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Barclay Howard, one of Scotland's finest amateur golfers, has fought alcoholism and leukaemia
There are many dates of significance etched in the mind of Barclay Howard, dates which are memorable for vastly different reasons.
He will, for instance, fondly look back on 1966 as the year in which he, as a talented and enthusiastic, if slightly nervous 13-year-old, made his first tentative steps into tournament golf at North Berwick in the Scottish Boys' championship.

He will also never forget that magical week at Royal Troon over 30 years later in 1997 where he shared the lead at the Open Championship after eight holes of the first round before eventually securing the silver medal as the tournament's leading amateur.

But he will also reflect on the dark, despairing days during the 1980s where his tragic descent into the murky depths of alcoholism eventually led to him being banned from the game he loved in 1991. And he will forever remember the September day in 1997 when, just six weeks after his incredible Open Championship experience, he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Yet in a life and career peppered with extremes, of tremendous highs and desperate lows, a normal Saturday in June 2002 will go down as another significant day in the Barclay Howard story.

It's June 15th, the Saturday before Father's Day, at Cochrane Castle driving range and Barclay Howard, one of Scotland's finest amateur golfers, is doing what he has always loved doing since he first started following his dad, David, around the fairways and greens of his local course in the late 1950s. He's hitting golf balls. And every ball he strikes is giving him new hope as he continues to recover from the leukaemia treatment that has ravaged his body over the past five years.

The balls he is hitting are not necessarily travelling prodigious distances but after years of pain, frustration and countless false dawns, it doesn't matter. Barclay is seeing progress and, for the first time in a long while, the 49-year-old is happy again with a club in his hand.

'It's difficult to describe the feeling,' he said in his broad, yet quiet West of Scotland tongue. 'It gave me excitement and inspiration and for the first time in five years I feel like I can play golf again. The 15th of June will go down in history I think. It's the day the burning embers finally exploded.

'I've played golf while I've been recovering over the last few years but previously I had no strength or movement. I felt like a wooden doll. There was no flexibility and I wasn't getting anything from it. It was pathetic and I was almost in tears. I'd rather not play at all than play like that.

'Saturday was different however. There was flow and timing. It felt more like what it used to. It's the happiest I've been in a long time and all from a simple thing like hitting 50 golf balls.

'After five years of painful treatment and being pumped full of drugs, I felt that all of a sudden there was a wee light at the end of the tunnel. Every time I've seen a light, somebody's put it out. There's been a lot of false dawns recently but now I feel like I can come back.'

It won't be the first time that Barclay has set out on the long, road to recovery. His trials and tribulations over the past 20 years have been well documented and the publication last year of his no-holds barred autobiography, Out of the Rough provided a frank account of his ferocious drinking habits and painful battle with leukaemia.

The determination and courage that helped him battle against those two devastating illnesses, and the support provided by family and friends, are now being channelled into this latest fight to return to the fairways and to the game that has given him so much pleasure over the seasons, even during the most traumatic of times.

'I want to play in a 36-hole tournament by the end of August. That's my ambition,' he admitted. 'It might sound ridiculous at this stage but I've always had quite high targets. I want to prove that even if you've had cancer or leukaemia, you're not dead and buried. You can go back out there and battle on.

'I'm praying to God that I can play in a in 36-hole tournament. It doesn't matter if I shoot an 81, a 79 or whatever, I just want to play. It's a starting point and a wee target for me. It gives me a couple of months to get my game together. My clubs have all been changed to lightweight graphites and I'm now intending to hit 50 to 100 golf balls every day. I'm all geared up for the challenge.'

It is a challenge Barclay could not have envisaged pursuing a few weeks ago. After a further punishing course of treatment for his wretched illness, he contracted a chest infection that floored him for over a month. It was a devastating blow at a time when everything seemed to be meandering along nicely.

He explained: 'If you'd asked me about returning to play golf during that time I would have said no way. Things were going well until I got the infection. It was five weeks downhill after that. I felt extremely low and it was very frustrating that something so simple could floor me. It was a bad period.

'I had been invited to a veterans match between Scotland and England at Royal Liverpool. I couldn't play but I still could've went and watched. But I had no energy whatsoever and could barely walk a couple of yards let alone follow a golf match. I was really looking forward to it but I had to pull out.'

While left bitterly disappointed after the unfortunate turn of events, there was at least some good news to follow. Prior to his last course of treatment, Barclay's arm muscles had all but seized up, a demoralising situation to be in for a man desperately eager to swing a golf club again.

The condition, known in medical circles as 'graft versus host', was a result of the blood transfusion he and his sister underwent during treatment. As his own blood stem cells battled with the new cells introduced to his body, the muscles stiffened and locked. Movement and flexibility was rendered almost impossible.

'Since my last course of treatment things have taken a turn for the better,' Barclay enthused. 'Previously, there was no movement in my arms and it was hard to take. But the stiffness has moved from my arms to my legs and I don't mind that as much. It means I can swing a club at least.

'My treatment is finished now. My legs are still like rocks but I'm working to make the muscles softer. Originally I thought there was nothing they could do for the stiffness but the doctor has told me that there is further treatment which can help the loosening up process which I might have to take during the autumn or winter. That's another light at the end of the tunnel shining.'

What lies at the end of that tunnel, hopefully, is a successful return to the game and perhaps even an opportunity to fulfil the ambitions he harboured before his world was turned upside down.

He continues: 'The biggest regret I have is not turning professional. Once I had got myself sorted out with the drinking I started to work much harder on my game. I felt that even in 1997 I hadn't reached my full potential.

'I was 44 then and I was thinking about the Seniors Tour a few years down the line but then that was all taken away from me. To play on the Seniors Tour now would be the eighth wonder of the world for me. Stranger things have happened I suppose. I've always been a positive thinker.'

It is this optimism that makes Barclay such an engaging character and even after only a brief spell in his company, it is difficult not to feel anything but admiration for a man who has peered over life's precipice, toppled and hauled himself back by his fingertips.

'Looking back, it saddens me what has happened over the years,' he concluded. 'I was a lost cause for a while. The years I had the chance to play I messed about and then all of a sudden the opportunity to play golf was taken away from me with the illness. I might never get that chance again, you never know, but I'll be trying. I won't waste the opportunity this time.'

'It's funny that the Open's back at Troon in 2004. It is a dream to play in it again. But in life you've got to have your dreams.'

After what Barclay Howard has endured over years, few would begrudge the man at least one dream coming true.

©    6 - SEPTEMBER 2002

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