The 2006 Open Interview: Dougherty is all dressed up with somewhere to go...
Young, brash and British. Nick Dougherty looks the part as the Open heads towards his Liverpool roots. And, he tells James Corrigan, he is convinced that fate has something fabulous in store
Saturday 15 July 2006
Nick Dougherty makes you sick. There he sits, sickeningly good-looking, sickeningly talented, sickeningly wealthy, sickeningly young. And to cap it all off he then actually makes you feel sorry for him. Sickening.
"D'you know I was a little fat kid in school, with a side-parting and not a lot going for him?" he says. "I also was a bit of a swot who played golf and didn't like football. The other kids were cruel, as kids can be. And that's one of the reasons why I'm so up for next week. To show a few of them how I've turned out. I don't look so sad now, do I?"
Indeed, the 24-year-old paid to wear designer clothes will be looking anything but sad as he strides up the first fairway of Hoylake; the Liverpool boy playing in his first Open which just also happens to be his home Open. "I've been waiting for this for years," he says. "Just like all of Liverpool has. This will be perfect. Just perfect."
If Dougherty sounds convinced, that's because he is. It is 39 years since the claret jug was last sipped from at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, a time when The Beatles were in their pomp, Shankly was in his dug-out and Dougherty's parents were still in primary school. This was the era of hope, of anything and everything being achievable and even here in this other century the by-products are still emerging. Dougherty is the latest lad and to his mind the likeliest.
"This is my chance to get my city to take it to its heart," he says. "Last year I was gutted when I didn't make it to St Andrews - my first Open coinciding with Jack Nicklaus's last and all that - but thinking about it now, I must have been meant to make my Open debut in Liverpool. Considering there are not that many Scouse golfers, it will be pretty special. Destiny has had a hand in it."
Destiny and Dougherty have been walking hand in hand for quite a few years now. Having been "the next big thing in British golf" ever since Nick Faldo and his junior series introduced the plus-foured world to him - indeed, probably even before that - Dougherty's destination has never been in doubt, which has brought its pressures and with them its frustrations. But he has learnt to play the fates at their own game, and has all but tempted them with such statements as "I dreamt last night that I was going to win here at Wentworth this week", and again is seemingly calling their bluff.
"I've this feeling I'm going to be playing with Tiger Woods next week," he says, aware that means one thing and one thing only - final-round contention. "I know, I know, but I can't help it. I've always wanted to play with him and a couple of times I've come close, only for something to happen. It was like that in Dubai earlier this year. I worked out from the leader board that it would be me and him on the Saturday. Great. But then, the organisers changed the draw from two- to three-balls and he was in the group in front of me. Again I was gutted, but again I thought, 'No, don't worry, fate's got something bigger than the Desert Classic planned'. It's the Open at Hoylake. It has to be."
It would be some story if it was, one starting 20 years ago on a municipal course in Bootle. "My father gave me a cut-down club when I was four and I'd go with him all the time," he recalls. "We did that for six years. Then, when I was 11, Dad was pushing me into it, saying this is what you should do and so we moved to Chorley because it was on a golf course. Dad sacrificed a lot then, because he was from Liverpool and missed it like hell. So did I, to be honest."
There are two interesting points in these reminiscences, two factors that have probably rivalled his talent in taking in him to where he is today: his father and the family's uprooting to Chorley. Both, for very differing reasons, were hard on the boy. "My new school was in Blackburn and they hated Scousers and let me know about it," he says. "With my weight, golf, hairdo and everything I was different enough. But with my accent? No chance. It was all the usual crap - 'Watch your hubcaps, Podger's around' - blah blah blah. They actually drove me to support Manchester United as Shearer and Sutton were flying then and I wanted someone to stop Rovers and Liverpool weren't all that great then. I also shut them up in rugby. I was a big lad who played prop, was good too, and could rip their heads off on the pitch legally. That helped, but there were times when being picked on hurt."
It is difficult to imagine Dougherty crying on the shoulder of his dad, Roger. The pair's relationship was just not like that. "Dad was hard on me, and I mean really hard. He would take me out every single night after school to practise and sometimes it was a strain on the family. We missed a lot of simple father-and-son things, so it is nice to give him something back. Like I've said, it was his sacrifice as well and we laugh about it now. In a golf magazine recently he finished 12th in "the most pushiest parents in the game" - he was devastated as he reckons he should have been in the top five. My biggest dream is for my dad to see me win the Open and for all the people who criticised dad when he was pushing me to be there. It would be great to show them it was all worth it in the end."
The end is nowhere in sight for Dougherty, although he does concede - "I'm in a rush, I don't want to be trudging around fairways when I'm 40. I want to be No 1, if only for a week, and then get out". It is an ambition made all the less remarkable by his youth. Age-wise, at least, he is the brat of the pack of fine English golfers who include Luke Donald, Paul Casey, David Howell, Ian Poulter and Kenny Ferrie and also in world terms is something of a baby of the fairways. On the world rankings, only Sean O'Hair is younger and ahead of him and should he emerge from the fringes of the qualification positions he will become the youngest Ryder Cup participant since one Tiger Woods. So isn't time still on his side?
"Yeah, it is but that's how you run out of time," he says. "Fine, look at all the other guys that I'm bracketed with and they're a good few years older. But age is nothing to do with it. Look at Rooney. I'm fully developed, it's not like I'm a boy, so I have every chance. You must remember I've already had what some people insist on calling my 'nightclub years' on Tour."
