Obituary: Bob Torrance, golf coach and father of Sam

Bob Torrancc, centre, in deep discussion with Luke Donald, left, and Padraig Harrington, his star pupil. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Bob Torrancc, centre, in deep discussion with Luke Donald, left, and Padraig Harrington, his star pupil. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Born: 1932, in Lochwinnoch. Died: 18 July, 2014, in Largs, aged 82

It seemed almost appropriate that the death from cancer of Bob Torrance occurred during the Open Championship at Hoylake. It allowed generous public tributes to be paid by the greats of golf to a man who was widely acknowledged to be one of the best coaches of the game in the world. If all he had ever done was to give his son Sam a start in golf, then Bob Torrance could have claimed greatness. Sam’s 44 tournament wins and his Ryder Cup heroics were inspired by his father’s coaching, but so many other top professional and amateur golfers learned from Bob that he is acknowledged as the finest golf coach ever to come out of Scotland.

Robert Torrance – only June, his wife for more than 60 years, ever called him by his Sunday name – was born in Renfrewshire as the son of a lorry driver who moved his family to Largs when Bob was just five.

Though his father and other members of his family were keen golfers, playing at the local Routenburn club, Bob did not start playing until he was 16. He proved to have a natural aptitude for the game, famously striking a perfect shot with his first ever attempt at hitting a golf ball. Only those who have tried golf will know how difficult a feat that is.

By 19 he was a scratch handicapper, and he turned professional the following year, working as an assistant to Jock McKellar at Largs Golf Club, and also learning the trade of greenkeeper.

It was in 1953 at the Open at Carnoustie that Torrance watched the legendary American Ben Hogan sweep to victory. Hogan became his hero, and though he was no mean player himself, Torrance determined to learn the art of coaching, just as Hogan had coached himself to greatness. Thus began Torrance’s lifelong devotion to the analysis of the golf swing, a science at which he eventually would have no peers.

Having married June and with Sam having arrived, at the age of 27 Torrance moved south to a more lucrative position as professional and head greenkeeper at the Rossendale club in Lancashire. He earned £9 a week plus tips, but that was still almost double what he had been earning in Largs.

It was at Rossendale that the young Sam Torrance first learned the game, and his father could see the potential in his son. He was soon teaching the youngster whose destiny was always to be a professional.

In 1963, the family returned to Scotland and Largs, Torrance taking up the position of professional and greenkeeper at Routenburn, a job he held until his retirement.

Torrance’s career as a coach really moved up a gear when he wrote to Ben Hogan and to his amazement was invited to the great man’s home in Texas. They became friends and Hogan imparted some seminal lessons to the Scot, who was already becoming known for his “doctoring” of players’ swings, and for his dedication to his craft – he would spend many hours with a player if that player wanted his time and attention.

“All modern teaching comes from Hogan,” Torrance once said. There are just as many people now who would credit Torrance himself, along with John Jacobs, as the fathers of European coaching.

His feat in coaching Sam to become a leading member of the European Tour brought Torrance into contact with some of the greatest players of the era, and it was not long before he became known as the ultimate “swing doctor”. The very first tour professional other than Sam who came to seek his help was Sam’s friend Derek Cooper, who promptly shot a 57 in his next tournament.

Nowadays video and digital technology can break down a golf swing into minute component parts, but Torrance did it by eye, a remarkable talent given that a swing can often be “out” by just a millimetre or two.

His advice would be barked out in a memorable Scottish growl made gruff by years of smoking and drinking – he gave up alcohol when he realised it was affecting his teaching. He was once interviewed by US television and it provided subtitles for their viewers. It was part of the essential character of Torrance, who was often very funny with his dry Ayrshire humour and impish looks.

The list of those coached or assisted by Torrance is quite remarkable: Ian Woosnam, Darren Clarke, and this year’s Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley all benefited from his coaching, while Severiano Ballesteros took his advice, as did Tiger Woods and many other top Americans. McGinley has appointed Sam Torrance as his vice-captain for Gleneagles, and no doubt many stories of Bob will be told before and during the match in September.

His greatest achievement as a coach came with Padraig Harrington, the Dubliner who was clearly very talented but destined to be a mere tour pro until Torrance took him on as special pupil. They became very close and Harrington even had his own room at the Torrance household in Largs.

The Irishman’s dedication rivalled that of Torrance and he soon became a regular tournament winner before making the leap to Major victor, winning two Opens and a US PGA.

Torrance was just as dedicated to helping Scots, young and old, to improve their golf. He was national coach with the Scottish Golf Union for eight years, and among his more famous pupils was Sir Sean Connery, who wrote the foreword for Torrance’s book Room At The Top: Golf the Torrance Way, which he co-wrote with former Scotsman journalist Norman Mair.

In that foreword Connery wrote: “His fame as a teacher has spread not by lavish projection in golfing magazines or expensive advertising, but simply by word of mouth on the part of a gratefully appreciative and growing clientele. I count myself lucky to be among their number.”

Torrance kept coaching even after his retirement, and was often seen at Routenburn or at the national coaching centre at Inverclyde, which was renamed the Bob Torrance School of Golf following its refurbishment in 2009, with the man himself performing the naming ceremony.

Bob Torrance is survived by June, Sam, his daughter-in-law Suzanne and grandchildren Daniel Phoebe and Anouska.