Year of rags to riches for Open Champion

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The Independent Online

A year which began with him paying £10 to enter a tournament in which he shivered and carried his own clubs ends this week with Paul Lawrie in Arizona for an event where last place is worth £75,000.

A year which began with him paying £10 to enter a tournament in which he shivered and carried his own clubs ends this week with Paul Lawrie in Arizona for an event where last place is worth £75,000.

Lawrie is competing from Wednesday to Sunday - with a break on Friday to see in the new millennium - against Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and nine more of golf's biggest names.

The Williams World Challenge organised by Woods' own benevolent foundation offers a million dollars to the winner. But just to be part of it underlines how much Lawrie's life has changed in 12 months.

In January he was playing in the Scottish North-east Golfers' Alliance at Buckpool near his Aberdeen home.

"You pay £10 to the secretary of the alliance and off you go in the freezing cold with your woolly hat and waterproofs on and carrying your own clubs," recalls the man who now rejoices in the name of Open champion.

"I had a 10 on the 10th hole but then birdied five of the last seven and finished joint first."

He shot 66 for the 17 holes of the event (the other was out of use) and earned the princely sum of £90. Winning the Open was worth £350,000.

"The way I'm starting 2000 is a bit different, to say the least," said Lawrie, who from Phoenix moves on to Hawaii for two weeks, then Australia, then back to America.

Lawrie could not have contemplated such a thing until that one dream-like day at Carnoustie in July when thanks to the best round of his life and then the best shot of his life - with the unbelievable collapse of Jean Van de Velde in between - he leapt from promising player to major champion. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have said.

The claret jug has pride of place in the "golf room" at Lawrie's luxurious new home in Aberdeen.

"People who come round want to hold it, of course, and I'm always looking at the list of names on it. It's a fantastic feeling to see mine on there as well."

He will not be seeing as much of it in the coming months after deciding to join the US Tour, but Scotland remains home and at every chance to come back he will.

"Global travel is so much easier nowadays, and when you play just in Europe it still takes time to get home," he says.

"After the World Championship at Valderrama in Spain in November, for instance, I didn't arrive back until Monday afternoon.

"With overnight flights from America I'll often be able to make it back for Monday morning.

"My wife plans to travel with me as much as we possibly can, and thankfully jet lag seems to be something I get over fairly quickly."

He has had a crash course in finding that out. Since the Open triumph Lawrie has been to America four times, most recently to Hawaii last month for the four-man Grand Slam of Golf, where after twisting an ankle he did finish last and on that occasion still picked up 90,000 US dollars.

The hardest part for Lawrie, 31 on New Year's Day, is the time away from his children - four-year-old Craig and baby Michael, just coming up to his first birthday. But as a career move he feels the opportunity to play in the States is too good to miss.

"I don't have an awful lot of expectations for early in the season. Hopefully I'll play nicely and compete, but it's in the long-term where I hope to see results."

Lawrie had only two European tour victories to his name before the Open and has not won since - but suddenly plunged into the league of superstars he has not looked out of his depth and by finishing joint top points-scorer on his Ryder Cup debut, where he partnered Colin Montgomerie, he has shown that the way he handled pressure at Carnoustie was no one-off.

Every Open winner has the chance to make a cash killing, naturally, and while he has certainly not overlooked the possibilities Lawrie points out that he has also turned down invitations to lots of tournaments "in far-flung places".

One he has accepted, not surprisingly, is to the Masters at Augusta in April. It will be his first trip there, and he said: "Can't wait for it. I first started watching it on television when I was 15, and it's every golfer's dream to play there."

Back in 1984 it must have seemed a million miles away. Even when he turned professional two years later his handicap was still four, and it was 1990 before he tried for a European tour card and a further 12 months before he earned one.

He worked as an assistant - "selling Mars bars and the like" - but always hoped to make playing the sport his living and looking back he says he would not change anything.

The most surprising Open champion for decades - he was 159th in the world at the time, had to come through qualifying and with a round to play was 10 strokes adrift of Van de Velde - is now looking for more success.

He will do so at least safe in the knowledge, of course, that nobody can ever take his name off the Open trophy.