Paul Lawrie refects on a Major career – and why getting beaten by his son sparked his march to the brink of a Ryder Cup return. Paul Lawrie motions to join him in a quiet corner of the clubhouse bar, sits his soft drink on a table and settles back into a large armchair. As Golf World fumbles with a tape recorder, the 1999 Open Champion adopts the sort of confident pose which says: ‘Come on then, do your worst’. His body language is friendly but purposeful, relaxed but assured.
It wasn’t always this way. Lawrie now appears contented; happy in his own skin and, perhaps more importantly, happy in his own achievements. The Paul Lawrie of 2012 is a different man to the one who won a Major championship in the middle of a period of American dominance, and excelled in a rumbustious Ryder Cup. That’s not merely conjecture – he admits as much himself. Perhaps the swish surroundings are helping to relax Lawrie. We are in the clubhouse at Skibo Castle, to which Lawrie has recently become attached as a result of his long friendship with the exclusive retreat’s director of golf David Thomson.
Thomson, a former Tour player who has transformed Skibo into a linksy championship challenge likely to enter the top-50 of our next GB&I Top-100, coached Lawrie as a youngster. Now 43, Lawrie still lives in Aberdeen – eschewing a move to glamorous Surrey gives one an indication of the man – and has remained in touch with Thomson. An informal chat between the two led to his association with Skibo, and subsequently Lawrie hosting the Pro-Am of his thriving Foundation at the Highland estate a day before his preparations began for the Scottish Open, an hour’s drive south at Castle Stuart.
While the Scottish Open was a surprise low in a season of highs, the following week at Royal Lytham provided further evidence of Lawrie’s remarkable resurgence and a decisive step on the road to a Ryder Cup return, 13 years after his debut at Brookline.
His renaissance is easy to document; in 2012 he won in Qatar, missed just one cut and had six top-10s in 14 starts (up to the Scottish Open). It continues the form of 2011, when he got back in the winner’s circle and finished 18th on the Race to Dubai. These numbers are a long way from 2004, when Lawrie was 140th on the old Order of Merit. The remainder of the decade was better, but not by much; 40th was his best position on the money list.
Pinpointing why this has happened is an altogether more difficult task. Is it a response to being beaten by his 14-year-old son? Is it an emotional tribute to his late coach and great friend? Or is it a cathartic process to prove himself as a seriously top player rather than a one-week Major wonder?
As we discover, there is good reason to suggest it is a mixture of all three. But certainly, losing to young Craig – on dad’s bag for the Scottish Open – was the initial catalyst for Lawrie’s resurgence. “Craig and I played nine holes at Deeside and he was 14 at the time,” Lawrie recalls, now able to do so with a smile on his face. “We teed off at the last and I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on but then realised he was two shots ahead. “I thought ‘this was just ridiculous!’. But, I hadn’t been playing or practising enough, I had put on weight and so on. So all those things combined put me in the position where my son might beat me. I even ended up trying to put him off on the green, which is just terrible! I said ‘you do realise this is to win don’t you?’. He said ‘yep’, knocked it right in the middle and followed it with a fist pump.
“I went home and (wife) Marian asked me what was wrong; she found it funny. But it was what I needed because I hadn’t been doing what I needed to be doing. I hadn’t been putting enough work in. “I was thinking about scaling down playing and even getting involved in some of the Foundation coaching myself. Then he beat me and soon after I did the Ryder Cup commentary and although I enjoyed it, I just thought ‘I’m too young for this yet’. “My late coach Adam (Hunter) and I sat down and had a long chat. He said there was no way I should be winding down. Craig beating me was the start of it.”
The mention of Hunter is a relief. As anyone who has lost someone close to them knows, on some days you want to do nothing more than speak at length about that person; on others you can’t get out a single word. Lawrie is, today at least, pleased to talk about a man who was so much more than someone who looked after his swing.
