John Huggan: Allan’s Caledonian grit

At 40, Stephen Allan hasn't yet given up hope of regaining his PGA Tour card. Picture: Getty
At 40, Stephen Allan hasn't yet given up hope of regaining his PGA Tour card. Picture: Getty
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LOOKING at him now, it is hard to believe Stephen Allan is 40. The boyish smile and cheery disposition that lit up the European Tour between 1997 and 2000 remain intact, as does the amiable Australian’s innate ability to strike a golf ball.

Clearly, the pure Caledonian blood that courses through his veins – his parents emigrated from Edinburgh to Melbourne in 1970, three years before Allan was born – has done him no harm on the career path he has chosen.

And yet. Things have not been going well. Not for a good while now. Once a winner on the European Tour – at the 1998 German Open – medallist at the 2000 PGA Tour Qualifying School and Australian Open champion in 2002, Allan last month failed
to make it through even the second stage of the European Tour qualifying system. And this week he will tee up at PGA West in California in a similar effort to make it on to the Tour, the second division of American professional golf.

The last few years have been almost unremittingly disappointing, to a point where Allan’s present situation – he is basically searching for places to play – is a far cry from the promise he displayed as a fledgling pro on the European circuit.

“Stephen’s a great competitor,” contends Dale Lynch, who has coached Allan since the age of 17. “I wish every player had his attitude. He’s always excited about what’s coming up. He doesn’t dwell on the past. His strength is his competitiveness – but his weakness too. He’s one of the quickest players on tour. Guys playing with him are watching their balls land and he has already hit. And, under stress, he tends to get too quick.”

That was certainly the case on two notable occasions. At Milwaukee in 2003 and at Reno a year later, Allan suffered traumatic defeats that haunt him to this day. The latter was the most significant. Two shots ahead with one hole to play, he made a double bogey then lost out in a four-way sudden-death play-off. Significantly, the details remain clear in his mind more than nine years later.

“I only had a sand wedge to the green,” he says, the almost permanent smile on his face momentarily absent. “But I got ahead of myself. I thought I had it won. It was done, over.

“It wasn’t though. I had left myself a not-quite full shot, which is just what you don’t want in that situation. I backed off the ball once, then was disturbed by a cameraman and had to start over for a third time. I caught the shot heavy and hit it into the front bunker. I’m still annoyed at that cameraman.

“I was playing with Hunter Mahan. He had a birdie putt so, suddenly, I had to get up-and-down to win. I couldn’t play for bogey. And I thinned the bunker shot over the green. I hit a great chip back to maybe four feet. But I was literally shaking over the putt, pushed it and missed. It’s still my most disappointing moment in golf.

“It had a lasting impact on me too. It took me ages to get over it. I lost my card the next year. I became tentative on the course, playing not to miss.”

Still, all was not completely lost. By the end of 2006, Allan had his PGA Tour card back, after yet another trip to the Q-school. It was a false dawn though. 2007 was basically lost after a double hernia operation restricted his appearances more than a little. 2008 saw him finish 139th on the money list, good enough to guarantee what used to be called “conditional” status (limited starts) in 2009. But those led to only one cut made in 17 appearances.

Since then, Allan has been forced to play anywhere and everywhere. Asia, Europe, Australia – name the tour, he’s been there. With three kids at home in Scottsdale, Arizona, his professional existence has been more than a little difficult. This year he played only seven times on the circuit, making just one cut. Yet, through it all, he remains unremittingly positive.

“Life is easy in one way,” he says. “I’m still playing golf for a living. I still love the competition. There’s more to life than being on the PGA Tour. What keeps me going is the feeling that my game is not too far away. It’s never been where I felt like I didn’t know what I’m doing.

“Any good form hasn’t been lasting long enough, though. When I first turned pro a good week meant I finished in the top five. But I haven’t done that recently. Different parts of my game have let me down at different times. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself. But that is part of the challenge.”

One thing Allan’s trek through pro golf over the last few years has given him is the opportunity to compare standards. His take is an interesting one. “I feel like the PGA and European Tours overrate themselves when rating one against the other,” he says. “The US players underrate the Europeans significantly. And the Europeans overrate themselves a little bit. Which is natural. Despite being on the Golf Channel, the European Tour doesn’t get much exposure in the States. When Retief Goosen won his first US Open [Golf Channel presenter] Johnny Miller called it an upset. That’s ridiculous.

“What I will say is the Tour is the hardest place to earn money relative to the standard of play. It’s really good. Some players like to say it is the second-best tour in the world. It clearly isn’t, I get annoyed when they make comments like that. Put it this way, I haven’t seen them win too many Ryder Cups. In saying that though, the quality is high. There are so many good players. Guys as low as 150th on that money list could win the next week.”

One of those guys is Allan himself. “Stephen can still go forward from here,” says his coach, Lynch, who also works with former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and Matthew Goggin, who so nearly won the Open Championship at Turnberry in 2009. “He can still make it back on to the PGA Tour. His ball striking is good enough. His attitude is great. If he hadn’t had that, the game would have destroyed him by now. And he’s a really good player. He can still do it. It’ll be a wonderful story when he does.”

Perhaps more importantly, Allan is up for the challenge.

“Next week is huge for me,” he admits. “It could lead to a year back on the, then full steam ahead to the PGA Tour. I still feel like I can compete at that level. I have had doubts at times. I’ve taken a lot of knocks and it would have been easy to pack up. But I still want to play.”

It may say “Australia” on his passport, but he’s definitely Scottish.