The passing of Norman Mair and Glenn Gibbons in recent months had indicated that an era of the finest Scottish sportswriting was coming to an end. The death of former sports editor and nonpareil golf columnist Ian Wood on Christmas Day confirmed that, for The Scotsman at least, a golden age of sports journalism is indeed over.
Readers knew him as the witty, erudite and often superbly funny author of two long-running Scotsman columns “The Last Word” and “A Slice of Life”. His colleagues knew him as a dedicated and highly professional journalist who had a traditional rise from the ranks, starting as copyboy and eventually becoming sports editor which then, as now, was a vital role for The Scotsman.
John Cairns Wood, always known as Ian, was born in Musselburgh to his publican father. His brother Sandy followed in the family business, and recalls that Ian might have done so at the family’s Liberton Inn if he had not spent so much of his teens on the golf course.
Educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Wood went straight to his National Service, serving with the Royal Corps of Signals. He had an adventurous time in post-war Cyprus before its Emergency began, being narrowly missed by a speedboat on one occasion.
On returning to civilian life, he attended Skerry’s College in Edinburgh and acquired a Higher in English. Not long afterwards, in 1954, a golfing contact of his father arranged for Wood to start as a copyboy at The Scotsman. It was to be the beginning of a long relationship between the newspaper and a man who soon discovered he had a natural flair for journalism. He became a sub-editor and rose through the ranks to the post of sports editor, during which time he showed an aptitude for spotting talent, recruiting such noted writers as Chris Rea (rugby), Christopher Martin-Jenkins (cricket), Mike Aitken (football and golf), and Hugh Keevins (football).
He was very much an active sports editor, and would attend matches and chase up stories himself, while making sure the talented team under his management were producing their best work.
Wood became golf correspondent of the paper, a position he held until his retirement in 1994 after 40 years with The Scotsman. By then he was established as a thoroughly knowledgeable figure in the sport, on first name terms with the stars of the day.
Jack Nicklaus once gave him advice on life and the sport – “take an aspirin every day”, while Wood once doffed his cap to his hero, the five times Open Champion Peter Thomson, only to be told by the great man: “You don’t need to raise your hat to me, Ian.”
It is an irony that Thomson very much appreciated that Wood was much better known to the wider public for his post-retirement activity as the author of “A Slice of Life”, his weekly column which ran for 17 years in The Scotsman.
To describe Wood as a golf columnist is a bit like saying that George Bernard Shaw was a boxing correspondent. He could turn his hand to any type of writing, and used golf, and other sports, too, merely as the background to his memorable musings on every facet of life.
As often as not, a column would begin as an essay on golf and get sidetracked into musings on popular culture, or he would revel in tales from his personal non-golfing history – childhood escapades in and around Musselburgh were often recounted – then leave the reader eagerly anticipating the next piece of Woodsian whimsy, always founded on his self-deprecating depictions of his struggles with the Great Leveller that is golf.
As a golf writer, Wood never forgot the simple truth that professionals and the very best amateurs play a version of the game with which the rest of us are not familiar. That was why he was so loved by both professionals and public alike – every golfer could sympathise with his stories of exasperation, such as when he resorted to chucking his clubs in a hot bath to see if cleaning them could change his luck. It didn’t.
He was also amazed at the sheer pluck displayed by top golfers in the modern camera-strewn era. “If I was ever in a situation,” he wrote, “where I was expected to play golf in front of thousands of people while being scanned by TV’s beady eye, I’d be tempted to disguise myself as something else – a tree, or someone who has come about the drains.”
He always had the gift for a telling phrase. Describing what he termed “extraordinary” play at one Ryder Cup, Wood wrote: “The putts were homing in on the hole with the zeal of ferrets confronted by drainpipes.”
He was often at his funniest describing the ordinary travails of life, such as shopping while suffering from a gout-ridden toe: “Cyclists … came out of the sun like Stuka dive-bombers and mothers with prams charged me with the air of women who weren’t about to take prisoners. Perhaps my sensitive state had something to do with it, but there seemed to be an inordinate number of twins around. The prams looked vast and the toe shrank at the very sight of them.”
Writing his last “Slice of Life” in March, 2011, Wood revealed that he had taken up writing the column to pass the time in supposed retirement and quickly found it had captured him. He then gave the perfect description of the columnar pursuit: “Columns have a devious way of enslaving whoever is compiling them and no sooner is one column completed than the mind switches to what’s going to be on next week’s menu. It got to the stage where I could hardly walk down the street without taking mental notes of the strange ways of people, children and dogs – anything that might trigger a fruitful train of thought.”
He said when he really needed an idea he always turned to golf: “Fortunately, golf, which has been the main source of inspiration – if that’s the word – has provided an abundance of material and there’s no sign of it stopping.”
Ever the most convivial and congenial of men, Wood was a fixture at his beloved Duddingston Golf Club – he was made an honorary member this year – whose members always appreciated his gentle humour that sometimes included their own misfortunes.
Indeed, in that very last column he wrote: “Even as I was wondering how to set about this piece, news came through that a Duddingston member with a remotely controlled trolley had got a bit too remote and uncontrolled at the 18th and watched trolley and clubs plunge into the swollen waters of the burn.”
Latterly, Wood battled bravely against cancer but died in an Edinburgh nursing home of complications of the disease.
Ian Wood, who was divorced, is survived by his daughter Jane and brother Sandy. Details of his funeral will be announced in due course.