Reaching 50 is a major milestone in anyone’s life. But for golfers, especially, it has deeper resonance. It marks the stage when they qualify for the potentially rewarding seniors tour. It really can be a case of life beginning again.
Paul Lawrie is counting down the days. He chalks up a half century in January. He has been frustrated in his bid to mark this imminent new chapter by competing at next week’s Open.
Of course, the venue being Carnoustie means missing out involves even greater anguish. The last but one Open champion there won’t be teeing off on Thursday morning in Angus. Tiger Woods will be involved, or at least is due to be. But it was a major blow for organisers when they received confirmation of Lawrie’s withdrawal earlier this summer. He is as synonymous with the course as Ben Hogan or Tom Watson. Or, dare we say it, Jean van de Velde,
But Lawrie’s concerns are perhaps more profound than missing out on such an emotional return. His career currently hangs in the balance. He was aghast at the thought of retuning to Carnoustie as a ceremonial golfer. If he didn’t feel he could win [again] then he didn’t want to be included in the field, simple as that. The next few days are pivotal. He is due to visit his surgeon in Glasgow for the prognosis on a combination of ankle and back problems. It’s why he is a frustrated onlooker as the world of golf’s gaze falls on the east coast of Scotland.
Initially, interest centres on Gullane, where many top names are warming up for Carnoustie at the Aberdeen Standards Investment Scottish Open. It’s also where the pain of not being directly involved in the festival of golf in his homeland hit him earlier this week.
“It just takes a bit of getting used to,” he said. “I know I will not play now for a minimum of six months, maybe longer.
“This was the first time that I do quite miss it. I have actually been quite enjoying not playing. I have done this since I was 17 – that’s over 30 years I have been full-time playing golf. This is the first time I have been home in the summer and not been away. It takes a bit of getting used to. But I had actually been enjoying it until the first morning [at Gullane].
“When I first got down and people were warming up and I was chatting away to people before they went on to the chipping green and before they went on the first tee and I thought ‘oh man, I wish I was playing this week’.
“This week and next week are the only two weeks when it will be a problem. But if you can’t play you can’t play. There is not an awful you can do. I could have played. But because of my injuries, my game has not been in a good enough state to play at this level. I would probably have struggled or not played very well. I did not want that.
“I have always said unless you are 100 per cent and have a chance to win then you should not be out there. I didn’t feel as though I had a chance to win in these weeks because of my body and the way we have been playing. I made the decision if I am going to stop then I am going to stop now, even if it means missing the Scottish Open and then Open.”
It’s easier to accept since he knows that getting to the root of his injury troubles is key to one his next major ambition – winning a seniors major. “I want to play seniors,” he said. “I think I could be a really good senior if I get myself fit.
“People tend to do really, really well and I have a little exemption for the Champions Tour, but not a full exemption.
“It is very hard to compete out here when you are in your late 40s. [Miguel Angel] Jimenez did it right into his 50s, [Bernard] Langer did it.
“There’s not been many down the years who can still compete and win from 45 to 50. So the 50 age is a big thing for a golfer. It gives you a second career playing with guys the same age.
“I am looking forward to that if I am fit,” he adds. “Because I really think I can be a good senior. These guys can still play. The guys who beat me when I was younger are still going to be capable of beating me when I am 50. But I am just that little bit younger. It makes a massive difference when you get to 50. You have four or five years when you need to crack on and do as well as you can. When you get to 55 you are in the same category as when you were 45 on the main tour. I’d like to capitalise if I can.”
“If I can play 15-16 weeks a year as a senior, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to be a full-time golfer when I get to 50. I want to do other stuff – my foundation, the mentoring and other bits and pieces and mix it in with some tournament golf.”
Everything is crossed in the hope Lawrie receives the medical news he craves and he can pursue his seniors dream. But it’s also obvious he derives a huge amount of satisfaction from his other golf commitments.
If his playing career was to end tomorrow, well, who could complain? Not him. Not any more.
There was a time when Paul Lawrie felt he didn’t get the credit he deserved. He was traduced as one of the worst major champions of all time on account of his surge from nowhere to take advantage of Van de Velde’s meltdown at Carnoustie 19 years ago. One commentator across the Atlantic described him as looking like “the heating and air conditioning guy”.
Now he is asked to contribute forewords to books attempting to solve the mysteries of putting – he helped launch a book, The Lost Art of Putting by old friend Gary Nicol and Karl Morris, in Gullane earlier this week.
