Wish you weren't here? Why Wales brings back tiger's worst memories
Rain, food poisoning and (worst of all) losing put Woods off team golf for good. James Corrigan tells the tale of the 1995 Walker Cup
Tuesday 28 September 2010
Fifteen years is a long time in the life of a 34-year-old, particularly when, in that time, you have earned a billion dollars, won 14 majors and starred in one very public scandal. But still, when Tiger Woods stepped down from the US team's plane yesterday the memories of his last visit to Wales must have come flooding back.
Despite his claims to the contrary, it is fair to assume this tide of recollection did not leave him awash with joy. Not only did his country lose the Walker Cup for just the fourth time in 73 years, but the most talked about teenaged amateur in the history of the game lost two of his four matches (and one of his wins was totally irrelevant).
Many who saw him on the South Wales coast that week recall a 19-year-old enduring a miserable time. Some of them even find it possible to trace his discomfort in the team environment down to that experience. It seems a perfectly valid viewpoint as Woods had always previously stood tall and proud in his college outfit of Stanford. For the first time, Wales saw the figure slouch and the Tiger whiskers bristle. And in the opinion of his most famous amateur conqueror, some of his behaviour was indefensible.
"I look back and admit he was head and shoulders above me and everybody else when it came to playing ability," says Gary Wolstenholme. "But as a human being and as a team player he fell some way short."
Woods, of course, said something similar about himself in that extraordinary mea culpa in February, although that admission was strictly concerned with his private life. About his fondness, or otherwise, of the Walker and Ryder Cups he has remained insistent. Only last month he said: "I've been to Wales previously in the Walker Cup and am looking forward to going back and having a great time with the team."
Wolstenholme would not have been the only member of the Class of '95 to raise an eyebrow at that statement. As well as his singles misery on the first day Woods was also beaten the next morning in the foursomes by Jody Fanagan and a fellow Irishman by the name of Padraig Harrington.
"Everybody who was there remembers the awful weather," says Fanagan. "Although he played in the Open at St Andrews that year, it was Tiger's first experience of a links course in rough weather and to me, he didn't seem very comfortable. He seemed to have real trouble with his distance control. He also looked uncomfortable with the food back at the hotel. In fact, he looked generally uncomfortable for the whole week."
All of it must have seemed alien to the kid brought up in Orange County with California's manicured golf courses, pristine country clubs and, perhaps most pertinently, blazing sun. "Porthcawl was a baptism of fire," says Wolstenholme. "The weather was not good and the greens were less than perfect, because they were affected by a fungus at the time. The course wasn't in a good enough condition to host the event, really."
Then there was the hotel, the food, the journey and the dreaded functions. The teams were staying on an industrial park in Cardiff, more than 40 minutes away. As Fanagan alluded, Woods was not happy with the cuisine and took to visiting a famous fast-food outlet. Furthermore, in Wolstenholme's words, "there were loads of official events to attend."
Whatever and wherever, Woods claimed to have contracted food poisoning, which forced him to miss a day of official practice. By then, the home players were starting to see the cracks developing in the great individual and, by extension, the team. Perhaps, they did have a chance of reversing the humiliating 19-5 result from two years previous; perhaps they did have a squeak in the competition the media had taken to calling "The Walkover Cup". Wolstenholme recalls those taunts: "And to make matters worse everybody was talking about this phenomenal young golfer," he says.
Woods was a five-star superstar in waiting and already he was held in awe by a golfing public who turned out in thousands to see what all the fuss was about. In the galleries was a 16-year-old, a week into his post as assistant pro at Royal Porthcawl. "I was on my way to get some breakfast and I heard Tiger moaning about carrying his bag in practice after seeing the course was a little hilly," says Nathan Griffiths. "I introduced myself to Tiger and told him I would be quite happy to caddie for him. Immediately he was shaking my hand. It was overwhelming because even back then he was the big thing on the boil and about to explode."
Woods' golf did not disappoint in those first days. "I carried his bag for 36 holes and spent nearly 10 hours a day with him and remember him having an albatross on one of the practice days after hitting a driver and wedge into the par-five 17th," says Griffiths. But Tiger's laughter did not ring around the links or even around the team room, as one of Wolstenholme's anecdotes highlights.
On the Wednesday night both teams were to be entertained in a seafood restaurant further down the coast, but the coach was delayed as they waited for one of the American players. They eventually found Chris Riley, a future Ryder Cupper, asleep. "When he eventually got on the coach, everyone took the mickey out of him, but he took it in good part," says the record GB & Ireland points-scorer. "I was sitting opposite Downing Gray, the US captain and he turned to me and said, 'You know, if that had been Tiger, none of my team would have said a word'. Even then within the US team it was a case of 'him' and 'us'."
