John Huggan: The making of a Tartan specialist

Greig Hutcheon shows off the trophy awarded for winning the Titleist PGA Playoffs on the PGA Sultan Course at Antalya Golf Club in Turkey in November last year. Photograph: Paul Thomas/Getty Images
Greig Hutcheon shows off the trophy awarded for winning the Titleist PGA Playoffs on the PGA Sultan Course at Antalya Golf Club in Turkey in November last year. Photograph: Paul Thomas/Getty Images
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Victories eluded talented Greig Hutcheon on the European Tour, but he’s cut his cloth successfully

IN BASKETBALL parlance, a “tweener” is a player who typically falls between the ideal height of a guard (too tall) and a forward (not tall enough). Just to make things even more frustrating, the individual concerned often has the skills of a big man but the height of a guard, or vice versa. So it is that, in golfing terms, Greig Hutcheon is a “tweener”.

Now aged 40, the genial Aberdonian is the dominant figure on the Tartan Tour, having won the Order of Merit five times since 2006 and been leading money-winner on three occasions. Indeed, in terms of cash won, Hutcheon has been first or second in each of the last four years. The two-times Scottish PGA champion has also won three times on the European Challenge Tour – the 1999 Formby Hall Challenge, the 2001 Credit Suisse Private Banking Open and (deep breath) the 2003 Panalpina Banque Commerciale du Maroc Classic. But the final step up professional golf’s ever-steepening ladder has largely eluded him.

The numbers, for one so clearly talented, are both damning and perplexing. Since Hutcheon made his European Tour debut at the 1998 Heineken Classic, he has played in a further 96 events on the world’s second-biggest circuit. In only 36 of those has he survived as far as the weekend – 61 times he has either missed the half-way cut or, in the case of the Open Championship, failed to qualify. His best finish, eighth, came in the 1999 Scottish PGA Championship at Gleneagles. His highest-ever position on the money list was a lowly 153rd in 1998. And only once, again in 1998, has he qualified for the Open Championship.

At first or even second glance, those are harsh statistics, especially when we are talking about someone good enough to shoot 67 at Wentworth in last year’s BMW PGA Championship. Hutcheon can clearly play, but for whatever reason he hasn’t quite been able to translate his obvious ability into the consistency required at tour level.

“Tee-to-green I was competitive,” he says. “But I was young and a bit too swashbuckling for my own good. I wasn’t wise to the complexities of the game and the precision required. And I wasn’t a good enough putter.

“All of that meant I never had the ‘big’ week you need to keep your card. You can ‘steady Eddie’ it with a lot of top tens, but that is incredibly difficult. The prize money is very much weighted to the top end – which is fair enough – so you have to hit a ‘home run’ to have any chance of staying out there.”

For all that, the former Boys and Youths international flitted between the Challenge and European Tours from 1998 until the end of 2004. It was then that a grade-three separation of his right shoulder, incurred during a playful and impromptu snowball fight at Banchory Golf Club, sent Hutcheon’s career in an unexpected direction.

“I ended up eating my Christmas dinner with my arm in a sling,” he recalls. “I can still remember the doctor telling me I was going to get serious pain in the shoulder for at least 12 months. And he was right.

“Foolishly, I tried to play. I even made the cut in my first event of 2005, the Kenyan Open on the Challenge Tour. I have no idea how. But the weekend was awful. I had no game and had lost 30 yards off the tee. That made me understand how bad my injury was. By the end of 2005, I had lost £21,000 and had virtually no ranking on either the European Tour or Challenge Tour. But I had an exemption on to the Tartan Tour. So that’s where I played. And I’ve pretty much been there ever since.”

Today, 45 Tartan Tour victories later, Hutcheon appears to be a man relatively content with his lot. He has six months of competitive golf every summer – regular appearances in the Scottish Open and BMW PGA Championship adding spice to the regular diet of one-day pro-ams – and a job in the winter. He says: “I’ve enjoyed my time playing at home. The standard is high. You have to play well to make money. And that’s what I’ve done.

“I’m not going to say I have made a great living, between £30,000 and £35,000 in each of the last few years. But I’m lucky enough to be employed by Coretrax Technologies in the winter. I work in the area of tool refurbishment and maintenance. That sounds fairly straightforward but it is massively important. If a tool fails, an oil rig might have to shut down. And that can be expensive, up to 
$1 million a day. So there’s a lot of protocol and a lot of procedures to follow.

“I’m not unfulfilled as a golfer. But I won’t lie, I had dreams of playing and winning on tour. I still think it might be possible. I know I can finish in the top ten at big events. But the hard part is getting on tour. And, at this stage of my life, that may not be practical. I have a wife and two little boys to think about. My priorities have changed. Plus, the financial commitment it takes to play the tour would be a little tricky for me now.”

Still, he would be less than human if he did not have the classic “what might have been” thought cross his mind occasionally. Like all golfers, Hutcheon has accumulated a couple of wee regrets along the way.

“It does gnaw at me that I know I can play with the big boys,” he concedes. “Two years ago at Castle Stuart I played with Ryan Palmer and Martin Laird in the Scottish Open. They are both well established on the PGA Tour. But I beat them. And I felt like my game compared favourably, even if they were probably wondering who I was – the guy with the yellow ball. I went home with a smile on my face. That day was a little victory for me.”

And so to the obvious question. What is the difference between a Greig Hutcheon and, say, another Aberdonian, former Open champion Paul Lawrie?

“The players at the top have a focus I maybe lack a little bit,” admits Hutcheon. “It’s almost like a psychotic glaze that comes over those guys when they are competing. They have an edge that has little to do with technique. Paul has it, you just have to watch the intensity with which he practises. And he, like all leading players, is phenomenal in at least one area of the game. With Paul it is chipping and pitching. He is amazing around the greens.

“The game at the highest level is played largely in the mind. Take last year at Wentworth. I shot 67 in the third round and was sitting maybe 20th with 18 holes to play. Driving in on the Sunday I looked around at all the big houses and realised that one more good round could pay off my mortgage. The potential for life-changing money was there. And that was my mistake. I got too tense. The whole thing meant too much to me.”

Which is where we came in. Golf’s most important few inches – “tween” the ears.