Hunter, a former Tour player (he won the 1995 Portuguese Open) who coached several Scottish Tour players, passed away in autumn 2011 after a two-year battle with leukaemia. “I think about Adam every day, both when I’m in situations where he would be giving me a bit of a talking to about things I was saying or doing and also from a technical point of view when I need to hit a certain shot,” reveals Lawrie. “I don’t think that will ever change. “I first met him in 1987 so it was a long time to know someone; he was there or thereabouts whether I was on the course or off it. I just wish he was still here. I think about him while I’m standing by my bag looking at a shot thinking ‘what would he tell me?’. He travelled with me for years, as much as a mate as a coach. He’d come on the practice rounds. You go back to courses now and think ‘I remember when he did this and when he suggested that’. I think about him a lot; before and after the shot, but not over the ball.”
Lawrie’s swing is now overseen by Andrew Locke, but it is little more than a routine check once or twice a month. He knows his swing – the one he and Hunter created – well enough to service it almost by himself. “I still work on the things Adam and I were working on before he got ill. So I know myself what it should look like and if shots go offline what I need to do to make it go straighter. “I spoke to Andrew at length when we first started, telling him this is how it would be. He’s been great. I’m sure he might like to change the odd thing but he has got enough respect for Adam to leave it alone. “I believe the reason I am playing better is because I have gone back to the stuff Adam and I did years ago. I’m thinking more rhythm rather than technical, as well as putting bad shots away – I used to be pretty sore on myself after a poor shot.”
Hunter was Lawrie’s coach when he triumphed in The Open in 1999, but even he was unable to shake his man out of the notion his achievement had been underplayed. It is a suggestion with which many sympathise; Lawrie’s win seemed under-appreciated on these shores as well as across the Atlantic. Players with a wider smile and more chic apparel seemed to gain higher profiles and greater acclaim, despite doing little more than win a Tour event.
That said, it is certainly worth noting the manner of Lawrie’s victory did not help his cause, winning in a play-off after Jean Van de Velde butchered the 18th at Carnoustie like no man had done before with a Major in his hands. “Did I get the credit I deserved? Yes and no,” suggests Lawrie with a certainty which indicates it is a question he has thought about long and hard. “At the time and for a short period after I was pretty upset with what little recognition I got. But then he (Van de Velde) had a six to win. He should have won – but he didn’t. I can see that now. “So there’s not an easy answer to that. People would say ‘oh just get on with it, why would you worry about what people think?’ But I’m quite sensitive compared to what people think and say about me. I think everyone wants to be popular and seen as a nice guy. At the time I remember reading a few things which I thought were a bit harsh. Now, I think because we put as much back as we can and see what the Foundation is doing, I would be viewed differently.
Back then, they saw a dour Scotsman, and said ‘who is this guy winning the Open?’” It took a while – well over a decade in fact – but eventually the words of Hunter and wife Marian got through to Lawrie. “Adam used to say to me ‘you’re the only one getting upset by this, no-one else is bothered. If you think you can change people’s opinion of it, you’re having a laugh. Your name is on the Jug, just don’t worry about what people are saying. Get out there and practise and
win tournaments. Then people will give you credit’. “And he was absolutely bang on. But it wasn’t until about 18 months ago that I accepted that. It made me determined to get on another Ryder Cup team. Then people might think ‘this guy can play’. I needed to let my clubs do the talking rather than answering back about not getting the respect I thought I deserved. Adam said it and my wife said it – and those two have normally been right.”
So, if Lawrie got his hands on the Claret Jug again, would he do anything different afterwards? “I’ve got a book coming out at the end of October (with Golf World columnist John Huggan) and I would probably be a bit more open,” he admits. “I’m better with the press now. I wanted back then to keep my life private – but I don’t know where my thinking was with that. And of course the boys are older now; when the kids were little you don’t want people traipsing about your house – Michael was just six months old at the time.
