Returning to the Ryder Cup after a 13-year absence, Paul Lawrie recalls nervous moments at Brookline, told to Tom English.
Paul Lawrie knew he was going to be hitting the opening shot of the 1999 Ryder Cup two days before the event, when he looked at Mark James, Sam Torrance and Colin Montgomerie on the putting green at Brookline and saw the three of them looking back at him. His caddie came running over. “It’s you, it’s you!” he said. “They’re talking about it now”. “I was like, ‘Aye, fine,’” says Lawrie, chuckling at the memory of it. “You put on a brave face, don’t you? But inside you’re thinking ‘Holy shit!’”
He’s talking about that September morning in Massachusetts. “It was like the walking dead. You get to the first tee and all the players are there and the captains and the vice-captains and all the wives. Everybody’s on the tee. I’m with Colin [Montgomerie]. Over there is David Duval and Phil Mickelson, our opponents. And here’s a funny story.
“The referee comes up to us and let’s just say he’s a fair age. He introduces himself to Monty and says ‘You know Colin, I’m Scotch’ and Monty goes ‘Scotch? It’s a drink, it’s a drink. Scotch. It’s a drink’. You know the way he goes on repeating himself. ‘It’s a drink, it’s a drink’. This is two minutes before I’m supposed to hit it. Then the guy takes out pictures of his grandkids and shows them to us and, to be fair, this wasn’t helping the situation. I’m usually nervous on a first tee but that tee was frightening.
“So I’m trying to get my head round things and then Monty gets a fit of the giggles. He’s on the back of the tee and he’s losing it. I’ve never seen him laugh like that before. His own nerves, his nerves for me, the guy with the pictures – he’s completely lost it. Anything but a fresh air I’d have taken. In my life I never felt like that standing over a golf ball. Since then, you hear stories of players walking down to the tee in the Ryder Cup and telling their partner that he’s to hit it. I remember some of the American boys talking about it and I think Bernhard Langer said once to his partner ‘I can’t hit it, you’ll need to hit it for me’. I think it was Langer. That’s unbelievable, isn’t it? I wished I had the brains of Bernhard Langer to pass it on to Monty because over the ball there was no positive thoughts going through my head whatsoever. I was convinced that I was going to miss. I mean, physically fresh air it. You can’t explain what it’s like.”
What he came up with was a nice shot down the right-hand side. On the tape you can hear him say “I’ll take it” and he’ll take it again if he’s cast in the same role at Medinah this week. If we’re offering, he’ll take a repeat of the three and a half points he won at Brookline as well (including a 3&2 victory in that opening foursomes against Duval and Mickelson), but with a different overall result. “A while back you’d have said America looked stronger but since Rory won the PGA things have tilted maybe. You never know, though. You never know. Who’s going to hold it together and who’s not? It’ll be incredibly close.”
Thirteen years after playing in his first Ryder Cup the great renaissance man of the European Tour is about to play in his second. Reborn as a winner at the age of 43, Lawrie’s story takes some beating. A man who went nine years without winning a tournament has won twice in a matter of months. He’s had eight top-ten finishes on tour, twice the number he had in 2011, four times the number he had in 2010, 2009 and 2008 and eight times better than his 2007 showing.
He talks of Adam Hunter, his friend and former coach, and the role he continues to play in his success despite his tragic death from leukaemia last October at the age of 48. “He’s probably the closest person I’ve ever lost. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t pop into my head. I’m in certain situations and I’m thinking ‘What would he have me do here? What would he say?’ He was one of these people who told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I’ve only got three or four people who I’d listen to and he was one of them. I’m not into all the spiritual stuff but I still kinda think he’s watching. You know what I mean? It’s weird.”
He’s listing the things that make him smile. Adam Hunter, his family, the grub at a local hotel and his beloved Aberdeen FC scoring a goal. “So the Dons have given me three smiles this season,” he says. He’s now talking about Twitter and his one tweet, sent into the world from a gym in Abu Dhabi while watching the Premiership on television. “Newcastle were playing Arsenal and I tweeted ‘Jesus! Newcastle are 4-0 up already’ – or was it the other way round? – and I had a vicar tweet me back accusing me of taking the Lord’s name in vain. I stopped then. With my sense of humour, I was an accident waiting to happen on Twitter.”
