RENOWNED for being one of the best ball-strikers in the game, Stephen Gallacher is also now displaying a temperament on the golf course that is the envy of his peers.
That combination, allied to the fact he’s a better putter these days since paying a flying visit to California last year to see short-game guru Dave Stockton, suggest the best years of his career lie ahead for one of the game’s most likeable individuals.
This season alone has just turned very exciting for the 39-year-old after becoming the first player in the event’s 25-year history to successfully defend the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title. Over the next four weeks, he’ll tee up in the opening two WGC events of the season – the Match Play in Arizona then the Cadillac Championship in Miami. He’s hoping to secure an invitation to the Honda Classic, also in Florida, in between.
Waiting to greet Gallacher as he came off the 18th green at the Emirates Golf Club at the end of a dramatic final round on Sunday was Miguel Angel Jimenez. He wasn’t just there to offer his congratulations. It was also to ask the Scot if he’ll play on the team the Spaniard will captain in the new Eur-Asia Cup, which is being held in Malaysia towards the end of March.
One dilemma for Gallacher could have been that the event sits just a fortnight before the Masters, which he’s virtually certain to play in for the first time after climbing to 37th in the world rankings. But Gallacher yesterday confirmed he will play, both due to the fact he’s a huge admirer of Jimenez and also because he enjoyed playing team golf in both the Seve Trophy and Royal Trophy last year and, of course, is determined to try and make the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles this year as well.
Through finishing 19th in the Race to Dubai last season, Gallacher was already in this year’s Open Championship at Hoylake. Breaking into the top 50 means he can now pencil in trips to both Pinehurst (US Open) and Valhalla (USPGA Championship) as well. Add in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational the week before the season’s last major and he’s certainly given himself a good chance to write another chapter in the Gallacher family’s Ryder Cup history following the exploits, first as a player then vice captain then captain, of his uncle, Bernard.
Watching on TV at home in Ascot, he was hugely impressed by his nephew’s performance in Dubai, where he not only carried the weight of being defending champion but also had world No 1 Tiger Woods for company in two rounds and Rory McIlroy, the title favourite, in his group on three of the four days. “Stephen was under pressure all week, but he coped well,” noted the 1995 winning captain.
He’s offered some great advice over the years, as has the legendary Bob Torrance. But, while Gallacher still works with him, he also receives swing advice from Alan McCloskey, the encyclopedic Bothwell Castle-based professional. The combination of the two as well as Stockton’s putting tips, coupled with some golf-specific fitness advice that is helping Gallacher avoid the back trouble he’s encountered over the years, are seeing the player start to fulfil the potential that seemed bottled up between his first Tour triumph in the 2004 Dunhill Links and last year’s Dubai victory but is now bursting out.
“It’s been coming the last couple of years and I credit a lot of the guys he’s working with - his coach, Alan McCloskey, and the physios, Kevin and Martin,” said Gallacher’s manager, Iain Stoddart. “They are golf-fit guys, offering advice about very specific stuff for golf. What it has definitely done for Stephen is that he is rotating better. They also work very closely in tandem with Alan and things are beginning to fall into place.”
A sponsor’s dream due to his easy-going attitude, Gallacher has certainly made the money-rich sheikhs in the Middle East sit up and take notice of his talent, having now finished second-first-first in the last three Dubai events.
“He’s been a pleasure to work with from our point of view,” added Stoddart, a founding partner in Edinburgh-based Sports Management. “And the fact he was able to play easily with Tiger and Rory here this week speaks volumes for him.
“Having broken into the world’s top 50 and all the things that come with that, I definitely think you will see him kick on from here. He was exceptionally unlucky in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles last year when he found a divot at the 11th and from there put it in a bush with his second shot in the final round. He did so well to get that back before losing in the play-off and this win has probably put that one to bed.”
While the Emirates wins hands down, Gallacher also has a pretty good record over the years on the PGA Centenary Course, which will stage Scotland’s first Ryder Cup in more than 40 years in September. He knows it’s going to take a lot more than what happened at the weekend to get on to Paul McGinley’s team in Perthshire. But, at the end of the European Tour’s Middle East Swing, at least there now looks a possibility that we’ll see a Scot doing battle against Tom Watson’s side.