Standing over a putt to safeguard your financial future for the months ahead, or miss a cut and spiral backwards in ranking points. The ability to pay your way on tour, or even a rent cheque is a challenge far away from those in the realms of golf’s top echelons.
Away from the Rory McIlroys, Brooks Koepkas and the elite stars of world golf, it’s a scenario played out around the world that many fans rarely see, and fewer can comprehend.
For Roope Kakko, it has been a struggle and strain at times to survive in professional golf but, in his 17th season, the world number 686 still loves every minute of it.
Two weeks ago, the Finn was training at Jumeirah Golf Estates with his national Olympic team when an e-mail dropped into his inbox about a qualifier taking place at Saadiyat Beach Club for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Why not, he thought.
“I got through the qualifier for Abu Dhabi. I had to change my flight back home to Finland as we were training with the Olympic team for six days before in Dubai. I had no caddie either,” he said.
Fortunately for the Espoo native, he was able to call upon former Formula 1 star Heikki Kovalainen, a resident of Abu Dhabi for nearly a decade.
“Heikki was living here, so I said Heikki ‘do you think you can take the job?’. He said yes. He’s such a keen golfer as well so it helped. I was staying with him during the tournament.”
Although he missed the cut by two-shots, it was another learning curve for the 37-year-old. Another step forward and another chance to prove himself on the big stage again.
It’s been a long journey for him, filled with many twists and turns. Good times, bad times. You name it. But he has stuck with it and wouldn’t miss the competition, the camaraderie and the chance to continue pitting his wits against the best in the world.
Kakko joined the Challenge Tour – one rung below the main European Tour – in 2004 and became the third amateur to capture the Finnish Open on his debut that year.
With success arriving so early in his career, there is no doubt he imagined plenty more trophies would follow soon after. However, Kakko would have to wait 184 tournaments and nine years later before he tasted his next victory at the Oman Classic in 2013.
“It’s been an up and down journey over the years. Of course, I would have liked to have done a lot better than what I’ve done before. But I never stopped trying. Hopefully things go in a better direction going forward,” he said.
In total, he has clinched three wins, three runner-up finishes and an additional 30 top-10s from 300 professional starts over the years. Many of these on deserted fairways, atmosphereless greens, and empty tee-boxes. A far cry from the hustle and bustle of marquee tournaments played worldwide on a weekly basis.
It’s the non glamorous side that people don’t see.
Kakko has suffered 121 missed cuts along the way, resulting in many moments during those years when he wanted to walk away from it all and try something different. But that’s part and parcel of being a journeyman golfer. There will be more bad rounds than good ones, and you just have to keep driving on.
“It is hard. I’m not an up-and-coming youngster anymore. It’s tough to find sponsors. I’ve always said, if it would be easy, everyone would go out and make millions from golf. It’s supposed to be tough. I don’t look at things that way,” he said.
“I don’t mind if I don’t have sponsors or whatever. I just try and go out and focus on what I can do. With the Challenge Tour, at least I have somewhere to play and somewhere I enjoy.”
It’s hard to get to the European Tour, and even if you’re lucky enough to earn a ticket to the show, the line of players trying to take that ticket away from you and use it for themselves is endless.
Often, we evaluate careers on wins and world ranking places, but how should the career of a player who didn’t win often but was able to play the Tour for a long time be measured?
Unlike the regular working world, professional sport doesn’t generally measure success through job satisfaction. However, when your not picking up big cheques and pieces of silverware on a regular basis, sport returns to its basic forms, eliciting feelings of passion and a love for the game that makes turning out each week a privilege you don’t want to forgo.
For Kakko, that happiness and that sharpness in his game is still there. He loves it.
After reaching a career high 209 in the world in 2013, he lost his card at the end of the following season. But patience paid off eventually and he secured his maiden European Tour title at the Madeira Islands Open in 2015, firing a stunning final round nine-under 63 to win by three-shots.
While many people would have walked away in frustration long before, the flying Finn kept believing.
“I love the game. I love it. Sometimes you don’t necessary love the travelling but I love the competition and challenging myself. I still have a feeling that I can do so much better. That’s what drives me,” said Kakko, who turns 38 next month.
“I’m not sure if I’m a driven or motivated person but this game brings the best out of me. I guess that’s why I’m still pushing and seeing that I can do a hell of a lot better.”
The life of an unheralded European Tour golfer is filled with travel, swapping anonymous hotels and learning to read unfamiliar courses with different caddies.
The win in Portugal back in 2015 came as a relief to Kakko, but unfortunately 2016 didn’t go to script and he would lose his card again. Another blip in his sporting journey.
By his own admission, he struggled to motivate himself after this point. Confidence was in low supply for nearly two years, until a pep talk inspired him to work harder.
“I was lost for two years when I lost my card in 2016. I wasn’t very motivated. I had a chat with myself and said this needs to stop. I have to go out and play, and keep practicing and grinding, because this is what I want to do. I made it clear to myself that the goal is to be back here,” he said.
The Challenge Tour may be far from the packed galleries and the constant snap of camera, but for those who soldier the second tier circuit, it is the lifeblood of the game.
Fresh belief and that steely resolve is there when you speak with him. And with the season continuing in South Africa next week, Kakko has set his sights on a top-15 place in 2020.
“Last year, I didn’t play many events. I felt I played nicely and I finished 47th. The Challenge Tour is really tough now. There are young guys playing some really good golf. Richard Bland was 46 last year and finished third. It’s a great example and it definitely gave me a boost. My goal is to finish top-15 on the Challenge Tour this year.”
Golf consumes his life. It is hard to walk away from something you love. He is ambitious. He tries harder each time. He has that competitive spirit you can’t teach.
Kakko’s wife Minea Blomqvist is also a professional golfer and has won five times on the Ladies European Tour. Although she retired two years ago, Kakko expects her to make a comeback soon.
“She hasn’t played for two years and I did have a feeling that she might be done with her career, but she’s coming back this year. She was with the Olympic team practicing in Dubai and I loved having her there,” he said.
“I love having her around and practicing with her. That’s what we’ve done throughout our careers and it feels natural and normal.”
After returning back to his home in Espoo earlier this week, Kakko is already planning his next tournament. He hasn’t stopped working to get his game back to a place he wants it to be. He keeps believing it will happen for him. And belief, coupled with a little bit of hope, is all he needs.
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