Rising to almost 4,000 feet above sea level, Ben Nevis sits at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Scottish Highlands and is the highest peak in the British Isles.
It’s a perfect summer’s morning and PGA pro Luke Willett is approaching the summit. Climbers who have already been there and done that are on their way back down and are eyeing him with genuine curiosity, as well they might.
Willett is trudging to the top with a golf bag strapped to his shoulders.
“You’re a long way from the first tee, eh?” quips one.
“That’s a helluva dog-leg,” chuckles another.
Willett laughs along with them but also a little to himself. Little do they know he’s also going to climb Scafell Pike and Snowdon later the same day, fitting in six holes at golf courses in the vicinity of all three peaks before bed. Little do they know that this isn’t the whim of an oddball eccentric or an off-the-wall fundraiser. Little do they know that they’ve just bumped into the ‘Iron Golfer’, a man on a mission to take golf where it has never been before.
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This extraordinary story begins 14 years ago, in August 2004. Having had a solid if unspectacular amateur career, Willett decided he wanted to become a teaching professional and so enrolled in the PGA training programme at The Belfry.
After completing his studies, he had a spell as the head teaching professional at Burhill Golf Club followed by stints at the likes of Ealing and Brocket Hall before he found his way to his current club: Hampstead Golf Club.
Along the way, he has worked with some of the biggest and most illustrious names in golf instruction: David Leadbetter, Denis Pugh, Peter Mitchell, Justin Buckthorp, Jonathan Shrewsbury… the list is long and distinguished. However, it was Scottish pro Kendal McWade who made arguably the biggest impression on him.
The founder of Instinctive Golf Coaching, Glasgow-based McWade is one of the most innovative coaches in the UK. He changed his coaching direction after being influenced by Fred Shoemaker, the brains behind Extraordinary Golf.
In layman’s terms, McWade’s approach to coaching is not to teach a prescriptive technique but, instead, to harness people’s innate ability and capacity to learn. One of the pillars of his Instinctive Golf Coaching philosophy is to “commit to shifting the culture of golf from tips, formulas and answers to one of exploration, discovery and freedom”. That struck a chord with Willett.
“Kendal made me question the way I teach,” he said. “I’ve always had an instinctive hunger for learning and for adventure. I like to challenge not just myself but my environment. In a professional sense, golf is my environment so I decided to rip up the rulebook and take golf somewhere it had never been before.”
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It all started with an innocent game of urban golf.
It was the back end of Spring earlier this year and Willett, along with a few friends, decided to try playing golf – a modified, non-traditional version of it, at least – in and around some of the main London landmarks.
They putted across The Mall and chipped their way through Oxford Circus. “It was a bit mad, surreal even,” says Willett. “I half-expected us to be moved on by the police or something but nobody bothered us. I won’t lie, I felt a bit self-conscious at first, turning up in the middle of the capital with my golf clubs and then putting across streets and so on but I decided to fully embrace that uneasiness because that’s what anybody who comes to see me for their first-ever golf lesson has to do.
“How can I hope to fully relate to them and give them the best possible first experience of the game if I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be that uncomfortable? You’ve got to become comfortable being uncomfortable. You need to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable. These are words that have mostly negative connotations. Uncomfortable, vulnerable. But what if you spin that a different way? What if you turn them into a positive? That’s what I try to do for the people I teach but I shouldn’t just expect them to do it. I need to lead by example.”
That first toe in the water proved to be the Launchpad for a series of challenges that Willett has completed this year. The Three Peaks Golf Challenge was next up after London. “It was fun to show those other climbers that I encountered that golf is something that you can take with you wherever you go,” he adds. “It doesn’t need to be confined to the course or the range. It can follow you everywhere, if you’ll let it."
Next up was ‘The Golfing Coast To Coast’. In its more traditional form, it’s a ‘west to east’ cycle marathon that challenges people to cover the 225km from Whitehaven in Cumbria to Whitley Bay by the North Sea on two wheels.
Willett adapted it for his own purposes, starting with six holes at Silloth on Solway at 4am. He then cycled 70 miles to Bellinham, where he played a further six holes. Another 70 miles followed, before six more holes at Goswick. At each course, he played in his cycling gear. “There wasn’t really any time to change and, besides, that would have defeated the purpose,” he explains.
“We’re used to golf being played in a very specific set of clothes – but why? Why shouldn’t somebody be able to cycle up to their local club, play six holes, nine holes, or 18 holes in what they’ve arrived in and then cycle home? Again, it’s about challenging convention, doing things that have traditionally not been done previously and saying, ‘See? Nothing bad came of it!’”
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The third challenge upped the ante even further. During his Three Peaks Golf Challenge, Willett noticed Wast Water at the foot of Scafell Pike. At nearly three miles long and plunging more than 258 feet in places, it is the deepest lake in England. “I knew I had to do something with it,” he explains.
That something was the ‘Iron Golf Challenge’, a variation on a traditional Iron Man triathlon. As outlined by the World Triathlon Corporation, an Iron Man comprises a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and concluding with a full marathon – a 26.2-mile run. Willett’s adapted challenge saw him swim the length of Wast Water followed by a gruelling ride that took in the Hardknott Pass.
The steepest road in England, its gradient tilts to 33% in places. “I saw it the day before the challenge and it scared the life out of me,” he adds. “But you’ve just got to face your fears, don’t you? If not, you won’t get far.”
The challenge ended with 18 holes
at Windermere Golf Club. “That was the one challenge where I genuinely had doubts over whether or not I could do it,” says Willett.
“In the end, I just went for it. It was seriously tough. I hadn’t swam further than 400m in my life, and even then, that was just a handful of times at my local pool. The climb up the Hardknott Pass was horrible and Windermere isn’t exactly the flattest course you’ll ever play either. But I did it. That was all that mattered.”
Most recently, Willett completed what he has dubbed the ‘Ultra Golfer Challenge’ and, by his own admission it was “pure punishment”.
A typical ‘ultra-marathon’ is any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles. The most common distances are 50 kilometres (31.1 miles), 100 kilometres (62.1 miles), 50 miles (80.5km), and 100 miles (160.9km).
Willett challenged himself to cover 60 miles, along the banks of the Thames, with a golf bag on his back.
It was at 2.30am one morning at the start of October, he pulled on his running shoes, strapped on a head-torch, slung the clubs over his shoulders, and got going.
“It was magical,” he smiles. “It was pitch black when I ran past Windsor Castle. The lights were out and you could only make it out as a silhouette against the night sky but it was incredible. That in itself kind of summed up the point of all this. It’s not just about a change in perspective; it’s about being brave enough to be the person making that change.”
Having previously run no further than 21 miles – without clubs on his back – Willett ran for 40 and walked 17 more, finding time for nine holes at Hampton Court Palace along the way.
“That challenge, perhaps more than any other, proved to me that golf – like most things – is played largely in the mind,” he said. “If you can win at that, the actual business of hitting the shots is pretty easy.”
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So, what's next? A fair question, right? Unsurprisingly, Willett has plenty of ideas.
“I’m getting really into rock-climbing,” he says, “and I’d love to climb the Old Man of Hoy with a golf bag on my back.” The Old Man of Hoy is a 137-metre tall sea stack on coast of the Orkney Islands...
Willett has another big ambition, though. “I’ve got three little girls and I want nothing more than to be a good role model for them,” he says. “I want them to grow up challenging their enviornments and not being afraid to try something a bit different. That’s how I got into golf. That’s how I’ve developed my love of golf. And you know what? I love it now more than ever.
"People are so quick these days to ask ‘how’ or ‘why’. A better question is ‘why not’? You can figure out the details along the way. It sounds crazy. I get that. All of this sounds crazy. But try it. You might just like what you discover.”