A champion by degrees

A Scot who has just enjoyed a graduation day is determined to pass golf's greatest examinations. close-up; Gordon Sherry

Just over a week ago, Gordon Sherry graduated from Stirling University, a four-year biochemistry degree successfully completed. "It was a great feeling and a great day," Sherry said. "It is a weight off my mind, to get something behind me. Now I can play more golf."

Not for this 22-year-old the dreaded graduate's job search. Sherry has been a professional golfer for two months. It has been on-the-job training of a high level, the lessons transferred from the lecture room to the laboratory of the golf tour.

Not long ago golf was a happy hobby. A year ago, Sherry won the British Amateur Championship, having lost in the final 12 months earlier. Then, in three successive weeks in July, he was unbeaten in six matches for Scotland in the European Championships, finished tied for fourth in the Scottish Open at Carnoustie, and shaded his playing partners Tom Watson and Greg Norman in the first two rounds of the Open Championship at St Andrews. Finally, there was the Walker Cup, with Sherry a Seve-like figure as Great Britain and Ireland regained the trophy from their American counterparts.

"It was a great run," Sherry recalled. "I took every hole as it came and enjoyed playing the game. My confidence was high and that is half the battle." While Phil Mickelson won on the US tour as an amateur in 1991, Sherry's performance ranks as the best ever by an amateur on the modern European Tour. He would have won in the region of pounds 30,000. Instead, he took home pounds 1 from a bet with the American amateur champion Tiger Woods.

His mother feared he would not complete his degree; but Sherry, the son of a retired policeman from Kilmarnock, returned to Stirling and in April made a brave, if abortive, attempt to become the first British amateur to make the cut at Augusta in almost two decades. He talked about knowing what to do when (not if) he came back again. And then he turned pro.

At 6ft 8in, Sherry has never been short of attention, but his high- profile entry on to the Tour, courtesy of invitations to the B & H International and the Volvo PGA Championship, raised the expectations to unattainable heights. At The Oxfordshire, Sherry collapsed on the back nine in the second round to miss the cut, while he was 57th at Wentworth. One of his playing partners in the B & H was Frank Nobilo, who publicly accused Sherry of lacking "some of the courtesies we take for granted".

When the two were again paired together the following week, the story hit the papers and there was a brief, now resolved, breakdown in communication with the Scottish press. "It was blown out of proportion," Sherry said. "Frank and I had a chat about it. At the Masters, one of my best days was a practice round with Frank and Sam [Torrance] and [Ian] Woosnam."

At the time, Sherry thought he was suffering from tonsillitis, but it was then diagnosed as glandular fever. A complete break meant missing out on an invitation to Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village. "I would have jumped at the chance of playing, but my health had to come first. I had no option but to have a break. Now that I'm better, I realise how lethargic I felt all the time.

"It could not have happened at a worse time, but it is one of those things. Now, I'm glad things are moving forward. I need to keep improving everything that I have been working on with Bob [Torrance, his coach], and believe him. Keep working on my short game and get everything sharper. I've got a long way to go yet. I need to build my experience and learn from my mistakes."

Torrance, father of Sam, had plenty to say, particularly about The Oxfordshire. "I walked the back nine with him. When I joined him he had just birdied the ninth hole to be one over par so he was among the leaders and he missed the cut. He was going for the flags, instead of going for the heart of the greens and two-putting.

"I've told him that his head has been going down and you mustn't do that. I said, if you come off the 18th green with six bogeys in a row or six birdies in a row, I don't want to be able to tell. The man who did that so well was Jack Nicklaus. You cannot put an old head on young shoulders. You learn from your mistakes; that's how everyone learns."

There has also been a new relationship with his caddie, known as Turnberry George. Torrance said: "Gordon has always had other members from his club caddieing for him and he was the boss man. He was just not used to being told the line or what club to hit. I had George and Gordon together and said, I think you could be one of the best golfers in Europe and you've got one of the best caddies in Europe, if not the best. Gordon, you are going to make mistakes, and George is going to make mistakes. You have got to play with that and live with that."

Of his young charge's game, Torrance, who has recently been consulted by the world No 5 Ernie Els, has no doubts. "He has a very, very good swing," he said, the gravelly Glaswegian accent approaching a purr. "He is not really weak in any department."

A top-five finish at Carnoustie this week would solve a problem for Sherry. It would avoid the long, rushed drive down to Formby to tee off in the Open qualifying at 8.15am on Sunday. Of more importance is getting his European Tour card, for which he needs to earn around pounds 40,000 from seven sponsors' invitations, of which the present Irish Open was his third, plus the Open if he gets in. "I'm hoping that I will get it. I'm a good enough player that I know I can get it. I've played at Lytham, I like the course, and I'd love to get back in the Open. But I'm trying to make sure I don't expect too much, just go out and try my best."

And all the attention? "It has been very difficult. I'd be telling a lie if I didn't say that. At the start it was quite nice, people recognise you and want to speak to you. But it gets a lot, not only for me, but for my mum and dad. That's part and parcel of the job. The better you do, the more well known you become. Most people want to be nice, so it is nice that they take an interest.

"I have a wonderful barrier around me of different people, my management company [Carnegie], my coach, my coach's wife, and my mum and dad. I'm lucky." Having played early on Thursday morning at Druids Glen, Sherry spent most of the afternoon in the press centre chatting with reporters. He had only come in to phone his mum.

What became of the amateur champions?

1990 Rolf Muntz: Holland's leading player. Stayed amateur until 1994; now in his second year on the European Tour and at present 47th in the Volvo rankings with pounds 69,653.

1991 Gary Wolstenholme: Career amateur and member of GB & Ireland's winning Walker Cup team at Royal Porthcawl. Recently gave up job in firm of Bristol solicitors and is now golf manager at Kilworth Springs.

1992 Stephen Dundas: Turned pro but failed to get on to the Tour. Now an assistant pro at Loch Lomond, where Gordon Sherry is the touring professional.

1993 Iain Pyman: Also low amateur in the 1993 Open, turned pro the following year and earned his card from a handful of invitations. On course to retain his card again this year with pounds 35,675 already in the bank.

1994 Lee James: Beat Sherry in the final of the Amateur Championship. Trying to work his way up the ranks.

1996 Warren Bladon: Surprise winner of this year's championship at Turnberry; 30-year-old from Kenilworth who should achieve his ambition of an England cap in the home internationals, as well as guaranteed spots in the Open and next year's US Masters.

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