"Press on": The rise and rise of the remarkable Kipp Popert

Words by
Dan Davies
"Press on": The rise and rise of the remarkable Kipp Popert

Kipp Popert has had a busy couple of months. In June, he became the first golfer with a disability to qualify for the British Amateur Championship. A fortnight ago at St Andrews, he appeared in the R&A’s Celebration of Champions alongside Tom Watson. Then last week, he won a USGA medal at the inaugural US Adaptive Open at Pinehurst. Kipp is 24 years old. He was born with cerebral palsy and has endured 10 major surgeries on his feet and legs. He plays off a handicap of +4, he's using Clippd religiously and, as he reveals in this long form interview, he’s only starting to scratch the surface of what he can achieve.

First and foremost, congratulations on the last few weeks.

Kipp Popert: Thanks, it's been a brilliant experience and I've played quite well so that's been good. The Amateur Championship was awesome. I've never got in before. It was quite a big decision because the European Team Disability Championship was on in the same week. I got asked to play by England Golf but I had to decline my first England call-up because I believed I would qualify for the Amateur. Sadly, I didn't play amazing at Lytham but I know I can get back there and do better next time. It was just a brilliant learning experience. Being the first person with a disability to qualify for the Amateur is a nice achievement and I'll definitely build on that.

When did you know that you would be playing in the R&A’s Celebration of Champions on the Monday afternoon before the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews? 

KP: They mentioned about five months ago that I was a potential. To get [paired with] Tom Watson was pretty unreal, you know, a five-time Open champion. To be honest, it didn't really sink in. I'm a competitor at heart so it was nice to go there and have four holes that weren't in stiff competition for my first time [at the Open]. I've heard everyone say when you get into big career moments like that, look around and absorb it all. But weirdly, my mentality has never been that. When I get there, I want to try to play the best I can. 

At the start of the week, I sat down for breakfast and opposite me was Lee Trevino. At that point I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.' Lee Trevino is one of my favourite players ever. Long story short, I was on the driving range and I went and watched him for five or 10 minutes. It turned into him giving me a 45-minute lesson. That's stuff money can't buy so I was just trying to be like a sponge.

Kipp Popert (left) shares a joke with Tom Watson and Stewart Cink at St Andrews

What did you talk about with Trevino?

KP: He talked about having a shot you can use under pressure. For him, it had always been what he called a push fade. He would aim left, shuffle to the right with his feet and then his feel was pushing it down onto the target. It's stuff I'm trying to work on to give myself a shot I can use under the gun. Something else I picked up off him is the importance of not getting too one-dimensional or caught up in technique and just continually developing the skills.

Would it be fair to say you're a player who really wants to to develop as many different types of shots and skills as possible?

KP: Yeah, absolutely. I feel that if you develop the skill you'll develop the technique. For me, golf is not gymnastics. You don't get graded on how it looks. You get graded on your ability to perform. That's always been my mentality. With my legs growing up, when I used to have the foot deformities, I couldn’t swing in a way that you would call ‘textbook’. For me, it's always been about developing my ball control and my skill and my ability to hit the shots when I need to. 

Kipp on the Swilcan Bridge with (from left) Paul Lawrie, Tom Watson and Stewart Cink

What was it like stepping onto the first tee on the Old Course with Tom Watson, Stewart Cink and Paul Lawrie, not to mention thousands of people watching in the grandstands?

KP: What I've always done really well is I’ve always trusted myself. I've always enjoyed a challenge. I never shy away from anything. I've always been that person that wants to be standing in front of 40,000 people and hitting a golf shot. That's just who I am. Walking over that bridge to the tee, I put up a little Instagram story. All I wrote was "Showtime". That was my mentality. I'd practised hard enough, I felt like I deserved to be there. 

Meeting Tom Watson, Stewart Cink and Paul Lawrie, to be honest it all just sort of happened so naturally. Now I look back at the pictures, I'm like, "Oh gosh, that's quite cool." Whenever I hit a shot, I see things in pictures. There was a crane just right of this bush in the middle of the fairway and as soon as I walked down the stairs, I saw that. I just froze that crane. I've never been so focused on a crane in my whole life! I put the tee in the ground and it all just went like clockwork. All those hours of practice and pre-shot routine. Before I knew it, the ball had gone and I’d absolutely flushed it on the crane. 

“I never shy away from anything. I've always been that person that wants to be standing in front of 40,000 people hitting a golf shot"

You then went on to flush your second shot to four feet on the first, hit a world-class approach on 17 and all this before catching a plane to the United States.

