Battle of a little man

profile Ian Woosnam Peter Corrigan discusses the quest for renewal that drives a golfer with natural talent
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IAN WOOSNAM is looking for the man he last encountered four years ago on a glorious two-week journey through the lushest of America's heartlands. As he embarks on the same journey this week, he is longing to re-acquaint himself with this pugnacious Welshman whose golfing swing was a natural fusion of grace and belligerence and who knew how to quench a thirst for victory.

Yes, Woosnam is back in search of his real self. It is not an unusual quest for him and neither is it for most of the front rank of European golf heroes. Nick Faldo is the fortunate one. He appears to have found the Faldo he's been looking for. But Seve's still squinting down every fairway in search of Ballesteros; Bernhard will be relieved to get a glimpse of Langer, not that he's ever far away; Jose Maria is hoping that Olazabal will catch him up before the year is much older; and Sandy is fighting off the day when he'll have to admit that Lyle has gone into permanent hiding.

What makes Woosnam's search fascinating is that he believes he is on the point of rediscovery at the scene of his finest moments. When he tackled the English Turn course at New Orleans in the corresponding week in 1991, the Welshman's priority was to play himself into form for the US Masters at Augusta the following week. He won in New Orleans and went to Augusta on a high that culminated in one of the most audacious victories even that great tournament has seen. That was his first, and last, major championship and he blames the pause in his progress to being over-coached, to allowing too much interference with the powerful, homespun style that made him the No 1 golfer in the world.

There is hardly a golfer of any description who is not in pursuit of the player he thinks he really is. Where the rest differ is that the self they seek is a shadowy figure who might have happened to produce a few good rounds some years ago but is now long lost. The stars, on the other hand, have painfully tangible proof of their quarry staring at them from the trophy cabinet or the bank account which, in Woosnam's case, is reputed to hold £14m. All the silver and gold in the world doesn't compensate for the absence of the man they'd love once more to be.

What Woosnam has done after three years during which a succession of false trails have added frustration to his fruitless foraging is to approach the problem from a totally different direction, to creep up on it and rely on the element of surprise to flush out the little varmint. Hence his appearance at the Honda Classic in Florida two weekends ago after a three-month lay-off in which he strengthened his troublesome back and re-created in his mind the free-swinging approach he had mislaid.

He didn't pick up a club for two months and, when he did, it was with the grip of old. The way he played in the Honda - finishing third after a thrilling battle with Mark O'Meara and Faldo - convinced him that he was about to have a rendezvous with the former Woosnam. "If I had been tournament sharp I would have done better," he maintained. "Every hole on the back nine has water and I kind of chickened out, poking it around instead of going for it."

Despite his background as a farmer's boy, any comparison with a chicken had better be made by him. The mere fact that he mentioned the creature proves that he has a little ground to regain before he matches the aggression that has fuelled his career. Being Welsh and 5ft 4in tall does not map out a conciliatory life for a man. He followed his father into the amateur boxing ring but it was as a bristling schoolboy footballer that he made a mark at the age of 14. But by then he had been playing golf for four years at his father's club Llany- mynech, which straddles Offa's Dyke, and he chose to propel the smaller ball, an occupation by no means hurt by the years he spent swinging scythes and toting bales on the farm.

It was not a smooth entry into the professional game after a golf scholarship or a comfortable parade through the amateur ranks. He turned pro at 18, made three attempts to gain his European Tour card and when he finally made it, his first year's earnings amounted to £284. He travelled to tournaments in a a battered caravanette with a few fellow rookies. They lived on beer and baked beans and along the way Woosnam gained a reputation as a hell- raiser. When you compare it with what young bloods in other sports get up to, it would be more accurate to describe him as the creator of the odd hubbub. His liking for a pint or two, however, did not get in the way of progress that may not have been rapid but was certainly remorseless.

Five years after he began, he was in the top 10 in the Order of Merit and five years after that he powered his way through 1987, winning six tournaments, including the World Match Play and the World Cup, and becoming the first man in Europe to win £1m in a year. That also made him the world No 1 in the money lists. The Sony World Rankings had begun by then but it took him another four years to top that when he landed the 1991 Masters. He won six events that year, three in the US, but before it ended he was fretting over his putting and experiencing a new problem.

"I started listening to everyone. I was trying to build a swing that would survive the pressures but all I did was fill my head with 100 different things to remember when I swung at the ball. I forgot to do what came naturally," he says. "The same has happened to Sandy Lyle."

Unlike Lyle, however, Woosnam has maintained a steady collection of titles each year. But it has not been comforting to watch. Every so often he would scream "Eureka" and proclaim the return of his form. And then it would be gone. If you followed every round, you could almost watch each recovery drain away, usually via his putting. It was the putter's fault, naturally, and he has a garage full of miscreant metal to prove it. He has always been a streaky player; once he feels in form it can go on round after round but the reverse can happen through a failed shot or a short putt that strays. Then come the doubts and despair and he sometimes finds it difficult to handle the Press and our never-ending enquiries as to the cause of his latest frustration.

Like others, he can't always accept that it's merely the curiosity for which golf fans are famed. He didn't appear to be happy at the reaction when he bought his airplane or when he moved from the Welsh borders to one of Jersey's better houses with his wife Glendryth and their three children. But there was sense in both moves and no one could accuse him of airs and graces. He still keeps in touch with his Oswestry drinking pals.

Although Woosnam was born on the English side of the border, he is steadfast about his Welshness and it is not just lip-service to the country he has profitably represented in the World and Dunhill Cups. When he began to ease into his recent comeback he played in Jersey and in the south of France but he popped back to Wales on more than one occasion to play at Llany- mynech and at Aberdovey, a course with which he is in love. He shares that emotion with Bernard Darwin, the great golf essayist, who said 100 years ago of these old links: "It is the course that my soul loves best in all the world."

Buried in the middle of Cardigan Bay, Aberdovey is also one of the most difficult courses to reach but Woosnam got there in February to plug his soul into the mains. His other tie with Wales is of newer origin. He is the touring pro of Wales's new golfing complex at Celtic Manor in Gwent, due to be opened in August. Part of the development is the Ian Woosnam Golfing Academy where 12 promising youngsters will be awarded golfing scholarships.

Woosnam has enough motivation to relaunch a dozen dawdling careers. He could, however, have picked a kinder launching pad for himself. English Turn is a murderously difficult course. Many, including Faldo, won't play in the New Orleans Classic this year because it can ruin your confidence for the Masters. But if Woosnam wants to resurrect the man he was in 1991 he knows he has to face it with the same gamecock spirit.

We are not that well off for golfers of character and charisma that we can happily ignore the creaking noises from some of the established European superstars. Woosnam was 37 earlier this month, which makes him a year younger than Faldo, Langer and Ballesteros. But you feel from him a deeper desperation to get back among the majors because he lags behind on that count and has to prove again his right to put the case for the small fry. If he can find himself this fortnight, it will be a reunion worth celebrating.