German golfer Florian Fritsch made it clear at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship that he is still very much scared of flying.
Speaking to the European Tour, Fritsch, who was in the final group on Sunday alongside winner Thorbjorn Olesen, says he still doesn't fly and has had ten or 11 different therapy sessions which have all so far proved unsuccessful.
Back in 2011, Michael McEwan caught up with the German, who then, was determined not to let his fear affect his chances of becoming a successful golfer.
For a professional golfer playing on the world’s most lucrative tours, being afraid of flying is something akin to a carpenter being scared of wood or a typist getting squeamish at the sight of a keyboard.
Yet that is exactly the position that German European Tour rookie Florian Fritsch finds himself in.
Fritsch, a former amateur team-mate of Martin Kaymer, is one of an estimated 500 million people around the world who suffers from aviatophobia.
Notable others with the condition include film stars Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell, singers Cher and Britney Spears, and former Arsenal and Holland footballer Dennis Bergkamp. Even the great Dalai Lama is a reported sufferer.
The difference between all of them and 25-year-old Fritsch, however, is that they don’t necessarily have to board a plane if they want to carry on making a living. Fritsch? Well, he’s got no such option.
"When we’re at 30,000 feet, just cruising along, I get freaked out"
For him, flying is an occupational hazard. Doesn’t mean he enjoys it, though.
“It’s a really strange thing,” he acknowledged. “Taking off and landing, it can be as rough as it wants. But when we’re at 30,000 feet, just cruising along, I get freaked out. It’s horrible. I can’t really explain it.”
It wasn’t always like that. In fact, Fritsch’s fear has only really come to light in the past few years. Prior to that, he used to fly regularly - including back and forth across the Atlantic when he was enrolled at the David Leadbetter Academy in the United States - without feeling so much as a tummy-quiver.
However, out of the blue, he started to feel less and less comfortable in the air, with things coming dramatically to a head early in 2010.
Fritsch explained: “I was on my way to Kenya to play in a Challenge Tour event and I was at the gate about to board my flight when I decided enough was enough. I couldn’t do it. Flying was decreasing my quality of life too much and I just couldn’t continue to do it.”
As a result, he made the difficult decision to quit full-time tour golf and, instead, take up a coaching position at a club in Germany. He continued to play sporadically but only in events that he could reach by car or train.
Without the added stress of flying bookending his competitive appearances, Fritsch quickly saw an improvement in his game and, as the year drew to an end, he decided to enter European Tour Q-School.
“I came to the decision that teaching wasn’t something I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be on tour and so I thought I’d give Q-School a go to see if I could get on the European Tour.”
He made the 1,200-mile driving round-trip from his home in Germany to the PGA Catalunya Resort near Girona in Spain for the final count, too, finishing tied for sixth and comfortably earning his card for 2011.
But, whilst for most players, doing so would bring unbridled joy and satisfaction, for Fritsch it was tempered with the knowledge that he’d have to confront his biggest fear once and for all.
“When I got my card, I said to myself, ‘Right, you’re not going to throw this away’, so I’ve been seeing people to try and get over my fear,” he said.
“A friend of mine is actually a pilot for Air Berlin and he took me up one day to sit with him in the cockpit and show me how everything works and so on, which was really helpful.
“Things are slowly getting better. I’ve flown quite a bit this year, like to Sicily and Morocco and so on. It’s been nice to prove to myself that I can get back in a plane again.
“It’s funny thinking back to when I was like, 17 or 18, and flying all around the world to play in amateur tournaments and such like. I did it without a care in the world. It didn’t faze me in the slightest. It was all just one big adventure.
“But for a few years there, I just couldn’t cope with it at all. I couldn’t even sleep on a plane because my adrenaline was pumping too much. I’d go to tournaments and the day or two before flying there, I’d be in a terrible state. I’d even be playing on the Saturday and be all preoccupied and distracted because I knew that on the Sunday or the Monday, I’d have to fly again. It was unbearable.”
Whilst Fritsch seems to be winning the battle with his phobia, long haul flights around the world are still off his agenda for now.
“I’m pretty much just going to play events that are in Europe for the time being,” he said. “I think Morocco for the Hassan Trophy is about as exotic as it’s going to get for me this year. I had the chance to go and play three or four events in South Africa shortly after I got my card, and of course there are a lot of European Tour events in Asia these days, too. However, I’m not going to push it too much too soon.
“There’s a saying in Germany that you shouldn’t make an elephant out of a mosquito and I think that’s what I’ve done with flying. It’ll take time but I’m confident I’ll get there before too long.”
Florian Fritsch in bunkered
This interview with Florian Fritsch first appeared in issue 108 of bunkered (published: June 2011).