KP: I’ve got to say that my dad got to caddie for me at the Open and that was just awesome, even better than having a lesson with Lee Trevino to be honest. Yeah, I got on the plane on Tuesday morning feeling over the moon. My aim is always to get to the Open as a player but in my eyes this was another brilliant stepping stone. I know it's going to make me better in the long run. 

From St Andrews you flew to New York to compete in a qualifying tournament for the US Amateur Championship in Long Island, where you came fifth. Tell us about that.

KP: I arrived on the 12th and the comp was on the 13th. First round, I shot two over. I thought I needed the birdie on the last to get in and so I ran my birdie putt maybe eight foot by and then sadly lipped out in the next one. I played very well. The top 40 per cent qualified for the second round. In the second round I had seven birdies and three within my last four holes to finish fifth. I just missed out because it was the top two that got in. It was my first time playing a comp in the States, so to get on the flight from Scotland and then perform the way I did, I was really pleased. It was one of those days where I definitely played good enough golf to qualify.

Kipp (second from left) came fourth in the individual title and won the Neurological Category at the inaugural US Adaptive Open at Pinehurst

And from there it was over to Pinehurst for the very first US Adaptive Open. What are your reflections on a week in which you finished fourth overall and won your category?

KP: It was absolutely amazing. I've been in the very privileged position to go to some of the biggest events in the world and I know the standard that's often set in terms of how they treat the players and the facilities available and small things like that. The US Adaptive Open was the best run event I've ever played in. There were 400 volunteers, there was a referee with every group, everyone was accommodated for. You walked onto the range and it was Pro V1s or Pro V1Xs, 'Which would you like, sir?' 

I'm a student of the game, but once it's all said and done and once I've won too many trophies to count, what I want to leave is a long-lasting legacy in this game. A legacy for the better. For the DP World Tour to introduce disability events is amazing [Kipp has won three of them to date], but the reality is that it only benefits the top-10 in the world. The US Adaptive Open had more than 90 players, 24 who were also scratch or better, as well as people who had never played in a golf event. The USGA did not put the event on to tick a box, they put it on because it was a proper event.

“Golf is not gymnastics. You don't get graded on how it looks. You get graded on your ability to perform”

What it showed me is that disability golf is in a very good place and it's only going to grow. America has a handful of very good players that hopefully will start coming over to Europe to do the G4D (Golf for the Disabled) Tour events or the EDGA events to qualify for the G4D events. I've heard through the grapevine that the R&A is going to host an Adaptive Open, so we're going to have two majors. You never know, maybe the Masters will follow suit. To have majors is only going to grow the sport. Then the next stage is to have a world ranking system that anyone can get on to.

Kipp on his recent trip to America for the US Amateur and US Adaptive Open

When you talk about legacy, what specifically would you like to achieve? You want to play on the main able-bodied tours, don't you? 

KP: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of legacy, at the end of it I want everyone to think of me as one of the best overachievers. That's why working with Clippd has been brilliant because it shows me my game in a very easy to understand format and allows me to practice the specific things I need to do to squeeze out every bit of potential I have in me. Trophies are great but I don’t do it for putting trophies in the cabinet. I don't even have a cabinet at home. I've never been one for material values. For me, the trophy is hitting the shot to win. That's what I keep. 

In Kent, where I'm from, I never had any disability academies to go to. Since I got to World Number One last year, I've worked with Kent Golf to go from two disability academies to four this year. I want to help to provide an opportunity and a pathway for people with a disability to first get into the game, but also show that they can compete at this game at whichever level they aspire to. 

"Press on. For me, that's my life, that's my mantra. If anyone wants to know me as a person, that defines it in a few short words" 

How did you get into golf?

KP: My dad's a surgeon and my mum is a GP. I'm the oldest of four siblings. Dad used to watch old DVDs of Bobby Jones on repeat. With my cerebral palsy, I couldn't really crawl around until I was about two and a half or three so he would just sit me down and I wouldn't move. I just absorbed what was on the TV. When I finally was able to stand up, the first thing my dad passed me was a plastic golf club. I almost used it as a crutch to lean on, to stand up, and then I would swing it. 

I've always loved sport and I love winning. I think having my disability growing up put that in me. It means I've always had to work extremely hard for whatever I wanted to achieve, be it as a three or four-year-old going from crawling to standing and walking, or when I tried to play football as a kid with all my friends in the park and I would always fall over. I always stood back up again. So I've always had a driving force within me. Maybe it's because I started with a disadvantage but I think that's my biggest strength. I don't let up at all. I don't ever really get [down] on myself either. I'm my biggest supporter, to be honest. 

You've had 10 surgeries on your legs and feet. Are there any further surgeries on the horizon? And secondly, what are the biggest challenges you face as a golfer with the condition that you have? 

