Thirteen years after his last Ryder Cup appearance at Brookline, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie is in the mood to do battle with the USA on American soil again
Mention the name of Paul Lawrie in golfing circles and another player inevitably springs to mind – a slightly batty Frenchman called Jean Van de Velde, who led the 1999 Open Championship by three strokes going to the final tee and conspired to toss away the trophy in spectacular fashion.
Who can forget Van de Velde paddling in the Barry Burn at Carnoustie, trousers rolled up to his knees as he considered trying to blast his ball out of the running stream? “If he gets that ball out, I’m retiring,” said BBC commentator Peter Alliss.
Who can forget the drama, the humour, the panic as the BBC rearranged the schedules after Van de Velde had completed a triple bogey to prompt a play-off with American Justin Leonard and Scotland’s Lawrie? The fact is no-one can. The drama was unforgettable.
Lawrie’s part in it never quite falls into that category and that is a shame for the man who was ranked 159th in the world in 1999 and who trailed the leader by 10 shots going into that final round.
People forget that he birdied the last two holes of the play-off to wrest the Old Claret Jug. They forget that no European player won another Major until 2007, when Ireland’s Padraig Harrington landed the Open.
They forget that no-one from the United Kingdom won another Major until Graeme McDowell triumphed at the 2010 US Open.
Put simply, the greatest achievement of the Aberdonian’s career was airbrushed by the bizarre shortcomings of the man who came second.
This September Lawrie has a chance to right all those wrongs. At 43 he has a chance once more to sample golfing life under the bright lights as part of Europe’s Ryder Cup team in Illinois.
And while Lawrie has readily admitted he felt hard done by after not getting the credit he deserved for his win at Carnoustie, all that has been consigned to history.
“I think it did (hurt) for a long, long time and I think I tried to change people’s view of it, but you’re just wasting your time,” Lawrie said.
“Why would you waste time and energy trying to get people to give you respect? You know, you play your golf, you go home to your family and you do what you do.
“The only person it was hurting was me. It’s difficult when you win a tournament of that size and people don’t give you credit for winning.”
There is no question, however, that Lawrie’s game shifted to a higher level after his Open victory.
He finished ninth on the European Tour Order of Merit in 1999, sixth in 2001 – when he captured the lucrative Dunhill Links Championship – and 10th in 2002, after lifting the Welsh Open at Celtic Manor.
Yet while he has recorded 12 professional wins, his record in the Majors has been less than remarkable.
In the five years Lawrie played at the US Masters, following the qualifying exemption he gained by winning the 1999 Open, he missed the cut three times and finished tied 15th and 37th.
In the US Open he missed three cuts and was tied 30th, while in the US PGA Championship he missed two cuts and was tied 34th and 72nd.
In the Open his record has been just as ordinary. Since 1999 Lawrie has failed to make the weekend seven times and finished 42nd, 59th, 52nd, 47th, 66th and, this July, 34th.
Actually, his latest Open placing at Lytham is misleading, because it was by some measure his most rewarding for years. His first-round 65 was just one off the lead and if he had not faded badly in the third round, when he carded a 76, he might have been in contention in the final round.
The most noticeable thing, however, was that he appeared to be enjoying his golf. He was calm and relaxed but meticulously focused, all qualities he will need when facing the United States at a passionate and patriotic Medinah Country Club.
Not that Lawrie is inexperienced in facing hostile galleries. He was the man, after all, who partnered Colin Montgomerie in 1999 at Brookline in two fourballs and two foursomes.
Few atmospheres in sport can rank as ugly as that opening fourball on the first morning, when Lawrie and Montgomerie took on Phil Mickelson and David Duval.
Most of the American fans’ venom was directed at Montgomerie, a figure of fun in America at the time who was dubbed ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ when playing across the Atlantic. ‘Monty’ was ridiculed and jeered at every turn, so much so that his father James felt moved to leave the course mid-round, rather than listen to the abuse his son was enduring.
Through it all Lawrie kept his composure, proving a robust support for Montgomerie as the pair cruised to a commendable 3&2 victory.
The afternoon foursomes saw them take half a point from Davis Love III and Justin Leonard, and while they lost the morning foursomes on the second day to Hal Sutton and Jeff Maggert, they managed to defeat Steve Pate and Tiger Woods 2&1 in the afternoon fourball.
Lawrie went on to beat Maggert 4&3, one of only three Europeans (the others were Montgomerie and Harrington) to win their singles.
