Woosie joins golf's superstars


Ian Woosnam

Ian Woosnam

Ian Woosnam has been inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. It's an odd institution, argues Matt Cooper, but the decision is a good one.

Has even one junior golfer, in the history of the entire world, ever stood on a putting green, with the sun going down behind the clubhouse, at the side of which his mum is pointedly jangling the car keys, and whispered to himself: “This putt to further my claims to be inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame”?

No. It's never happened. Not once.

It's just one, of many, reasons why the World Golf Hall of Fame is a bit weird.

The fact players are “inducted” is another. It's a clunky, clumsy word with fake gravitas. Hence, perhaps, the spectacularly disproportionate seriousness with which it is often discussed.

Two years ago Colin Montgomerie's nomination prompted Raymond Floyd to splutter: “I'll just say that you should have at least two majors. It takes integrity away from the term 'Golf Hall of Fame'. I'm very upset.”

Lighten up, Raymond, and get some perspective. It's getting a pat on the head for being good at hitting balls with sticks. 

All this notwithstanding, the news that Ian Woosnam has finally got the nod to join the great and good of the game is welcome.

Floyd's face is probably turning milk sour over the breakfast table at the shame of it, but Woosnam's case was always strong: 1991 Masters winner, world number one for 50 weeks, 52 wins around the world, 8-times a Ryder Cup player and once the winning captain.

Those are the baubles. Beyond them he was one of European golf's Big Five (alongside Severiano Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle) whose influence was vast: they were integral to the growth of the European Tour, they reinvigorated the Ryder Cup, they took on the world and they claimed major championships; they changed golf.

Woosnam also struck the ball with a swing which made other golfers purr.

Just 5 feet 4 inches tall, he unleashed the ball with a hitch of the left leg, a strong shoulder turn, and a ferocious thwack; a back and through motion of apparent simplicity.

It looked so easy. Deceptively easy in fact. It was the sort of swing described as “natural”.

I once chatted to a pro-am partner of Woosnam's who had talked up the “natural” swing. “Woosie wasn't that impressed with me,” he admitted. “Said it was naturally produced by years of hard work.”

The notion of a natural swing is one golf hasn't quite sussed. Woosnam played his county golf in Shropshire alongside Sandy Lyle, a man who was widely deemed to have had natural talent like few others. Ballesteros famously suggested that if everyone played their A game on pure talent, Lyle would win.

But his swing was unique and never copied. How and why do golfers perceive Lyle's swing as natural (and good), yet instinctively deem Jim Furyk's as something unnatural (and bad)?

I've asked this question of coaches, players, journalists and fans. No-one has much of an answer. In contrast, mention Ernie Els or Woosnam and words like “easy” and “natural” spill from the lips.

Natural implies that the golfer was born with it, that relatively little effort was required to turn the talent into a machine.

But talk to the guys who played in that county team with Lyle and Woosnam and a different story emerges. They knew Lyle was special, they say, but they thought Woosnam was kidding himself when he insisted he, too, would become a professional.

They swatted him away. “Sandy's going to be a professional,” they laughed, “Sandy's the one.”

Woosnam ignored them – or, rather, their words burned in his ears as he spent winter evenings smashing balls into a make-shift net in the barns of his father's farm, or hacking balls across fields covered in thick, wet, tangly grass.

Those long hours, plus a skill set that enabled to put all these things together and a work ethic that allowed no rest, permitted him to emerge with a swing that looked magnificent, that seemed “natural” to outsiders because it appeared so simple.

But it was an illusion of sorts.

The drive Woosnam displayed to defeat the doubts of his county team-mates would hold him in good stead. “Give Woosie an obstacle,” they all say with an awe that is equal to the awe they hold Lyle's skills in, “and he'll clear it. He likes a fight, likes a scrap, never quits.”

Playing alongside Lyle, who had been feted around the county since he was a toddler because his father, a pro at Hawkstone Park, had him hitting balls as soon as he could walk, was a huge motivational factor for Woosnam.

Time and again he would be defeated by Lyle. It was always the victor, he reports in his autobiography, who was required to speak afterwards. Then one day, out of the blue, he was asked to say a few words. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a panic, “I just want to say that one day I will beat Sandy Lyle.”

Unlike Lyle, who took to the European Tour immediately, Woosnam's early years on the circuit were tough. He travelled round Europe in a camper van and when he was back home he worked in the pro shop at Hill Valley GC, sleeping in a caravan at the back of the car park. His winters were spent in post-colonial Africa on the Safari Tour, playing on greens made from dirt and oil.

Only in 1982 did the hard work begin to pay off. Early in the year he finished tied second at the Italian Open. It guaranteed his card for the following year. “I felt liberated, exhilarated and eager to get out there and play,” he wrote.

Released from economic strain he claimed his maiden title later that year, and a second win in 1983 saw him qualify for that year's Ryder Cup team. After many years in the foothills he was ready and able to begin the climb to the top.

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s those years of graft held him in good stead, never more so than in April 1991.

Woosnam arrived at Augusta National heading the world rankings and was immediately told by a journalist that no world number one had claimed the Green Jacket. He didn’t much appreciate the nugget of information, but for Woosnam the obstacle jumper it was perfect preparation.

So, too, was the envy he felt when watching fellow Europeans Lyle, Langer, Ballesteros and Faldo make their way to the Champions Dinner. It gnawed at him, he admitted in the autobiography, he should be going with them. Another niggle.

Five days later he was riled yet again. Leaving Amen Corner as the tournament leader in the final round, a patron shouted abuse in his direction. His playing partner and childhood hero Tom Watson walked up to him and said: “If someone says something to you, no matter what it is, thank them.”

Minutes later, on the 14th tee, it happened again. Woosnam stepped away from his ball, thanked the spectator and then smashed his drive down the fairway.

Standing on the final tee he and Watson were tied for the lead. “Pumped up beyond words” Woosnam smashed his tee-shot over the bunkers and onto the practice ground for the members; Watson found the trees on the right.

Eventually, after Watson had found more trouble from the trees, Woosnam had six feet, right to left, for the Masters.

Being inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame is a nice compliment. It's acknowledgement that your career is worthy of comparison with the greats.

But the real honours are earned in the decades of hard work creating a swing and the years learning a craft; in the near misses and the heartache; in riding good form and coping with bad times; in taking advantage of fortune and withstanding misfortune; in making the most of physical and mental advantages granted by the gene pool.

So that when, one day in early April, a golfer is faced by that six foot putt, he can hit it with a sweet swing of the putter, and 12 inches from the cup know that it is going in, he can punch the air, his face bursting with emotion, knowing that he has cleared every obstacle placed in his path, and because of that he has become a major champion.

Those are the baubles that count.

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