AS RICH breeding grounds go, the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down takes a bit of beating in the last decade or so.
And not just because it featured a certain Rory McIlroy. The winning American side in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne included Webb Simpson, the reigning US Open champion, as well as Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Chris Kirk and Kyle Stanley, all currently inside the world’s top 100.
In addition to world No 1 McIlroy, four other members of the Great Britain & Ireland team – Rhys Davies, David Horsey, John Parry and Danny Willett – have also gone on to become European Tour winners and it’s still to be hoped that Lloyd Saltman can eventually add his name to that list, too.
Bold as the statement may now appear, Saltman headed into that encounter in Northern Ireland looking every bit as promising as McIlroy, having been one of the dominant forces on the amateur scene over a period of time and also showing he wasn’t scared of the big occasion by finishing in a tie for 15th behind Tiger Woods in the 2005 Open Championship at St Andrews.
Yet, as McIlroy prepares for take two with his new Nike clubs in next week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, Saltman will launch his 2013 campaign in the somewhat less glamorous setting of Karen Golf Club in Nairobi, venue for this week’s Barclays Kenya Open on the Challenge Tour. Having finished 181st in last year’s Race to Dubai, the second-tier circuit is where Saltman will probably find himself playing exclusively this season. His aim will be to finish in the top 15 in the money-list to earn a place at the top table in European golf, a privilege he’s only enjoyed once in his five seasons in the paid ranks.
In the first of those, in 2008, he finished sixth in the Russian Open and, two seasons ago, he recorded a brace of top tens only for an untimely injury to effectively cost him his card. It left him having to split his schedule between the main Tour and the Challenge circuit last year and, though he came close to winning on the latter when being pipped by compatriot Chris Doak, it seems as though he’s going to have to learn how to swallow his pride before his career can start taking off again.
It’s a similar position to the one Marc Warren found himself in a couple of seasons ago. Not surprisingly when you’ve won two European Tour titles on your own and teamed up with Colin Montgomerie to land Scotland’s first World Cup triumph, Warren hated finding himself back on the Challenge Tour after losing his card yet he took the medicine and is now back where he belongs.
Saltman has all the attributes to be there, too, and let’s hope he comes out with all guns blazing in Africa on Thursday. According to coach Colin Brooks, the 27-year-old’s enthusiasm and desire are as strong as ever and, based on the fact Stephen Gallacher was 29 when he made his Tour breakthrough, he believes the best years can also still lie ahead for Saltman.
“What Lloyd achieved as an amateur is done and dusted – it’s finished,” said Brooks, who preceded Colin Montgomerie as Scottish Amateur champion in 1996 before being one of the leading players himself on the Challenge circuit when it was known as the Satellite Tour. “It’s about moving forward now as a professional and, along with everyone else, Lloyd has to earn the right to be on the European Tour.
“I think he is a main Tour player and even last year his form was better on that than the Challenge Tour. It’s difficult to put a finger on why he hasn’t produced the goods so far on that, but it’s certainly not a technical thing as we’ve tracked his swing throughout his career and we both feel it is better than it’s ever been. If that’s the case, then it is purely psychological and hopefully this season Lloyd can regain the knack of winning he had as an amateur and kick-on as he certainly has a big game. For starters, he hits it a mile, which is always useful in the modern-day game, while his short game, a perceived weakness, is much better. We’ve changed how he hits his short wedges so that shots from 100 yards in are not as destructive as they had become.”
Six years on from that star-studded Walker Cup, the Kenya Open, Scottish Hydro Challenge and Kazakhstan Open may not necessarily be the stages Saltman wants to be on. Yet those sort of events have proved launching pads for plenty people that have secured footholds on the European Tour and the ball is now in his court to vindicate the belief those like myself still have in him.
Shade and Green both class acts
APPARENTLY, a few Duddingston members are ready to give me a flea in the ear for daring to suggest that Charlie Green, who died a fortnight ago at the age of 80, was “arguably Scotland’s most decorated amateur golfer”.
The reason I used the word “arguably” was precisely to take into account the views of those who, understandably, strongly believe that Ronnie Shade had a better record than Green.
While Green racked up three Scottish Amateur titles between 1970 and 1983, Shade won the SGU’s flagship event a remarkable five times in a row from 1963 to 1967, having also reached the final in 1962.
The man often referred to as “Right Down the Bloody Middle”, a nickname based on his initials (RDBM Shade) and his unerring accuracy, claimed three Brabazon Trophy triumphs as well.
He was also leading amateur in the 1966 Open Championship (tying for 16th behind Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield), a feat he achieved in the Eisenhower Trophy as well, and played in four Walker Cups.
It’s a pity that neither Green or Shade won the Amateur Championship, though the latter did come close when he lost to South African Bobby Cole in the 1966 event at Carnoustie.
In the eyes of Ian MacNiven, the long-time golf correspondent of the Edinburgh Evening News, Shade was undoubtedly Scotland’s most successful amateur – yet there are others, the majority in the west probably, who believe Green’s achievements were wider ranging.
Rather than bicker about who was the best, though, we should surely simply marvel at the achievements of two outstanding players and, at the same time, hope their records might inspire a new generation of old-fashioned amateurs.