Interview: Paul Lawrie, golfer

Like it's 1999: Paul Lawrie's outstanding form has catapulted that year's Open winner back into the world's top 50.  Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images
Like it's 1999: Paul Lawrie's outstanding form has catapulted that year's Open winner back into the world's top 50. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images
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PAUL Lawrie’s sons inherited his passion for golf and he credits them with spurring him on to a return to form

Just lately, things have been going rather well for Paul Lawrie. Take last year. In the 81 stroke play rounds the former Open champion played on the European Tour during 2011, only twice did his score add up to more than 75. Perhaps more to the point, Lawrie broke 70 in as many as 28 of those rounds and, for the first time in almost nine years, picked up a victory, at the Open de Andalucia. Which was nice. But the runners-up spot he recorded at the Dubai World Championship – in a 60-strong field of Europe’s finest – was surely his strongest showing.

Then again, even that lucrative finish (worth £513,000) has been quickly overshadowed by the play of the 43-year-old Aberdonian so far this season. Already, Lawrie has three top-ten finishes and, courtesy of a performance reminiscent of Tiger at his most dominant, a seventh European Tour title in the shape of the Qatar Masters. All of which has propelled him back into the world’s top 50 – he’s currently 45th – and, more importantly, into the elite fields for the upcoming World Golf Championships (the first of which, the Accenture Match Play, starts on Wednesday) and majors in the US.

“It’s been a while, right enough,” says Lawrie. “It was back in 2004 that I last played in all the majors and the WGCs. But it’s cool to think that, at the age of 43, I’m getting a second go at them all. Only the Masters is not quite certain, of course. I have to stay in the top 50 until nearly the end of March to guarantee an invitation.”

So it’s been quite a transformation. Not that much more than a year ago, Lawrie was at Celtic Manor for the Ryder Cup in the role of Sky television commentator, a state of affairs that, appropriately for a proud Scot, sent him homeward to think again.

“I’ve worked really hard over the last couple of years to get back up the rankings,” he continues. “I can remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t quite done at the highest level and it was then that the big effort started. Commentating for Sky was a factor in that decision. That made my mind up. I looked around that week and decided I wasn’t ready to make a living from sitting in a commentary box. So, that being the case, I had to knuckle down and play better.

“I was in the gym the next week working out. I lost a bit of weight and regained some of the fitness I had lost. As for my game, I’ve just worked a bit harder on everything. Everyone is asking me what the difference has been over the last few months and the answer is: everything. I’m driving the ball better. I’m longer off the tee. I’m stronger. My short game has never been a problem. And my putting is so much better. I’ve gone from 32-33 putts per round to 29-30. That’s massive.

“I still don’t putt as well as I used to. But that’s only because I used to miss a lot of greens, chip up stiff and tap in. I’d have, say, 28 putts and think ‘what a good putter I am.’ Now I’m a better ball-striker and I’m having only 30 putts. That’s a pretty good number if you are hitting 14-15 greens. It’s hard not to shoot at least four under par. Which is a pretty good formula for success.”

Factors other than a rededication to the game have also played their part in Lawrie’s resurgence. His two sons, 16-year-old Craig and Michael, 14, are both avid golfers (handicaps scratch and five respectively) and have played their part in dragging their dad on to the course more often than would have been the case had their interests lain elsewhere. Even more importantly, their so-called “friendly” matches are not without a competitive edge.

“The boys being so keen has definitely helped me,” admits Lawrie. “I’ve always said that, whatever they want to do I’ll do. Even if I’ve been away all week and get home late on a Sunday, I’ll go and play nine holes with them if that’s what they want to do. It’s not fair on them to say ‘nah, I’m tired’ when they want to play. I’m never tired when it comes to them.

“The fact that they can both play has undoubtedly helped me too. I have to work hard to beat them. I can’t just freewheel out there, especially if I give them shots. I have to be on my game to win. And I have to concentrate. All those matches have, I’d say, made the biggest difference to my game recently. Playing with them is great practice. I don’t let them win. Never. Not at anything. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing my mother or someone I can’t stand, I play to win. I hate anyone beating me. They do sometimes, of course. But mentally, I can’t let them win. Which drives my wife [Marian] crazy at times. But, if they beat me, they deserve to beat me.”

