AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Roger Chapman's 2012 Senior Season
The last Thursday in July, Roger Chapman was playing the Senior Open in the silvery light of Turnberry, a dream locale if there ever was one. The day was one of those Scottish summer interludes on the western coast when the breeze turns gentle and the sun comes out. Off in the distance shimmered Ailsa Craig, dreamlike, a metaphor for the unattainable, and in his immediate vision were playing partners, Tom Watson and Greg Norman, living metaphors for the attainableness of golfing perfection – at least for one storied moment on that course, a course Chapman had first played as a callow 18-year-old amateur in the ’77 Open.
All of this Chapman saw with new eyes as a multiple major champion. But when he closed his eyes, he saw the shores of Michigan.
He saw the cottonwood blossoms wafting through the air on a May evening, sunlit, virtually glowing, like a legion of golfing fairies taken wing, as he held aloft the Senior PGA Championship trophy at Harbor Shores near Lake Michigan.
And he saw the victory proceedings happen all over again seven weeks later on the other side of the state as he bookended his Michigan experience with the US Senior Open trophy, this time his wife present, watching with shining eyes as he dedicated the win to her and their boys.
Who can blame the 53-year-old self-described journeyman for shaking his head a bit? Roger Chapman is living a dream these days, a dream decades deferred.
For a quarter-century he laboured in relative obscurity on the European Tour. His winning percentage was .00165, or once in 606 starts.
But the Senior Tour has given him a second chance at the type of golfing career he was supposed to have, predicted to have. Now, with his first two victories on that tour, Chapman has joined Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Hale Irwin as the only men to have won the Senior PGA and the US Senior Open – the two biggest American prizes – in the same year. He ranks first on the Senior Order of Merit. His stroke average is 69.55. He owns as many senior majors as Bernhard Langer, the man he chased down for the US Senior Open title, and Freddie Couples, who added his second in some style at Turnberry. After jabbing at the button for so long, wondering when the doors would open, Chapman stepped on to the elevator, and the elevator is going up.
“It’s been a huge and fast rise,” he said after the US Senior. “To be in the company of such great golfers is a huge, huge honour.”
It’s a short distance but a long way from where he was five years ago, parked in a golf buggy outside the ropes as a rules official. Besides the serious hardware he has got his hands on, plus the considerable dough, he has hobnobbed with Gary Player at a pretournament gala at Turnberry and received not one but two letters from the king, Arnold Palmer. Tony Jacklin, the reigning godfather of English golf, took him aside as they played the second round of the Senior Players Championship in Pittsburgh at the end of June to tell him, basically, that he was every bit as good as any of the Americans. There is back-slapping at his local pub and leg-pulling from his fellow pros. His Twitter has gone mad. Vicky Cumming at IMG has been hired to field endorsement offers for him. NBC’s lead television analyst, Johnny Miller, a notorious nitpicker, can’t say enough about his swing, his shotmaking, his grit, even the stillness of his head (search Youtube for a terrific film clip and analysis from America’s foremost TV analyst).
So where is Roger Chapman’s head these days? Steady as it goes. He acknowledged going off the boil a bit after Harbor Shores, but he soon got used to the status of being a senior major winner, and even before the US Senior Open began he liked his chances. Having toppled that barrier twice now, Chapman is possessed of assurance.
“People said, ‘I told you you could do it’; I just didn’t believe it,” he says. He now does. Belief has seeped into his skin, filled out his frame.
“My wife’s noticed that on the golf course I’m standing taller, walking taller. She says I’ve got the air of somebody that’s got confidence and belief, and that’s what I feel,” he says, adding that his general frame of mind is “totally, totally different”.
A telling indication of Chapman’s newfound confidence came in a remark he made to the press after having to withdraw from the Senior Open at Turnberry after a first-round 72 because of a crick in his neck, eliminating his chance at a record-tying third major in one year: “I’m just so disappointed because history beckoned, and I would love to have equalled Gary Player’s record, and I felt like I could have done well around here.”
Chapman’s stunning breakthrough did not go unnoticed in internet forums; on one board, amateurs who had played with him discussed the Roger Chapman of 30 years earlier. One recalled that Chapman came down to Australia in 1980, performed brilliantly and won a few big events there. Great-looking swing, hit the ball high, incredible with the long irons. A star in the making, everyone thought, but “the rap on him was, he would get down on himself, refusing to accept the imperfections in his game – as if he was the only one who made mistakes”.
Another on the board was caddying at the 1985 Ebel European Masters Swiss Open at Crans-Montana when a buzz went round the course that Chapman had just fired an opening 61, jetting to a five-shot lead. He managed to hold on til about the 15th hole on Sunday – “then he wilted and was charged down by Craig Stadler,” the man said.
That, in a nutshell, has been the story of Chapman’s life as a professional golfer – which he readily acknowledges. Good bloke, possessed of immense talent, but somehow never quite got it done during crunch time. He had failed to close the deal so many times in his career he’d lost count, finishing runner-up on “15 or 16” occasions in tournaments around the world, he said, and only winning once on the European Tour, in South America a dozen years ago. That script was all set to play out again in May at Harbor Shores, except this time Chapman found the fortitude to hang on.
