Ian Woosnam: 'I lost my way after climbing to the top'

Brian Viner Interviews: In Augusta next week the Ryder Cup captain will put aside thoughts of retaining the trophy to focus on finding his form at the scene of his one major triumph

At most golf tournaments he plays in these days, Ian Woosnam is welcomed less as a realistic contender than as Europe's next Ryder Cup captain. But at the Augusta National, where he is due to arrive on Monday, this diminutive son of a farmer from the Welsh borders can expect to be feted as one thing and one thing only: a former US Masters champion. They revere their ex-champs at Augusta, even the non-American ones. Eventually.

Woosnam's victory there 15 years ago marked the final salvo in a four-year British assault on the Masters that was all the more remarkable for the fact that before Sandy Lyle's victory in 1988, no British player - and only three non-Americans, in the form of Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer - had ever pulled on the champion's Green Jacket. There had never even been a British runner-up.

But Lyle's triumph was followed by back-to-back wins by Nick Faldo, who in turn was succeeded, in 1991, by Woosnam. Following the tradition that each champion is helped into the jacket by his predecessor, the Scotsman anointed the Englishman who anointed the Welshman, to the manifest disgruntlement of more than a few Yanks, not least those heckling from the crowd as the short guy in the plaid trousers nudged ahead of his final-round playing partner, the great Tom Watson. It was one of the reasons why Fred Couples was such a popular winner in 1992; there wasn't a single pesky European in the top 10.

Happy days, which Woosnam cheerfully recalls while lovingly nursing a glass of cold beer in the bar of the hotel Le Meridien Penina. He has never been known to eschew alcohol, and is not about to start after an arduous practice round in warm Portuguese spring sunshine, prior to the Algarve Open.

But before we talk about Augusta past I want to talk about Augusta future.

Like all former Masters champions, 48-year-old Woosnam is entitled to tiptoe through the dogwoods well into his dotage, but that's surely not a prospect he finds particularly attractive. I tell him that I can't even begin to imagine him creaking round the course in 106 strokes just for old time's sake, Billy Casper-style, and he agrees, adding that he might bring the curtain down on his Augusta career sooner rather than later.

"I'll see what the course is like next week. I know they've made some more changes, and I'm finding it more of a struggle as I get older. If it's too long for me then I don't see any point in playing, really. It's a shame. A lot of players have been taken out of the equation at Augusta. It's always been a case of where you position the ball on the green, but now it's more a case of how far you hit from the tee. There's still nothing like it in terms of tradition, it's a wonderful place, but I haven't made the cut since they made the first lot of changes a few years ago and it begins to get you down."

A slurp of beer. "The funny thing is, I'm longer than I used to be. I can carry about 275 yards unless it's a bit cold, but at Augusta now you need to carry at least 285, otherwise you don't catch the downslopes and that makes a real big difference. But I think that someone with a really exceptional short game can still win there. Someone like [Jose Maria] Olazabal. He loves that golf course, he's found an extra 20 yards off the tee and his short game is fantastic."

Olazabal it was whose win at Augusta in 1994, following Bernhard Langer's second Masters victory 12 months earlier, meant that Europeans had donned the Green Jacket in six out of seven years, and most golf fans on this side of the Atlantic have their favourite memories of that halcyon period of supremacy.

For many, it is Sandy Lyle's nervelessly precise seven-iron out of the bunker on the 18th, followed minutes later by his joyous, sweaty-armpitted salute. But for me it will always be Woosnam, with his low centre of gravity and compact, uncomplicated swing, ripping the ball with his driver miles over the same bunker. It was the shot of an artisan rather than an artist, the shot of a man who had grown up chucking hay bales around the family farm, developing arm strength to make Popeye envious. And watching at home in Oswestry was his dad, Harry, who had once filled young Ian with pride during a visit to a fairground in Pwllheli, volunteering to go a round with a local boxing champion, and knocking the champ out with a single, wrecking-ball punch.

This time it was Harry's turn to be proud, as his lad, all 5ft 4in of him, reignited the Woosnam tradition of flooring the local hero with one devastating blow. Watson, who had pushed his drive into the Georgia pines, could manage no better than a double-bogey six. Woosnam, meanwhile, was left with the putt he had dreamt of during his teen years at Llanymynech Golf Club, an eight-footer to win the Masters.

"That last round is still a bit of a blur," he says. "I haven't even watched the video of it very much. But I remember that it seemed to take for ever, and I remember the heckling. There was cheering when I knocked it in the water at 13, and on the 14th tee some guy shouted, 'This is not a sea links, this is Augusta!' He wasn't at the front of the crowd, funnily enough. They never are. But what he didn't know was that I play better when someone gets my back up. I hit a good drive up 14 and turned round and said, 'What do you think of that?' Or something like that. Watson was great. He apologised for the heckling, and said he knew what it was like, because he'd had it playing with [Jack] Nicklaus, just like Nicklaus had it playing with Arnold [Palmer]."