“We were thrown in at the deep end too. I was a good player and all of sudden I won The Open. But if I won it again I would know what to expect.” Two months after being thrust into the spotlight at Carnoustie, Lawrie was again under the microscope, part of an inexperienced European side – a staggering seven players on the team were making their debuts – trying to retain the Ryder Cup at Brookline. But while captain Mark James famously showed modest faith in four of his rookies, he lent heavily on Lawrie. Forming an all-Scottish pairing with Colin Montgomerie, they dovetailed beautifully in losing just one of their four matches together and seeing off Duval, Mickelson and Woods in the process.
Perhaps inevitably, Montgomerie was seen as the stronger partner but those who watched those matches closely will recall that the rookie more than pulled his weight. As if to prove the point, Lawrie then held firm in the anchor match on that infamously explosive Sunday, dismissing Jeff Maggert 4&3 in one of only three European singles wins. “That was not the worst week, because I loved it,” insists Lawrie. “I can’t wait for it to start at Medinah. Some of it was a bit nasty and a bit over the top but we were trying to win and they were trying to win. It was a scrap.
“I won 3.5 points out of five, but it helps when you are playing with the world No.2. Monty was outstanding. It was a huge week and I expected to kick on after that but it never happened. It shows you how easy it is to be hot and cold in sport.” Not even the memory of those stomach-churning nerves could put Lawrie off eagerly seeking a return to the cauldron of the biennial matches in September. When you’ve hit the first shot in the whole match, possibly only a Langer in ’91-style putt could be more frightening.
“I was at a dinner recently and they showed highlights of my career and that 1st tee shot was one of them. They asked me to talk through what I was thinking when I hit it but it’s impossible to remember. I was just shaking, it was frightening. I mean, with the (decisive) 4-iron at Carnoustie I was in total control of that shot and my emotions. I picked the edge of the clock and hit it smooth as you like.
“But that opening tee shot at Brookline, my mind was just blank. I was shaking. I hit it in the rough right but it wasn’t bad. And once we were down the fairway I was fine. It’d be great to do it again. At the time you’re thinking ‘I’m a rookie, let someone else hit it’. Afterwards you’re so glad you did it.”
The Aberdonian is in no doubt that he will be well placed to aid Europe’s cause at Medinah. “It’s easier once you’ve done it and learn from the past experience,” suggests Lawrie, who insists he does not regret his decision to turn down his spot in the US Open to further his Ryder Cup hopes. “If I get in, I will know what to expect – especially with it being
in America, as it was the last time.
“It’s different now though, Sam Torrance and Curtis Strange did a great job of getting it back to how it should be – a game. It was about the golf for them and I don’t think it will get out of hand like Brookline again. You just don’t get ‘bad’ Ryder Cups. I can’t think of a poor one. I mean the quality of golf played is unbelievable. I felt that in ’99; you almost hit shots you don’t feel capable of hitting. It just seems to bring you up to a level you could perform.
“I think it will be close. I don’t think there is a favourite. People forget Celtic Manor could have gone either way. And we were on home soil and they had a pretty weak team on paper by their standards.” In two years’ time, the matches will be played at Gleneagles. The neat scenario would be for a Scotsman to captain Europe in Scotland. If the Tour committee stay true to their preference for selecting someone who still plays on Tour and can empathise with the current players, Lawrie would appear a prime candidate among a growing pool of hopefuls. For the first time in our interview, Lawrie becomes guarded – perhaps understandably. Talking yourself into the Ryder Cup captaincy never works. Not even Monty did so.
We can at least entice him to reflect on James’ policy of not playing four rookies before the singles in ’99. Leading 10-6 after two days, losing the match ultimately meant the tactic failed. So what would Lawrie do? “I’d like to see all the players playing once before the singles – but I can see why they did what they did. I’m not knocking Mark James, we were playing well and winning points; we were 10-6 ahead.
“As a team there were discussions with the likes of Sam and Mark who were hugely experienced players. And the feeling was we should keep going as we were. But I would think it is very difficult to come in with the singles as your first match and win.” At Medinah in September, Europe will need cool heads and spirited hearts. A morning in the newlycontented
company of Paul Lawrie – a man who has lost and won on many different levels – suggests he is exactly the sort of character Jose Maria Olazabal will be pleased to be able to rely on.