RCW: A walk in a Kiwi's shoes
A trip to New Zealand gave junior golfer Daniel Hudson insight into teammate Charlie Hillier’s life that he could not have imagined.
As one walks through the campus of The University of Kansas, they are greeted by a variety of different faces. Some students grew up down the road, while others travel from all over the world. Through all of the diversity, behind every face, there is a story. A story of how an individual got to be where they are today and how they became Jayhawks. A teammate’s trip to New Zealand reveals the story behind the face of sophomore men’s golfer, Charlie Hillier.
Hillier is a native of Te Puke, a small town located in the Western Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. Small in this sense is described as a population of less than 8,000 people, more than three times smaller than the enrollment of KU.
“Growing up in New Zealand is sort of like the Hawaii feel,” Hillier said. “Sort of slow motion, not a whole lot going on. I come from a pretty small town.”
Born into a family of athletes, it is no surprise that Hillier is now competing in golf at the collegiate level. In fact, playing at a high level of sports was the norm within the Hillier family. While the emphasis is now on golf, this was not always the case.
“My family is soccer through and through,” Hillier said. “My dad’s side is English and my mom’s (on her dad’s) side is English. My dad’s dad played for Chelsea, my mom’s dad played for Fulham and my dad played semi-pro. So I was all about soccer until I was probably 13. My mom also played field hockey and volleyball in New Zealand.”
With two English Premier League players as well as someone who played semi-professional soccer in the family, it was only natural that Hillier gravitated towards the sport at an early age. Even with soccer as the norm, Hillier was still aware of golf from an early age. It was with the support of his family and a few close friends that made him realize that golf was what he really wanted to do.
“My dad played golf as a hobby so sometimes I would push his bag for him,” Hillier said. “I could hit a golf ball from probably the age of four. Obviously, soccer is pretty limited in New Zealand compared to England. The head pro at my home course was always telling me I was good enough to play so I picked it up pretty seriously. It took me two years to play in my first serious tournament at 15.”
So Hillier began to develop his golf career with the help of coaches whose impact still influences him today. He quickly started mastering the skills that are required to be a true competitor. At the age of 17, Hillier was able to snag a victory at the 2014 North Island Under-19 Championship in New Zealand as well as a tied for 10th place finish at the 2014 Callaway Junior Golf World Championships at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, California.
Hillier was competing in the United States to gain exposure and his game quickly caught people’s attention.
“He was an international kid, so he didn’t even have his name on his bag,” Kansas men’s golf head coach Jamie Bermel said. “We had no idea who he was. It worked out for us because we were looking (for players) in that class. He was good. He has a good golf swing. I liked his personality and thought he would be a good fit here. We needed a guy that we thought could be an impact. He certainly has been a good player for us.”
With only two trips to America in his life, it was the Junior World Championships that would pave the way for Hillier’s future golf career.
“To be honest, when Coach (Bermel) came up to me I didn’t even know where Kansas was. I didn’t even know it existed,” Hillier said. “I had just played for the junior worlds in California and I think that was my second time in America. My first ever golf coach in New Zealand went to the University of Oregon to play golf. That was my only contact to start off with so he told me to play in the junior worlds because everyone would be there. I think it was two days before the first round, Coach (Jamie) Bermel was on the range and asked for my name then watched me all four rounds. I came on an unofficial visit and a year later I was doing summer school at The University of Kansas.”
After making a trip across the world, Lawrence, Kansas would become home for Hillier over the next four years. The transition from high school into college is one that is difficult for almost everyone. Many times, it means being away from family, living on your own for the first time and freedom unlike anything previously experienced. With these things come common struggles, ones felt by Hillier as he made the transition.
“I found the transition pretty tough,” Hillier said. “How quickly everything picked up. Obviously, high school is a lot different than university. In high school, you pretty much just go to school and then do whatever you want after that. But now, having a set schedule with golf at this time, then school and then tutoring. I really struggled the first semester but now it is fine.”