When Chapman’s name went up on the leaderboard at the Senior PGA in Benton Harbor, few fans in America had heard of him. Having barely missed getting his card for the Champions Tour in late 2010, he won all of ₤5,000 in the States last year.
At the daily press conferences that week, he charmed the assembled scribes with his graciousness and easy sense of humour. With a Norwegian detective novel titled Phantom as his companion (his wife, Cathy, had stayed in England), he had superstitiously dined alone each night of the tournament at the Grande Mere Inn in Stevensville, just down the road from his hotel, shunning an invitation from pals Bobby Clampett and David Frost that Saturday evening because he was on a roll and didn’t want to disturb the fairy dust that had steadily been accumulating on his shoulders during rounds of 68, 67, and 64.
Somehow, playing the 6,800-yard, par-71 Nicklaus design at Harbor Shores, just off Lake Michigan, Chapman dusted the best senior golfers in the world. He led at one point in the final round by nine shots, faltered a bit with three bogeys over the last five holes for a one-over-par 72, but still had a cushion to win comfortably by two over John Cook with a 13- under total of 271. The victory earned him ₤240,000, nearly as much as he’d won in 41 starts over three seasons on the European Senior Tour. More important than the money was the validation.
After Chapman tapped in on 18, Frost gave him a good dousing with champagne and thrust the bottle in his hands. Clampett urged “Drink it!” and he complied, taking a big swig from the magnum as the three friends embraced, celebrating an emotional win. Rarely had Chapman ever taken a full draught of victory before.
Such a scene seemed wildly improbable only days before. Chapman had not struck the ball well during a Tuesday practice session on the back nine, so he sought out his coach, Gavin Christie. He used to hit the ball very high but has lately been working with Christie on “getting a bit of lag in the golf swing and getting more compression on the ball,” to hit it on a lower trajectory for a more penetrating flight in the wind. Things clicked after the Tuesday range session.
“It just got progressively better,” he said on Sunday, following the victory. “Thursday and Friday I felt totally in control. And then the 64 yesterday was quite easy to do, because everything went so well. You can have a 69 and you can work really hard for that. But I felt that the 64 just came very easily.”
Saturday, his spectacular iron play on the back nine, where he shot 30 and stuck three approach shots inside of three feet, had caused spectators to marvel, exclaiming “He’s on fire!” and “He’s a machine!” But the next day Chapman hardly felt like an automaton: as he walked around the course, he kept dwelling on the memory of club pro George Will, the mentor who took him under his tutelage when Chapman was 13, counselled him for 38 years, and died two Decembers ago, aged 73.
“I was thinking of George all the way around, what he would be thinking, and just lost my focus a bit,” he said. “But I hung in there, and fortunately I could bogey the last two to still win.”
Chapman’s name went on the 40-inch-high, 30- pound sterling silver loving cup known as the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy, underneath those others that have been engraved on it since 1937: Sarazen and Snead and Palmer and Player and Nicklaus and Watson and so many other greats. He shook his head at the thought of it, calling it “weird” – a word derived from the Old English wyrd, fate. He is the first European to win the championship since Scotland’s Jock Hutchison – like George Will, a Fife man – did it for the second time in 1947 at age 62.
The US Senior Open was held in mid-July at Indianwood Golf and Country Club in Lake Orion, Michigan – a course designed for the Detroit elite by Englishman Wilfrid Reid in 1925 with “humps and hillocks and wispy grass,” as Chapman said, to mimic a links track. Chapman felt right at home in the Scottish surroundings. After a “nervy” start in which he double-bogeyed the fourth hole (he had doubled the opening hole of the Senior PGA), he settled down, firing 68-68-68-66 and overcoming Langer’s four-shot lead at the start of Sunday. “What a brilliant performance,” Tom Lehman said of his 66 on a day in which the wind kicked up and the greens dried out. However, when Chapman bogeyed 16, things seemed in doubt.
Fred Funk, Lehman, and Corey Pavin lurked one shot back. This was the moment when, in the past, it might have crumbled. In 1998, Chapman had been quoted in The Independent as saying: “I don’t think I’ve been frightened to win, but I’ve not had the killer punch. The great players produce a fantastic shot when needed.” And so he did. From 202 yards, he held a 5-iron shot into the wind, and it was dead on line. “I was just feeling confident,” he says. “I went straight at the flag, and it pitched just perfectly on a little upslope. As we were walking off the tee, you could just see it roll up the tier, and you could hear the crowd go, ‘Oooh!’”
The ball stopped six inches from the hole. The killer punch. Corey Pavin offered a high five; a classy touch. Chapman tapped in for birdie, parred the last, accepted the $320,000 cheque, and grasped the Francis D. Ouimet Memorial Trophy with both hands, the first Briton to win the tournament. “I have to say,” he told the press, “that was my best shot ever played.”
