The Daily Telegraph - Business
‘I enjoyed a front-row seat at the wildest finish in major history’
Humble former pro Kenneth Ferrie remembers his flirtation with celebrity at Winged Foot’s 2006 US Open with pride
Never have so many players blown it. To mark the US Open of 2006, Winged Foot decided to stage a vast Jean van de Velde tribute act, with Doug Sanders as the support.
Phil Mickelson took a doublebogey six down the last when a par would have secured him the major he craved above any other. Colin Montgomerie made the same score on that 18th when he seemed certain to achieve the status his career deserved. Jim Furyk yanked a fourfooter to miss out by one. Padraig Harrington finished with three straight bogeys to fall short by two.
The participants at this week’s US Open will be well aware of the venue’s reputation. They called the 1974 US Open “The Massacre of Winged Foot” and while 32 years on the billing was not so hyperbolic, the mascara was still running down so many faces at Winged Foot. It was the most dramatic hour of any male major this century, with Geoff Ogilvy the last victim left standing.
Except it was not the Australian champion who, eight months on, had left the biggest impression in the offices of It was not “Phil the Spill” or “Mad Monty” (who famously ended up in a barging match with a state trooper behind the final green). It was not Harrington, the great Irish hero, or blue-collar Jim, the tradesman’s torchbearer.
It was Kenneth Ferrie from Ashington, 12 miles north of Newcastle.
“The call came out the blue,” Ferrie says. “Coming sixth in that US Open got me into Augusta, and they had me doing all gimmicky things, like holding up azaleas, and that really isn’t me.
“I thought it went terribly, but they rang up and said, ‘The editor loves it, you’ve got the cover!’. I was like, ‘Erm, yeah, great’ – didn’t really know what a big thing it was. They then told me that Tony Jacklin and Nick Faldo were the only other English golfers who’d ever been on the cover.”
The tag-line was “Remember Superman?”, and soon Ferrie found himself in Augusta restaurants signing covers by the dozen. “I’d been wearing a Superman buckle on my belt for a while and had got a few comments in Europe, but nothing like I was to in America. I was 26, had won a few tournaments, beating Thomas [Bjorn] in the European Open and had finished 11th in the European Tour order of merit, so I was established.
“But to Americans, of course, I was just this huge nobody wearing the big S and they took to me. The New Yorkers love an underdog, especially one who didn’t fit the identikit for a pro.”
At that point the weight was, in fact, falling off this son of a dinner lady. Ferrie estimates he was 20st when he won the Spanish Open in 2003 and 18st when he humbled Bjorn the previous July. Eventually he slimmed down to 14st, but the mashed potato merchants were not fretting about any diet.
Cover story: Kenneth Ferrie was the unlikely front page star of
“They looked at me as one of them. It was funny, because every day I’d come off the course p----d off at what I’d shot – 71, 70, 71 … Yet each time, I’d look at the leaderboard and see I was right up there.”
By the Saturday night, Ferrie was sharing top spot with Mickelson.
“I was chuffed I’d got into the final group. I was paired with Geoff, a great guy, in that third round and he glanced at me, then at the scoreboard and said, ‘Last group with Phil in New York? Good luck with that!’.”
New York adores Mickelson anyway, but with three US Open runner-up finishes already behind him (he now possesses six) and with the 2005 USPGA and 2006 Masters titles gleaming on his mantlepiece, the adulation was absolute.
“Phil was on for a treble and I was a bit wary the crowd would get lairy. But they were brilliant. It didn’t happen for me over that first 11 holes, I dropped a couple without doing too much wrong and, by the last few holes, was out of it.
“At least I had a ringside seat and the atmosphere was incredible. There was this huge cheer when Geoff, in the group ahead, chipped in from the back of the 17th and then the fans told us that Monty had made his six on the last from the middle of the fairway. So we knew, on the last tee, that Phil had par to win.
“You try to keep out of the way at that point and I just concentrated on myself – I made a four on the 18th that day and could have sold that for a right few quid – but it was obvious that Phil was thrashing around in the trees.
“People ask me what I said to him when we shook hands. I said nowt. What could I, a nobody, say to him? That was his life’s ambition. Every one remembers Phil saying afterwards, ‘How stupid am I?’ and he was plainly devastated, but I’ll tell you the class of the man.
“When I went into the locker room he was signing autographs and when I came out 45 minutes later he was still signing. And he was the only one of three runnersup who agreed to go to the prizegiving. I saw him a few times in the years after and we’d always have a good chat. Not about that 18th, though.”
By then Ferrie’s career was on the slide. He admits to a certain amount of resentment at his treatment by the European media.
“Some of the TV guys pulled me up that week for getting annoyed with myself on the course, instead of seeing this young player coming sixth in his first US major as a positive. I thought I was treated differently because I was different.”
There was a brief dalliance on the PGA Tour and a notable comeback triumph at the 2011 Austrian Open, but he recognised his peak had long past. “To be honest, I fell out of love with the game. For a few years there I was traversing the globe, picking up big cheques, playing with people like Tiger [Woods], Phil and Ernie [Els]. And then you struggle, worry about keeping your card and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Ferrie still tees it up in the occasional local event but has not played on the European Tour in four years. He is involved in course design and is often found at Matfen Hall, the stunning golf setting in Northumberland where his wife Lisa, a former England amateur, is the director of golf. At 40, Ferrie’s love for the game has returned, but now the physical side is the problem
“I’ve been diagnosed with a prolapsed disc in my neck and the surgeon said, ‘You can have an operation, but if it goes wrong, you could end up a quadriplegic’. Well, b------s to that. I’m happy with how my career went, haven’t any regrets and when I watch this US Open at Winged Foot, I won’t be sat there thinking what could have been. I’ll be saying to myself, ‘I’m just a dumb bloke from a small mining town in the North East. All that was not meant to happen to me’. I’m proud, not bitter.”
What could I, a nobody, say to someone like Phil Mickelson. That was his life’s ambition gone