Ian Woosnam

Interviews

One of the big 5 European players of his generation and ex-world number one, Ian Woosnam truly lit up this year’s Julius Baer Golf Classic.



BY Benny Teo

He arrived at 3pm, halfway round the world, checked into the W Hotel on Singapore’s resort island, Sentosa Cove and proceeded to a schedule of interviews that would take him till evening. Then, he got his beer.

The difference between Ian Woosnam, or Woosie, as fans and contemporaries alike fondly calls him, and the panoply of golfing greats is that he is never one to shun away from a conversation over lager with folks he’s just met, something a few fortunate souls would later find out.

This evening, however, was spent in the company of a friend who’s recently moved to the Southeast Asian tropical isle and his minder Andrew Wood, from management company, IMG. It would be a good night’s rest before he faces a group of enthusiastic fans for a full day of golf and networking at banking giant, Julius Baer’s corporate day out at Sentosa Golf Club.

“Good morning Ian, hope you’ve had a good rest,” quips an early bird at the flawless grass range at Sentosa Golf Club. It’s 9am the following day. Thankfully, the 56-year-old father of three has had enough years of jet setting around the world to get over jet lag. “Good, good, it’s rather hot today isn’t it?” he replies with a kind, paternal grin.

Standing at barely 1.64 metres, Ian Woosnam was never going to be as imposing as the rest of that famous five; the late Seve Ballesteros with those intense furrowed brows, Bernhard Langer’s stoic German poise, the big Scot Sandy Lyle and of course, Nick Faldo, before Tiger Woods, was the one with ‘the Aura’.

But what he can do with those stocky arms is beyond belief. Even now, Woosie can hit past the fences at Sentosa’s golf range with a driver off the deck, with a shot-making prowess that calls high draws and low fades at will; his TaylorMade irons are traditional blades with professional extra stiff shafts that weigh a ton.

“I hit real men’s clubs,” he amicably jokes, pauses and then asks, “What do you hit with?” with a slight searing edge in the eyes.

After a casual breakfast with about 20 distinguished guests of the Swiss private bank, Woosnam proceeds back to the golf range and decides to move the entire canopy over the driving bays. With his own bare hands. “It serves no purpose having this shelter and us all sweltering in this heat before actually playing golf,” he jokes. A rush of manpower quickly came over and helped him.

Skye Neal, the head instructor at the golf club was hesitant at first, for fear that a few stray balls may hit the top of the canopy and ricochet back to the people below. Nevertheless, a general consensus was reached that all will be fine and soon the former Ryder Cup captain was in his element hitting all sorts of shots and then following that up with individual coaching.

This is a guy who has won three BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year awards, inducted in the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame and awarded an Order of the British Empire for his contributions to golf.

Born in the town of Oswestry, Shropshire in England, he began playing golf with half sawn clubs at Llanymynech Golf Club, unique for being set along the Wales-England border. Bcould do. When I ran out of money, and I did a few times, it would be back to get a job for a while. I was buying experience, really. And I lived like that for five years. It was fun and a great experience.” Hard to imagine someone with a net worth well over $30 million saying that but in truth, he really just wanted to experience life to its fullest. “I try to be normal. I don’t go around saying I’m a top golfer and I want this and I want that. I just want to walk into a bar and merge into the background,” says the self-proclaimed working class lad.

When he started plying his trade in the European Tour in 1979, Woosnam spent his early years driving around the continent in a camper van, living on a diet of baked beans to save money. After three modest seasons, his career took off in 1982 when he won the Swiss Open and came eighth on the Order of Merit. He also finished in the top ten on the Order of Merit every year from 1983 to 1991 and again in 1993, 1996, and 1997, making thirteen times in all.

In 1987 and 1990 he was first, and in the former year he set a world record for global tournament earnings of £1,062,662. He has won 28 official money events on the European Tour and many other events around the world. In 1991, he won his one and only major, The US Masters, became world number one, and eventually spending 50 weeks there. But he was not really happy.

