ALWAYS A BELIEVER
Ian Woosnam am has never doubted that hat he would do well as a professional rofessional golfer.
At a pre-tournament party in Zambia sometime in the late 1970s, Woosnam - “Woosie” to everyone in golf - was one of a small group of fledgling professionals sat around the dinner table. “What,” asked their host, “are your ambitions in the game?”
The responses were predictable enough. One lad said he'd like to win a tournament, make a decent living and be competitive into middle-age. Another wanted to “earn a few quid and buy a nice house.” And the rest were similar. Play the game, have some fun and pick up a bit of cash were the common themes.
Last up was Woosnam. Without hesitation, the diminutive Welshman - he stands five-feet fourand-a-half inches tall - identified his lofty career goals.
“I'm going to be the best player in the world,” he said. “I'm going to win a major. And I'm going to be a multimillionaire.”
When the others stopped laughing, the man who would become Wales' greatest-ever golfer reiterated his aims. “I'm going to do all of those things,” he said. “Just you wait and see.”
“Woosie was convinced,” says two-time European Tour winner, DJ Russell, one of those in the room that far-off evening. “At a time when his stock shots were a snap-hook and a shank.”
Clearly some work was required. And few, according to Russell, have ever toiled so long and so hard on the range. “Back then, Woosie used to smoke,” he says. “And he would put his cigarettes out on the calluses on his hands. The skin was that hard. I can only imagine how many balls he hit.”
In golfing terms Woosnam grew to be a giant. It took time though. Amazingly, given how aesthetically “simple” his flowing action has always appeared, Woosnam visited the European Tour Qualifying School seven times before earning his way onto the world's secondbiggest circuit. More than once he was forced back to the family farm to earn enough cash to try again.
“When I ran out of money - and I did a few times - it would be back home to get a job for a while,” he says. “I was buying experience, really. And I lived like that for five years.”
Indeed, many are the tales Woosnam accumulated during the period of his career he still regards as the most enjoyable. In a world far removed from private jets, five-star hotels and courtesy cars, the young star-to-be learned his trade.
“I used to travel with a guy called Joe Higgins,” he says with a big smile. “We were in Nairn in the Highlands of Scotland for the Northern Open, and the next week we had to be in Italy. It took 10 hours to drive to Glasgow because the roads were so bad. Then it was all the way down to Dover and the ferry to France. We had to get off the motorways there because the tolls were too expensive. So what happened? We broke down on the outskirts of Milan.
“We took the car to five garages; can't fix it. The petrol gauge looked funny, so we thought that might be the problem. I went off with a can at 7 a.m., got some fuel, and the attendant offered me a lift. There I was going through the streets of Milan on the handlebars of his bike. I wish we had a picture.”
Things changed eventually and inevitably. But, as so often in life, despair preceded delight.
“My lowest moment was the qualifying for the 1981 Open,” says Woosnam. “I shot 67 in the first round and was leading. The next day I had a nightmare, but came to the last hole needing a par 4 to make it. I stood on the tee and hit the ball 25-yards, all along the ground and out-of-bounds. I picked the ball up and walked in. Then I drove home, where I stayed for two weeks. I was done. My Dad eventually talked me round. And I'm glad he did.”
For all his frustrations, it was only a matter of time before Woosnam figured out how to turn his obvious potential into prosperity. After playing with Woosnam in the West Lakes Classic at Royal Adelaide in Australia late in 1981, former European Tour pro Mike Clayton remembers being stunned at the young Welshman's shot-making skills en route to missing the cut with something to spare.
“I couldn't believe how well he hit the ball to shoot that high,” says Clayton.
The turning point was only months away.
“It actually took me five years to learn how to be a pro,” says Woosnam. “Early in 1982 I was on the range in Nigeria. (Former Ryder Cup player) Gordon Brand (senior) was on the tee beside me. I was watching him hit shots all over the place. My shots were miles better. Then he'd go out and shoot 68, and I'd have a 74.
“I wondered what was going on. I had a chat with Gordon. He told me that his aim on the course was simply to make the best of what he had and accept four bad shots a round. That was a new concept to me. I went out the next day with a new attitude. I didn't worry about anything. I didn't get upset. It was the last piece in the puzzle. I just had to get my head right.”
It didn't take long for the “new” Woosie to make an impact. A maiden European Tour victory arrived at the 1982 Swiss Open. A Ryder Cup debut came along one year later and by the end of 1986 Woosnam was firmly established as one of the best players on the Old World circuit. Getting there, but not quite where he wanted to be.
Perhaps the biggest turning point of Woosnam's career arrived late on December 31st 1986.
“It was almost midnight,” he recalls with a smile. “Someone said, ‘Why don't you drive in the New Year?' So, I did. Something clicked on that shot. I had to stand steady, because I didn't have golf shoes. I tried to stay on my back foot a little longer. I could feel it worked. The next day I played and hit it fantastic. I never looked back.”
Nine more European Tour wins came along before Woosnam arrived in New Orleans for the 1991 USF&G Classic. There he picked up his first PGA TOUR victory and, not incidentally, made his way to Augusta National as the numberone ranked player on the planet. It was the first of 50 weeks at the top of golf's formidably high tree.
Seven days after that, Woosnam was also a major champion, the last of Europe's so-called “Big Five” (Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer the others) to achieve that feat. With a memorable display of typically gutsy golf down the stretch, Woosnam saw off Tom Watson and Jose Maria Olazabal to claim the coveted green jacket. It was - and still is - the supreme moment of a career containing 29 European Tour victories.
“I always felt like the Masters was the major I was most likely to win,” says Woosnam. “The course suited me, tee-to-green especially. And I holed-out great after switching putters at the end of the first round. I don't think I missed a short putt the rest of the week. And that helped me from further out. I was more aggressive because I knew I would make the next putt if I missed.
“I played with Tom in the last two rounds. He was always the player I most wanted to be like. He swung the club the way I wanted to swing the club. And he played aggressively, which is how I like to play too. But that last round seemed to take forever. Everything was in slow motion for me. But it was a dream come true. My life changed forever that week.” In a major way.
Ian Woosnam of the European team celebrates during the 1985 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. Credit: Bob Martin, Allsport.
Inductee Ian Woosnam poses during the 2017 World Golf Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony.