Paul Lawrie is private and reserved but living his life in the sometimes goldfish bowl of being a former Open champion. In an exclusive interview for Scottish Golf, he talked about his forthcoming season, his Ryder cup ambitions, and that momentous day at Carnoustie that changed his life forever.
Very few professional sports people are catapulted from relative obscurity into the superstar league quite as dramatically as Paul Stewart Lawrie. Even at the start of the remarkable day at Carnoustie in 1999 that was to see him lift the claret jug, few outside his immediate circle of friends and family considered he had a chance.
He had played steadily but not dramatically and looked like joining a long list of plucky home players who end up as such an obscure brainteaser on A Question of Sport - 'Who was the highest finishing British golfer at the '99 Open' - that not even Ally McCoist, with his love of arcane and abstruse sporting trivia, could answer.
But that dramatic climax will never be forgotten for two reasons, although sadly, one still, in many minds, overshadows the other.
The first is Jean Van de Velde's staggering, still incomprehensible play of the 18th, when he blew a three shot lead with the worst case of course management since Noah decided to introduce a water hazard at the foot of Mount Arrarat.
Second, of course, is the way in which Paul Lawrie then set about the four-hole playoff and if you think that is hyperbole, let us remind ourselves of exactly what he faced. He had finished his own round over an hour earlier, presumably convinced - as were the rest of us onlookers - that Van de Velde had it in the bag. He then went to the putting green and gradually became aware of, and it took a long time, the Frenchman's agonies as his play of the hole degenerated from poor to near farcical, as he took off his socks and shoes to wade in the Barry Burn. Paul realised that he now faced the most important hour of his life. He was in a playoff for the Open. As a Scotsman at Carnoustie he had the weight of expectation of a nation on his shoulders - after all, it was 14 years since a home-grown player had triumphed in this particular theatre of dreams (Sandy Lyle in 1985). He was facing a Frenchman who may have gone to pieces, although the courage with which he eventually slotted home his putt on the final green belied that, and an American of renowned temperament, Justin Leonard, who was not only a former major winner but a winner of the Open.
The fact that Lawrie played perhaps the best golf of his life - and the word 'best' always has to be used in the context of the circumstances at the time - took many by surprise. But there it is, in the record books. The question was asked and Paul answered it as emphatically as any golfer ever has in a similar situation, by birdieing two of the four holes. His superb long iron to the final green will remain long in the memory of all those who witnessed it.
It seemed natural, therefore, to ask what he thinks of Van de Velde's play of the 18th in regulation play, and whether he had ever discussed it with the Frenchman.
'What do you think?' Paul replied. 'No, we have talked several times since then but have not discussed it; it's not something we would talk about.'
So what do you think you would have done in his shoes, on the 72nd tee?
'It's a very difficult question,' he replies. 'I've subsequently read his explanation that he wanted to hit it as far down the fairway with a driver as possible and I can see his thinking.
'Some people have suggested he could have taken a 5-iron but even that isn't an easy shot on that hole. Had it been me, I would have hoped I would have laid up and if I hadn't, I would have been very upset with my caddie.'
So what would Paul do if he and his caddie had a fundamental disagreement about the right play?
'If he thought something and I was thinking differently, but he was very insistent, I would ask him to explain why he was being so adamant and if it made sense, I would listen.'
However, you get the strong feeling that if the caddie did take such a stand, his explanation had better be pretty damned convincing. Paul gives the impression not so much of not tolerating fools kindly, but of not tolerating them at all. This is neither to suggest nor imply that he is in any way rude or discourteous - quite the opposite, he listens, ponders and answers with courtesy. But dealing with the public, who can at times be over exuberant in their desire to meet their heroes, is not always easy. And a successful sportsman must also face the attentions of the press who can, if we're going to be honest, be considerably worse than the public.
So is life generally easier or more difficult since that July day 20 months ago?
'Definitely more difficult because I get a lot of stuff I certainly didn't get before. Mind you, there's more charity work, which I enjoy a lot, but there's also a lot more press interest. So I suppose you can say there's simply more to deal with, both good and bad.'
The press interest, or intrusion, some might think, is only referred to once again but you sense that this is the part of public life that Paul finds most difficult. For example, he says: 'Being in the public eye is not a problem and I don't find it invasive. People in Aberdeen are fantastic. A few will say hello but I don't get hassled at all.'
He has also adapted remarkably well to the attentions and demands made on him; accepting that meeting the public is part of the job and he's more than happy to sign autographs and pose for pictures when he's 'at work'.
However, he adds: 'But I'm a private person - I need to be at home and with my family but I understand that as a former Open champion you have to do certain things, like talk to journalists.' And, even though Paul wouldn't dream of saying, or even thinking it, we all know what journalists can be like.
In fairness, this is said with neither rancour nor ill-will; it is simply an acknowledgement that we all have elements in our working lives we would rather not have to face, and if privacy is pre-eminent among your own needs, facing questions every day about every aspect of your existence cannot be easy.
At times Paul's reluctance to wear his heart on his sleeve, or offer an opinion on any subject at the drop of a hat, can be seen in TV interviews but that is changing and he is learning the difficult skill of giving something of himself while protecting his core values.
Continuing with the Open discussion, we asked if he thinks he has another major in him.
'There's no reason why I can't win another major,' he says, because every department of my game is pretty solid and is good enough when I'm on form.'
So does that mean he didn't just have a streaky week at the right time?
'I don't think you have week's when that's your week and you're destined to win. I can play sometimes when I'm not on top of my game but can still finish 4th or 5th. Even at Carnoustie my game wasn't a hundred percent.
'I would agree totally with Jack Nicklaus [who once said that he hit perhaps four shots in a round exactly as he intended]. After all, every time you hit an approach shot you're trying to hole it. Now you do that very rarely but onto the green within 20 feet can be a very good shot.
'I would rarely hit a shot exactly as intended but you can score five under while not playing your best golf.'
So how is his season is going so far?
'I've been having some time off,' he said, 'and am just getting over the flu so I've not been playing much but will be practising next week. I was in Dubai for four days and got a lot of work done there.'
Paul invited promising amateur Mark Loftus [who has subsequently turned professional] to join him, so how exactly did that come about?
'My coach, Adam Hunter, is also Mark's coach, so I suggested Mark might want to come with us. I think he's a very good player. His short game needs some work, as he himself will admit, but when he puts in a bit of work on that he's capable of being very, very good.'
Back to his own season, Paul says: 'I think I'm swinging the club better now than when I won the Open. I need to think less about technicalities and concentrate more on just getting up and hitting the ball better.
'I don't set specific targets or goals for a season, I'm very much a one shot at a time sort of player, I think it's important to stay in the present and not get too far ahead of yourself.
'I would very much like to be in the Ryder Cup team but that's the only goal I'll allow myself.'
The Ryder Cup, of course, was scheduled to be back at The De Vere Belfry this year, with a Scot in the captain's seat in the shape of Sam Torrance and a great deal at stake - specifically, whether or not it would degenerate into the kind of hootin' and a hollerin' spectacle of Brookline two years ago, or whether it could be restored to true golfing values and again be offered as a model of how big sporting events should be conducted. It has now, of course, been postponed for a year but Paul had clear views about the event.
He said: 'I am optimistic about getting in this year's team for the Ryder Cup. I've fallen to 15th in the rankings because of not playing much but when I get back into serious play I hope to move up the points table.'
And does he think he's a good match player?
'I have a reasonable matchplay record. In the last Ryder Cup I played very well. Being paired with Monty helped but I also won my singles match quite convincingly.' [in tandem with Colin Montgomerie he won two-and-a-half of a possible four points, before dusting Jeff Maggert 4&3 in the singles].
It was time to turn to domestic matters and we asked Paul if he was aware of quite how popular he is in his home country.
'No, I'm not really aware of how popular I am or am not in Scotland. I have always been a private and quiet person - I don't see the crowds at tournaments, for example, or look at people in the galleries unless my wife is there, which she quite often is.
'When we go shopping in Aberdeen I can feel that people quite like us living here and are quite proud of me having won the Open. But overall, no, I wasn't aware that I was very popular in Scotland as a whole.'
There's that privacy thing again, so it seemed a good time to end the interview with a question on your behalf. What, we asked, is the single best tip you could give the readers of ScottishGolf to help improve their game?
Paul thought for a wee while before replying: 'Use your handicap well. If you are a 15 handicapper, for example, use your shots - you virtually get one on every hole - and don't try to play like a 4 handicapper.
'My psychologist says that if you play for pars, birdies will come, and if you play for birdies, bogies will come. Therefore the handicap golfer should be looking to make bogey on the holes where they have a stroke, and I think they will find that pars are much more likely to follow.'
Paul Lawrie on:
'Even Tiger doesn't have many weeks when his whole game is on and he plays exactly as he would like. Perhaps the US Open at Pebble Beach is one example when it happened.'
Ryder Cup crowds: 'There's no question that the crowds at Brookline [in 1999] were getting out of control but I don't think that we will ever see that again.'
Augusta National: 'I didn't play well there last year but I'm going out a bit earlier this time to get more practice. It's not the greatest of courses; the back nine is fantastic but the front nine is not the best you'll play.'
Royal Lytham & St Annes: 'I played it once before, the year Tom Lehman won the Open, and I missed the cut. Despite that I think it's a fantastic course and I'm looking forward to the Open this year. I liked Lytham a lot, despite not playing at my best.'
His best liked Scottish courses: 'My favourite course in Scotland is Meldrum House. After that I would say Royal Dornoch, I particularly like it there. And I'd also have to mention that another favourite, from my home town, is Royal Aberdeen.'
Scotland's Ryder Cup bid: 'I was down when they launched the bid and being Scottish I want the Ryder Cup played here, as do all Scots people. I think the Welsh bid is probably our biggest rival. I've not been to Celtic Manor but I hear it's great. Nevertheless, we have several superb courses in our bid.'
|| 28 - SEPTEMBER 2001