Ross McGowan

Golf News

The amateur legend turned Seniors Tour star opens up candidly on his life in golf

FOR years Gary Wolstenholme was the last of the true amateurs despite being a late starter to the game, he played off 23 when he was 18. Since then he has won two Amateur Championships – the second when he was oldest player in the field led the Masters, been awarded the MBE, won over 70 times around the world and played on six Walker Cup sides, four of them victorious. With 10 points he is Great Britain and Ireland’s all-time leading points scorer, a record that is unlikely to be threatened.

Some players turn professional at 16, others after finishing at an American university. Wolstenholme did it three years ago, shortly after his 48th birthday. He has never been conventional and is, safe to say, a bit different. He travels with his own pillow and pays close attention to his biorhythms.

And he doesn’t hit it 300 yards, rather relying on a brilliant putting stroke which has been good enough to beat Anthony Kim and Tiger Woods.

You played on six Walker Cup teams from 1995 to 2005, did you think anyone was capable of getting to World No 1?

Luke Donald and Paul Casey were the two stand-out players though I was also lucky enough to play on the same side as Graeme McDowell at Sea Island in 2001 and he was very impressive. The only thing that I was slightly wary about with Graeme was that his putting was a bit in and out, sometimes he would be unbelievably good and others he would miss a few. Nick Dougherty you always thought would do well, I was worried that he thought there was a problem with his swing but there was never a problem with his swing, it was his short game. Yet he always wanted to change or make adjustments with his long game. 

Who did you rate the highest?

The person I thought was most likely to make it as a professional was Warren Bennett from Ruislip, who won the Silver Medal at Turnberry in 1994. Sir Michael Bonnallack said at the time that he would win an Open within 10 years but unfortunately he got injured. He was the best amateur I ever played with, without a doubt, miles better than anyone else.

How good was Lee Westwood before he turned pro?

I didn’t expect Lee to do that well, at 18 he moved from junior to senior ranks and he played in the Home Internationals at Hoylake and I think he won one match out of six. Then he was straight off to tour school but, to his credit, he was a very strong-minded individual. He was not the greatest swinger but was a very solid hitter and he got his card and made a load of cuts and has never looked back.

And the Americans?

Obviously Tiger stood out because he was just extraordinary. He hit the ball way longer than anyone else and would have at least two clubs less to any green. We had the likes of Padraig Harrington, David Howell and Stephen Gallacher and Gordon Sherry at Royal Porthcawl but he was astonishing. Matt Kuchar, who played at Nairn, was also brilliant and Billy Haas was probably the best all-round player after Tiger of the Americans.

**Do you think everyone gets too carried away by the likes of Tom Lewis’ performance at Sandwich?

The media like to build people up but you have got to remember that this is a rarified atmosphere, he is only 20 and we should be almost be treating him with kid gloves. When you look at the standard of the amateurs now it is not surprising that we are now producing more and more players that are winning their cards on tour. And they are playing on the best courses and, not just from April to October, they are doing it the year round. 

How much of an experience are those players who turn pro before the matches missing out? 

It is as close to a Major experience as any amateur event is going to give you, winning a US Amateur would be a big deal and that is the only time that you may play in front of more people. When I came down the last hole playing against Tiger at Porthcawl there must have been 14,000 people, Ganton was the same as was Nairn. You are playing in front of TV cameras and being interviewed all week, it is fantastic. 

Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood both never played in a Walker Cup and they say, probably quite rightly, that it doesn’t matter whether you play in one or not but it is just the overall experience and one that everyone, wherever possible, should have. When Luke Donald made his Ryder Cup debut Bernhard Langer mentioned that he had done very well in the Walker Cup and it was an indication of dealing with matchplay pressure.

What was your mental strategy when taking on Tiger Woods? You like to talk a lot so was it a case of trying to out-talk him? 

It was pretty much a case of let’s just do our own thing. Tiger used that to try and intimidate his opponents – people say he’s not very good at matchplay but he won three US Junior and three US Amateurs in a row and his singles record in the Ryder Cup is 4.5/6.He’s a world-class match player and he ought to be playing in the matchplay events as the format, in my opinion, would help to restore some confidence.

The Americans had won the Eisenhower Trophy the year before and he took one look at the course and thought ‘what have I done?’ It was a box he had to tick but he was doing it very begrudgingly, the course wasn’t in the best shape and they had some disease on the greens.

How did you feel when you realised you would be going head to head with him?

The first seven singles were announced and Gordon Sherry turned to me, shook my hand and said ‘you’ve got him’. I’ve got this picture at home of Gordon shaking my hand so everyone must have been wondering what was going on. We met on the 1st tee and you could see his wall was up, I still said good shot and tried to have a conversation, particularly on the second day, but he just wasn’t interested.