Not only was Hillier making a difficult transition from high school to college, but he was also moving more than 7,500 miles away from where he had spent his entire life. With this became a variety of changes, even in just small daily activities.
“You guys don’t even realize it but the food is so much different,” Hillier said. “The portions are different. It’s just the little things. Like if I ask for chips I get a bag of chips but if I asked for chips in New Zealand I would get fries. Just little things like that.”
Luckily, with the help of the Kansas coaching staff, Hillier was able to find comfort in Kansas surroundings, which made the transition into life of a collegiate student-athlete less stressful and more successful.
“Coach Bermel had a lot to do with it,” Hillier said. “He’s been doing it for a lot of years now and obviously, he has had international students. He helped me a lot in the way of managing my time and being in the right place. Just adjusting to American culture.”
With years of coaching experience under his belt, Bermel knew exactly what he needed to do to make Hillier make the transition a little bit easier.
“I’ve dealt with international players before,” had coach Bermel said. “There has to be a trust factor. I told him and his parents that when he gets over here, I will take care of it. International kids struggle with a lot of things from the school to the food to the friends. If they trust you it works. I think it was hard for Charlie his first year but I think he is getting more and more comfortable.”
At the same time Hillier was in New Zealand kicking the soccer ball around, there was another story developing on the opposite side of the world.
Taking a trip across the Pacific from Te Puke, in Western Springs, Illinois, a small suburb just west of Chicago, the story of junior men’s golfer, Daniel Hudson, began to form itself.
Able to relate to Hillier, athletics were engrained in Hudson’s genes, as he and his two brothers were born into a family who played multiple sports.
“My parents played quite a few sports growing up,” Hudson said. “My dad actually played golf at Arizona State for a semester. My mom was an all-state basketball player.”
With the influence and encouragement of his parents, Hudson also spent his time playing a variety of different sports while growing up. Golf was not always the focus. In fact, for a while, it was not even part of the conversation. Also, similar to Hillier, Hudson got his introduction to golf early on, and also as a result of his father.
“My dad played,” Hudson said. “He grew up in Iowa, in a blue-collar, laid back, simple town. He didn’t force it on me or my two brothers. One day we walked in the basement and his clubs were there. We just started playing around. He ended up getting a couple of clubs cut down and we went to the range. It was probably only a summer or so. We were all seasonal athletes so once summer was done we transitioned into whatever was next. For a couple of years, I didn’t play, but around six or seventh grade I had an urge to pick it back up. I played basketball my freshman year in high school, but after that it was only golf.”
With golf the sport Hudson wanted to make a career, he needed to decide how he would get there. He continued to compete in a series of tournaments and it was one of these tournaments that paved the way for his journey to Kansas.
“I was playing in Arizona and there was a guy with an Iowa Hawkeyes bag and since my mom was from Iowa she just went over to say hi,” Hudson said. “We ended up having dinner with them that night and we played together the next day. He is now one of my good friends and I sort of just continued that relationship. His dad and Coach Bermel knew each other from college, so he gave me Coach’s contact information and put in a good word. Coach Bermel contacted me, we got some visits lined up and in the end I decided this was the place to go.”
With a simple hello, a friendship was formed that helped shape Hudson’s future.
“Through years of coaching, with the relationships and the friends, people often reach out,” Bermel said. “It turned out that the assessment we got on Dan was spot on. I thought he was a good player. He was a little under the radar because he played quite a few sports growing up before concentrating on golf. It was a good fit for us and a good fit for Dan.”
Hudson was also forced to make the difficult transition from high school to college and to the lifestyle of being a student-athlete. With different stories to get there, both Hillier and Hudson found themselves taking a converging road through Lawrence.
As Hudson already had a year of experience under his belt when Hillier officially joined the Jayhawk squad, he knew that it was his responsibility to assist the incoming freshman. He did just that.
