The Peter Pan of bowls who won't jack in

At 72 years old, on his eighth appearance at the Commonwealth Games, Willie Wood is going for gold again for Scotland
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The Independent Online

The legend of the bowls rink known as "Winkie" Wood was a wee slip of a 35-year-old when he made his first appearance in the Commonwealth Games arena. That was in Christchurch in January 1974, when Edward Heath was about to relinquish the Prime Ministerial reins back home and David Wilkie, the great moustachioed swimmer, was one of Willie Wood's Scotland team-mates out in New Zealand.

Wilkie won the 200m breaststroke and the 200m individual medley in the Games pool. Winkie won a bronze in the singles of the lawn bowls. Two years later, Wilkie memorably struck gold in the 200m breaststroke at the Montreal Olympics, then hung up his cap and goggles at the grand old age of 22.

Five months past his 72nd birthday, Winkie Wood is still rolling along, gathering momentum as a sporting phenomenon. Almost 37 years on from his debut in Christchurch, the not so much Wee Willie Winkie as Peter Pan of the bowls world is preparing for another Commonwealth Games. The septuagenarian is in Delhi as part of a Scotland squad that includes the 14-year-old springboard diver Grace Reid.

When the bowls tournament opens here in the Indian capital tomorrow, Wood will become the first person from any sport to compete in an eighth Commonwealth Games. Not that the genial Scot will be content to make up the numbers and head home with a token place in the record books.

"We'll be in with a chance of a medal, I would hope," he said, referring to the men he will compete with in the triples competition – David Peacock, 40, and Wayne Hogg, 30. "We are the world champions, the three of us playing together. So we'll be among the favourites, like."

Wood has trained with his team-mates in Delhi since last Sunday but has done the bulk of his preparation for the Games at West Barns on the outskirts of Dunbar on the East Lothian coast, 28 miles east of Edinburgh. He's a member of the bowling club there but has spent all his life – bar three years of National Service on German soil – up the road in Gifford.

It was there, in the home village of the great Protestant reformer John Knox, that he got hooked on bowls, first picking up a wood as a 12-year-old in 1951. "My father was a good player," Wood said. "He won the Scottish singles in 1967. He was Willie Edward Wood. I'm Willie Walker Wood. My middle name is after one of the greatest footballers that ever played for Hearts and Scotland – Tommy Walker. Both my grandfathers played bowls, and my mother and my uncle. It's a small village and in those days it was even smaller. There was nothing to do. I just started to play bowls and had an inkling that I might be quite good at this."

It was a pretty true, if understated, inkling. In his 44 years as an international bowls player, William Walker Wood MBE has won four Commonwealth Games medals – including gold in the singles in Brisbane in 1982 and in the fours in Auckland in 1990 – and eight World Championship gold medals. Not that it has all been plain sailing. "When I got beaten by David Bryant on the last end in the singles final at the World Championships in 1988, I said, 'I think I have had enough now, actually'," he said. "But I didn't pack it in. I've won eight gold medals since then, so I'm glad I kept going."

It is remarkable not just that Winkie is still going strong at 72, heading for his eighth Commonwealth Games, but that he could easily have been preparing for his 10th. In 1986, he was controversially overlooked by the Scotland selectors, during a dispute over his professional status, and in 2006 he declined a place on the team to Melbourne.

Those missed Games of 1986 were in Edinburgh, so there happens to be one notable gap in Wood's Commonwealth CV. He has yet to bowl for his country in a Commonwealth Games on Scottish soil, which of course leaves the carrot of the 2014 Games in Glasgow. He will be 76 by then.

"I don't feel any different now," Wood insisted, comparing his physical state in 2010 to that when he made his Commonwealth Games debut 36 years ago. "My eyesight's good. I don't have to wear glasses for bowling or driving. And my family are right behind me.

"They'd be quite happy if I won a medal in Delhi, but gold's the one you're after."

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