Scots staying home on range

SOMEWHERE around 30 years ago it became the thing to do for every promising young British golfer. While it might be wrong to say that Nick Faldo started the trend, there is no doubt that, when he took himself off to the University of Houston on a golf scholarship, the future Open champion was one of the first Britons to avail himself of what was seen at the time as the ideal way to prepare for a career in professional golf.

At least from 3,000 miles away, the opportunity to play and practise every day in lovely weather, before waltzing off to a weekly tournament, seemed like golfing heaven. The reality, of course, was somewhat different, as Faldo soon discovered. Frustrated by what he saw as the inconvenience of morning classes, the lack of formal coaching and a shortage of practice time, the Englishman was home within weeks.

Years later, a similar fate befell another future star of European golf, Darren Clarke, who attended Wake Forest. "I saw it as the perfect way to get ready for pro life," confirms the burly Ulsterman. "Eoghan O'Connell, a good friend of mine, was already there. I went over and had a look, then came back in the January. I was red-shirted the first semester, and that was fine. So I played away and had a good time.

"After the summer break, I came back and played well enough to make the team. Yet the coach chose not to pick me. That happened two weeks in row. So we had a discussion that turned into a heated debate, and I left the next day."

On the other hand, of course, the American college experience has worked more than well for others over the years. European Ryder Cup stars Paul Casey and Luke Donald and Solheim Cup players Janice Moodie and Mhairi McKay are just four recent examples of how much a four-year stint in the US can do for a young foreigner's game prior to turning professional.

Still, for long enough there was no alternative for golfers of promise in Great Britain & Ireland. Universities at home were academic establishments first and last, with sporting endeavours squeezed into whatever down time was available amid hours of study. Happily, things have changed markedly over the past 20 years or so.

Today, working towards a legitimate degree while simultaneously competing at the highest levels of amateur golf is on offer at as many as a dozen leading British universities.

One who came through such a system is another Solheim Cup stalwart, Catriona Matthew. The Scot, now 36, is returning to tournament play this week after a maternity break. She has a degree in accountancy from Stirling, gained at a time when the North Berwick native was busy winning three Scottish Ladies' Championships, a British title and making three appearances for GB&I in the Curtis Cup.

"I decided to go to Stirling for two reasons. Firstly, it would provide me with a reputable degree that I could use if circumstances dictated, and secondly, it was one of only a couple of universities in Britain offering golf scholarships at the time."

More recently, another to benefit from the Stirling regime is US Amateur champion Richie Ramsay who, like so many others, tried and rejected college life in the US before settling down at home.

"Going to America slowed me down as a golfer. I know a lot of the universities out there are great, and I have seen a lot of guys do well over there, but for me as an individual it wasn't right. I went to the McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, from August 2001 to May 2002, straight from school really. I went there because I thought I wanted to play all year round and escape the Scottish winter.

"My golf did improve a little at first, if only because I was able to practise my short game as much as I wanted. But my swing got worse from a technical standpoint. All I was doing was ingraining problems because there was no swing coach there to help me out."

What has made it possible for such as Ramsay and Matthew, and others like current Walker Cup captain and former Scottish Amateur champion Colin Dalgleish, successfully to combine golf and serious academic life is the largesse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. Indeed, Ramsay is but one of as many as 64 young men and women receiving bursary funding - which will be in excess of 300,000 this year - from golf's ruling body.

For all that, the existence of such a sizeable pot of gold remains something of which not enough talented youngsters are aware. Needless to say, the R&A are keen to rectify that situation.

"We don't think our universities should try to compete with the NCAA in the States, but the message that there is a viable alternative in this country should be conveyed to the talented boy and girl golfers, who want to combine golf with a university education," says Duncan Weir, the R&A's director of golf development, who is a graduate of William and Mary University in Virginia. "For those attending universities, receiving financial assistance from the R&A, unrestricted access to their regular coaches and the opportunity to play a full amateur season, must hold some appeal."

Changed days indeed.