Young gun reveals secret of English success

Golf's relaxed approach to youth development is key, says 18-year-old who turned his back on tennis
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The Independent Online

From staying in a dodgy bed-and-breakfast in Durban to a room at the Old Course Hotel, with breakfast alongside Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh and a spa experience with Bruce Forsyth. All this is possible even for the lowliest contenders in English golf, which is something of a success story compared to some other sports that could be mentioned.

At Wimbledon, all British interest was expunged in the opening round save for Andy Murray's run to the semi-finals for the second successive year. English golf was in a similar position a decade ago when Lee Westwood was their only player in the world's top 100. Now Westwood has been joined in the world's top 10 by Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey, while Justin Rose, who arrived here with the hottest form of any competitor, is just outside. Following Graeme McDowell's victory at the US Open, British and Irish golfers fill eight of the top 16 positions.

At the other end of the scale, Laurie Canter, a 20-year-old from Bath, is one of three amateurs to claim a spot in the 150th anniversary Open Championship from Local Final Qualifying.

Until Monday, when he arrived at the Home of Golf and checked into the Old Course Hotel, the coolest thing Canter had experienced in the sport came last Sunday when England won the European Team Championship in Sweden. Canter won all three of his singles from the quarter-finals onwards.

But had things worked out differently, or if the Lawn Tennis Association went about its business differently, Canter might have been strutting his stuff on the lawns of Wimbledon rather than the greens of St Andrews. Canter was an English national squad tennis player until the age of 13 but developed an injury to his right heel. He was told to take two or three months off. At the same time, the LTA asked him to join the academy at Bath University.

"I was going to have to change school, would be doing four-plus hours of tennis a day and an hour and a half more of strength and conditioning training," Canter explains. "Dropping school time meant there would be a lot to catch up on. At that age, I still wanted to see my mates and I wasn't sure I wanted to do tennis full-time. It was all a bit intensive at age 13, I thought. Just too much, too young. An awful lot of people I played tennis with dropped out of the system."

Perhaps the tennis guys thought Canter did not have what it took to get to the top. His appearance in the biggest golf championship in the world less than seven years after taking up a new discipline suggests otherwise.

"The good thing about golf is that they leave you alone until you are older and let you find your own way to play," adds Canter. "There is a difference between teaching and coaching. Coaching is about letting someone develop.

"My view of the LTA when I was in the programme was that there wasn't a lot of independence. I think that's why you see guys, and especially the women, coming out of Eastern Europe who are players, they have not been taught just one way. They are fearless and hungry to do well. I think where the English Golf Union [EGU] does well is in letting people develop their own way. The EGU has been fantastic at helping you find your way and not telling you your way."

Canter got into the England A squad late last year but decided to go it alone earlier this year when he headed for South Africa for three months. "It was my decision to go," he says. "I had saved some money but my parents helped, just as they always have, to let me do whatever I need to get better."

There were nervous nights in cheap digs in the rough parts of places like Durban but he came home the South African Amateur champion. Then last month, Canter played on the Old Course for the first time in the St Andrews Links Trophy. "I got goose bumps, especially when I saw the grandstands were already up. I never thought I would actually be playing in the Open." That earned his spot a fortnight ago and the EGU, the Somerset Golf Union and many of his fellow members at Saltford in Somerset chipped in to allow Canter to do the trip in style by staying at the ionic hotel beside the 17th hole.

His stay has seen him mix with the world's best players, work out in the gym with Tiger Woods and spend some time in the relaxation room of the spa with TV personality Forsyth. "There he was in his robe and slippers and we had a 20-minute conversation," Canter says. "He plays off 12 but hasn't been playing much recently. It was so surreal. That sort of thing can only happen at the Old Course Hotel."

Today he has to wait until 3.15pm for his tee time alongside fellow Open debutants Jason Bohn and Kurt Barnes.

"I'm going to be nervous but I'm keen to see how I compete against the best players," he says. "I know I can hit the shots the top players can hit but it is about executing them when I need to." Tennis's loss could be golf's gain.