Backspin: 1983 PGA Championship
Matt Cooper reveals the intriguing back story of David Thorp, the surprise early leader of the 1983 PGA Championship.
“This could be the sensation of the tournament,” said commentator Alex Hay as, towards the end of the first round of the 1983 Sun Alliance PGA Championship, the BBC cameras focused in on the unknown Englishman David Thorp.
Just minutes earlier, playing the 14th hole, Thorp had stolen a glance at the leaderboard and discovered that his four-under par score gave him a three-shot lead over the cream of European golf – the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam; a generation of players who didn’t know it then but who would go on to dominate world golf over the next decade.
Thorp’s big day could have been the prelude to a successful career of his own, but behind his calm demeanour lay a desperate secret that hung over his game and was destined to destroy his hopes of competing with his peers …
Before we return to 1983, let’s step further back in time because that appearance at the top of the leaderboard was not the first time David Thorp had enjoyed a brief moment at the top of the sport.
Indeed fate seemed to place David close to the great and the good of the game throughout his career, as he explained in a recent chat with Golf365 and which is also chronicled in his autobiography Missing the Cut.
Initially from Leeds, he turned pro at just 16 but found himself stuck in the pro shop twiddling his thumbs, failing to hide a burning desire to test himself in competition.
When he took a club pro position in Shropshire he found himself moving in the same circles as Woosnam and Lyle, and, like them, he played regional PGA events in the summer and then travelled to Africa for the Safari Tour in the winter, a school of hard knocks that involved bizarre pro-ams with African politicians and drunken ex-pats, plus golf played on browns (sand soaked in oil) rather than greens.
Throughout these early struggles David’s flair for links golf enabled him to enjoy dramatic, if brief, moments of glory in the Open Championship.
In 1976, as a raw 22-year-old, his approach to the final hole was shown live on the BBC and described by the great commentator Henry Longhurst as “an old-fashioned slice” whilst in 1979 he played with the 1977 US Open champion Hubert Green.
Two years later, at Royal St Georges, he chatted with Tom Watson in the refreshment hut during the practice round and then played the final round of the tournament sandwiched between Jack Nicklaus in the group ahead and Arnold Palmer in the group behind.
“I was always a huge Nicklaus fan,” Thorp says, still a little starry-eyed at the memory, “and if I ever played in a tournament with him I would compare our scores. But that day was special: I saw his every shot from behind! It was great.”
During his final Open, in 1983, he came even closer to the great man in the car park.
“Me and my brother saw a familiar figure walked towards us. It was Jack Nicklaus and he was coming to the car adjacent to ours. Jack said, ‘Hi!’ in a surprisingly high voice and he and I exchanged a few words, but my brother Andrew was tongue-tied, completely transfixed … nothing would come out!”
If his Open efforts hinted that he definitely had talent (he made the cut in all four starts) David had to deal with growing anxiety caused by a twitch in his swing that was getting progressively worse.
“It was so difficult to deal with because golf is not a good sport to have a twitch problem. People would assume it was the yips and yet it wasn’t – I could perform under pressure but would then struggle on stress-free day.”
Concerned not to be seen protesting too much about not having the yips, David stayed quiet but the symptoms intensified: “I started to wobble as well as twitch. I needed an answer.”
A visit to his GP led to him being referred to the specialist Professor David Marsden in London. “I had to take a club down with me to show him what was happening. I felt a bit of a fool on the train! I was also the star turn at a medical conference. It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, standing on a stage in front of dozens of eminent doctors, demonstrating my shaky swing.”
The result of these tests and observations were devastating: he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes undesirable contraction or twisting of the muscles.
It is common in musicians and is a consequence of a repetitive motion, something the brain dislikes causing it to send the muscle into spasm.
The experts had identified the ailment but they had no good news. In fact Professor Marsden’s words were anything but positive: dystonia, he said, was incurable and the condition was only likely to deteriorate.
“When I broached the subject of golf,” David says, “he told me to seek another career.”
It needs little imagination to contemplate the horror of David’s train journey home after that news.
Despite (understandably) feeling sorry for himself in the immediate aftermath, Thorp and his wife Rosie remained committed to his career. “I was determined to make the most of what little time I had left as a competitive pro.”
Which returns us to the 1983 Sun Alliance PGA Championship at Royal St Georges – a course which held fond memories for Thorp and the final time the event was held anywhere other than Wentworth.
He needed a caddie for the week and found himself a tall, scruffy-looking Canadian by the name of Duncan who, remarkably, still works on the tour. For different, but related, reasons he too remembers that week in Kent in great detail.
“Yeah, it was only my second event in Europe and I had no bag that week,” he told me. “I was getting frantic when the caddie master finally gave me a shout and introduced me to David.”
“We spent some time on the range and he seemed to be hitting the ball well from where I was standing (which was 200 yards away catching the balls as he hit them!).”
At this point Duncan, who has now filled out and bears some resemblance to 1970s sex symbol David Soul, laughs out loud.
“So we go to the first tee and he hits his drive and I’m, like, did he just twitch when he hit that? I thought I’d imagined it so set off down the fairway.
“Second shot is something like 7-iron and I’m stood there watching when he twitches again. So I’m doing a double-take and wondering if the other caddies have set me up. But then I realise he might have twitched but the ball is sailing towards the green and is dead straight.
“That’s when David says to me, ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’ve got a bit of a twitch going on, but I seem to be hitting it okay.'”
“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, pal, I noticed!’ but I waved it away because it didn’t seem to matter – the guy played great!”
In fact David hit every fairway and every green for the first 12 holes. Together they made an excited pair: Duncan, bewildered but grateful, would, according to David, “gallop down the fairway ahead of me to work out the yardages” whilst David, living the dream, was, in the words of Duncan, “
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