Golf: James eager to progress to the professional ranks: Sherry thwarted in Amateur Championship as practice sessions pay profitable dividends for victor

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The Independent Online
THE Amateur Championship, first played in 1885 at Royal Liverpool, will be defended by Lee James at the same course in 1995. Only the title and the venue remain unchanged. For the majority, the amateur game is merely a stepping stone to a career in professional golf, and the 21- year-old James can hardly wait to make the transition.

He will join the paid ranks after the Walker Cup match against the United States at Royal Porthcawl next year. James, consumed by golf, to the exclusion of almost everything else (he started at the age of five), has a handicap of plus two.

Like most of the other young pretenders, James plays golf virtually full time. Winning the Amateur Championship has its rewards, notably exemption to the Open at Turnberry next month and an invitation to the Masters at Augusta next April, but a guarantee of a successful career is not one of them.

Jose-Maria Olazabal, who won at Formby in 1984, is the exception to the rule. Others, like Philip Parkin (Turnberry, 1983), Paul Mayo (Prestwick, 1987), Stephen Dodd (Royal Birkdale, 1989) and Stephen Dundas (Carnoustie, 1992) have a different story to tell. It will not appear to be of solace to Gordon Sherry, who was beaten 2 and 1 by James in the final at Nairn on Saturday, but finishing runner-up may be more advantageous to him in the long run.

'If I'd played as I had done earlier in the season, I'd have walked it,' the 20-year-old Sherry said afterwards. 'I couldn't get anything going. I don't want to take anything away from James. He's a very, very good player. He doesn't hit many bad shots and I haven't seen anybody putt like that.'

James, who in three previous attempts had never got past the qualifying rounds, put the splendid silver trophy in the boot of his car for the marathon drive back to Dorset. He plays for the Broadstone club, for whom he has won the boys', colts' and county titles. On Saturday, three Broadstone members, out of a crowd of around 1,500, made the journey to Scotland to support him.

As Sherry, who plays at Kilmarnock Barassie, pointed out, the key to James' victory was his canny putting touch on greens which were remarkably fast and true. James, who is coached by Graham Packer of the Three Rivers club in Essex, spent a week practising at Nairn prior to the championship. He led from the fifth hole of the 36-hole final and the only sign of vulnerability came near the end, as the pressure began to tell.

It also affected the towering figure of Sherry (6ft 9in in his golf shoes). 'I don't remember swinging the club on the first tee,' he said. After the qualifying rounds, Sherry was assisted by the tiny figure of Martin Smith, a schoolboy from Nairn Academy. Smith, a 16 handicap golfer, volunteered to caddie for Sherry, although the bag was twice his size. Shouldn't he have been at school? 'My mum said I could have the week off.'

Sherry's consolation is that he will almost certainly join James in the nine-man Great Britain and Ireland team to play the Continent of Europe at Chantilly on 24 and 25 June. As attractive as Chantilly is, there are not many courses that can steal Nairn's thunder. The first seven holes, in particular, offer spectacular views, and it would be hard for any southerner to relate to a membership fee of just pounds 200 a year. Willie Whitelaw is a lucky man. Lord Whitelaw, who followed the final, is president of the club and has been playing there for 72 of his 76 years.

On Saturday evening, as the sun set over the Moray Firth, the management of the Golf View Hotel did not know whether to laugh or cry. In the small dining room, officials of the Royal and Ancient toasted its new amateur champion - but there were absent guests. Tables had been reserved for the passengers of the Chinook helicopter that crashed near the Mull of Kintyre.