What Might Have Been
August 04, 2020

'For a time, I was beating Lee Westwood and every junior in England'

Growing up in England, I was runner-up in a lot of junior events. Almost always to Michael Welch. I just wasn’t as good as him. Which was no disgrace. No one was. My friend and regular foursomes partner was easily the best under-18 golfer in the country. In 1990, he won the Shropshire Boys, England Boys, British Boys, European Boys and World Boys titles.Looking back, Michael’s swing was all his own, but not one you thought unorthodox. He picked the club up quickly on the backswing, was a bit laid-off at the top, then dropped the club on the inside on the way down, so there was some wrist action involved. But he hit the ball solidly and a long way. His game had no weaknesses. I’m still surprised he never made it on tour. —Lee Westwood

My golf career got off to the best possible start. As a young teenager, I was coached by Alec Lyle, the club professional at Hawkstone Park in the English Midlands. So I had the opportunity to practice alongside Alec’s son. At that time, Sandy was about the best ball-striker in the world. I’ve played with some genuinely great players—Ian Woosnam, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Vijay Singh, Nick Faldo—but none of them was close to Sandy at his best.

Alec was perfect for me. He was a great teacher, simple and focused on the basics. It was never about “positions” in the swing. “Tempo, not temper,” “plenty of shoulders—no hands” were two of the things he used to tell me. He could see I didn’t need complicated swing thoughts.

Technically I’m not sure my swing was that great. I was never consistent. But when I was on, I was unbelievable. My game had two strengths. I hit the ball farther than just about every other junior in the country, and I was “mustard” inside 100 yards. OK, I was a bit streaky on the greens, but when I was confident, I could do a lot of damage quickly.

That spell in 1990 when I won 11 tournaments in a row—including all those boys titles—was done over eight weeks. Not 52. I was portrayed as this unbelievable superstar, but it was really just eight weeks of unbelievable play.

How inconsistent I could be is illustrated by my performances in the Amateur Championship. In 1993, at Royal Portrush, I lost in the fourth round at the 20th hole after being 6 up with seven holes to play. One year earlier at Carnoustie, I led the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying by four shots. If you look in the record book, you can see a few famous names behind me. Padraig Harrington was eight shots worse. Stephen Gallacher was nine back. And a lad by the name of Lee Westwood was 13 adrift.

I had a fixed practice routine then. I’d hit a few balls on the range in the morning, always at a target. There was a huge tree, one with a 15-foot gap in the branches about three-quarters of the way up. From various distances, I’d use different clubs, each time trying to hit the ball through that gap. I knew if I could reproduce those ball flights on the course, my shots would be good. I could also hit fades and draws around the tree. I’m certain my launch-angle and ball-speed numbers were really good back then. That tree was my TrackMan.

“My swing improved in a technical sense, but that wasn’t the way forward for me.”

This was in contrast to later when I became a bit of a robot. Hitting ball after ball, I got away from what made me good. Gradually, I lost the ball flight I had taken for granted. My striking became more “fluffy.” I wasn’t compressing the ball as much. When I started seeing the ball doing things I wasn’t used to seeing, my game began to break down. Suddenly, I had doubts, though I was still doing what might be termed OK.

I made the European Tour when I was 22. I played with Greg Norman in the third round of the 1996 Open at Royal Lytham. He beat me by two shots, 71-73. A day later I was drawn with Ben Crenshaw (I shot 68 to Ben’s 70) and finished T-18, a stroke ahead of the leading amateur, Tiger Woods. But I was never hitting the sort of shots I did when I was younger. Eventually, I slipped off tour and ended up on the Challenge Tour and others around the world. I was going backward.

I did see a few coaches after Alec retired because of ill health. I worked with Keith Williams from 1992-’98. I had a couple years with Paul Westling. Then I was with Pete Cowen until I finished playing early in 2007. Ironically, my swing improved in a technical sense, but that wasn’t the way forward for me. What I needed was someone who would continue to keep things simple, as Alec had done.

The final factor was pain in my back. I was prone to spasms. What I should have done is take six months off to get my back right and found a trainer. Had I done that, I believe I’d still be on tour today.

When I stopped playing, I was 33. I had two choices: go into my dad’s architecture business or stay in golf. I chose the latter and—interestingly— spent four years as the lead coach for the Lee Westwood Golf School. Today, I’m at Hawkstone Park and coach a number of Challenge Tour players, as well as European Tour players Ashley Chesters and Kristoffer Broberg.

The word that comes to mind when I think of my pro career is “disappointing.” I never achieved anything like what I could have done. People used to ask me why I didn’t go back to what I was doing as a kid. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know what I was doing at that point in my life.

I still speak to Lee when I see him, and I get asked if I feel any jealousy toward him. I can honestly say I don’t. He has done brilliantly. Yes, I was the better player when we were 16, but life goes on. I made decisions that took me down a different path, one that slowly eroded my game.

—WITH JOHN HUGGAN