Friday, 1 April 2011

The Brian Viner Interview:Ian Woosnam: A voice in my head said to me/'This is your time. Step up'

The Brian Viner Interview: Twenty years after his Masters win, the Welshman recalls the heckling, the victory putt  and the reason for his garish outfit

For Wales, the sporting year of 1991 started grimly, with a third consecutive wooden spoon in the Five Nations rugby union championship secured by the middle of March. A month later, however, the principality had a new sporting hero, as Ian Woosnam rattled in an 8ft putt to win the US Masters, becoming the first Welshman with a major golf championship to his name.

It wasn't like it was redemption on the rugby field, but there was still plenty of ale shifted in celebration, from Cardiff to Colwyn Bay. He doubtless would have enjoyed a pint or seven himself that night, but instead was obliged to attend a formal gathering at the Augusta National, where they do formality more rigorously than almost anywhere. One of the members present that evening recalls him being introduced as "Ian Woosnam from Wales, England", and there was some unwitting truth in the faux pas, for Woosie had been born and raised just across the border in Shropshire. But that didn't change his Welsh parentage. He had always claimed Welsh nationality, just as his great contemporary and rival in Shropshire golf, Sandy Lyle, declared himself a Scotsman.

Lyle it was who, in 1988, had become the first British player to win the Masters. In 1989 and 1990, Nick Faldo slipped into the winner's Green Jacket, and then Woosnam continued Britain's extraordinary four-year annexation of the hallowed tournament, having dislodged Faldo from the summit of the game just before arriving at Augusta. Woosnam would remain world No 1 for 50 weeks. But never again would he capture a major title. Sunday, 14 April, 1991, was the unforgettable highlight of an illustrious sporting career.
Unforgettable or not, as I sit down with him in the lounge of a Heathrow airport hotel, he says, rather unpromisingly: "I don't tend to look back, I prefer to look forward." Nonetheless, that he is at Heathrow in the first place, about to jet off to Brunei, then to China, and then to his second home in Barbados, juggling playing responsibilities with his burgeoning career as a golf-course architect, owes more than a little to the enduring cachet of being a Masters champion. At the age of 53, as he prepares to compete in the Masters for the 23rd time, he has 47 professional tournament wins under his belt, 10 top-10 finishes in the majors, and is a Ryder Cup-winning captain, but it is all crowned by events on a sunlit evening in Georgia 20 years ago this month.

"It doesn't seem that long ago," he says, as, despite his preference for looking ahead, the memories start to tumble. "I knew I was in form even before I left home because I'd shot a 57 in a little competition at Oswestry Golf Club, playing with a couple of mates. And I missed a two-footer on the 10th. And 12-footers on the last three greens. I said to myself then, 'this is going to be a big year'."

A big year for a little guy. Woosnam stands just over 5ft 4in in his Footjoy socks, and his formidable strength has sometimes been ascribed to a childhood tossing hay bales on his parents' farm, but he tells me now that it was more about boxing. His father, prevented by his parents from becoming a professional boxer, encouraged his two sons to box, and showed them what he was made of himself on a family holiday at Pontins in Pwllheli one year. "There was one guy going off to fight in the British championships, and they asked if anyone wanted to take him on. Danny Doyle was his name. I'll never forget it. My dad plastered him." Woosnam laughs, gleefully. "He was feisty, my dad."

Harold Woosnam is dead now, as is Woosnam's mother Joan, but they were both watching on television, at home in Oswestry, when their boy won the Masters, with rounds of 72, 66, 67 and 72. "In the first round, my putting was pretty shocking," he recalls. "So I changed to a Tad Moore putter, which made me more confident, and helped me be more aggressive going into the greens. That's the secret at Augusta. You've got to hit the right part of the green." On the last two days, he played in the final pairing with his childhood hero, Tom Watson. "Tom's only seven or eight years older than me, but I'd always modelled my swing on his. I loved the brisk, aggressive way he played."

Of course, it wasn't only Woosnam who lionised the eight-times major winner, but also the Augusta crowd, some of whom let the short-ass Brit know exactly which way they swung. Playing the long 13th on the Sunday afternoon, Woosnam pulled his drive into Rae's Creek. When he heard cheering, he naively thought it was because his ball had avoided the water, not because it hadn't.

"On the next tee, someone shouted, 'This is not a sea links course, you know!'" Meaning that he couldn't just spray the ball around like he might among some limey sand dunes. "I banged one down the middle and gave him the finger. But it was getting to me a bit. Then Tom settled me down, by telling me that it used to happen to him, playing with Nicklaus in the early days. And Nicklaus got it, playing with Palmer. That was nice of him. He didn't have to say that."

