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A few days after swinging his fists like a heavyweight and smiling with the joy of a small child on the 18th green at Royal St George’s, Marcel Siem drove through the vineyard region on Germany’s western border. His first week off in over three months, the “goosebumps” refused to subside as he replayed his final putt over in his head and remembered the roars of the grandstand, the way that they seemed to lift his very soul. In that moment, as he “went nuts, completely bananas”, it was like a firework had gone off in celebration, a blinding light of emotion, and the pain began to fizzle away.
After more than two decades as a professional, Siem wasn’t just taking a holiday to raise a glass in toast to his captivating tied-15th finish at The Open, he wanted to pay a visit to his life coach, Holger Fischer. People are aware of the scale of Siem’s chastening slump - plummeting from No 48 in the world rankings to outside the top-1000 in the space of five years - but few know of the private toll. The 41-year-old had always been one of the European Tour’s most gregarious characters, an extrovert and maverick whose personality won a small but devoted following, but his negative spiral of results had dragged him into hollowing periods of depression. And it is impossible to understand the intensity of Siem’s celebrations at Royal St George’s without knowing the ennui and despair that had consumed him.
“I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to come back,” Siem says. “I’d work so hard and nothing would change. I’d play well and then screw up the last few holes and miss the cut by a shot. I got nothing out of the game anymore and people would ask me all the time: ‘What’s going on with you Marcel? Why is it happening?’ The pressure gets bigger and bigger so you start thinking about other things you want to do in life to make you happy because you don’t want to be upset all the time.
“I felt uncomfortable to travel to golf tournaments. I felt embarrassed sometimes even being on Tour, shooting 76s and kicking the bag or throwing a club. I’m not like that, I don’t want to do that, but when you’re so depressed these things happen. Everybody has these demons in their subconscious, but when it talks to you and you’re calling yourself bad names, then it’s getting dangerous. Your subconscious feeds on that and the demons get darker and darker and it’s tough to get out of that. It takes a lot of courage and self-confidence and heart. I have a big heart, not just for myself but for other people, and I think that helps.”
Around 18 months ago, a close friend who’d seen Siem play a tournament in a state of near-permanent misery called him out of the blue and encouraged him to speak to Fischer. Siem had already sought out several sports psychologists to little avail, irritated by faux-optimism and unrealistic hopes, but his friend assured him this would be different. “I called Holger five minutes later and I felt such relief,” he says. “I had felt so stiff all the time it was like my shoulders were up to my ears, but they were dropping, they were down, and I felt like I had a chance. Since then, we’ve talked nearly every day. He broke me and built me up again.”
Had he asked friends on the tour for advice, such as Thomas Bjorn, who’ve endured their own dark periods? “I have good friends on the tour, but you’ll never open up to your colleagues during a tournament if you’re talking about really deep stuff,” he says. “It’s not just golf, it’s private things. Everyone makes mistakes and I made a lot. You need to forgive yourself in a way and other players can’t help you with that.”
With Fischer’s help, Siem completely altered his perspective, finally letting go of his unforgiving expectations and refusing to “whinge” about what had happened. “I’m not chasing my old self anymore,” he says. “It’s a fresh start, a new approach to everything.”
The clearest example of that, of course, came at The Open, with Siem’s victory at a lower-rung Challenge Tour event the previous week ending a seven-year drought and ensuring him of late qualification. The ramifications of making the cut at Royal St George’s were huge for his chances of returning to golf’s premier circuits and a stunning three under par round of 67 on the opening day put him near the very top of the leaderboard. “I was really, really nervous,” he says. “The Thursday night was horrible, I didn’t sleep well at all, but I made sure to take every moment in. In the past, I took it for granted. You get fed up with things. We’re so spoilt in a way. Now I’ve realised how many great years I had and I appreciate things much more.” And after making it into the weekend, when a disastrous triple-bogey wrecked Siem’s unlikely shot at victory, he “stayed calm, which is the new version of me. In the past, it would’ve gone in the other direction, but when I go out on the golf course now, I love it, I just want to play the best I can and if it doesn’t work out it’s okay.”
Siem’s celebration on the 18th green was like few Royal St George’s has ever witnessed and is usually the type of walk-off exit reserved only for the winner of the Claret Jug. But those moments are not always defined by silverware. The road he has taken has been more wearying than most can imagine and taken him to dark places where he feared the light might never reach never. Now, sitting somewhere on the base of a hill with a wine glass between his fingers, the sunset doesn’t mean the end. “I’m ready to appreciate that I have another chance in life,” he says. “My kids are a bit older and they’re proud of their daddy. I get so much support from my wife and my parents. And I want to thank the fans at The Open, too. After a lot of the bad stuff these last few years, they celebrated with me and lifted me up. I will never forget that moment. You made my way back a lot sweeter.”