May 31, 2007

Trophy Strife

Winning the claret jug and the 'Van de Velde Open' changed Paul Lawrie's life—and not always for the good

Hardware heaven: Lawrie poses at the Aberdeen Football Club with two grand prizes—his team's 1983 European Cup trophy and his claret jug from 1999.

Hardware heaven: Lawrie poses at the Aberdeen Football Club with two grand prizes—his team's 1983 European Cup trophy and his claret jug from 1999.

The obvious irony—and the root of his problem—is that hardly anyone remembers who finished first. Mention "Carnoustie 1999" to any golf fan and the image that surely comes to mind is of the eventual runner-up in that endlessly controversial British Open, a goofy-looking Frenchman standing knee-deep in the Barry Burn with his trousers rolled up. Few think of the tall, dark-haired Scot who, about two hours earlier, had completed a startling four-under-par round of 67 over what many regard as the world's toughest course.

Not that anyone can really be blamed for such an oversight. For one thing, as Jean Van de Velde hacked, waded and clowned his way through his unforgettable Inspector Clouseau/Jacques Cousteau routine, the soon-to-be "champion golfer of the year," Paul Lawrie, was quietly and unobtrusively hitting balls on the range in preparation for the four-hole playoff that would change his life forever.

Which it did, but not always in ways you would expect. With the trappings of unlikely major success have come an ambivalence and resentment only multiplied by the inevitably greater scrutiny and questioning of Lawrie's every move—or non-move in the case of his unwillingness to embrace the PGA Tour after a victory most felt belonged to the other guy.

"There is no doubt that Van de Velde gave it away," says former Portuguese Open champion Adam Hunter, Lawrie's coach from 1998 until their split last month. "Or that he was unlucky. But that is not Paul's fault. And it doesn't make Paul lucky either. He went out and took his chance. I kept telling him to look at the claret jug on his mantelpiece and just smile. They can't take it away from him.

"He's never said this to me, but, deep down, maybe he feels he didn't deserve to win an Open," Hunter says. "Maybe that's why he is torturing himself with it. Who knows? It's easy to say he should enjoy it more, but he has to allow himself to do it."

Strong words for sure, but there are two distinct sides to this tale. Hunter speaks only of the on-course Lawrie, the man who has not won since 2002 and only twice since becoming Open champion and has slumped as low as 270th in the world. The former coach does not bring up the happily married father-of-two whose home life and relationship with his local community is something of a model for all professional golfers.

Still, for all his sense of well-being away from the links, Lawrie is straight enough to admit the veracity of Hunter's words. Up to a point at least. "If I am honest, I'd rather have won the Open by making a great par up the last," he concedes. "But I didn't and nothing is ever perfect. I tried to change it for a long time. And it upset me for a long time that I didn't seem to be getting the recognition I felt I deserved. But I eventually realized I couldn't change what people thought.

"So I've learned to put up with it, even if it is a bit galling to pick up a golf magazine and see photos of Jean in the Barry Burn. It used to really bother me," says Lawrie. "But I'm over that now—I think."

So, publicly at least, Lawrie has given up the battle for the hearts and minds of Van de Velde's vast legion of sympathizers. Which is probably for the best. Given the direction his career has been headed the last couple of years—down—he would be better employed focusing on his game. In at least one respect, he is back where he started.

With his five-year exemption into the other major championships well past its sell-by date and an ultimately abortive attempt to assimilate into life on the PGA Tour long over, the now 38-year-old from Aberdeen, the "Granite City" on Scotland's northeast coast, will make the one-hour drive south to Carnoustie for this month's Open ranked well outside the world's top 100 players— just as he did and was back in 1999.

Materially, things are different this time around for Lawrie and his family, wife Marian and sons Craig (12) and Michael (8). From the beautiful home they live in (bought from a former sponsor right after the Open win) to the various and expensive cars they drive, the Lawries exude a quiet affluence the head of the household can only have dreamed of when, as an impecunious 17-year-old with a handicap of 5, he turned pro on April 1, 1986.

