Interview: Peter O’Malley, golfer

Left behind by a game now dominated by big hitters on bland courses, Peter O’Malley talks to John Huggan about leaving the European Tour after an illustrious 23 years in the sport.

It’s just not going to be the same on the European Tour next year. For the first time since 1988, the so-called “International Schedule” will be missing one of its most popular and well-kent figures. After 23 years on tour and many, many hours sitting in aircraft, Peter O’Malley is selling the flat in Sunningdale and heading home to Sydney. Last month’s Dunhill Links Championship was his 452nd and last European Tour event.

That news is especially disappointing for those who appreciate golf’s finer things. While “Pom” has never been the longest-hitter on tour and certainly not the best putter, no one has hit more solid shots than the 46-year old Australian. Not Nick Faldo. Not Lee Westwood. Not Luke Donald. Not Bernhard Langer. When it comes to finding the middle of the clubface and, in turn, fairways and greens, O’Malley has no peer.

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Sadly, the way golf at the highest level has gone over the last 15 years has done nothing but hurt O’Malley’s ability to make a living. As his strengths have largely been marginalised, his weaknesses have only been accentuated.

“The modern game, some would say with a degree of regret, has moved in a direction that has done Pom no favours,” agrees former Presidents Cup player Greg Turner. “The two weakest areas of his game would be length and putting, and today’s game [especially on the raft of mediocre courses played on tour] revolves increasingly around these two facets.”

Which is not to say O’Malley is incapable of great feats. In 2002, ranked 64 in the world, he saw off No.1 Tiger Woods in the opening round of the World Match Play Championship. But his most memorable day occurred ten years earlier, when a Saltire jumper-wearing Colin Montgomerie led the Scottish Open at Gleneagles with five holes to play before succumbing to an unprecedented burst of scoring from the Aussie. It’s worth repeating. O’Malley finished eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle to lift the biggest title of his distinguished career.

“When Nick Faldo and I arrived on the 14th tee there was a bit of a delay,” he recalls. “Nick isn’t known for talking much but we actually had a conversation. I can’t remember what he said – I was probably too surprised that he was actually speaking to take anything in!

“Anyway, Nick had the honour and found the front-left bunker at the green. My drive finished maybe 20 feet from the hole. Nick’s bunker shot finished just outside my ball and on the same line, which was a big bonus for me. He hit a great putt but it broke a huge amount in the last couple of feet. So I got a great read. I’m sure I wouldn’t have holed my putt had it not been for Nick showing me the line. I probably would have hit the putt he did.”

The excitement was only starting though. After making putts of 15, 15 and eight feet for birdies on the next three greens, O’Malley came to the storied par-5 18th on the Kings course.“I hit one of the best drives of my life down that fairway,” he continues. “I was still using a persimmon [wooden] driver and flew it over the hill. That was the first time I experienced adrenaline I felt like I had control over.

“I hit a 6-iron right at the flag and had about 15 feet again. I saw the line and just stroked the putt. It wasn’t until the ball struck the back of the cup and jumped up that I realised I had maybe hit it a bit too hard. But it went in.”

Not surprisingly, the beaten Monty hasn’t forgotten that now far-off day. A couple of years ago, the Scot bumped into O’Malley at a tournament.

“I was thinking of you yesterday,” said Monty.

“Oh really? Why was that?”

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“I got a couple of boxes in the mail from my ex-wife. In one was that bloody Saltire jumper!”

Sadly, the burst of form on the greens that still haunts Monty was far from the norm for O’Malley, who finished tied 23rd at the recent Australian Open while putting with his eyes shut. “There have been times when my putting has cost me,” he says with a large dollop of understatement. “I go through periods when I putt well and don’t have any anxiety on the greens. But other times I do. What I have never been able to work out is what causes both.”

On the other hand, Denis Pugh, Pom’s coach since 1991, points to stubbornness in the O’Malley make-up when the subject of putting is raised.

“Rather like Tom Watson, for a long time Pom never really wanted to admit anything was wrong with his putting,” says Pugh. “So he was never really ready to make a change to a long or belly putter. Only recently has he tried both with all sorts of grips. But he can’t be faulted for effort in sorting out his putting.”

No matter. It is for a rare ball-striking talent – and a benign disposition that has made him friends across the golfing spectrum – that O’Malley will be most remembered. Naturally modest, he is typically reluctant to discuss his long-game prowess, but even he is proud of his play en route to a tie for second in the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne back in 2002.

“That was one of my very best ball-striking weeks,” he reveals. “Two rounds stand out. I was pretty much landing the ball where I wanted to. That’s so important at Royal Melbourne. And during those two rounds I had uphill putts on 32 of the 36 holes.”

O’Malley’s European Tour debut at the 1989 Dubai Desert Classic – “my manager told me I’d been invited to play and my immediate reaction was ‘where the bleep is that?’” – also produced a runner-up finish when he lost a play-off to Englishman Mark James. Not that he was disappointed for long.

“Second place in Dubai gave me enough money to continue on the European Tour, albeit I could only play in seven events,” says O’Malley. “That was the rule at the time. So I played the seven and had two more top-ten finishes. I actually qualified for the season-ending Volvo Masters – I was 50th on the Order of Merit – but couldn’t go all the way from Oz to Spain for one event. But I played full-time in 1990 and have done ever since.”

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As for the future, O’Malley will continue to compete on the One Asia circuit as well as at home in Australia. And he doesn’t rule out a return to Europe when he turns 50 in June 2015.

“It’s been 23 years on the European Tour, half my life,” he says. “I’ve made some great mates. But the most pleasing aspect is that I have the respect of my peers. And I have the Senior Tour to look forward to. My kids (Tom and Jess) will be out of the house by the time I’m 50 so that may work out well for (wife) Jill and me.”

Let’s hope it does. It would be nice to hear again the wonderfully crisp sound he creates when club meets ball. Unforgettable.