When he won the title at Clearwater in 2012 Higginbottom made history as he became the first amateur for 56 years to be crowned New Zealand Open champion since fellow Australian Harry Berwick in 1956.
Higginbottom, a then 19-year-old from New South Wales, carded a superb five-under par 67 which was good enough for a one shot win from Australian professionals Jason Norris and Peter Wilson.
He became only the eighth amateur engraved in the Brodie Breeze Trophy (after Berwick, Bob Charles 1954, Bob Glading 1946, John Hornabrook 1937, 1939, Sloan Morpeth 1928, Ewen McFarlane 1925, Arthur Duncan 1907, 1910 and 1911) and more impressively the third in the post-war era.
The rookie professional said to win the New Zealand Open as an amateur was a turning point in his plans.
“Winning the NZ Open definitely changed my whole career,” said Higginbottom while he was practicing in Sydney to prepare for his season opening event at the Queensland PGA Championship.
“I wasn’t thinking about turning pro but that win changed that with the exemptions it offered me. It also gave me a huge amount of confidence that I was ready and that I could compete with really good players.”
The likeable Aussie showed he could compete alright.
He has two clear memories from his win at Clearwater that extended the drought of a home champion in the NZ Open to nine years – his approach to the 17th and his tee shot down the 18th.
“I hit a nine-iron into 17 to about five feet and made the putt for birdie and then the final hole I hit the best tee of my life down there I think. I remember saying to my mates if I was in the lead heading down the last hole on Sunday that I would take driver and try to smash it down there and luckily that is the way it turned out. I was pretty pleased it came off.”
He was also pretty pleased to make history and to even the ledger with fellow Aussie amateur rep Oliver Goss who had already earned some bragging rights.
“I was definitely proud of myself. It was a pretty good day to join only a few amateurs who have won that title. I have a pretty good rivalry with my good mate Oliver Goss and he got one up on me when he won the Western Australian Open. I was pretty happy to get my pro win at Clearwater to even the score.”
He admitted that it will be a great to return to the New Zealand Open as the defending champion but also a bit different at two new courses and after so long with the tournament missing 2013 due to rescheduling.
He thinks that will work in his favour as less people will know him as the defending champion.
“I don’t think there is too much pressure on me coming back as the defending champion as a lot has changed since I won it,” he said.
“I was an amateur back then and no-one really expected too much of me and they didn’t think I would win. So it was nice to fly beneath the radar a bit and play with no expectations. But I see this NZ Open as a new event it is nice to come back as the defending champion but it will feel like a whole new tournament with it being awhile since the last one and it being in a different place.”
Higginbottom feels like he is in good form early in 2014 and believed that he had made a pretty solid start to his professional career.
He recorded three top-10 finishes in 2013 (8th Indonesia Open, 4th Queensland Open and 8th Maekyung Open on One Asia Tour) and is expecting better results this year.
“The change to professional golf has been pretty much what I expected. It is pretty much the same game but the depth is far greater. If you play well in pro golf you are in contention if you don’t then you are going to miss the cut. So that puts a bit more pressure on how you perform.”
One thing that Higginbottom isn’t chasing is his first win on tour. He said that helps a huge amount with the confidence.
“It is always nice getting your first professional win under your belt so early in your career and that win at Clearwater will be a huge help for the rest of my career. If I get in that situation again I know I can handle the pressure of trying to finish off a golf tournament.”
He is looking to be in that position on Sunday afternoon at The Hills on March 2. He likes the Central Otago course and played solidly to finish in a share of 14th place at the NZ PGA Championship in 2013.
Traveling to New Zealand is always a highlight for the young Australian pro.
“I love The Hills. I think it is a fantastic golf course and I have heard good things about Millbrook. I can’t wait to get back over there.
“I love coming to New Zealand and Queenstown is the best place I have been to there. The people in New Zealand are so friendly and always really nice. It is just a really easy place to tour.”