Before that Lawrie was an avid footballer as a child, only discovering golf in his midteens. Once he did, though, there was time for little else in his life. The enviably crisp short game that gives him his nickname on tour, "Chippie," was honed lobbing ball after ball into the gravel-filled circle beneath the rotating clothesline—a "whirlie" in local parlance—on which his mother hung the family laundry to dry. And the swing that would win a major championship was grooved hitting shots into the overgrown field behind the Lawrie abode.

Ironically, that field is today a driving range, part of the Pine Lodge Golf Centre, although Lawrie's boyhood home remains untouched—as does the whirlie—just off to the right of the practice bays.

"Before we opened, we had to landscape the field that would become the range," explains owner and professional, Mark Lees. "In doing so we found somewhere in the region of 3,000 balls, all of them hit by Paul."

Today, Lawrie is still an occasional visitor to what is now the Lees' place, the walls of the professional's shop liberally sprinkled with photographs of the man who grew up literally next-door. His presence, both pictorially and physically, is but one example of the many ways in which he has embraced the people of Aberdeen. Among his fellow "loons" (local slang for, well, a local), Lawrie has never been slow to use his celebrity for the common good.

As well as sponsoring the Paul Lawrie Junior Golf Program of coaching sessions and tournaments—"we host between 4,000 and 5,000 kids every summer"—Lawrie puts his own money into an event for young professionals on Scotland's Tartan Tour and, only months after his Open victory, spent a full day in Aberdeen with one of the two claret jugs he owns, posing for pictures with anyone who wanted one. Hundreds did.

And his fellow citizens have responded in kind. At the Banchory GC where he first worked as a lowly assistant and where he passed all the exams required to be a club pro (on his first day, head pro, the late Doug Smart, introduced Lawrie to a vacuum cleaner with the line: "Meet your new best friend for the next four years") the 14th hole is named "Paul Lawrie." Then there is the honorary doctorate he received from the local Robert Gordon University and the honorary memberships he holds at as many as a dozen local golf clubs.

So it is a mutually beneficial relationship, one that Lawrie obviously relishes. Spend even a dreich Caledonian day in his company all over his native city and it is relentlessly obvious how comfortable he is in such familiar surroundings. Recognized everywhere he goes, the five-time European Tour winner has a word and a smile for everyone from the officials at his beloved Aberdeen Football Club (where he is a season ticketholder) to the most anonymous passer-by.

Lawrie, in fact, revels in every interaction with his fellow citizens. A few months ago he stopped for gas at a filling station. One day earlier the last European to win a major championship had been third with two holes to play in the Estoril Open de Portugal—"it was the best ball-striking week of my career, but my putting was awful"—before a disastrous triple bogey-double bogey finish saw him plummet into a tie for 25th place.

As Lawrie was finishing up at his car, the garage owner spotted his famous customer. "Fit a royal cock-up that wiz, mun," he yelled across the forecourt in the broad and often unintelligible local accent. ("What a mess that was, mate.") "Fit wir ye daying? That must hay cost ye a few shilling." ("What were you doing? That must have cost you a bit of cash.") Lawrie could only laugh. "I can't get that sort of friendly abuse anywhere other than Aberdeen," he says. "I was pleased that a stranger felt able to speak to me like that. He clearly knows that I'm just the same as him, a proud Aberdonian.

"In fact, living somewhere else isn't an option," Lawrie says. "I love living in Aberdeen. I love the people. It's a beautiful city.

"I can honestly say that living in America never crossed my mind. My wife is also from Aberdeen, and we wanted the boys to be brought up and educated here. It's not that I dislike other places. Some would make my working life easier. But I'd rather put up with the hassle of the shuttle from London on a Sunday night than have my wife and kids somewhere they didn't really want to be."

Still, former European No. 1 Ronan Rafferty is just one who feels that Lawrie's career has been held back by his unwillingness to make a home somewhere other than a spot hardly known for the balminess of its climate.

"I don't think staying in Aberdeen has hurt my game," declares Lawrie, defensively. "I won the Open living in Aberdeen, so why would I move? You can't get any better than winning a major can you? So moving to a warmer country to play and practice more; I don't see how that would have made me better.

