Ryder Cup: Resurgent Paul Lawrie returns to fray older and wiser
The dependable Scot is back in Europe's team, capping a two-year revival from a trough in which he even lost to his son. Kevin Garside meets him
Paul Lawrie is far removed from the preening self- regard of your average 21st-century sportsman. Don't bother asking him if you have run out of hair gel. The words male and groom have application only at weddings in Lawrie's world. When Jose-Maria Olazabal scans the room during his post-dinner oration on Thursday night, Lawrie will be the chap at the back, observing quietly with a look on his face that screams "one of the lads". At 43 years old, golf has thrown him a remarkable career upgrade, 13 years after he first boarded a plane to America as a European Ryder Cup player. At Brookline he carried the mantle of Open Champion, a prize he had plucked from the Barry Burn at Carnoustie after Jean van der Velde's epic choke. Lawrie was chosen to hit the first ball and returned a best in class 3.5 points. He was proud of his contribution but individual success meant little in the context of collective failure.
The Brookline experience was both exhilarating and unnerving, a joy and a paradox. As a major winner the honour of hitting first ought not to surprise. Lawrie was a rookie. Though he would have qualified for the team without the Open cheque, he was very much a junior figure, a player to be nursed. Captain Mark James gave that job to his leading man, Colin Montgomerie. It was decided that Monty would drive the even holes, thus the honour of teeing off first fell to Lawrie. "I was not calm, I would have to admit. It was one of those situations where, at the time you are thinking, 'Man, I can't believe I've agreed to do this.' Then afterwards you are thinking, 'Wow that was great. I'm glad I did that.' I was very nervous. The most nervous I have been in my life, no question. I get nervous on the first tee whatever tournament I play but that was the Ryder Cup."
Ownership of the Claret Jug can never be anything other than a wish fulfilled yet, for a 30-year-old from the ranks, it was never the expectation it might be for those who occupy golf's higher ground. The unique nature of the team event did not expose Lawrie to the trials of office he endured elsewhere.
The end of his reign was a release of sorts. "It was difficult. Back then I was a decent player, a good player, and then you go and win the Open. All of a sudden you are a major champion. There are things to do, things that come with that. It's not easy. Towards the end of that year as champion, you are not wishing it to be over but you are not disappointed.
"It was busy. I did not want to say 'no' to anybody. I loved it, of course I did. I would love to do it again. It's an honour, there is nothing better in golf than to be Open champion, but it is very, very difficult to play normally. The feeling of being out there playing with your pals doesn't happen that year. Everything is on top of you. Everybody is expecting you to win every week. I would have loved to have played better, won more tournaments. It was not for the lack of trying. I expected to be playing back then as I am now, but there is nothing I can do about that. It's gone and things are different now. I'm left alone now to work on the things I need to work on and starting to play good golf again. Three wins in the past 18 months is a nice run."
It is better than that. In his golfing dotage Lawrie occupies a career-high ranking of 27 in the world. He copped some stick in America for not contesting the US Open, a decision vindicated by his confident stride into the European team, third on the qualification list.
By numbers and his own admission he returns to the Ryder Cup theatre a superior player. It is a heart-warming recovery from a ranking that had fallen below 300. He credits the rejuvenation to his spell in the commentary box at Celtic Manor and defeat to his teenage son over nine holes. That's gotta hurt.
"There is not a golfer or sportsman in the world that does not go through poor spells and questions if they can do what they are supposed to be good at again. In golf things can change so quickly. It's amazing how in January you can be hitting it like a dog and missing every cut and then in February, March you have one good week and you are off. This game can be a torture like that. You hit a poor shot and you have to wait before you can put it right. You might hit two in a row, make a double and you are thinking, 'Man, I just can't do this any more.' That's how it is.
"Two things changed for me. Doing Ryder Cup commentary in Wales had a huge impact. Sitting there talking about something you think you should be playing in was very motivating. I had not been to a Ryder Cup since the one I played in, just watched on television. The whole thing was massive. I was thinking, 'I want to be part of that again. I think I'm capable if I just knuckle down.' Around about the same time my eldest son beat me. It sounds a bit silly, and I was proud of him, but I was thinking that I should not be getting beaten by a 15-year-old kid. So I did what I had to do to start climbing the rankings again. A lot of hard work, basically. I have had only a couple of weeks when I have missed cuts. I have not been known in my career for that kind of consistency. I have always been the type of player who finishes fourth or fifth one week then a missed cut. That has changed so it's been nice."
A confident Lawrie, with his razor-sharp short game restored, is a fantastic asset to captain Olazabal. Off the pitch his selfless disposition furnishes the skipper with a binding agent in the team room. And perhaps most significant of all, Lawrie neither feels grateful to be in Chicago nor does he feel the silent compulsion to justify his position as a major winner. He is over all that. "The difference this time is that I have qualified through playing consistently with a lot of top 10s as well as wins. Someone asked Thomas Bjorn about me and the Ryder Cup, how I would get on. And he said, 'You don't have to worry about Paul Lawrie. He knows what he is doing and what he has to do.' I quite liked that. They are not thinking I'm going to be a problem.
"Sometimes age is a good thing. I go into this event a bit different than last time, even though I had won the Open in 1999. I'm a bit older and a bit wiser [regarding] what's going on. I still prefer to sit at the back of the room as opposed to the front. I certainly won't be offering my opinion on things unless I'm asked. I'm not that kind of person. There are enough people in the team who can say what needs to be said. If they want my opinion I'll gladly give it. If Jose-Maria wants me to go to the clubhouse and get someone a banana I'll be the one running, I can assure you. We are all the same. That's what sets Europe apart.
"People have asked me who I want to play with. I'm not bothered. I can play with anybody. If you don't see my playing much that's fine. If you see me playing loads that's fine, too. I don't have an ego. I blend in pretty well. Whatever the captain wants me to do I'll do. But I'm no different to the rest of the lads in that respect. The whole team is going over there with the same attitude and that's what it is all about."
Paul Lawrie is an ambassador for Aberdeen Asset Management
Facts in figures
20 Seasons Lawrie has played on the European Tour
2004 The year when Lawrie's Major Championship exemption expired
9 Longest Tour win drought, ending in 2011
13 Years between Ryder Cup appearances
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