THEY’LL be chatting a lot this week at Celtic Manor, both before and during the upcoming Wales Open. Stephen Gallacher and Paul Lawrie that is – Scotland’s newest Ryder Cup player and our most recent. One with lots of first-hand knowledge of what lies ahead at Gleneagles in less than two weeks’ time, the other seeking to tap into that experience as he prepares for the biggest, most exciting and most stressful event in his professional career.
All of which makes one wonder anew about the omission of Lawrie from the quintet of assistants enlisted to aid Europe’s skipper Paul McGinley. It really is difficult to follow the thinking behind the Irishman’s decision. That a man who lives only 90 minutes from the venue, who played with some distinction on the previous team and who has won on the host course is somehow deemed outside the top-five is strange indeed.
Perhaps even more importantly – given that Gallacher is the only Scot in the Old World side that will defend the trophy against Tom Watson’s band of colonials – it is inevitable, especially in the lead-up to the matches, that the 39-year-old Bathgate native will be the focus of more media attention than even world No.1, Rory McIlroy. In such a pressure-filled situation, the likeable Gallacher will likely need a close friend to talk to, a direct contemporary who knows and understands exactly what he is going through. At least in that respect, the absence of 1999 Open champion Lawrie from the backroom team is one McGinley may come to regret.
Still, none of the above will prevent Lawrie from doing all he can to help Gallacher, a close friend.
“When Stephen gets to the Ryder Cup his confidence will be high after playing so well throughout this year,” says the 45-year-old Aberdonian. “And he will have had a couple of weeks off to relax and take it all in before Wales gives him a nice warm-up before Gleneagles. So that’s all good.
“But take it from me, he’s never faced anything like this before. This is new territory even for someone with his experience and personality. He’s a great lad – funny and able to hide some of the tension he will be feeling. It will help too that his technique is so sound – few hit the ball better than Stephen – and his putting has been much improved this year. So that’s all good.
“Having said all that, though, this is all new to him. Which is why he has asked me to sit down with him in Wales. I’ll be telling him not to worry about how nervous or scared he might be feeling, that’s normal. Everyone feels that way. He won’t be the only guy wondering: ‘Can I do this?’ I’m confident he will find a way to get through it all and produce some lovely golf. In fact, I think he will surprise himself by how well he will play. But right now he needs some help to get there.”
Quite so. That there are three levels of pressure in professional golf – “tournament pressure, major championship pressure and Ryder Cup pressure” – has become something of a cliché for a reason – it is true.
“No matter how big Stephen thinks the Ryder Cup is, he will be amazed by the scale of everything,” continues Lawrie, who has represented Europe on two occasions – at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1999 and again at Medinah, Illinois two years ago. “He’s played in the majors and the World Golf Championships, but nothing is even close to a Ryder Cup. Especially in Scotland, the noise and atmosphere will be amazing. It’s a phenomenal week.
“Stephen had a two-year plan in place to make this team. It is something he has always wanted to do. He has always wanted his picture up on the wall at Bathgate Golf Club alongside Uncle Bernard. So the walk on to the first tee will be amazing. That’s a lot on his shoulders. He’s capable of handling it. He has a lot of experience and has played a long time. I just hope he plays really, really, really well. But it won’t be easy. There is so much pressure.”
But that is all to come. What of now and the more immediate future? What is likely to be going through Gallacher’s head as the build-up to a week from Friday gathers pace?
“There is an inevitable letdown after you make the team,” admits Lawrie. “I felt that last time. I had really set my sights on playing for a second time. I was gutted that I had played only once. So it meant a lot, especially after my coach, Adam Hunter, passed away. He and I had a long chat in the hospital about the Ryder Cup. He made me promise to do everything and anything I could to get into that team. So it was very emotional for me when I did.
“I worked so hard to make it to Medinah and, when I did arrive, I felt a little bit of a dip. I wasn’t putting great and I lost my first two matches. All of a sudden and after two solid years of effort, I wasn’t enjoying myself. It can go that way. So Stephen needs to be aware of that too. One thing that will help will be the lift he will get from the crowd. That will be magical for him.
“It’s a fact that no one cares how well you play if you lose. Last time no one seemed interested that I was four under par on my own ball in the four-ball match I lost with Peter Hanson on the opening day. Everyone assumed I played badly. But you can only do your best, another thing Stephen needs to realise going in. He has plenty of experience in match play so he will know that already.”
Off the course, Gallacher will have much to deal with too, not least the dynamics and interactions within the team room
“Last time, the group at the top of the team – Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell – knew what was going on as far as who was playing and who wasn’t,” reveals Lawrie. “But the rest of us didn’t really. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not, or if Paul McGinley will operate that way. But dealing with being left out can be difficult. Everyone wants to play every match. I see Stephen as a more of a four-ball player than foursomes. But he could play with anyone I think.
“Still, the team room can be tricky for the new players. And this time will be no different. There will be some big characters in there. Last time I held back and didn’t say much. That’s me. I don’t like to stick my hand up too much. I didn’t offer advice until I was asked. I left that to the likes of Ian Poulter, Westwood and Luke Donald. They all said a lot.
“I imagine Stephen will be more like me. He’ll soak it all in. He’ll have his opinions when asked, but I can’t see him offering any unprompted. There are guys in there to fill that role. But Stephen is such a great lad he will get on with everyone. He likes having people around him at tournaments. It’s important though that he sticks to his normal routine as much as possible. That’s not easy, but it really helps if you can just do what you normally do to prepare. I remember back in 1997 Seve Ballesteros banned Ian Woosnam from having a couple of pints in the evening. That was madness as that is what Woosie was and is used to doing. So routine is important.”
Whatever the internal politics, what really matters is what happens on the course. And there Lawrie has no doubts about his pal’s abilities. The pair played together four times for Great Britain & Ireland against the Continent at last year’s Seve Trophy in France, so he has seen up close the strengths and weaknesses of the Gallacher game.
“Stephen is a phenomenal ball striker,” points out Lawrie. “Tee-to-green he is as good as anyone. At times, he blows me away with how gifted he is. He has often struggled with the putter though. But at the Seve Trophy he holed out well. That is what he will need to do at Gleneagles. In match play it’s amazing how many five-six foot putts you have to make. He’s good at that now.
“Plus, what Stephen has going for him at Gleneagles – a course he likes and one where he has recorded seven top-ten finishes since 2001 – is how far he hits his irons. He is two clubs longer than me. That’s a big advantage. Going in with a 7-iron instead of a 5-iron is huge. So the course could be his biggest asset.”
Maybe. But a little help from a friend won’t have hurt either.