Martin Dempster: Jack Nicklaus’ praise for Paul Lawrie shows value of golf

Paul Lawrie was overcome with emotion after hearing Jack Nicklaus pay tribute. Picture: Michael Gillen
Paul Lawrie was overcome with emotion after hearing Jack Nicklaus pay tribute. Picture: Michael Gillen
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It was one of those moments which serve as a reminder why golf in Scotland should be treated more favourably when it comes to being supported financially, either from the public purse or private money, than just about every other sport.

A tribute from Sir Alex Ferguson may have triggered his emotions, but, more than even that, it was hearing a message from Jack Nicklaus that led Paul Lawrie to, in his own words, “bubbling uncontrollably” as he received a lifetime achievement accolade at last Thursday’s Scottish Sports Awards in Glasgow.

“Paul, you’ve been great for the game of golf, you’ve been great for your country and represented it well,” said the 18-time major winner. “A lifetime achievement award is well deserved. My 
congratulations and good luck to you, my friend.”

Just take a minute to let that sink in. Lawrie, let’s remember, played off five when he turned professional in 1986 – the year Nicklaus capped his major championship career by winning a sixth Masters at the age of 46, the oldest player to triumph at Augusta National.

Not even in his wildest dreams could the Aberdonian have imagined that he’d be standing there just over 30 years later in front of 600 people hearing the game’s greatest player paying tribute to him and, believe me, it wasn’t your normal video message.

Nicklaus was speaking from his heart when he recalled Lawrie’s win in the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. “I remember the play-off and the great 4-iron you hit to the last hole. What a great shot, I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It was something else and I think I mentioned that to you when I saw you shortly after that.”

The “Golden Bear” also made a point of highlighting the tremendous work Lawrie has put in since that life-changing day by putting something back into the sport through his Foundation in the north-east. “The work that you’ve done with your Foundation – mentoring 25,000 kids now in the game of golf – what you have done to help teach people and grow the game 
of golf in your country, I think is 
fantastic,” he added.

No wonder Lawrie was so emotional, moreso than those of us who have had the privilege to cover his career all the way through from an assistant on the Tartan Tour to becoming a major champion, two-time Ryder Cup player and a multiple European Tour winner had ever seen him.

With all due respect to the other award winners at a splendid event, the beauty of golf and, perhaps even more significantly, the capacity for the sport in its birthplace to 
produce a player that can earn such a glowing tribute from a legendary figure like Nicklaus was the 
highlight of the night.

Let’s hope it also delivered a timely reminder about the importance of the game in this country being funded adequately and not being left feeling like poor relations to either England or Ireland. The England Golf Partnership, which involves England Golf and the PGA trying to increase participation from grass-roots to elite level, received a grant of £8.48 million earlier this year, while it recently emerged that 64 clubs in the Republic of Ireland received government support in 2017 totalling £1.76m from a Sports Capital Programme. 
Contrast both those boosts with Scottish Golf having had its funding from SportScotland slashed, contributing to the governing body being faced with cuts unless income can be sourced or an affiliation fee paid by club members is increased, and it really does make you wonder if the sport is treated how it should be in this country.

The likes of swimming, bowls, cricket and, yes, even everyone’s so-called favourite pastime these days, cycling, don’t contribute to Scotland’s economy the way golf does and, try as much as I did, I just couldn’t stop myself thinking this at both the event last Thursday and also when attending the Team Scotland Scottish Sports Awards in Edinburgh earlier in the year.

As that message from Nicklaus showed, Scottish golfers have that capacity to make an impact around the world that only Andy Murray has been capable of achieving through his outstanding achievements on the tennis court so, please, let’s not forget that as the next few decades for the sport in this country are shaped over the coming months.