Golf: High flyer answers his angels' prayers: The career of Jim Payne has been on an upward curve since he conquered St Mellion in May. Tim Glover reports

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WHEN Jim Payne partnered Jack Nicklaus in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale two years ago he was taught a lesson and it had nothing to do with striking a golf ball. 'I learnt a lot that day about doing your own thing,' Payne said. He has been doing it rather well ever since.

At Birkdale a steward approached Payne (the official, of course, did not approach the Golden Bear) and told him that he and Nicklaus had lost ground on the players in front. 'I wondered whether I should tell Nicklaus,' Payne said. 'Then on the 17th we were a long way behind and I was thinking we might get a two-shot penalty. Nicklaus popped into a portaloo and we lost another couple of minutes. If that had been me I'd have dashed to the tee, hit the drive quickly and then looked for the nearest bush.'

That summer Payne played in the Walker Cup against the United States at Portmarnock after which he turned professional. At the European Tour qualifying school he was 34th, good enough to get him his card. With the backing of four 'angels' from his home club, Sandilands, in Lincolnshire, Payne teed it up all over Europe. His backers paid his expenses and took a cut of his winnings. Until turning pro he was officially 'employed' as the head greenkeeper. 'The head greenkeeper didn't like it,' Payne said. 'I had to read books about it just in case people questioned me.'

In his first six tournaments he did nothing. 'I really struggled. My confidence was low and I began to wonder whether I was good enough to play on the Tour.' The angels knew, and so did everybody else by the time Payne finished with Nicklaus's course at St Mellion last May. In the Benson and Hedges International he was joint third with Nick Faldo, one stroke behind Peter Senior and Tony Johnstone.

Payne won more than pounds 28,000 and had he holed a longish putt at the last he would have gone into a play-off. 'I didn't really realise what was going on at the 18th,' he said. 'I was concentrating on playing the course. I didn't want to realise what that putt meant.'

It was Payne's first visit to St Mellion, one of the hardest places on the Tour. 'I feel I'm a better player on a course where par is a good score,' Payne said. When the wind blows at St Mellion par is priceless. Payne had arrived. He finished third on three occasions and ended the season 33rd in the Volvo Order of Merit with pounds 148,352. He won the Rookie of the Year award by the margin of pounds 2,106 from his Walker Cup colleague, Gary Evans.

Payne played in 32 tournaments, made possible because he was re-ranked during the season from 34th, his position at the school, to fourth. Most recruits dislike playing alongside a star. Not Payne.

'I played with Ballesteros, Langer and Montgomerie and you learn so much just by watching them. At the start I was with other Tour school players and you feel as though you're going out just to make the cut. With the top players you aim for a top 10 finish and you forget about the cut altogether. In such company you almost feel embarrassed to hit bad shots and you concentrate harder without realising it.

'It's a big advantage to get drawn with them. What really struck me is that they hit bad shots as well although somehow they manage to score well. I will never let a bad shot get me down. I always thought they were miles and miles ahead of me. I'm behind them but not that much. They are quite normal.'

In the European Masters in Switzerland Payne shot 63 in the final round. It was the first tournament to carry points towards selection for the Ryder Cup in September. In that particular table Payne is 17th with pounds 69,501 and when Bernard Gallacher, the captain, presented him with pounds 5,000 worth of travel vouchers as the British Airways High Flyer of the Year he remarked upon his 'sensible approach' to the game.

Sandilands, in Lincolnshire, midway between Skegness and Grimsby, is a sensible sort of base for Payne. Apart from the golf course there are no distractions. At 22 he lives in the 'middle of nowhere' with his parents. 'My dad's a builder and my brother works with my dad. Mostly elderly people live there and there's one shop. It takes me three and a half hours to get to Heathrow. It's not a nice drive home on a Sunday night, but it's a nice place to get back to. I don't know whether I'll stay. I might buy a house if I have a good year.'

While most of the leading players are keeping their ammunition dry for Dubai and Singapore in a few weeks' time, Payne tees off today in the Madeira Open at Funchal after a week of playing and practising in Portugal with Gordon J Brand, Ricky Willison and his coach, Eric Sharp. The first change Payne has made is to his diary.

'Last year I played in six or seven events in a row and by the end I didn't know what day it was or what country I was in,' he said. 'It's important to be alert and appreciate what you're doing. The Ryder Cup is in the back of my mind but it's not a realistic goal. My aim is to be a better player at the end of the year.

'If that means playing in the Ryder Cup or being 50th in the Order of Merit that's fine, just as long as I've learnt a bit more. I don't really feel good enough to win a tournament although the fact that I came within a few shots last season should tell me that it's possible. Everything I'm trying to do is for six or seven years' time.'

Not everything. There's about pounds 24m in prize-money on offer and it is the reason Payne turned professional. 'Money is my biggest incentive,' he said, 'and I'm sure it was the same for people like Faldo and Woosnam when they started out.' Not everybody on tour is as brutally honest, but then Payne is a greenkeeper turned poacher.

(Photograph omitted)