That meant Lawrie had gained 3½ points from a possible five in his first Ryder Cup, no mean achievement, and the only surprise was that it did not spark a more formidable rise up golf’s ladder.
Maybe he is just one of those characters who is destined never to register on the radar.
Even in Montgomerie’s autobiography, a man with whom he had been interwoven so closely, Lawrie was referred to wrongly as ‘Peter Lawrie’, an Irish golfer who missed the cut in his lone appearances at the Open and the US Open.
Lawrie, Paul that is, laughed off the mistake, generously exonerating Montgomerie from blame.
“Knowing Colin as I do, he’ll be furious that mistakes have been made,” Lawrie was reported as saying. “I know as well as anyone that Colin knows my name’s Paul, and not Peter, so I can’t imagine that it’s Monty’s fault. He’s sent me a text to say it’ll be changed for the second run of the book, so it’s not really an issue, but it’s funny.”
What Lawrie is entirely serious about is junior golf and the Paul Lawrie Foundation, which he founded in 2001 and which supports budding stars under 18, providing equipment and nurturing enthusiasm in the Aberdeen area.
The foundation now encompasses football, curling, swimming and hockey, as well as golf, and Lawrie was determined to develop it at a time when he was still
an active Tour player, rather than wait until the end of his career.
Lawrie – who has two sons, Craig and Michael, who could yet follow in his professional footsteps – said: “It would be easy to be retired and try to put something back when you’ve got nothing else to do, but it was very important to me to be doing this as a current player.”
Earlier this year Lawrie also bought Aspire Golf Centre in Aberdeen, now renamed the Paul Lawrie Golf Centre, perhaps with a view to life when he has hung up the clubs competitively.
It is his passion to adorn his career with rich memories, however, which draws him back to the Ryder Cup.
He opted out of the US Open this year because he gauged points available in Europe were more likely to aid him in his qualification.
He has also stated his desire to captain the side when it comes to Gleneagles in 2014, an ambition which has been endorsed by characters as influential as Ryder Cup veteran and 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke.
A Scot in charge on the Ryder Cup’s return to Scotland would be a neat fit and Lawrie says: “No-one would say no to that job. I can’t think of anyone in the world of golf who would say no to the Ryder Cup captaincy.”
The one misgiving is Lawrie’s relative inexperience in the format, 1999 being his only appearance to date.
That is another reason why Lawrie will be soaking in the atmosphere, studying the organisation and picking the brains of captain Jose Maria Olazabal and his four vice-captains at Medinah.
Why should the career of ‘Chippie’, a sobriquet noting his renowned short game, have taken such an upward curve at a relatively late stage?
Hard work is one reason. A simple, uncomplicated swing is another, allowing Lawrie the longevity which eludes some individuals with more complex techniques.
Belief is the main reason. A conviction at last that he really is a worthy Open winner. It is surprising what a winning mentality can achieve. In March 2011 he won the Open de Andalucia de Golf by one stroke over Johan Edfors, finishing the tournament on 12 under par to end a nine-year period without a Tour win.
There is nothing like garnering silverware to give a sportsman that feelgood factor. The momentum began there and Lawrie, who was ranked 272 in the world at the time, has not looked back.
In February this year he won the Qatar Masters for the second time in his career, having previously triumphed in 1999, and went on to share second place in the BMW PGA Championship, third in the Volvo World Matchplay Championship and to win the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in August. He was also runner-up in the Dubai World Championship at the close of last year.
The point is Lawrie has become accustomed to a place in the top 10. He has become ‘Mr Consistent’, amassing cash and valuable Ryder Cup points along the way, as well as climbing steadily up the world rankings, breaking into the top 30. As Montgomerie put it: “He’s playing the golf of his life and is holing out well.”
His decision to stay loyal to his roots in Aberdeen – where he lives with wife Marian and his two sons, and where he is a committed supporter of the city’s football team – has been vindicated.
Who knows what lies ahead? Hopefully another winning Ryder Cup appearance followed by a triumphant stint as captain in his native Scotland.
“When I’m 50, my intention is to play on the Champions Tour,” Lawrie said. “By that time the boys will be up and gone, and Marian can travel with me. We are looking forward to that.
“And when I die I know exactly what I want on my gravestone. It will say: ‘Champion golfer of the year 1999.’ How cool is that?” Not a mention of a certain barmy Frenchman.
Images: PA Photos