“Winning the Masters was great, but what came after, not my thing. I was in the public eye all the time and I don’t like that. Certain people I lived back in London with were jealous, and when we’d go out, we’d get people shouting at us. What had I done to deserve that? I’d be expected to buy all the drinks, too. I didn’t like that. There were so many jealous people. So we moved. It was pathetic,” he says. Today in Singapore, however, he was a star and a popular one too. Everyone wanted a chat with him, and even sought to bring him beer on the course, which he kindly declines, saying, “I’ll drink my pints when I’m done, but not while I’m trying to beat you!”

That his competitive spirit extends to even a simple corporate ‘Beat The Pro’ station, constantly belting 4-irons at a 200-yard par 3 against amateurs says something of his respect, not just for the game, but for the people who play it. Ian Woosnam does not look down on his competition, and does not give away shots for the sake of hospitality, and so, those who eventually do beat him at this tough par 3, 8th hole at the Serapong course can take pride in properly doing so. No ifs, buts and what ifs.

Woosnam’s final victory on the European Tour came in the 1997 Volvo PGA Championship but what may be most memorable to fans here in the island state is that he won the Johnnie Walker Classic the year before at Tanah Merah Country Club. Some, till today, recall the manner by which he did it.

“I was a volunteer at that time and I was at the spot on the 18th where Ian entered into a playoff with I-can’tremember- who for the third time,” says a guest at today’s corporate outing when he arrived at the 15th where Woosnam held court.

“Andrew Coltart. I remember it like it was yesterday,” offers the Welsh.

The amateur guest nods agreeing, and continues, “There was no shot where he was in the rough. Trees were all over and he had about 180, maybe 200 yards to go,” pausing for effect, “his caddy handed him a club, motioned for him to play it safe and chip it out but Ian took a hard look instead, put the club back into the bag and pull out a long iron.”

“I remember the hushing sound the crowd made as they crammed closer to watch this spectacle that was to happen. Either a miracle, or disaster for sure. I was standing right there in full view of what was happening, watching history about to unfold and almost forgetting my job!”

What eventually did happen was that the Wee- Welshman found a gap through those trees and hit a curling, zipping shot through it, landed on the green and made the putt for an unlikely birdie. Coltart had already missed from 30 feet to then hand over the win.

That the victory from almost a decade back still resounds today makes a case for this being a return of a local legend, but what everyone got more of, was a convivial gentleman who was more than ready to share his experiences, and truly look like he enjoys being in the company of new people.

“I’m just a working-class lad with a talent. I wish I could have made it to the top in golf without having to be famous. But that’s impossible,” he would later say over a Coleman box full of beers at the club’s VIP changing room.

“I love having a chat with people, meet someone at the bar and just rolling with it. We can talk golf, or just about anything else, no problem,” he says, knocking bottles for the umpteenth time with those fortunate enough to be around.

Later at dinner down at the Pavilion where the Serapong course is, Woosie is in his element yet again, giving his thanks and appreciation and handling out prizes to the winners of the golf day, and almost missing his flight.

He didn’t, of course, but his transport had to wait a while as all his favourite food – “I was sure I didn’t ask for it but somehow, they knew!” - came streaming in, together with the good company that he was having. Soon, the night had to end but he did manage one final picture and drink before scooting off to the airport, barely 30 hours after he’d first arrived.

Was Ian Woosnam a force of personality that comes and goes like a whirlwind? No, but he was rather much like rolling waves on a perfect beach that one might remember fondly of, long after they’ve left. If anything at all, that image and memory is far better than that champagne-snort at The K Club in 2006 after successfully captaining the European Ryder Cup team to victory. Funnily enough, the gentleman that just left reminded so much of him.

 

Standing at barely 1.64 metres, Ian Woosnam was never going to be as imposing as the rest of that famous five; the late Seve Ballesteros with those intense furrowed brows, Bernhard Langer’s stoic German poise, the big Scot Sandy Lyle and of course, Nick Faldo, before Tiger Woods, was the one with ‘the Aura’.