Golf: Sherry back on a Tiger hunt

Paul Trow discovers that an old rivalry is still firing a giant talent
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Tiger Woods has been in the fast lane since the age of two. Now 21, the Californian epitomises the new American Dream and his fortune is assured. Yet 1995 found him in an unaccustomed position - second best.

That year, the true colossus of amateur golf was exactly that. At 6ft 8in and 18st, Gordon Sherry towered over Woods by seven inches and outgunned him by seven stone. He also upstaged him whenever they met on the course - at the Scottish Open at Carnoustie, the Open at St Andrews a week later and, finally, in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl.

At the Scottish Open the two amateurs struck a pounds 1 bet, which Sherry won comfortably by finishing fourth. Their fortunes are slightly different now. While Woods has feasted on praise, prize money and huge sponsorship deals since turning pro at the end of last summer, Sherry's professional career, which began four months earlier, has been a starvation diet. Woods has made upwards of $50m, Sherry rather less than pounds 20,000. There is, it now emerges, a good reason for this. "I had glandular fever all last season," the 22-year-old Scot explained last week. "I'm over it now but I was playing in tournaments when I didn't know what was going on.

"I went to the Masters where I gave interviews left, right and centre, I was finishing my degree [a BSC in biochemistry at Stirling University], signing contracts and turning pro. It was too much. I should never have played in the Scottish PGA and I felt horrendous throughout the next week at the Benson and Hedges International."

That B&H proved a watershed. After one round, New Zealand's Frank Nobilo complained that the young Scot had much to learn about how to conduct himself on tour. "According to Frank I was moving on the fairways and across the line of his putts. I felt so ill I couldn't concentrate. My awareness was non-existent. But Frank only spoke to the media, he said nothing to me."

Sherry was schooled in the game by his father and older brother from the age of six. Both hold down single-figure handicaps, but the young giant from Kilmarnock was in a different league. Scratch at 17 and capped by Scotland at 18, he lost an Amateur Championship final at 20 and went one better at 21. He was also academic. "I had a sympathetic tutor named, believe it or not, Nick Price. He let me do my course over four years rather than three.

"After turning pro I kept pleasing other people and not Gordon Sherry. Getting those invites was superb but with hindsight I shouldn't have taken them all. Eventually, I wasn't allowed to fly and you can imagine how disappointed I was at missing the Memorial and Kemper Open in America. I had several weeks off but I still felt rough in September at the World Invitational at Loch Lomond."

He has an especially soft spot for Tom Weiskopf's majestic creation on the banks of one of the world's most beautiful lakes. "I played there for Scotland in an amateur match against Sweden early in 1995. I complimented the course, not because I was trying to impress but because I thought it was wonderful, and Lyle Anderson [Loch Lomond's American owner] gave me honorary life membership. Now I'm their touring pro, but I don't practise there in the winter - it's too wet. My home club is Barassie, but I go mainly to Gleneagles."

Since flunking the European Tour school while still unwell in November, Sherry has found the invitations have all but dried up - apart from the Italian Open in May and the Loch Lomond event the week before the Open at neighbouring Royal Troon.

"Invitations this year will be last-minute so I must be prepared, physically and mentally, to play all the time. I'm missing the Challenge Tour event in the Ivory Coast next week because I don't want to pick something up and have any more time off. But I'll play in Kenya the following week."

Overall, Sherry's sweetness in adversity is his greatest fortification. "People say that 1996 was an unsatisfactory time for me but it gave me the equivalent of four years' experience and will stand me in good stead in the long run. I've learned to be patient, but I've proved this week that I can still play."

He was referring to the Alfred Dunhill South African PGA Championship in Johannesburg last week when he tied for 20th. He collected pounds 3,290, still not enough to push his total earnings over pounds 20,000 - half what he would have made from his gilded fortnight in 1995.

Which brings us back to Tiger. "I look up to him as my role model. I've nothing but respect for him and his success gives me great hope. I know I can compete with him, I've done it before and there's no reason why I can't do it again."

Should that happen, there'll be a bit more at stake than pounds 1.