Emerging ace Leon D’Souza following hallowed path of the greats

Hong Kong teenager’s victory in Faldo Series Asia grand final means he can now dream big

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 11:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 11:09pm

After following in Rory McIlroy’s footsteps by winning the under-18 title at the Faldo Series Asia Grand Final, Hong Kong amateur talent Leon D’Souza has every reason to dream big.

But Hong Kong international D’Souza readily admits he never dreamt of emulating the achievements of six-time major champion Nick Faldo.

My Dad loved to watch golf, so I was aware of the likes of Faldo, Seve [Ballesteros] and [Jack] Nicklaus – the legends of the game
Leon D’Souza

The 17-year-old first picked up a club at the age of four when Tiger Woods, not Nick Faldo, was golf’s dominant force. The Englishman had by then wound down his illustrious playing career, one which had netted him three Claret Jugs and three Green Jackets, and was concentrating on his many off-course business interests, including television commentary, golf course design and even winemaking.

Europe’s leading Ryder Cup points scorer of all time, Faldo was – and remains to this day – a highly influential if at times divisive figure in the game. But for D’Souza and his pre-teen peers, it was hard to look past Woods, who in his pre-scandal days was nigh on untouchable.

“My Dad loved to watch golf, so I was aware of the likes of Faldo, Seve [Ballesteros] and [Jack] Nicklaus – the legends of the game.

“But Tiger was the one I wanted to watch. He was young and exciting. He had the ability to hit shots that nobody else could. He could be in the trees and pull something out and still win the tournament,” he says.

Following his victory in the boys’ under-18 division of the Faldo Series Asia Grand Final at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen this month, D’Souza is now rather more acquainted with Faldo’s accomplishments – and indeed, with the man himself.

“He’s older now but Faldo is still so impressive,” says D’Souza of the 58-year-old Faldo, who received a knighthood in 2009 on the back of his achievements.

“It’s easy to see why he was so successful. I’ve watched him winning majors on YouTube and his fundamentals have remained the same; he doesn’t complicate things.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to work on: keeping things simple and to not get bogged down. Yes, your technique has to be good, but it’s just as important to have the feeling to be able to hit the right shots at the right time.”

Established in 1996, the year of Faldo’s dramatic Masters win over close rival Greg Norman, with the aim of nurturing the next generation of champions, the Faldo Series consists of 40 annual events in 30 countries worldwide and boasts a slew of tour winners among its alumni.

Faldo is by no means the only pro to have started his own junior development programme, but his is arguably the most successful.

In 2006, at the inaugural staging of the Faldo Series Asia Grand Final’s precursor, the International Trophy, which was held at Hong Kong Golf Club, future women’s world number one Tseng Ya-ni of Taiwan captured the overall girls’ title, while a fresh-faced and tousled-haired McIlroy took home the silverware for his win in the boys’ under-18 division, a feat that D’Souza, a decade on, has just matched.

“It’s a big event with a strong field so to follow in the footsteps of Rory and win the same tournament is obviously a great boost,” says D’Souza, who opened up with a fine 68 over the challenging Faldo Course on his way to a four-stroke victory. “Hopefully, I can build from here, keep learning and continue to get better in future tournaments.”

Nobody has impressed more on the local golf scene over the past two years than D’Souza, the reigning Hong Kong Open Amateur champion, which he puts down to a newly discovered – one may say Faldoesque – will to win.

“I’ve grown a lot stronger, meaning I hit it further, which helps with my long game, but having played in so many tournaments I now know how to act in pressure situations,” says D’Souza, who received an invitation to compete in the 20th Faldo Series Grand Final, which will be played in continental Europe this September, on the back of his win at Mission Hills.

“Having more experience in these kind of situations has definitely helped, but the biggest thing is that I am more determined [to succeed] than I have ever been.”

While Hong Kong boasts a rich golfing history – the UBS Hong Kong Open, for example, is one of the oldest and most respected in the Asian professional game – the SAR has long lagged behind its regional rivals in terms of producing world-beating talent.

That, however, is starting to change. Tiffany Chan Tsz-ching has led the way on the women’s side – the 22-year-old from Tuen Mun, a former World University champion, is ranked inside the top-15 of the amateur rankings and has flourished in her first season representing the University of California, the number one college team in the United States.

D’Souza hopes to make a similar impact for the men.

“There have been plenty of positives for Hong Kong golf over the past few years,” says D’Souza, a product of the Hong Kong Golf Association’s junior development programme.

“The exposure and opportunities for young golfers here are a lot greater than they were in the past. Talent is being developed earlier – before there would be 15-year-olds who were just starting out. Now there are 15-year-olds who have already reached a very decent level.

“The roles the HKGA and the Hong Kong Golf Club play in providing access and coaching have helped tremendously. Golf in Hong Kong is in a very good place.”

D’Souza’s short-term goal is to play college golf in the US after completing his secondary school education next summer, something that is a near certainty given his recent on-course exploits, which includes contending with Asian Tour regulars Scott Barr and Unho Park at January’s Ageas HKPGA Championship, where he finished in a share of fourth.

Mixing it with the pros clearly had an effect on the home-schooled D’Souza.

“On a good day I can compete with the top amateurs in Asia – but it’s about putting it together for three or four days of a tournament; the consistency has to be there,” he says.

“I feel like I’m learning how to do that and I’m believing in myself more and more. I’m believing like I can go out and win.

“Let’s see. It’s still early days. But would I like to turn pro and play golf for a living in the future? I’d absolutely love to ...”