Having beaten him there was no way I was going to beat him again and people forget he beat me on the second day.

How would you describe your relationship?

He has always had an issue with me because there was an instance when I conceded the hole and he hadn’t heard. So he marked his ball and looked up and saw me walking off to the next tee, he thought I hadn’t given him due deference or whatever but at the end of the day he wanted to win his match and so did I. I totally respected him as I do any opponent because the golfing gods are always looking down.

A friend and Walker Cup team-mate Phil Rowe had just joined Stanford University and he went to the Notre Dame game and Tiger walks straight across, looks straight at Phil and says ‘you’re Phil Rowe, you played in the Walker Cup didn’t you.’ So Phil then says ‘oh you know a friend of mine, Gary Wolstenholme?’ With that Tiger says ‘yeah I’ve got bad memories about him’ and walks off.

**Did you never get tempted to leave the amateur ranks in your earlier days?   

Never, the opportunity never presented itself. I was a 23 handicap when I was 18, was never good enough when young enough and never had the finances. Nobody ever came up to me at any point and said they would be interested in sponsoring me if I turned pro. Human nature can be that way, I used to have to walk to the golf club and members would wave at me as they drove past even though it was a three-mile walk in the hissing rain. That sort of thing makes you self-reliant. 

I was scratch when I was 25, played for England at 27 but I was never the kind of guy who bulleted it 300 yards. They’re not too impressed with my sort of golf. People think you didn’t play very well and then they tot it up and you’ve shot 67, and then they say you’re lucky. So many people have said to me that if I couldn’t putt I would be off 24.

By this point you had won one of two Amateur Championships and beaten the best-known amateur in the world on TV, were you never tempted to turn professional in your earlier days?

Never, the opportunity never presented itself. I was a 23 handicap when I was 18, was never good enough when young enough and never had the finances. Nobody ever came up to me at any point and said they would be interested in sponsoring me if I turned pro. Human nature can be that way, I used to have to walk to the golf club and members would wave at me as they drove past even though it was a three-mile walk in the hissing rain. That sort of thing makes you self-reliant. 

I was scratch when I was 25, played for England at 27 but I was never the kind of guy who bulleted it 300 yards. They’re not too impressed with my sort of golf. People think you didn’t play very well and then they tot it up and you’ve shot 67, and then they say you’re lucky. So many people have said to me that if I couldn’t putt I would be off 24.
So many people have said to me that if I couldn’t putt I would be off 24. What advice would you give Sergio Garcia on the greens?
I would like to know if his eye strays off-line at the point of impact, not necessarily his head moving but his eyes. As soon as you take your eye off the ball the club will turn in mainly but you can also push them and that was what was maybe happening to Rory McIlroy at Augusta.
As an amateur his short game was ridiculous, he won the Sherry Cup at Sotogrande with a 65 in the last round. Apparently at the last, and he maybe didn’t think he was in contention, he was just off the edge of the green and he had a straightforward chip and run. But he plays a parachute shot that stops right by the hole.
In the Spanish Amateur there were stories that he would give people 12-foot putts for par and then hole from 14 foot for birdie. That is intimidating and it worked.
I saw him in 2000 and he told me his chipping had gone and it had spread into his putting. He won his own tournament at the end of 2008 and his putting was great but come the start of the new year his stroke had changed and you wonder who’s been telling him what.

In 2003 you played another star in the making and your general ‘chat’ did work with Casey Wittenberg?
One reporter came up to me and said ‘I don’t know how you’ve done it, it’s a fascinating trait you’ve got to be able to get these scalps, but that is the first time I have ever seen Casey Wittenberg engage anybody in any conversation in a head-to-head match’. 
Apparently he had told everyone that a Brit wasn’t going to beat him. The week before Mark Reason had done an article about my tactics in matchplay which he then tried to fluff up to be slightly gamesmanship which was never the case. It was things like you nominate your ball and then walk off so, if they have the same ball, they would have to change, you shake people by the hand and look them in the eye, you come on the 1st tee and make really aggressive practice swishes to state your intention, you walk in front of your opponent so they are always seeing your back. And when you get on the green you say things like ‘it’s OK to repair any pitch marks, no need to ask’ – it’s as though they are playing your game and you are in control.

And you beat him 3&2…
The funny thing was that the Americans had arrived in time to read the Sunday papers. So we get on the tee and he announces a Titleist 1 and walks off and he does everything that I said that I would do. So I walked deliberately slowly so they always had to wait for me so it was counter psychology. The great thing was they all wanted to beat me and my picture was in the clubhouse at Ganton having won the Amateur and Mid Amateur there so they turned it round and put a felt tip over my face which was great as they weren’t concentrating on the team.