"When I joined the PGA Tour at the beginning of 2000, I did so to improve my World Ranking—they have more points—but also to play both tours," he adds. "We all sat down, my manager, my wife, my coach, and decided I was going to be a worldwide player. Wherever the top players were playing, I was going to be there. I was going to be like Ernie Els. I was never going to be just a PGA Tour player.

"Very early on I knew America was not for me," says Lawrie. "I didn't like being away from the kids for three or four weeks at a time. Then I got injured. I was out for 11 weeks with a groin pull. So the decision was made that I would not go back and make up the numbers in America. Hand on heart, I put my family first."

As Hunter indicated, the one dark cloud on the Lawrie horizon has always been a lingering feeling that the world of golf hasn't given him enough credit for his performance at Carnoustie. No shock there. As the ultimate and biggest beneficiary of Van de Velde's by now legendary last-hole largesse, Lawrie was never likely to be hailed a "true" champion, no matter how well he performed in the playoff.

And so it proved. In the wake of "Carnasty," the focus of attention became the author of golf's first French farce, not the man left holding the game's most famous trophy. By way of example, before the end of 1999, Golf Digest dispatched an editor to Switzerland to interview Van de Velde; no such trip was made to Aberdeen to see Lawrie.

The much-criticized course set-up didn't help either. Many hinted that Lawrie was little more than a fluke, an aberration created by a continental clown and a gormless greenkeeper. "The championship got the winner it deserved," was the harsh verdict (erroneously as it turned out) attributed to Davis Love III.

"Paul had lower expectations of himself until he won the Open, then, bang-crash, that all changed," says Andrew Coltart, Lawrie's fellow Scot and a teammate on the '99 European Ryder Cup side. "All of a sudden he was playing with the big boys and attracting all kinds of press. The Americans have been tough on him, I think. Just because Paul wasn't a name they were familiar with and his winning fitted their perception of the course, they have been very harsh."

All of which hit Lawrie hard. Catapulted from obscurity to headliner, the Scot harbored an understandable resentment when it quickly became apparent that hardly anyone had noticed his closing 67 or those jug-clinching birdies in extra holes.

"The problem is Paul's expectation level," contends Hunter. "Before '99 all he ever heard was that he was a 5-handicapper who would never make it big. So his attitude was always, Right, I'll show you.' Everything was a bonus.

"After '99 that all changed," Hunter adds. "Suddenly, Paul was expected to win. So now he is trying to prove to all the doubters—and there have been many—that he deserved to win it. Which is crazy. He can't change people's opinions. Whether he deserved to or not, he won the Open. Who cares what anyone else thinks?" Sadly, Lawrie seems to, a fact Hunter is honest enough to acknowledge.

"Eight years on, I think Paul's problem with the expectations of others is getting worse rather than better," Hunter continues. "I wasn't really consulted on whether he should play on the PGA Tour. He doesn't like America. After he won the Open, I traveled to the States with him, more as a companion than a coach. As soon as we arrived it was, Hey Mr. Lowry.' And that [set him off]. He saw their repeated mispronunciation of his name as a lack of respect.

"Paul has played this respect thing to death," says Hunter. "He's getting in his own way. I fear, not for his sanity, but his mental well-being. This is torture for him, and it's hard to get him to open up about it all. He's very guarded. He knocks back any negative question by not really addressing it. And that's how he denies the existence of a problem.

"To me, his winning the Open has hurt his development as a golfer. The Open did open a lot of doors for him—the Ryder Cup for one—but it's been something of a poisoned chalice for him. And it will be until he wins another one."

For now at least, the prospects of such a thing actually happening seem as remote as they did back in 1999. In 14 European Tour events this season, Lawrie has missed eight cuts, with his best finish a T-11. But, despite his former coach's misgivings and his poor form, Lawrie makes a convincing case about his present level of contentment. He certainly has the future all mapped out.

"When I'm 50, my intention is to play on the Champions Tour," he reveals. "By that time the boys will be up and gone and Marian can travel with me. We are looking forward to that.

"And when I die I know exactly what I want on my gravestone," says Lawrie. "It will say, Champion golfer of the year 1999.' How cool is that?"