He also mentors young Scots who, it’s hoped, will turn into the champions of tomorrow via his own charity enterprise, the Paul Lawrie Foundation. Set up in 2001, it helped introduce 25,000 local children to the charms of golf in the North-east of Scotland and is beginning to reap tangible reward.
Helping soften the blow of missing out on Carnoustie is knowing Sam Locke, one of the academy’s standout players and who supplements his income by working at the Lawrie Golf Centre café, has qualified. It compensated Lawrie after watching his own son Craig just miss out. Locke has already asked Lawrie to accompany him around Carnoustie at the start of the next week.
“I will pass on my idea of how the golf course is played,” said Lawrie. “Obviously Sam will have his views on it, and that’s right. My plan with the boys is always to tell them what I think. Then it is up to them to use it or not use it. If they don’t use it then I have no problem with that, because they have to be their own man.
“But he asked me to come round with him. Monday morning is the best time because it is before the course gets really, really busy. We can do a bit of work. I will just give him my thoughts about how the course is playing and how far he should hit it off certain tees and where I would be hitting if I were playing. He can add it to his own game plan.”
Among Lawrie’s main pieces of advice will be: don’t waste energy trying to drink in the sights and sounds too long. “Obviously the plan is to try and win the silver medal as an amateur,” he said.
“If he is going to do that he will have to get a lot of things right. Hanging around the course too long is taking away energy he can’t afford to lose. Practice for as long as you want to practice then get out.”
Lawrie learned this by accident rather than design. When he won the Open title in such memorable fashion in 1999 he said he benefited from basing himself at home outside Aberdeen. The drive there and back helped him decompress. When he made his last return journey in the darkness and rain he had his brother-in-law, who had accompanied him each day, in the front seat next to him and the Claret Jug in the backseat.
“That was not on purpose,” he says of his unusual arrangements that week. “That was because I could not get accommodation.
“All the accommodation close to the course was taken. The closest I could get to the course was 40 minutes away. I am only an hour and 20 minutes up the road so I thought ‘I will just go home’. And Michael, our youngest , was only six months’ old at the time. It was ideal for me to spend some time at home. You don’t often get to stay at home very often when you are playing in a golf tournament, let alone the Open.”
When Lawrie won the Dunhill Links championship two years later it started to seem like he only won tournaments within driving distance of his house. Maybe that was the problem. The wider world didn’t truly recognise his merits as a player.
Lawrie believes his inclusion in the Ryder Cup team in 2012 and subsequent performance at Medinha, when he beat Brandt Snedeker in the singles, made a huge difference to how he was perceived elsewhere. America finally recognised his qualities. This was a source of deep satisfaction for him, of course. But he had already learnt to stop fretting about what others were thinking, saying and writing for the sake of his own health.
He eventually understood why it was easier to focus on the man who lost the Open rather than the man who won it. Despair is easier to convey, particularly when it is standing knee deep in the Barry Burn – as Van de Velde memorably was.
“The way it was written at the time, the way it was handled, you look back now and you can understand a little bit better,” he says. “It’s the way this world is. A disaster is easier to write about.
“That’s how it is. I am not being negative. That is just the world now. I see it both ways. I never saw that way before. I always saw it as me never getting the credit.
“It got to the point where I said ‘I need to stop this’,” he continues. “I need to stop all this carry on. I got depression from it. I really struggled with the whole thing. If I had my time again I would not have gone the way I did.
“I would have gone down another road of saying: ‘Listen, I understand why you guys are writing that. It’s understandable’.
“I think getting in the Medinah team in 2012 changed a lot of people’s minds. I changed people’s opinion from being someone who got lucky at the Open to someone who, at 43-44 years of age got in the Ryder Cup team again. That changed a lot for me.”
Perhaps his greatest feeling of self-esteem, and certainly a huge amount of personal satisfaction, is drawn from helping develop a new breed of Scottish talent. He travelled to Aviemore recently to watch another beneficiary of the Paul Lawrie Foundation, David Law, win his first Challenge Tour title.
“Knowing he has been through the Foundation since he was 13, I probably got as much out of that as if I had won a tournament,” he says. “It was quite emotional to watch him with his family, knowing how much work has been put in. Hopefully he will kick on and get a tour card and everything will be brilliant. I know how hard he has worked. I was just a little cog in the machine.”
Lawrie is more than that of course. He remains Scotland’s latest men’s major golf champion. It’s good to find him so comfortable in his own skin while preparing to enter the next phase of a remarkable life.