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Don't play this man for money
Stephen Hendry is one of, if not the, greatest sportsmen Scotland has ever produced, having won snooker's world championship an unprecedented seven times in the modern era. Martin Vousden met the poker-faced maestro who's not too shabby at golf either, and was so impressed by what the man had to say that we've decided to run this feature as a straight question and answer, rather than a profile


So what separates the winners from the wannabees?

It's the same in every sport. The top eight players in snooker all play to a very high standard but when you get to the finals and semi-finals it's up here [taps forehead] and who can play to that same standard under pressure.

When did you realise that you could?
I don't think you can teach it and that's why very few people in sport can win on a regular basis. If you could teach it you'd get a lot more winners but it's something that's just come naturally throughout my career; I've always been able to play my best under the most pressure.

And do you actually enjoy it?
I love it, yes. At the time you're not thinking: 'Oh, I really love this,' but subconsciously you are; when the pressure's on you just concentrate totally on what you're doing.

When did you first get into golf?
I've been playing since the age of 14, 15, so that makes it 15 or 16 years.

And your handicap?
It's 7.7. When I play all summer I can get down to 5 or 6 but I only play in summer and don't get the chance to get it down. But then I leave it for the whole of the winter and have to start all over again, probably off about 12.

It's always the touch around the greens that goes, isn't it?
Well, I'm a terrible putter anyway

Why?
I don't know, can't understand it. I play a lot with a professional, a guy called Billy Marchbank and he gives me a lot of tips but I don't read them correctly, I don't strike them right - it's everything. You get odd days when they all go in but generally it's just a weakness in my game.

I would have expected it was the part of the game nearest to snooker
Everyone says that but I think the fact that I'm looking down on it rather than looking along, and a snooker table's a flat surface and in putting you've got to allow for breaks. To me it's completely different but I can see why people would think that.

Where do you play?
I'm a member at Gleneagles and Loch Lomond

Which do you prefer?
I think Loch Lomond's a better golf course, I think everyone thinks that, it's just a fantastic place to play golf. But I live in Auchterarder and play 95% of my golf at Gleneagles, and to have three courses of that standard on your doorstep is just heaven.

Where else in Scotland do you play and where do you like?
I haven't played many courses, I've got a friend who's a member at Turnberry and I've played there a couple of times but I don't really like links courses, I find them too difficult. I find that hitting a 3-wood to get up at a par four just doesn't appeal to me.

You realise that you'll be drummed out of the Society of Scotsmen?
I know! Everyone says how can you not like Turnberry, it's one of the best courses in Scotland, but it's not the courses but links golf. I don't play as well off bare lies and that sort of ground.
I like a bit of grass underneath the ball. I play with Callaway clubs and a lot of professionals say it's easier with smaller headed clubs because the Callaway's tend to bounce off the ground. That's what people tell me and it sounds like a good excuse; it's the clubs, not me!

You presumably get to play in a lot of pro-ams - how do you find them?
I get asked to play in a lot but don't play in too many. I play in the Benson & Hedges every year basically because the same guy who runs that runs the B&H snooker event and I enjoy that because it's towards the end of my playing season. But during summer when I'm at home I like to relax and not do anything work related. If I'm at a pro-am I've still got to put my professional head on whereas I prefer to just be with a few mates for a game and relax.

Who are the pro's who've impressed you close up?
Montgomerie's the biggest name and best player I've ever been with. They all blow me away. Through my management company [110 Sports] I've played with guys like Dean Robertson and Alastair Forsyth, who are also 110 clients, in bounce games and they're just incredible. I like to go to tournaments and just stand on the range and watch the pro's hitting balls because it's just awesome.

Who else do you admire?
Tiger Woods is obviously one of the greatest sportsmen in the world and not just in golf. What I admire is his concentration and focus on the course; it's just incredible.
I've always admired winners and the best. The normal British thing is to support the underdog. Although I like Jimmy White's style of play, I always admired Steve Davis because he was a winner; that's what turned me on - someone who won loads of titles. I like people like Sampras, Michael Schumacher and the like. I admire the best.

