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 At the 19th

It could have been so different
Thwarted first in his ambitions to be a professional footballer, the author also found golfing expertise beyond him. The shame is he feels he would have what it takes mentally – or, of course, he’s mental

As a six-year-old with a sweet right foot, boundless energy and my own boots, I was confident that, barring injury, I would not only play football for England but quite likely captain the side to World Cup glory. Doubts began to seep in when I reached my early 20s and was still marooned in the 2nd XI of a Sunday morning park side. My chance to break into the big time came when Reg, the right back in the first team, strained his groin. The injury occurred, incidentally, when he fell off the centre half’s shoulders while attaching the net to the crossbar before the kick-off (in those days and at our level, a full-back’s duties extended well beyond simply marking the opposing winger. It was, perhaps, an earlier example of multi-tasking).

For three consecutive Sundays I scoured the touchline vainly hoping to spot a Tottenham scout looking to bolster the Spurs’ defence. But the phone call that would have opened the road to White Hart Lane and change my life forever never came. After being relegated back to the second XI, I reluctantly had to accept the harsh reality that my chances of playing for Spurs, let alone England, were diminishing more rapidly than the queue of sponsors eager to sign up Tiger Woods (more of which later).

But the irresistible appeal of sporting glory remained and, coincidentally, it was Reg who introduced me to golf. The two of us, plus a centre forward and left half, would sit in Reg’s Triumph Herald listening to Radio Caroline as dawn broke over Richmond Park golf course. Nearly six hours after teeing off, we would be back in the garden shed of a clubhouse, sipping tea, munching Digestives and dreaming of winning the Open.

I didn’t reckon much to the chances of any of the other three lifting the claret jug because they were rubbish. To be brutally honest, if you can’t break 100 around Richmond Park on a calm day off the forward tees then Carnoustie’s probably not for you. I, on the other hand, despite only owning a half-set of Petron Impalas, not only held our fourball’s course record (89) but was also clearly the only one with the genuine potential to become world No 1. Because golfers don’t peak until they’re in their 30s, time was still very much on my side.

Believing that I would only reach the top if I dedicated myself to the game much as Ben Hogan had, I went to the driving range at least once a month and frequently bashed my way through not one but two buckets of balls. Although I stopped some way short of practising until my hands bled, nasty sore bits would appear on my palms which, if I hadn’t been so careful, might easily have developed into full-blown blisters.

Not unsurprisingly, my handicap tumbled rapidly from 18 to 14 in just under two-and-a-half years. I was on target to reach single figures by the age of 30 and scratch about five years later. With top golfers still seriously competitive at the highest level until well into their 40s, I reckoned I would have about10 years in which to capture a few European Tour titles, a sprinkling of majors and put in a Ryder Cup appearance or two.

Unfortunately, after plunging to 14, my handicap appeared to hit something of a wall. Indeed, it briefly bounced back to 15 after a particularly depressing run of disappointing rounds. Despite reassuring myself that even the greatest players suffer an occasional dip in form, I struggled to recapture the magic that had been evident earlier when I was regularly finishing in the top-20 of the monthly midweek stablefords. Despite the setbacks, I remained very strong mentally; only my golf was falling apart. And this leads me seamlessly (and eventually) on to the main thrust of this piece. What a pity that so many great sportsmen and women, of whom Tiger Woods is the latest example, have the talent to achieve fame and fortune but are incapable of handling it properly.

And then there’s me, who could cope with both the adulation and megabucks that goes with stardom but doesn’t appear to have the talent with which to achieve it. What a terribly cruel irony that is. Even if I had made it to the top, I wouldn’t have changed very much. With perhaps one or two notable exceptions, I would have remained close to most of my friends. Apart perhaps from my own designated space at the favoured locker-room end of the Dale Hill Golf Club car park, free balls on the driving range and priority access to the practice bunker, I wouldn’t have expected to be treated any differently from any other legend.

Given my background, again with one or two notable exceptions, I would have been more than accommodating to the world’s media and would happily have chatted to journalists. And, finally, I would have continued to write this column. Inevitably the fee would have had to have been renegotiated but that, of course, would have been dealt with by my agent. Ah well.

March 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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