What is the best way to deal with the enormous pressure of the matches?
In 2003 we had a great team spirit and had a great laugh all week and, for me, that is the greatest way of getting rid of pressure. We had a great time in all the wins, we had a good time at Quaker Ridge in 1997 but we hit too many balls and practised all day and that was just bad management as much as anything. The only two people who didn’t were the two Scots, Steven Young and Craig Watson, who stayed in the clubhouse and ate doughnuts and they played really well.

How did you deal with pressure personally?
I am an absolute exhibitionist, I am the person you say go and stand in front of a group of people and go and do it. I would have to be carried kicking and screaming off the stage because that’s what I want to do. That’s inherent and is not easy to learn. There are lots of things that you need to do, you need to rehydrate which is crucial, you need to breathe well, you stay fed so you’re not lacking in energy and enjoy the moment. I love looking round and seeing the people’s faces but when you get over the shot they’re not there. 

Peter McEvoy has said that you are as good a judge of current form as any. Did you always get to play with your preferred partner?
The one thing that I regret is that I didn’t get the chance to select my own partner in the foursomes, I had to go with who I was given. Had I had the right partner we would have been almost unbeatable. My foursomes record is extraordinary, I think I won well over 80 per cent of my matches.
Peter would consult me, he would say ‘come into my office please Gary’ and we would set off down the fairway. I was seeing the players week in week out and the players would talk amongst themselves, they wouldn’t talk to the selectors and we were pretty much always right.

**How healthy do you think that the amateur scene at present? 
Some of the things that have happened in the last 10 years are not good in that the governing bodies are going along the lines of the other European countries and all that they are interested in doing is producing professionals and that’s wrong. If you’ve got a good amateur who is 35 years old, who has a great matchplay record, put him in the side. It is incredibly difficult for anyone over 25 to break into an England side because those young guys are getting all the opportunities. John Jermine was 53 when he won the Welsh Amateur, what a fantastic thing to aspire to.
Of course it is brilliant that so many amateurs can travel and compete all over the world as it is making Britain and Ireland the most successful countries in the world and the reason is the way those organisations were set up 15 years ago. And the way the Majors have gone in the past year only more youngsters will try the game. We have now got a situation where Great Britain and Ireland could take on America in the Ryder Cup again, that’s not to say Europe doesn’t enhance things but we could now play and be successful. 

**What sort of captain do you think Nigel Edwards will be?
I honestly believe he will be a great captain. He had a slight hiccup when they lost to Europe in the St Andrews Trophy last year but Nigel is a fighter and he is the last of the true amateurs. He is a great golfer in his own respect and people respect him, he is a tough nut and is everything that you want in a captain. He will do the right speech, will think the right way, will get the right attitude in the team because he likes to have fun at the same time. The Welsh team always used to have the best time, they used to have a nickname for everyone and it was a good laugh. Crucially he knows good players and how to get the best out of them. 

How important is the captain’s speech?
Some of our former captains haven’t been terribly good at that side of it, Colin Dalgleish is a lovely guy but isn’t the greatest orator. Clive Brown was the same. Garth wasn’t great but he was a young captain so you could relate to him. Peter McEvoy was a brilliant speaker, he had everything that a good captain should be and was one of the best man-managers I have ever seen. Peter came up to me before playing Tiger and said if there was any person he would want to play him it would be me, I don’t know if he really meant it but it made me feel great. 
He just knew how to produce their best, he brought the cashmere sweaters back, the wooden handled umbrellas, the Burton golf bags with your name on, he got Saatchi and Saatchi to produce a video for us, I have actually worn the tape out. He made you feel special and Nigel will do that and he will give a rousing speech I’m sure.

Would you make any changes to the backroom side of things?
I have sometimes thought that it is perhaps too much to ask of one person and I suggested to the R&A that a coach could be on hand. Someone to help if they weren’t striking the ball too well or someone to help with matchplay situations. Nigel can do all these but he has also got a lot of other things to do.

Finally, what is your prediction for the week?
Royal Aberdeen will be a fabulous venue and I think we will win by three points. The course will suit our players, the only unquantifiable thing is how they will stand up to the pressure of 8-10,000 people and TV cameras and you never know how you’re going to cope until you are faced with it.

Gary and MacWet gloves
Gary is the official ambassador for MacWet sports gloves, the ‘all grip, no slip’ technologically advanced gloves. They promise an unrivalled grip in all weather conditions performing just as superbly when wet as when dry. MacWet gloves are currently used in over 35 sports including golf, equestrian and shooting.

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