The secret to becoming a true Lego master builder lies in the ability to build curves. The ability to bend something when all you have is a world of rectangular blocks. It’s something Dylan Frittelli can relate to, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
As one who even now spends hundreds of dollars on those brightly coloured blocks, Lego represents the way Frittelli has meticulously built his career to this point of a champion on the PGA Tour.
And as any Lego master builder will tell you, if you try to skip a step – particularly when it comes to curves – you will have to go back several steps and start again. That’s a philosophy Frittelli believes in implicitly as he reaches for the next level of his career.
‘The last platform for me to shine on is the World Golf Championship events and the Majors. That’s where my focus is now,’ says Frittelli, who broke through with his maiden PGA Tour title at the John Deere Classic last July.
‘I didn’t think it would be as big a stepping stone as it was. People talk about the different stages of a professional athlete’s career and hitting different levels, and for me the win on the PGA Tour gave me so much confidence. I can now stand up at a World Golf Championship event or a Major and feel a lot more calm and relaxed. It’s given me a lot more freedom to play well in those settings and a lot of clarity on the things I can control and focus on.’
Frittelli is not a man for radical change, preferring instead the more methodical route of a gradual evolution. Sweeping changes to his game or equipment are not natural for him. Instead, he looks to the small things he can do to get incrementally better, thereby progressing from one level to the next in his time.
‘For me it’s all about levels of confidence. Growing up in South Africa, I played my local club champs. I won that at 15 and that confirmed I was the best player at my club. Then the next step was playing junior golf in Pretoria and making the U16 team and then the U18 team. Then it was national tournaments and I won one of those, and with that came the feeling that I belong in the national junior set-up. You just start knocking off all these goals, and before you know it I won Junior Worlds when I was 17 and was on the international stage.
‘Then it was college and competing against the best amateur golfers in the world, and doing well there. You’ve just got to knock off every one of those levels. I pride myself on getting better at each level.
‘It’s really cool to be paired with a Phil Mickelson or Brooks Koepka or Rory McIlroy and they know your first name. Not so long ago I was a college golfer coming out and not really knowing where my career was going. It’s nice to look back and feel I have proved I do belong out here.’
And he’s a big believer that trying to skip those levels is dangerous.
‘Players who do that don’t gain the confidence and continuous work ethic and growth. You can pinpoint a few golfers who’ve done that. In the women’s game Michelle Wie might have been that person. She went from junior girls golf to playing at the Sony Open and a professional men’s tournament.
‘That’s skipping like seven steps right there. She’s achieved a lot, but I believe some things take time and you need to take the time to learn them. There have been a lot of players who have been overnight sensations but didn’t have the staying power. I’ve always prided myself on being meticulous and focusing on things, and I believe that’s the sustainable way. I like that stability in my life and in my golf game.’
Even now, as Bryson DeChambeau has bulked up and piqued everybody’s interest with his new power game, Frittelli is unconvinced.
‘Stuff like that is interesting. When you change something, you’re not always sure that change is going to be good. For me it’s more about incremental changes. I’m always trying to find little things and just trying to get my mind better or my chipping or my putting. I do the same drills and may just change a few things here and there. ‘But I’m not out here to make big changes. I think many players get lost in the fame and general view that they’re going to go to this top coach and he’s going to change their swing and then they’ll win Majors. I’m like, hang on, you’ve got 2 000 hours in the bank of swinging your own swing and doing what you’re doing, and now you’re going to throw all of that away? A lot of guys make that mistake and end up ruining their games. On the equipment side too. Why would you go and change your irons just because a new set is coming out? I’ve had the same Callaway irons for two years. And I’m not going to change them anytime soon.’
Putting the pieces of your own puzzle together on a PGA Tour where there are strong games, strong personalities and strong opinions is critical for the kind of sustainability Frittelli is seeking in his career. And it’s a puzzle he has been piecing together since his days as a young boy playing garden cricket with dad Ray.
‘The garden cricket games really shaped my sporting mind. My dad would always find a way to make it come down to this one catch I had to pull off for the win, or the six I had to hit off the last ball to win. In a way, those are the kind of things you can’t really build with a sports psychologist. You kind of have to come to it organically. Playing a variety of sports as a kid contributed to that mental makeup for me. It’s hard to put your finger on how that comes into your golfing or sporting mind, but for me that background in sports from a young age has been a huge influence.’
Another major influence has been renowned surfer Kelly Slater. Frittelli is passionate about surfing and has played with Slater as a pro-am team at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
‘He really sets the standard for me in my professional life. Just to be a good guy and be nice to everybody. It’s cool to see somebody like him who has so much fame and fortune be so down to earth. And he’s a great golfer. When he’s in season and surfing, he’s about a 3-5 handicapper. But when he has time away and can play more golf, he’s probably a scratch or a plus-1.’
Surfing is one of the outlets Frittelli has discovered as he tries to balance the pressure of retaining a card on the toughest Tour in the world, but also not becoming so one-dimensional he loses out on the rest of what life has to offer.
‘It’s tough. I’ve actually struggled with that the past three years – to find outlets outside golf. The great thing for me is I’ve had a very different past six or seven years. I’ve played on the Challenge Tour, the European Tour, the Sunshine Tour and now on the PGA Tour, so everything has been new and unfamiliar. It’s all been an exciting journey to new places and new courses.’
And the lifetime love for Lego has also come in handy.
‘I loved Lego growing up. I would spend hours playing with it. The Travelers Championship is about 30 minutes away from the US head office of Lego. I went there and it was so cool. I got to meet some master builders and they explained what they do. I spent about a thousand dollars in the shop afterwards just getting a few things for my nephew, and for me. I recently built the old ’67 VW Wagon and I finished a Shelby Mustang the other day. They’ve just launched a new Lamborghini, so I’m going to have to get on that one. It’s kind of something you can display because everybody can appreciate a model car.’
For every level he progresses and every block he puts in place as he builds his career, Frittelli is never too far from the thoughts of what this game has done for him, and what it truly means to him beyond titles and money.
‘You know, I want to live a full and happy life. I love my life. There are a few drawbacks like packing and travelling, but if that’s the worst I have to deal with, I really have a great life.
‘It’s funny, somebody asked me the other day where my last round of golf would be before I died, and Irene Country Club popped into my head. The fondest memories I have of playing golf were being 12, 13 and 14 years old playing with either the members on a Saturday afternoon, or my mom walking around with me after school and the sun going down, and just trying to squeeze in the last two or three holes, and the colours of the late autumn trees.’