Lawrie says that not everyone gets his sense of humour, but the truth is that if you miss it then there’s something wrong with you. It’s dry and often times self-mocking and very, very funny. You ask him what’s the craziest thing he’s ever done in his life and he talks you through his daily routine. Lunch at midday – not ten past – supper at five and a bout of grumpiness if it’s much later than that. “People like me don’t tend to do crazy things.” Once, Hunter bought him a spin in a two-seater plane for Christmas. “You know the ones that do the loop the loop and the barrel rolls and all that?” He went up and came straight back down again. “Oh no, I didn’t like that at all. Did I, Marian?”
Marian is Lawrie’s wife. When asked to pick three words to describe her husband she goes for (a) generous – “Excellent!” chirps Lawrie, (b) impatient – “To those who know me best, my nickname is Patience because I haven’t got any. I mean none” and (c) forgetful – “That’s the biggie. I was in the car the other day with my two boys, Craig [aged 16 and a scratch golfer] and Michael [14 and off five]. Before we set off I took out a pound coin and a ten pence piece from the middle bit and told Craig he’s going to nip into the paper shop on the way and get me a Press & Journal and a Daily Record. We got to the shop five minutes later and I drove straight past it. Completely forgot to stop. That’s me.”
Lawrie’s Ryder Cup story is inextricably linked with Montgomerie, his playing partner in four sessions in 1999. His mentor, if you will. Earlier this year, Monty published his latest tome and somehow managed to get Lawrie’s name wrong throughout, inexplicably calling him Peter instead of Paul.
“I felt disappointment. When it came out I thought, ‘How could that happen?’ But the disappointment was more in the fact that there was no apology. It was brought to his attention and when he eventually sent me a text he just said that the publisher’s had made a mistake and that it would be fixed for the next run, but no apology. Look, it doesn’t impact on my life, but it’s pretty poor. I mean, how bad did it look for him? Mortifying doesn’t even cover it. I’m doing a book (An Open Book, due out in November) and imagine if I called him Callum Montgomerie? My God! You know what I mean? You’d just curl up and die.”
In his view, there was an even bigger disappointment to come, though. When the Olympic Torch passed through Lawrie’s Aberdeen one of those carrying it was Monty. “That was a bigger deal for me, not because I thought I should do it. I shouldn’t be doing it either. I’m a golfer. I’ve got nothing to do with the Olympics. But for him to carry it through Aberdeen and certain people who have won Olympic medals over the years didn’t carry it, now what is that all about? It’s not for me to tell them who should and who shouldn’t carry the torch, but he shouldn’t have been. That’s all I was trying to say. From a city point of view, they could have picked better. I had a look at Twitter at the time and you put something on there that was quite funny, that as Monty is carrying the torch I should run alongside him with the Claret Jug. Quite clever, that. For a journalist!”
If he meets Monty this week it’ll be in a TV studio. When he meets another colourful character in his past, Davis Love III, it’ll be at the heart of the action. There’s history between them. Not great history, either. Since Lawrie won the Open 13 years ago there’s been a line attributed to Love that had America’s captain this week saying that Carnoustie – with its ridiculous course set-up – got the champion it deserved. Love has always denied saying it.
“In 2004 we were paired together at Troon for the Open and that line had reappeared in the papers that day. He came over to me and said ‘I need you to know that I never said that and I wouldn’t say that about a fellow professional. My dad didn’t bring me up to say that about a fellow golf pro’. He said he didn’t say it. I said that’s fine. But that was 2004, five years after he supposedly said what he said. So, I’m not saying he said it or didn’t say it, but it took him five years to tell me he didn’t say it which seemed a bit strange because it had been in the papers quite a bit. I’m not an overly sensitive person. He told me to my face so that’s good enough for me. It is. I’ve played with him a few times since and he’s always really good to get on with. I have no issue with Davis at all.”
It’s put to bed. What matters to him now is what’s to come, not what has been. He’s in the form of his life and is about to play again in the tournament of his dreams. And he’s relaxed, oh so relaxed. He’s laughing and telling stories. “Did I ever tell you the one about the boy calling me a cretin on the Aberdeen fans’ website? That was a good one. Hehehe. I was spitting mad over that.”
A tale for another day. For now, there’s golf to be played.