“For my first year here, I struggled with schoolwork and I think Dan is pretty much a straight-A student,” Hillier said. “So he would help me with schoolwork.”
Continuing to assist each other in any way possible, the two found themselves spending more and more time together as the golf season was under way. The hospitality by Hudson and increased time together turned an initial relationship as teammates into a true friendship.
“Out of the four freshmen at the time, he was the only one traveling on a regular basis,” Hudson said. “It made it easy to get to know him just because of the amount of time we spent together on the road. We started rooming together and so now every trip we stay together. We got to know each other on the golf course and then we would go hang out in the hotel room. Every night we would try to find an ice cream place or something and we would just talk about random stuff. It was pretty seamless.”
With similar personalities, the two clicked right away.
“Both of those guys are easy to get along with,” Bermel said. “Their personalities are pretty laid back so I think they mesh together pretty well.”
This friendship continued to develop over Hillier’s first year on the squad and has continued into the 2016-17 season. Hudson was even able to catch a peek inside the backstory of Hillier with a trip to New Zealand over winter break.
“I always go back every Christmas to see my family,” Hillier said. “It is sort of my big break for the year since I do summer school here and play in a few tournaments. We were just sitting there and I said, ‘Oh, well, you should come.’ So he said he would bring his dad and come down. I left as soon as school finished and he came on January 3. We played golf and had fun.”
While it seemed to be a spur of the moment trip, a few different factors worked in Hudson’s favor.
“My dad travels quite a bit and his company has offices in Australia and New Zealand so he takes an annual trip down there,” Hudson said. “He always said it was super cool. So I called him and asked if I could go down and since my brothers were going places. He said we could make it work. With his familiarity (of the area) it kind of just worked out. Within a week of bringing it up, it was all booked so it was off the whim.”
Now in a place more than 7,000 miles from where he grew up, Hudson began to have experiences that he had never had before. This became evident within the first few minutes of landing at the airport.
“When I got there, I threw my clubs in the trunk and Charlie started walking to the right side of the car so I looked up and said, ‘I’m not driving.’ I realized after that they drive on the other side of the road,” said Hudson.
This wasn’t the only time that Hudson’s experiences from America were varied from the customs in New Zealand.
“We were hiking up this mountain on the beach,” Hudson said. “I’m always used to walking on the right side of the path. So I was walking on the right side with my head down because it was a steep slope and I almost ran into some people. Charlie was like, ‘Dude you need to get out of the right side,'” explained Hudson.
The experiences abroad continued and Hudson was able to get a glimpse into the daily life of his teammate and newly found friend.
“One of the most interesting things was one night when we were at his house having dinner,” Hudson said. “There was steak, a hard-boiled egg, salad with avocado, corn and potatoes. The eggs and the vegetables were out of his own back yard. His dad said the avocado was off of his friend’s orchard a mile down the road and picked that morning. The steak was from a ranch in the town that they lived in. So the entire meal was from places within three miles of where they lived. It was something I had never experienced (before).”
Growing up in the Midwest of the United States, there were many things in his trip to New Zealand that Hudson had never experienced before.
“Where I’m from when you say you are going fishing you are probably just going to a river bank,” Hudson. “One day, we just got in his dad’s boat and went on what we consider here as a deep-sea (fishing) trip. We just went straight out in the ocean and we only caught like one fish. Within five minutes of being back, his dad was making a soup with the fish. It is just straight farm to table.”
One of Hudson’s favorite nights on his trip to New Zealand was when he helped collect the eggs from the chickens in the backyard, which became a scene for everyone one else.
“They have like 30 chickens in their backyard,” Hudson said. “Every day someone would need to go out and feed the chickens and then that night they would pick them. One night I asked if I needed to get the eggs. So I put the gum boots on and go into the pen. I saw his (Hillier’s) dad do it a couple of days before and he showed me how. The terrifying part is that sometimes a chicken sits on the eggs and you have to pull them by the tail and throw them out. Of course, the last one is sitting there staring me in the face and everyone is on the deck dying laughing.”