Along with practically everyone in the golfing world, Woosnam was watching, agog, when in July 2009 Watson seemed on the verge of winning the Open championship, and yearned for him to do so. "Jesus, yeah. And Greg Norman the year before that. It can still happen [one of golf's elder statesmen winning the Open], because it's not so much about power, more about playing the right shots, cuts into the wind and that. But Augusta's different, which is why I was so impressed with Tom last year, shooting 67 in the first round. He's had to change his clubs a little bit, using rescue clubs, getting the ball coming in a lot higher. That's what I'll do this year. I used to hit a wedge into the first green, now I hit four-iron, which makes a difference when the green's the size of this table."

Twenty years ago, level-pegging with Watson and Jose-Maria Olazabal with one to play, he was lifted by what the Kansan did wrong, not what he did right. "On 18 he went with three-wood, and I knew that was a mistake because he could still reach the bunkers. For me it was two-iron, or driver to go past them. And sure enough, he overfaded into the trees. All I knew was to attack. So I took driver, and I was off my feet when I hit that shot." Like Lyle's famous seven-iron from the sand three years earlier, Woosnam's booming drive was the tournament's pivotal shot, but he still had to confront an eight-footer to win the Masters, a putt a couple of feet longer than the one he had dreamt of as a boy, knocking it round Llanymynech GC.

"I felt good over it, though, and it was like there was a voice saying to me, 'This is your time, step up'. All those other guys in what they called the 'Big Five' had won. It was my turn."

He took his turn, memorably dropping to one knee and pumping a massive forearm, wearing an ensemble that even by 1991 standards was challenging on the eye. He laughs when I recall it. "Yeah, I had a white shirt to wear with those [red] checked trousers, but I got a stain on it so had to change to navy-blue. It didn't go very well with the Green Jacket. And they didn't even have a Green Jacket to fit me. I had to borrow the press officer's, that's how much confidence they had in me winning."

It was only his fourth appearance at the Masters. He hadn't received an invitation even in 1987, a year he won four times on the European Tour. So to clinch what back then was the right to play in perpetuity was one of the more satisfying perks of winning the great event. Another nice perk was being responsible for choosing the menu at the traditional champions' dinner the following year, not that it worked out quite as he'd hoped.

"I wanted to give them Welsh lamb cooked in hay, which gives it a lovely smoky flavour, but US customs wouldn't let me import the lamb. So the chefs at Augusta tried to do an American version, and it was pretty rubbish, really. I didn't want it, but I had to eat it. They tried to make this mint sauce... oh, it was shocking. The guys now fetch in their own chefs. Vijay Singh's dinner was the best. Chilean sea bass, marinated in Coca-Cola. Beautiful, that was."

So much for the benefits of winning the Masters. But there was a downside, too, in the increased off-course scrutiny of him and his family. "Coping with that was hard," he says. "I began to feel a bit crowded living in Oswestry. There was a little bit of jealousy. So we moved to Jersey, which was obviously good for tax reasons, but there was also more privacy there."

Whether or not as a consequence of Woosnam's fame, and fortune, in November 2008 his 23-year-old son Daniel was given a two-year jail sentence for beating up a teenager who owed him money. This is sensitive territory, the more so as he's just been complaining about invasions of privacy. But I take the plunge and ask after Daniel. "He's fine," Woosnam says, shortly. "It was a little bit severe, what he got. He was made an example of. But one thing about Daniel, he takes his punishment."

And so to a more famous miscreant. With this year's Masters almost upon us, does Woosnam think that the four-times champion Tiger Woods, still with 14 majors to his name, will in due course overtake Jack Nicklaus's record of 18?

"No. You've got to have the will, and he seems to have lost it a little bit. Also, while he needed a change of swing, I think he's overdone it working with this new guy. To me he looks like he's reverse-pivoting. His weight's on his left leg, not his right, which can tilt a swing. And nobody's scared of him any more. I had to get to the standard Sandy was when we were kids, and I got there eventually. It's the same with Tiger. The others have caught up."

So on whose shoulders, finally, does he see this year's Green Jacket being placed? "You can't pick a winner, can you? Maybe Luke Donald? Has he got the length for Augusta? Maybe, if it's running. He putts good. He's good with his irons." Woosnam rises; he has a plane to catch. "That wouldn't be a bad little bet," he adds.
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