AL­WAYS A BE­LIEVER

Ian Woos­nam am has never doubted that hat he would do well as a pro­fes­sional ro­fes­sional golfer.

New Zealand Golf Magazine - - CONTENT -

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.

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