ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Don’t get too excited. Halfway through the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Nicolas Colsaerts isn’t leading the tournament. Then again, no one really is. With three courses — the Old Course at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns — in the rotation, who is actually atop the leaderboard will not become completely clear until three rounds have been completed. Whenever that might be. With an Armageddon-like weather forecast in play for Saturday, this AT&T National Pro-am-style event may be heading for a midday finish.
No matter. Whatever occurs over the next couple of days, Colsaerts is in contention. After a solidly-played one-under par 71 at Carnoustie — comfortably the most difficult of the three courses — the 40-year-old Belgian is eight-under par with only Kingsbarns (generally the easiest of the venues) to play before the 54-hole cut is made.
All of which is not something the former Ryder Cup player has made a habit of this year. In 19 DP World Tour starts in 2023, Colsaerts’s best finish is the T-48 he managed in Ras Al Kahaimah back in February. On as many as 15 occasions he has missed the halfway cut. Ugly stuff indeed, from one of Europe’s most gifted performers.
This week has been different though. The three-time tour winner has more closely resembled the man who shot an approximate 62 at Medinah in the 2012 Ryder Cup and, almost single-handedly, beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in an opening day fourball match. Ah, but maybe the biennial contest with the Americans is the key here. Last week, of course, Colsaerts served as one of Luke Donald’s five vice captains.
“I was inspired by last week,” says Colsaerts. “I’m not sure if it is as simple as being around 24 of the world’s best hitting shots in a match play environment. But it has to have something to do with how I have played here so far. They were all so aggressive and zoned in at the Ryder Cup. Both teams.
“Or is that the weight of the mission over the last couple of months has gone now?” he continues. “Maybe I had subconsciously put my game to one side because I was so fully invested in my role as a vice captain. Then again, I’ve been around great golf for most of my professional life. It has never been far away. I think it is just that I need to be engaged.”
Still, other factors have surely played their part in the Belgian’s struggles. He admits to a lack of motivation at age 40. There are the lingering after-effects of serious illness. Late in 2021, Colsaerts was diagnosed with membranous nephropathy, which occurs when the small blood vessels in the kidney become damaged and thickened. Proteins then leak from the damaged blood vessels into the urine. There is no certain cure. Then there was a split from his long-time caddie, Brian Nilsson. A lot of things came along at once. And Colsaerts found it all difficult to deal with.
“You ask yourself questions,” he says. “I’ve not been in a great place mentally, which is not something I’ve talked about publicly. And I’m not going to do so now. But I’ve been doing the same thing for 25 years now. And I know I haven’t been as engaged in the way I once was. It’s been tough. I have the utmost respect for guys who have played this game to a high level and been consistent and had the same drive year after year. People don’t understand the DNA you need to be able to do that, whether you are driven by ego or money or passion for the game. To keep that level of intensity for a long time is something I can only fully appreciate at the age I am now. I am in awe of those who have done it.”
Still, he’s been doing something right this week, following an opening 65 over the Old Course with that well-played 71 over one of golf’s most difficult venues.
“I have noticed a weight off from last week. There was pressure on me to perform in Italy. I had a responsibility. And I had to step up. It wasn’t something that scared me though. I knew I could contribute. It wasn’t like the last few months, where I’ve been questioning my skill set. I wasn’t anxious. I believed in myself. I was doing just about everything without really thinking about what I was doing. Which is the best way to get the best out of yourself of course. I was really switched on.
“This week that has carried over,” he continues. “I’ve always loved links golf. I’ve played this event many times. So I know the courses. But it hasn’t been like this all year if I’m honest. When I am inspired is where I perform at my best. But that hasn’t been there. Not once. I was engaged with something else. I wanted to make sure I was covering all the angles so that I could help the Ryder Cup journey as much as I possibly could.”
Indeed, it will be quite a story if he win this week. But there is a long way to go. And he has some warm recent memories to sustain him in any times of stress.
“What I got out of last week is a renewed sense of recognition and self-esteem,” says Colsaerts. “It was clear to me that I actually mattered at the Ryder Cup. I look that all in. It’s not like I mattered more than anyone. Like everyone else, I’m replaceable. But it was heartwarming to see that I affected the experience of others in a positive way. Selfishly, I led the Icelandic Thunder Clap thing on the first tee every morning. I wanted to feed off it. The energy I got from the second time I did it was amazing. I was growing into it and enjoying every second. I just stood there and took it all in. It was incredible.”
One last thing was different last week too. At Medinah, Colsaerts was the “last man standing” at the end of the European’s after-match party. Not this time though.
I was only ‘half-battered’ on Sunday night,” he says. “I was trying to manage myself. I wanted to land as softly as I possibly could.”
So his hard-earned title has, he thinks, been ceded to either Tyrrell Hatton or Shane Lowry.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the guys were still going now,” says Colsaerts, with the sort of smile that has already been much in evidence this year. Clearly, he’s not all the way back. But it looks like he might be getting there.