By PATRICK SLACK
The journey didn’t start on a country club golf course, with daily lessons from a private swing coach. Far from it.
No, Robert Bell took the hard way. And he believes he is better off for it.
Growing up in Pierz’ small-town setting with a nine-hole course, Bell didn’t have some of the luxuries as other players who aspired to become professional golfers.
But he did have the competitive drive, and a community that rallied around him, to get to the pinnacle of the game, breaking into the professional circuit at the Minnesota State Open Championship in Brooklyn Park, July 19 – 21.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Bell said. “Nine-hole golf course, no bunkers, no driving range. Things were obviously very difficult for me to get where I am now. I wouldn’t be where I am now without the support from around the Pierz community when I was younger.”
“Nothing was easy for me growing up,” he said. “I didn’t have the country clubs. I didn’t have the practice facilities. I just knew how to pick up a club and swing it.”
The timing was perfect for Bell, who held off turning pro in order to play in the state amateur earlier in the week, where he placed third.
With only one day of rest before making the leap to the pros, Bell opened the State Open with a rousing start.
Highlighted by a five-hole stretch in which he hit four birdies, Bell turned in a five-under-par score of 67, finishing the first round in first place.
He closed with rounds of 74 and 75, earning a tie for 13th place at even par.
“It was tons of fun,” Bell said. “I really enjoyed it. I think if you don’t enjoy it, you’re not playing for the right reasons. You know, you can only put a price tag on so many of the things that you love.
“And yeah, you can win money at it, but that’s not the reason I’m doing it,” he said. “I’m doing it to gain experience, to gain knowledge so that when I do get my opportunities later on in life at some of these other tournaments like Q (qualifying) School. And hopefully I get some shots at the PGA Tour, and when I do get there, I’ll fight through that adversity and play well enough to maintain it on the big stage. That’s kind of the goal.”
That goal was developed early on in Bell’s life, heading to the course with his friends every chance he had.
“I had great friends growing up,” Bell said. “We always played golf every day. The thing we always wanted to do was go down to the golf course and play. That kept us out of a lot of trouble and it brought us all to a game that we all love.”
While the idea of becoming a professional golfer was cultivated during that time, Bell knew if he was going to make it a reality, he needed to take the game even more seriously.
He began to see swing coach Scott Dirck in Alexandria who helped fine-tune his game, finishing high school by winning three Central Minnesota Conference titles and finishing as a state runner-up as a junior and the Class A champion as a senior.
“Growing up without top-notch facilities like other kids and playing single A golf with other small schools and other courses that really aren’t that challenging, it was harder,” Bell said. “But the one thing it did teach me was how to score, when I was able to hit the golf ball well enough to put me in position to do well on these courses.”
After high school, Bell went on to compete at the Division I level with the University of Minnesota, once winning conference player of the week honors and finishing 12th in the Big Ten as a senior before making the leap to the pros.
While there is no official requirement a golfer needs to pass to play as a pro, the costs involved to compete turn those that aren’t serious away.
“If there’s a person within the handicap willing to put their own money out there to try to win, they’ll allow them to play,” Bell said. “But the problem is the fees – the hotel fees, the gas fees, all these expenses – they’re a lot of money. So not a lot of people do it unless they think they’re good enough.
“My process was, ‘Do I think I’m good enough and am I ready for that stage?’ And I think the answer is yes,” he said. “I think there’s some ability there to make some money and there’s also the ability to improve my golf game. I’m still pretty young. I’m only hoping to get better over time.
“Statistics would say it’s a hard feat to accomplish,” he said. “I need to put in a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, a lot of time, because it’s not going to come easy. You aren’t going to take giant leaps in this game. It’s a process.”
Turning pro, though, is just the first step in achieving Bell’s ultimate dream.
“My whole goal is to get onto the PGA (Professional Golf Association) Tour. It’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. It’s an extremely hard process. It takes a lot of luck and it takes a lot of dedication. It takes a lot of long hours.”
The next step for Bell is to compete at the Q School at the end of the year, with the hope of eventually working up to the PGA.
“You can’t just go from the University of Minnesota golf team to the PGA Tour. It doesn’t happen that way. It takes time to adjust to your surroundings. I’m just kind of getting my feet wet.
“It’s something I want to do for the rest of my life, obviously,” he said. “It’s a hard commitment to make. I see a lot of friends that are really good players, but something kind of goes off with them. They’re on the verge of making it and they just don’t. My goal is to play it forever, basically.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s not something I thought about every day,” he said. “It’s something I kept in the back of my mind that it’s going to come some day, it’s going to come some day, that I have this many years or this many more days. It came up quick and it’s finally here. I’m just thankful that I’ve put myself in a position to be successful and that comes with working hard.”
Mirroring his upbringing, Bell still isn’t doing things the easy way, supporting his dreams by caddying in the Twin Cities, time he would love to spend working on his game if he was able.
“Some of these entry fees are a lot of money, but I’m doing what I love and that’s what means the most to me,” Bell said. “It makes it that much better when I do have a good finish and hit the ball well. Nothing’s come easy.”
Right after the tournament, Bell spent a day back in Pierz, visiting with many of the same people that have supported him from the start of his trek.
“I love coming back home and spending time at the golf course there,” Bell said. “There’s nothing more relaxing and enjoyable for me. That means more to me than any win or top finish or missed cut.
“That tops it all off, just to know that people care about what you’re doing,” he said. “It truly means a lot. Without my parents and the great teachings of my high school coach Leo Pohlkamp, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”