Chapman, who makes his home in Ascot, Berkshire, with wife Cathy and sons C.J. (Christopher James), 24, and Tom (named for Watson), 21, was born in Nakuru, Kenya, in 1959. His father, an agronomist who had gone to Kenya with the British Ministry of Agriculture, took a post in Trinidad when Chapman was a year old, then in 1964 returned to England, where Chapman and his younger brother grew up in Kent. At 10, he began caddying for his father on Saturdays at the local club, Faversham, and soon asked to try the game, but his father replied: “Nope, there’s no future in it.”
However, that Christmas he found a half-set of ladies’ John Letters irons under the tree. A couple of years later, a chance conversation with Chapman’s father at a dinner party about his son’s golfing aspirations led to George Will’s asking to take a look at young Chapman. Roger, then 13 and possessing a single- figure handicap, rode his bike to Will’s club, Sundridge Park in Bromley, where the two played a round of golf, and afterward Will said he would take him on as a pupil.
“He was always there at the end of the phone,” Chapman said after the Senior PGA, “so when he passed away in 2010 it was like losing your best friend, really. He was like a second father to me, and if I hadn’t met him I don’t think I would be sitting here right now.”
Chapman’s double feat seems all the more unlikely given that his last top 10 finish on the European circuit came in 2004. For his last year with more than one top-10 finish on that tour, you have to go back to 1997.
Needing a break, he quit the tour at the end of 2005 and tried to line up company golf days. When invitations proved scarce, he agreed to become a European Senior Tour rules official. He enjoyed doing course set-up of tees and pins early in the mornings, learned a lot, but the job’s sedentariness whetted his appetite for competition again.
“Very boring sitting on a buggy for 13 hours a day,” he says. “And to watch from outside the ropes all your mates playing inside the ropes was hard to take.” The three years crawled by. He became eligible for the European Senior Tour in 2009. There, in December 2010, just a week after his mentor died, Chapman fired a final-round 65 in the Mauritius Commercial Bank Open and came from four back to take the lead, only to watch Frost eagle the final hole and force a playoff, which Frost won. This year, in the only European Senior Tour event that had been played through mid-May, the Mallorca Open, he finished 16th. That was his lone tournament action of 2012 before arriving at Harbor Shores.
A mediocre career was not supposed to be in the offing when Chapman came out of the gate on the European Tour in 1982: he was expected to win, and win soon. He had compiled an impressive amateur record, at age 20 routing his opponent, Andrew Carman, in the English Amateur Championship by 6&5 in the 36-hole final, and two years later beating 1980 US Amateur champ Hal Sutton twice in one day at Cypress Point in the 1981 Walker Cup.
But winning as a pro took 19 years. Chapman became known on the European Tour as something of an also-ran. His best finish on the Order of Merit was 17th in 1988. A column by Tim Glover ten years later in The Independent carried the headline, “Chapman, the very nearly man.” Glover recounted how Chapman had hired a golf shrink (sports psychologist Chris Linstead) to help him acquire a more positive mindset.
Linstead’s unorthodox methods included having his clients read from a newspaper out loud, enunciating the words while wearing headphones blaring awful music in order to develop the ability to shut out distracting noises.
Talking with Linstead regularly on the phone and rifling through a Filofax of motivational words seemed to pay dividends at first, as Chapman in 1997 recorded five top-10s, including a second in Morocco and a third in the Dutch Open. But that was to be his last season with more than one top-10. His sole win, which finally came in 2000 in the Brazil Rio de Janeiro 500 Years Open after a playoff with Padraig Harrington (Chapman shot a final-round 65, coming from five off the lead), occurred in his 472nd tour start. Over the next nine years, he would go on to amass 146 more without a repeat.
Assessing his European career in the press conference following his Senior PGA win, the Bourne Trophy by his side, Chapman gave it a B-minus.
“There were tournaments I should have closed out,” he said, “and I think not winning early in my career – and I was expected to win early in my career – had a negative effect on the way I played and on how things happened. I would let leads slip, et cetera. So this week, having led from wire to wire, that to me is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
He grew a touch emotional speaking of Will, the fluid-swinging Scot from the village of Ladybank, Fife, who overcame a serious illness to win the Scottish Boys’ Championship in 1955, the British Youths’ Championship in 1957, and the Army Championship twice during National Service. Will was a Ryder Cupper in 1963, ’65, and ’67, winning two of his opening matches, halving the third, and besting Arnold Palmer twice in the process.
“I just owe everything to him,” Chapman said. “He was an incredible guy. I wanted to turn pro at 16 and he said: ‘No, you’re not going to be a shop boy, a shop assistant.’” He made Chapman wait until he had reached the pinnacle of the amateur game. “Now,” he said after the Walker Cup, “you can turn pro.”
“He had the belief in me to work with me and never took a penny for a lesson,” Chapman said. “It was all for free. Not one penny. I bought him the odd glass of wine though – case of wine. He did like his red wine,” he added, to laughter in the press corps. Let’s hope that, somewhere, Will, the big, warmhearted Scot, is raising a glass to Chapman, whose remarkable American double stands as a vintage long in the making, but a vintage all the sweeter for having been so.