In Wolstenholme's view the sense of isolation was only to increase. "At Thursday practice there was no sign of Tiger," he says. "The official line was he had food poisoning and didn't feel well enough to play. My view is that he just really didn't want to be there. He thought the weather was going to be glorious, that Royal Porthcawl was going to be another pitch-and-putt course and that he would tick off the Walker Cup from his 'to-do' list."
In fairness to Woods, Griffiths reveals he saw the illness close up. "He was pretty rough and I gave him a Trebor mint to help his stomach and I remember Tiger thinking it was a giant aspirin," he says. "It seemed to help his stomach cramps so that night I got my mother to go to the local supermarket to buy a five-pack of the mints and he ended up sucking on those for the rest of the week.
"You could have sworn I gave him £20,000 because he was really appreciative of the gesture. It may have helped his stomach cramps, but he certainly wasn't at his best playing the tournament."
Indeed, the defeat against Wolstenholme still ranks as the most unexpected in Tiger's career. The "ooohs" which greeted the draw among the crowd signified the scale of the task confronting the lanky Englishman. While he could barely reach the 200-yard marker with his drives, Woods was clearing 300 with ease. "I did believe that if anybody could beat Tiger in the singles that week it would be Gary," says the GB & Ireland captain, Clive Brown. "He had incredible mental strength to not let being 100-plus yards behind Woods off every tee-shot get to him. In fact, his style got to Tiger in the end."
While Wolstenholme, a brilliant short-game practitioner, methodically plotted his ball around the links layout, Woods boomed his ball out of bounds three times. At the back of the fifth he actually knocked one fan unconscious. Yet it was on the 18th where Woods saw stars. Wolstenholme hit driver, three-wood to the side of the green, Woods hit one-iron seven-iron. The trouble was, to use Wolstenholme's description, "He hoiked the ball way left." Woods reloaded, but Wolstenholme's up-and-down was enough. "I think that's when it dawned on team golf that if one of your men can beat Tiger Woods it means so much more than one point," says Brown.
For Wolstenholme, the key moment came on the 15th green, when he holed from 15 feet for a birdie, Woods having just holed a bomb for a par and fist-pumped as if he had secured the half. Says Wolstenholme: "An American journalist came up to me and said, 'For the first time in all the tournaments I've watched him play, I could see you put a seed of doubt into his mind. He knew you weren't intimidated by him."
Wolstenholme had written a blueprint on how to topple the Tiger in the quick-fire golfing shootout called 18-hole matchplay. Woods did not take his or America's defeat at all well. He exacted his revenge on Wolstenholme 4 and 3 in the final day's singles, but as the match was all over by then, it was dreadfully hollow.
"At the final dinner, there were hundreds of people there but one notable absentee," says Wolstenholme. "Tiger did not join his team-mates for the dinner. On top of that, he had not signed any of the souvenir programmes either which is a last-evening tradition for the teams. The following day he had the opportunity to add his signature to those souvenir programmes but he refused. Back in his early days as an amateur, he made some serious errors of judgement and failing to join his team-mates for that final dinner was one such mistake."
"It was a shame," agrees Brown. "Perhaps Tiger just didn't want to risk getting food poisoning again." Or perhaps he had a bitter taste in his mouth. He certainly left one in Wales all those years ago and the most intriguing aspect of this week at Celtic Manor will be how successful Corey Pavin proves in integrating him into the team. The US captain could do worse than purchasing a packet of Trebor mints. Just in case.
Where are they now?
These men Tiger Woods may well remember from his less-than-enjoyable visit to Wales for the 1995 Walker Cup, the amateurs' version of the Ryder Cup:
The 50-year-old turned professional two years ago, although only now is the success arriving for the great amateur. In his first two tournaments as a senior, Wolstenholme has won £75,000, tasting his first victory in the paid ranks in the Czech Republic. Has only run into Tiger once, at the Open in 2003, but the pair didn't talk. Apparently, Woods once said about Wolstenholme: "I've got bad memories of that guy."
Caddying for Tiger Woods landed the young Welsh pro a golf teaching job in the Algarve after a resort owner heard his Walker Cup tale. But Griffiths knew he wouldn't make it as a Tour pro and returned to the family business – Nathaniel Car Sales in Bridgend – in 1999. Once tutored the Tour winner Rhys Davies, but it is his connection with Woods which makes him most proud. "I'm going to the Ryder Cup and want the opportunity to have just 10 seconds with him to thank him for the number of doors he has opened for me," he says.
Now a director in the family business, Fanagans Funeral Directors in Dublin, Jody has no regrets about never turning pro. Even though he beat Tiger Woods in the Walker Cup in 1995 and Padraig Harrington in the final of the South of Ireland Championship the same year, he once asked his foursomes partner if he would have made it as a pro. "His reply was straight, like it always is with Padraig," says Fanagan. "He said 'no'."
The Long And Short Of It: The Autobiography of Britain's Greatest Amateur Golfer. By Gary Wolstenholme. (John Blake Publishing, hardcover, £18.99)
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