KP: Fingers crossed there shouldn't be any more surgeries. If so, it would only be a minor one, probably to my left big toe. I had a major surgery this winter. I played quite well at the start of the year, but because I was on crutches from November to February I didn't have any off-season and, you know, that's a really key part of the year to really get some momentum going. So that was a bit of a challenging period.

“I've always had a driving force within me. Maybe it's because I started with a disadvantage. I think that's my biggest strength. I don't let up at all”

The biggest challenge for me with my disability is walking a golf course, which is obviously tough. The balance during the swing and balancing on sidehill lies [are others]. If I have quite a severe sidehill lie I have to really focus on making contact with the middle of the of the club face. Mobility and function during the swing are things I work really hard on, getting my body to turn properly and using the ground to develop power. So for example, I know that in my Clippd data I'm nearly at 100 Player Quality with my driving, but I'm nearly at 100 only hitting it 265 [yards]. In the sense of efficiency with my driver, I'm at a a very, very elite level. Once I can pump up that club head speed, it will become a big driving force within my game.

When did you start getting really good?

KP: I got down to about two at maybe 16 or so. Before my foot deformities were corrected, I couldn't really rotate very well. For the first five years of doing golf seriously, I just couldn't get into the positions that Tiger Woods could get into. I knew I couldn’t get into the positions, but I could still hit a draw or a fade by practice. The moment I had those surgeries, especially one on my right foot, my handicap plummeted because I was able to turn through the ball a lot better. 

Those summer holidays lying in bed after all the operations were tough but I never really saw it that way. I never really saw it as a chore or poor little old me. I remember thinking, if I go into playoffs or down the stretch, the mental resilience I'm having to show is only going to help me. I've probably played the Open 24 times in my head and I've won it probably a handful of times. 

Five-time Open champion Tom Watson gave Kipp a specific tip about playing from the rough

So while you were lying in bed after the operations you had each summer, you were training your mind as much as anything?

KP: Absolutely. I couldn't see anything else. I couldn't train physically but I've always had this thing in me. My granddad has always said, from a young age. "Press on independently". We shortened it to 'press on'. For me, that's my life, that's my mantra. If anyone wants to know me as a person, that defines it in a few short words. 

You've been using Clippd now for a few months. What have you got from it? 

KP: I've been using it religiously since the Brabazon [Trophy in May]. I want to squeeze everything out of my game and Clippd is awesome for that. It's very easy to understand which parts of your game are losing you shots, which are gaining you shots. I'm able to compare it to tour average, it's just a lot easier to understand than Strokes Gained. With Clippd, it might be 110, which looks a lot nicer than a plus or minus figure with decimal points. You can really see progression a lot more clearly. 

I've been using What To Work On. I've got about 10 days until my next comp so I'm going to be working really hard at 100-140 yards, 180+ yards and then chipping out of the rough. I can clearly see that if I just keep plugging away at everything else but really grind on those three things, it's going to give me the biggest advantage going into my next event. 

Kipp's Clippd Round Insights from his second round at US Amateur Qualifying at the 6713-yard Pine Hollow CC, Long Island, on July 13 2022

What I love about that is it takes your ego and emotion away. I don't really care if it hurts my ego, I just want to know what will win me trophies. The other thing with Clippd is it’s pointed out my putting this year has been a lot better than I ever thought it was. It's actually the strength of my game. 

It's nice when it changes those narratives, isn't it? It injects that elusive X-factor called confidence.

KP: Absolutely. Not only that, you're not wasting any energy. The reality of the situation is to win majors, which I aim to do, I've got to beat a million other people that are trying to do exactly the same. So I need every little bit of energy I can have. I know I've got the mental edge, but I want to squeeze every little bit out of my game. 

The beautiful thing about Clippd is I know that if I put five hours’ work in, it's five hours of really specific, productive work. I really enjoy the way it presents the data, It's just really clear and a positive way of doing it. It really keeps you hungry to keep getting better. I've already set myself goals of what I want my data to look like in a year's time. 

“I've already set myself goals of what I want my Clippd data to look like in a year’s time”

What are the next targets for you? 

KP: I go to the next tournament on the DP World Tour, the ISPS HANDA World Invitational. I'd love to put in a good performance there and come home with some more silverware [Kipp has already won two tournaments this season on the G4D Tour]. Then I think the next stage is producing rounds in the next six months where I can look at those stats in Clippd and make the decision about turning professional. There are gaps in the data that I want to fill and I'm working hard to do so.

I'm not too sure when I'll turn pro. I'm getting a lot of benefit out of being an amateur, playing in the big amateur events around the world. I would love to put in a few really good results in able-bodied amateur golf. I think that's the next stage, being in contention in a few of them.