Who else in golf?
I like Ernie Els, and Garcia is good to watch. I used to like watching Couples but he doesn't seem to be up there on a Sunday as he used to. At Loch Lomond I watched Adam Scott hit on the range and he was awesome and at the Belfry I saw him hit a 3-wood onto the 10th green and even the other pros recognised that he's a bit special and he made it look effortless.

So if you could only have achieved what you have by shutting everybody out and becoming a not very nice person, would you have still wanted to do it?

I think so, yes. Jimmy White has always been very open and friendly and he's probably the most popular person in the game but I think even he's been quoted as saying that he'd swap all that popularity for world championships.
I don't care what people's opinion of me is; I've been called a miserable sod and boring and never smiling but I didn't care, I just wanted to win. I sacrificed a lot in the beginning and you do have to be a selfish person; to make your sport a priority above everything else - relationships, family and the like. You have to be totally single-minded and again that's why there's so few can go to the top and really dominate.

But at the end of your life when the eulogies are being read would you rather they said: 'He was a great champion' than 'He was a decent man.' What do you think ultimately matters at the end of a life?

In terms of my career, the former is the most important thing to me. Everybody wants to be popular and I don't like that people think I'm miserable. I'd love to have a bit of Jimmy White's popularity and still have the success but for me I couldn't have both because that's not my make-up. I couldn't have a laugh and joke with the crowd or speak with everyone before a big match.
I played Jimmy in the world finals and I was locked in my dressing-room, reading the paper, relaxing and getting my thoughts in order and he's be chatting to his mates. I just couldn't do that. If I look back I'd rather people say: 'He was one of the best snooker players ever and won seven world titles' than he was the most popular player, the fan's favourite who didn't win anything. That's no use to me.

It's probably an unfair question because it suggests either or, whereas you could be both

Yes, and ironically I'm much more popular now because I'm not winning so much. I'm becoming more and more popular; it's like Steve Davis, when you stop winning people start to like you. It's strange.

Do you think the best of your career is now behind you?
(Pause) Yes, the best is behind me in the sense that, at my peak I was winning eight or nine titles a year and that won't happen again but I still believe that I can play a better standard of snooker now than I did then. I still believe I've improved as a player in comparison to then and I still believe that when I win a tournament I can do it by playing to a better standard. But you're right in the respect that I won't win so many titles a season and I won't dominate again the way I did.

When did you first start to realise that?
I think a couple of years ago. When you see the standard of people like Mark Williams, Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins and how good they were, I realised it was going to be a lot tougher. It was tough when I was winning everything and the standard of play was very high but everything's relative and today there are more players capable of winning tournaments than there was, so in that respect it's more difficult.
I could almost take for granted winning three or four titles but last year I didn't win a ranking title and you just can't take anything for granted any more.

Is there a sense of irony in that the improvement you talk about is largely down to you; in the same way that Tiger's raised the bar for everyone in golf?

Definitely. People see the guy at the top and it's only natural that they want to get there themselves. I used to look at Steve Davis and I wanted to be him. Not literally but I wanted to be the man to take over from him and that's only natural.

Are you therefore almost the architect of your own downfall?
I think so. We set such high standards for ourselves and there comes a time when it gets harder to achieve them more regularly. Subsequently you can be very good but if you're not winning you're finished, in a way. It's harsh but that's sport and that's why we do it.

Was there any sense during your famous final with Jimmy, when he opened up a huge lead that you gradually clawed back, that you wished there was any other option but beating him?

No. I can honestly say No.
There was one point when we were tied at 17-17 and he was in the balls, on 40 or whatever it was and I looked up at my friends in the box as if to say: 'This is it, I've lost.' And I was almost genuinely pleased for him to be winning it and then he missed, and I just jumped out of my seat and clicked back on and said to myself 'Shoot, you can still win this,' and I did. That was the only time I almost sort of thought like that but as soon as I got the chance again I just switched back on.
I don't care who's in the other chair, my best friend or worst enemy; I want to beat them just as badly.

