Webster survives inquisition

He announced his arrival on the scene by leading the Open as an amateur. Now, as Tim Glover reports from Cadiz, Steve Webster is primed for life as a pro
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The Independent Online
One day Steve Webster is leading the Open Championship, the next he is working as a hired hand at a pay and play course for pounds 15 a day. As he embarks on a career as a professional golfer, the lad from Shakespeare country appears to have the necessary armour to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Webster, who will be 21 next week, has several things going for him. He can, of course, play competitive golf to a high standard but then so can hundreds of other young people who realise that, National Lottery apart, winning tournaments can make you seriously rich.

What separated Webster from most of the rest last year was that he won the silver medal as leading amateur at the Open at St Andrews and then vindicated his decision to turn professional by finishing top of the European Tour Qualifying School at San Roque here in November. It was a priceless double, one that may never be repeated.

Midway through the second round at St Andrews, Webster had a six-foot putt at the seventh for a birdie which would not only put him at six under for the championship but would also put his name at the top of the leaderboard. He rolled in the putt and a big smile crossed his face. He was still leading when they got to the 10th and for the first time he ignored the advice of his caddie who told him to hit an iron off the tee. Instead he used the driver, found a bunker, had to come out sideways and was suddenly back in the pack.

In the third round he played with Sandy Lyle and outscored him and in the fourth did the same thing to the American Ken Green. Webster's rounds of 70, 72, 74 and 73 won him the amateur prize ahead of Gordon Sherry and Tiger Woods. "If I hadn't qualified for the Open I'd have probably stayed an amateur," Webster said. "It proved that I could play with the professionals."

It is as well that he has a good relationship with his caddie, Simon Lilley, a 30-year-old sheet metal worker who has a handicap of five. The Spanish Inquisition has nothing on the tortuous qualifying school process. Webster missed out on the first stage of pre-qualifying and only turned professional after finishing second at pre-qualifying school. That got him into the final six rounds at San Roque and Guadalmena.

After the first six holes he was five over par. "What's wrong?" he said to Lilley."I can't feel my hands." "Don't worry," Lilley replied."You've got 102 holes to go." His aggregate of 422 - eight under - over the six rounds was the best of the 41 players who qualified for their Tour cards.

This week Webster and the other survivors returned to San Roque for a far more agreeable experience: the Apollo training school which is designed to equip the card-holders for life on Tour. The teaching panel is headed by John Jacobs, Tommy Horton and Denis Pugh; Harold Swash deals with putting, Ted Pollard with fitness and Alan Fine with psychology. European Tour officials, sponsors, agents and even the press also mark the players' cards.

The Apollo mission (the company makes golf shafts) covers just about every eventuality the modern player can face, bar divorce. An old-standing joke at the finishing school is that if Apollo doesn't shaft you the International Management Group will.

Webster, who at 15 chose golf instead of football (he was at Coventry City's school of excellence), comes from Atherstone, the town that produced the Ryder Cup player Paul Broadhurst. "The advice he gave me," Webster said, "was not to miss Apollo week and to be careful over my choice of agent."

Webster listened to five potential suitors before opting for the biggest and the most successful, Mark McCormack's IMG. "They're based in 26 countries," Webster said,"so far a start if I turn up at some strange airport I know there'll be somebody there to help me." For such considerations Webster, who has signed a three-year contract, will have to forego 10 per cent of any prize money he wins and 25 per cent of any sponsorship deal negotiated by IMG. The Dubliner Padraig Harrington, almost a veteran at 24, has also signed with IMG. His insurance policy is that he has spent five years qualifying as an accountant. "If there's one thing I've learnt," Harrington said, "it's that you need to employ an expert."

It costs about pounds 1,000 a week to play on Tour and Webster's career has been subsidised so far by his parents, Terry and Val. His father makes fibreglass bodies for taxis and his mother has taken three jobs. There is not just Steve to consider but his 17-year-old sister, Dawn, who is a dancer. "I don't know what she hopes to do," Steve said, "but she's good at it. All the money our parents have made they've spent on us. It would be lovely to pay them back."

The European Tour starts later this month in Singapore and goes on to Australia and South Africa before arriving in Europe. Most of the wannabes will not have an agent nor even a regular caddie but Webster will have an extra mouth to feed. Simon Lilley has decided to give up his job in the metal industry in the hope of earning some brass carrying Webster's bag. "We're good friends and he knows my game," Webster said."I'll pay his expenses. It's a big risk but maybe after a year it will pay off."

Less than a year. Yesterday Webster won pounds 1,500, first prize in the Apollo Challenge, a pro-am event at a saturated San Roque. Webster shot 71, a remarkable score given the conditions, and won by three strokes.