When they came to the 18th tee, Woosnam and Watson were tied for the lead at 11 under par. Locked with them at the top of the leader board was Olazabal, but he had just found "Lyle's" bunker with his tee-shot, and limped out of contention to fight another day.

"We knew what had happened to Olazabal," Woosnam recalls, "and Watson stood on the tee for a long time. Eventually he went with a three-wood which I thought was the wrong shot completely. I saw it as a driver or an iron, because with a three-wood you still had to shape it away from the bunker."

Sure enough, Watson misfired, but when finally they both made it to the green, Woosnam still needed to hold his nerve. "I'd come up just short with my second, and the pin was in an awkward spot on the second tier. I thought, 'Shall I chip or putt? I don't want to duff it straight in front of my face, so I'll putt'."

I tell him that is reassuring to hear that he had the same processes while striving to win the Masters as I have striving not to lose a Sunday-morning fiver. He obliges me with a chuckle. "I left myself with a seven or eight footer. Then Watson hit one of his charging putts, and I thought he'd holed it. That would have made my putt a damn sight harder. But he hadn't, so I knew that I was in a play-off even if I missed it. That helped quite a bit." He holed the putt, dropping to one knee and urging it in with a sweep of a mighty forearm. His only blunder on that final day, apart from hooking into Rae's Creek on 13, was a sartorial one. There's nothing complementary about red checked trousers, navy-blue shirts and green jackets.

"I had a few pairs of Oscar Jacobsen trousers and all of them were a bit Rupert the Bear," Woosnam tells me. I fancy he is used to being ribbed, even now, for his dress sense on 14 April 1991. "Being Welsh I wore a red pair on the last day, and I was going to wear a white shirt, but it had a mark on it, so I wore blue. I knew it didn't go with the green jacket but I didn't care a crap."

After being jacketed by Faldo in the Butler Cabin, and giving the obligatory media interviews, there was only one thought on his mind. "I just wanted a few beers with the lads, but then I found out that I had to go to a dinner at the golf club with the members. I had to wear the jacket, but they didn't have one to fit me. For the ceremony I'd had to wear someone else's, the guy who ran the press office I think it was. Anyway, the wife and I went to the dinner, and I remember [the Augusta chairman] Hord Hardin asking me what bottle of wine I would like. I chose a 1975 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which was fantastic, and then about 11 o'clock I went down the Holiday Inn to see the lads. I eventually rolled in about one in the morning, completely knackered." A pause. "Although I didn't get a lot of sleep."

I ask Woosnam whether the Masters title was unequivocally a blessing in terms of his career, and indeed his life? The 1975 Mouton Rothschild notwithstanding, was that dinner with the Augusta members, when he just wanted some beers with his mates, in some ways a disagreeable portent of the future? "Well, winning the Masters was the pinnacle. I'd always wanted to win a major and it didn't matter which one. But now I had done that, I had climbed to the top of the mountain and wasn't quite sure where to go next. The ambition went out of my life a little bit. I should have said, 'Let's carry on and try to win more majors', but I didn't, and with the press interest and that, I lost a bit of freedom."

Woosnam still has "only" one major to show for his 30 years as a professional golfer, although it might have been two had his infamous caddie Miles Byrne not forgotten to remove the spare driver from his bag before the final round of the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham St Annes. Woosnam, going like a train at the time and looking the most likely winner, was penalised two shots and his concentration derailed. In a way, the incident stemmed from his own decency as a bloke. Only a couple of months earlier, he had encouraged his faithful caddie Phil "Wobbly" Morbey to find more lucrative employment, on the basis that he was no longer winning the kind of prize-money to which they had both become accustomed. Wobbly would never have left 15 clubs in the bag.

Still, theres no point dwelling on what might have been, especially when there's so much to dwell upon yet to come. In September, at the K-Club in County Kildare, Woosnam will lead the European Ryder Cup team that he served so stalwartly as a player. "It's always in the back of my mind," he says, "but I'm not letting it get to me. There's six months still to go, so I've got to be sensible about it." Nevertheless, might he not, for the first time, be less concerned with his own performance next week than with the performances of others, seeing how his potential Ryder Cup players handle the pressure? He laughs.

"Not really. I watched a lot of the TPC on television and I thought Luke Donald would do well there but he didn't. It never suited my game either.

"You begin to realise that it's horses for courses. The Ryder Cup team is shaping up really well, but at Augusta I'll be worrying about my own game. My ambition is just to make the cut." He's a horse for other courses now.

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