And it has happened.

“It was about the time of the last Ryder Cup that Craig (pictured right) beat me for the first time,” continues Lawrie with a grin. “Which was a shock. I had assumed it would take him a bit longer to do it. He was only 14 and playing off about three or four. It was on the wee nine-hole course at Deeside. We got to the last and I realised I was two shots behind. I hadn’t really paid attention to that point. It was a bit of a shock.

“I tried a bit of gamesmanship if I’m honest. I said to him on the tee: ‘You realise you’re two ahead here.’ He just nodded. Anyway, on the green he had about a five-foot putt to win. I was still at it. ‘You do know this is to win,’ I said. All he said was, ‘yeah,’ before he knocked it right in the middle. That was followed by a bit of a fist-pump.

“I said all the right things of course. ‘Well done.’ ‘I’m proud of you.’ And I shook his hand. But, inside, I was thinking: ‘Bloody hell, I can’t be doing with this.’ That’s the way I am. I was determined I wasn’t going to let that happen again. So that was a big wake-up call too. I felt like I was letting myself go as a golfer. And that’s not me.

“I was still working hard enough. But there was no real focus to any of it. It was like Apollo Creed in the Rocky movie. He trained harder than he had ever done but got beat. And at the end he said to Rocky, ‘I didn’t have the eye of the tiger.’ That was me. I was hitting more balls than ever but not getting any better.”

Still, for all his determination to stave off the ever-improving efforts of the heirs to the Lawrie fortune, perhaps the biggest driving force behind the old man’s recent play has been the still-recent death of his long-time coach and close friend, Adam Hunter, who sadly passed away after a bravely fought battle with leukemia.

“I think about Adam every day,” he admits. “More than once. When he was alive I never thought about what he would want me to do in the middle of a round. Now that he’s gone though, I do that all the time. At least twice during the last round in Qatar I followed what I knew would have been his advice. I never used to do that. And it’s a good thing. But it goes without saying I’d rather have him with me.

“Another big motivation for me is that I know his wife [Caroline] and his girls look at my scores and follow my progress. Caroline texts me a lot to tell me how proud he would be at what I’ve achieved. I want to keep this run going for them because I know it gives them a boost at a time when they need one.

“On the 14th hole of the last round he was in my head. I had missed makeable putts on each of the previous two greens. And I had another downhill putt for birdie. In that situation I would probably have been too aggressive, thinking I ‘had to make one’. But I didn’t do that. I knew Adam would have wanted me to stick to my routine, roll it down the hill and if it goes in, great. As it happened it went right in the middle. And that was thanks to Adam.

“He was with me on the next hole too. I didn’t hit a great drive and was 220 yards from the green. I hit a 5-iron from there, accepting that I was going to be short and right of the pin. I didn’t have a go at something that could have led to a bogey or worse. Adam was great with the strategic stuff. And his voice will always be in my head. He never got the credit for being the coach that he was. Very few can do the whole package. He could though, because he knew all the technical stuff and thought like a player. He’s the only coach I’ve ever had who could do both.”

Looking forward, Lawrie has one last ambition over the next few months, quite apart from making what would be something of a triumphant return to the Ryder Cup side for the first time since 1999, the year of his Open triumph at Carnoustie, when he top-scored for the Europeans with 3∫ points from a possible five.

“I can’t say I’m motivated by any feeling of showing the Americans I’m a better player than they thought I was when I won The Open,” he says. “But I did read a story recently and one of the comments on the website said that I was ‘one of the top-three worst major winners of all-time’. I thought that was harsh, obviously. But, equally, if that is what some people think, I need to change that perception of me. I need to show I’m better than that.

“And yes, I know I shouldn’t read that stuff, but I do. It’s always disheartening to hear people think that of me. But it is motivating too. I’ll be trying very hard to become, in some minds at least, the worst-ever two-major winner in history.”

Hey, the way he is going, only a brave man would bet against him.