Marcus Armitage left school at 13 and in a spiral of grief managed to find his salvation in golf. Here this week, in the midst of a remarkable journey that sums up the wild fluctuations of his sport, the 32-year-old Englishman yet again has the opportunity to prove correct his own certainty in the destiny of his career.
Anyone who saw the Yorkshireman’s reaction to finishing third in the South Africa Open at Randpark Club on Sunday will have been justified in believing that his fulfilment was right there, on the 18th in that man-made forest in Johannesburg, jumping around with his caddie – a local bagman called Eric – and throwing his hat down in celebration at holing a 20-footer for birdie.
Tears filled his eyes with such a surge that the mind threw itself back to victories in the Open Championship proper. Except this was simply another step in a long hard climb and was just The Bullet (his nickname) being The Bullet.
“To be fair, there was plenty on that putt,” Armitage said here. “I walked up the last knowing that a birdie, and only a birdie, would get me into this year’s Open at Sandwich; I might have gone even madder if I’d realised it would also get me into this event [the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship] as well, in a field with Brooks [Koepka, the world No 1]. And there was a right few quid in. I picked up about £70,000 and after all the deductions, like paying my caddie, paying the tax etc, that means I’ll take home about £40,000. I was about £90,000 in debt, so that will almost half the deficit.
“So yeah, it was big, but if you want to write that the week came in the nick of time as I’d have been considering packing it in, you’d be wrong. I don’t care how bad it gets, even if I’m 42 and still struggling out here, I’ll keep trying. Because this is what I’m meant to do. It has been since I was 13.”
That was the year when his mother, Jean, passed away from cancer. It was the year when he left school.
“I hated it, mate,” Armitage said. “I am dyslexic in some form or other and back then it wasn’t picked up like it is now. So I’d just be staring out the classroom window. And I couldn’t just sit thinking, ‘She’s dead’. So I went to the golf club every day and focused on hitting balls. Nobody from school said anything. Maybe they realised.
“It was an escape, and gave me something else to focus on. At home it was just me and my dad [Phil]. It was hard, but I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, look how tough he’s had it’. Because I was just in Johannesburg and in their townships they’d hear my story and say, ‘You jammy b------, you had it easy’. It all just depends from where you are looking at it.”
Armitage reached scratch by 15 without ever having a lesson. With money short, he turned pro as a 19-year-old, playing on the mini tours. One of the most natural swingers on display, with a wonderful array of shots, Armitage nevertheless laboured for years – both on the fairways to chase a dream and in the building sites to make ends meet – before graduating to the Challenge Tour and from there to the big Tour in 2017.
He first came to the attention of the golf world at large when daring to stride up to Tiger Woods on the range at the Dubai Desert Classic and ask for a selfie. The next year he qualified for the Open and decided to tee it up, despite tearing a shoulder muscle.
“I was acting as if it was all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’d never be back again,” he said. “I’m calmer now, more professional and mature. I played with Tommy [Fleetwood] today, but only because he happened to be ready to practise at the same time. A few years ago, I’d have waited for him to be ready and just dashed up to the tee when he was going off. I know what it takes now and I know I have a responsibility to Lucy.”
Armitage’s girlfriend is back in the village of Shelley, running her beautician business. “She has been there for me and is my priority,” he said. “When my mum went it was just me and dad for years and I think he found it hard when I found Lucy. But he’s in a good place now, and whereas before I was trying to make it big to cheer him up, I now appreciate that you have to do it for yourself. Dad’s been on his own journey.”
In truth, the summit is still a faint peak on the horizon, and at 387th in the world, Armitage still has a huge fight to retain the playing privileges he clawed back at qualifying school in November after earning barely £10,000 all season. Yet if rankings were mentioned in popularity, The Bullett would have a lifetime pass to the locker room.
With his broad accent, a rotund face quite befitting the frame and a self-deprecating humour, Armitage cuts such a refreshing figure a few par fives removed from the norm. Take his moniker. “Someone said I should have a nickname, so I told my bag-maker to put ‘The Bulldog’ on the side,” he said. “When it came back I looked at it and said, ‘The f------ Bullett. What’s that about?’ But it stuck and I believe everything is for a reason. That’s why I’m here.”