Seve Ballesteros once said: 'In matchplay never feel sorry for your opponent because if you don't kill them, they'll kill you.'
Of course they will. It's sports and that means kill or be killed. Definitely

Strengths of your golf?
I hit the ball okay, drive well and hit irons. Weakness is my short game but if I played all year round that would improve drastically. I find it gets better every year. Before my chips were just a case of get them up in the air but now I can play low or high and I realise there are certain shots for different situations.

And you play how often?
All through summer I'll play two, three times a week. As much as I can get away with.

But now you're gearing up for the new snooker season?
Yes, it started two weeks ago [late July] and I haven't played golf since. I might play the odd evening round during the light evenings and possibly an occasional Sunday game, weather permitting but it's virtually no golf now until next year.

Is that tough?
It is, especially because I'm playing so well towards the end of summer. I've got to give it up and am thinking: 'Shoot, I'm really playing well and want to keep playing.'
But then I do still enjoy coming back to the practice and the day I don't is the time I'll have to think about giving it up.
But it's hard to give up the golf. Having said that, I'm very much a dry golfer and living in Auchterarder, even in summer you get some freezing cold days where the rain's coming sideways at you so through the winter it's not an option.

Your worst moment on a golf course?
I've not had any really bad moments. Every pro-am I've played I've always managed to get it off the first tee, which is always the worst part for a non-golfer, so to speak, because of the big crowds.
You have bad rounds and think 'Bloody hell' but then hit the one good shot that brings you back again the next day and makes you happy. I think it's probably one of the most frustrating games because every time you hit a bad shot it's horrible but there's always the good one in there that brings you back.

I still find it astonishing that at times you can stand over the ball and it feels like the most awkward thing in the world and at others it just seems natural and easy.
I know, it's incredible. I played on the Queen's Course about a month ago. There's a par four, number six or seven. I lost two balls over the road off the tee but for the other 17 holes I was three under and it was just one of those days. I was on every green in regulation and every putt went in and you think: 'How can you not imprint this on your mind so you can do this every time?' It was just so easy.

But does it also happen to you that when you're on a roll and playing well you get to 15 or 16, realise what you're doing and then guarantee you'll cock-up the last few holes?
Not when it's a bounce bet but when I've got a card in my hand, playing a medal, yes. Even before the last few holes; if you play the first five or six and you're at level or one over and you think: 'I'm doing well here' and that's fatal because you just blow-up.You just shouldn't think it.

And the discipline from snooker doesn't help there?
No, because you don't feel as much in control. In snooker you can concentrate on a long pot, for example, and even if you miss you know where the white's going to go. But in golf you can't stand on the tee and guarantee where the ball will go.

You can hit it down the middle and still finish in the trees?
Yes.

Any similarities between the two games, apart from the obvious of them being still ball games?
The basic principles are the same; standing still, proper stance, proper set-up, following through and letting the club or the cue do the work as opposed to you forcing it. So that definitely helps but when it comes to putting I find it the complete opposite to snooker.

Would you have ever wanted to have a real talent for golf and be a pro golfer rather than snooker player?
Definitely, yes. Being outside, traveling to a different country every week. In snooker 80% of the tournaments are in Britain and we're in these depressing leisure centres in, well, I won't say depressing cities but they're not the most glamorous places in the world.
But then you watch them perhaps playing in the Open and it's wind and rain and you think: 'I'm glad I'm not out there!' and they're playing for a major title so it's all relative I suppose.

Do you think Monty will ever win a Major?
Personally I don't think so. I think he's one of the top three golfers in the world but I think he's gone too long now. I hope he proves me wrong. On the Saturday of the Open this year he looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and then you looked at Duval and he looked so with it and confident on the Sunday it was incredible.


©    3 - JANUARY 2002

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