and made him even more determined to be a golfer.
“I didn’t see anything in school for me,” Lewis said. “If you’re not good at something, and you’re competitive, you don’t really like doing it. School was frustrating. I couldn’t read or couldn’t really spell very well. And it wasn’t really fun. I wanted to be the best at everything I did. And school was something I was bad at.”
And if golf never worked out? Lewis never considered an alternative.
“People talk about backups for their career, and that’s probably a good way,” he said. “But I gambled. I said, ‘If I do a backup, then I’m not concentrating on the actual goal. My full focus was on playing golf, and it paid off. I’ve got two years to learn as well as I can, and then I have no excuses. If you leave school at 16, there are no excuses not to do good at sport.
“It gives me pressure, but that pressure is a good thing.”
Lewis played three times in the United States as an amateur – the Western Amateur outside Chicago, the U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills and the Jones Cup at Sea Island. For his pro debut, he picked a strong event.
The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook is regarded by some as the strongest course of the Florida swing, and it has attracted a deep field – Rose, coming off his big win at Doral; former world No. 1 Luke Donald, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, along with the likes of Nick Watney, Webb Simpson and Jason Day.
Lewis has solid credentials, yet he is always looking to measure himself against various players. As a kid, he admired the sweet swing and quiet demeanor of Retief Goosen. His standard as a young teenager was English amateur star Oliver Fisher. As a pro, he was inspired by Italian teen Matteo Manassero winning twice in Europe.
He is not eligible for the Masters – only a win at Innisbrook would get him to Augusta National – though Lewis is not sure he’s ready.
“If I can get to the standard I want to,” he said, “I’ll be there in time.”