It is hard to forget them. When Dougherty turned professional as a 19-year-old he embarked on a training schedule that certain newspapers would have had you believe was less Faldo and more Stringfellow. The mutterings started and fellow players spoke out, especially one Walker Cup team-mate, Gary Wolstenholme, who revealed Dougherty's nickname was "Mojo" because of his attractiveness to girls and warned him "not to waste what God gave you".
"I had no regrets about it," he says. "Some of the stories were rubbish, some true, most over-dramatised. Whatever, I got to be a kid. I saw it all, did it all and what did it cost me? I'm where everywhere expects me to be, well ahead probably. It was easy for older people to tut-tut at the time but that was a part of life I'd have never got back. If I'd have got to 25, having made it, and thought, 'Whoops, I better go back and live my teen years now,' I would have been too old.
"How do some people get off on coming up on the range and say, 'Oh you shouldn't be doing this, you shouldn't be doing that'? If I'm not affecting them, it's got nothing to do with them. I'm stubborn. I'll only amend things if my heart's really in it. All the good changes I've made are because of what I've told myself to do."
Dougherty tells himself what to do quite regularly. Too regularly for his "mind doctor", Jamil Qureshi, who has used hypnosis to help his client "give himself a break". It has worked, of sorts, although when you listen to Dougherty laugh about "my own little ways" you realise how much Qureshi has on his plate. "I find it hard to chill out, because I'm so disciplined in golf it carries on into my life as well," he says. "It can be destructive as you try to make everything in your life perfect and it can't be. I've always been that way.
"Take my new flat. It's the first time I've lived on my own and it's all about organisation - I love it, live for it. Everything is in place, you should see it. It's like that film Sleeping With The Enemy with all the towels in a row. It's awesome. Got my taxi booked for the next morning to catch a flight, got my itinerary out on the desk with my highlighter pen - it's quite fun. I'm learning to cook and I'm great at it, following recipes down to the last second, the last ounce. It's totally me. I probably need to broaden my horizons, don't I? Jamil says that. There must be more to life."
There was something until recently or, more to the point, somebody. Vicky, his girlfriend of three years, worked for a sports management company and was a huge influence on Dougherty's career. "I am starting to take more responsibility for myself off the course," he says. "I have separated from Vicky. She has been very understanding. It is time to find out what I am all about and who I really am. There was no big fallout or big reason to break up, it is all part of growing up. Since I have been a kid I have been told what to do and do this and that. Then all of a sudden I am travelling around the world on my own. Now I have got to make decisions for myself. It will be good to be an individual. I will take some time to work things out. More time to do my own thing and enjoy my golf."
He needs to as his form has gone strangely awry of late, a brief, well-publicised showing at Wentworth being followed by a rash of missed cuts. Like any professional golfer worthy of his ego he claims the low numbers are just around the next dog-leg, although he does admit to his expectation getting the better of him of late. That seems an occupational hazard of being a Dougherty, what with his father being a self-made millionaire in the motor trade and his brother a corporate lawyer in New York.
"I'm the skintest of all us," he laughs, before getting serious when explaining what could just be his principal wish for Hoylake. "Dad's coming - he doesn't usually because he has to watch the mistakes I make and he finds that difficult. And I can't help looking at him and seeing the disappointment in his face. But that's another part of growing up. It is good to get past it. When I hit shots he doesn't like, I want him to get used to it."
Fate might decree there will not be too many. The fat kid with the side-parting probably deserves it.
The young Englanders
* David Howell
Age: 31. From: Swindon. World ranking: 10. Best Open finish: Tied 42nd (1998).
Chances: The most improved golfer in the world, a contender everywhere. But despite a temperament and putting game ideally suited to the cauldron of the big time, he has yet truly to compete in a major and his Open record is dismal.
* Luke Donald
Age: 28. From: High Wycombe.Ranking: 12. Best finish: Tied 52nd (2005).
Chances: Never excelled in the Open - last year was the only time he has made the cut in six outings. Should be suited to Hoylake, with accuracy off the tee and a quite wonderful iron game. An Open personal best at the very least.
* Paul Casey
Age: 28. From: Weybridge. Ranking: 30. Best finish: Tied 20th (2004).
Chances: Has been on a startling run in the last few months, winning at Gleneagles and collecting top 10s regularly. A Ryder Cup certainty and a lively outsider at Hoylake. Probably best suited to Augusta, however.
* Ian Poulter
Age: 30 From: Milton Keynes Ranking: 55 Best finish: Tied 11th (2005)
Chances: Has a reputation for not living up to the hype, but has had some fine tournaments of late and claims he learnt a lot by playing with Geoff Ogilvy when the Australian won the US Open. Not scared of winning.
* Kenny Ferrie
Age: 27 From: Ashington Ranking: 93 Best finish: Tied 42nd (2005)
Chances: Starredat the US Open, hanging in there in the final grouping with Phil Mickelson until the final stretch before finishing sixth. Another serial fairway-finder but his putting may hold him back.
* One who may not make it...
Age: 25 From: London Ranking: 102 Best finish: Tied 4th (1997)
Chances: It is almost a decade since the pencil-thin 17-year-old stunned us all by finishing fourth at Birkdale as an amateur. His career has peaked and troughed since, and he needs to finish as top player not already qualified at the John Deere Classic to make it to Hoylake. Unlikely.
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