Hillier continued to show Hudson flashes of his days growing up, but Hudson had yet to have insight on one of the more importance parts of Hillier’s story. Signed up to play in a tournament at Hillier’s home course, Hudson would get the chance, where he saw some differences right off the bat.
“The one major difference is you don’t really warm up and hit range balls,” Hudson said. “We showed up about 20 minutes before the tee time. (We) Went into the locker room and stretched for five minutes, hit putts for 10 minutes and then we were off. Growing up I was used to having a big warm-up session. Out there, it is just drop the ball on the tee and let’s go.”
Nonetheless, Hudson and Hillier were about to do something that was familiar in both of their stories, play golf. Accompanied by Hillier’s younger brother, Harry Hillier, who has signed to play golf at Kansas starting in the 2017-18 season, the two current Jayhawks would compete in the Danny Lee Springfield Open. The event was hosted at Hillier’s home course and he was the defending champion.
At the end of day one, it was Harry who led among the three friends at four-under-par, followed by Hudson who shot a two-under-par 68 and Charlie who was even with a 70. However, there was a turn of events in the next two days of competition, as the weather changed.
“I think Harry played really well in the first round and I didn’t play well at all,” Hillier said. “It was pretty windy on the last day and he was playing in the last group, so he had some nerves and there was no pressure on me. I was in the third-to-last group and Dan was in the second-to-last group. I came out on the last day and shot a good number while Harry didn’t play very well.”
Hillier shot five-under-par in his final round compared to Harry’s four-over-par, edging his younger brother by one stroke. While it was enough to beat Harry, Hillier finished in third place. Hudson also struggled on the final day of competition and finished tied for 16th.
But this was not college golf. It was an experience. It was an opportunity for friends to have a good time and for Hudson to continue learning about Hillier’s story.
“The thing I enjoyed was that it wasn’t taken too seriously,” Hudson said. “I played terrible, but you wouldn’t have had any idea what anyone shot when it was all said and done.”
After eight days, Hudson’s trip was over, with many new and exciting experiences to show for it. He was able to see what Hillier lived like on a daily basis growing up. He was able to gain knowledge and understanding of Hillier’s family, his daily lifestyle and his golf game — all of which are crucial chapters in Hillier’s life.
Hudson knew what it was like to make a big life transition. But this was one undertaking that he could not even imagine.
“I remember thinking, I have only been here for eight days and I am so excited to go home just because that is what I am used to,” Hudson said. “I have so much appreciation for him and anyone else who has to come over (to the United States) their freshman year, to a new place. I couldn’t imagine going to New Zealand and being thrown into golf, school and everything else and having to succeed.”
Winter break ended and the two Jayhawks made their way back to Lawrence in preparation for the spring 2017 season to begin. Hudson had stepped out of his comfort zone and it paid off.
“I think it was the worldliness or something from Dan that made him say, ‘I want to go see what this is all about’,” Bermel said. “I think it was a great experience for Dan and I’m sure it’s something that he won’t soon forget.”
So far in his junior year at Kansas, Hudson has managed to place within the top-20 three times, including a tie for fifth place in the opening tournament of the spring campaign, the Wyoming Desert Intercollegiate at The Classic Club in Palm Desert, California, February 17-19, where he recorded a season-low, 67, in the second round.
Hillier has also seen success during the 2016-17 season, placing inside of the top-20 in four separate events, including two finishes inside of the top-10. He also leads the team in rounds counted toward Kansas’ team score with 20 of 21 being counted.
With the current golf season now more than halfway over, the Jayhawks duo from different lands continue their friendship. There is no way of knowing where the two will end up after their time at Kansas has concluded. But a few things are clear: in a little over a year and with one trip, the two have cemented themselves in each other’s stories for life, as friends, and will always be Jayhawks.