Woosnam can put pain behind him

The Welshman looks to rebound at St Andrews - despite a bad back. Guy Hodgson reports
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As Ian Woosnam was talking, an advertising board above him suddenly began to move. Slowly it swayed, like a tightrope-walker trying to regain his balance, and then, its fight for the perpendicular lost, it accelerated towards the Welshman. Only an alert neighbour stopped it crashing down on to him.

"It's all right," Woosnam said smiling with the grim humour of a sportsman in the doldrums. "It was only going to hit my head. It couldn't have done much damage."

Woosnam's pate has been a subject for alarm before this year, but normally for the things crashing round inside it rather than any external danger. He has been playing with a cumulus hovering above him, a troubled man, searching for form and fitness.

The statistics in Europe paint an unedifying picture for the 1991 Masters champion. Until the Irish Open he had won only pounds 7,076 on the European Tour, and his best position has not been on this continent at all, but in the Honda Classic in the US where he was third. It was a rare week of hope in a murky mist of dwindling self-regard.

A swing so smooth Seve Ballesteros once described it as the best since Sam Snead's was no longer a thing of beauty but an unreliable tool. His putting, a stroke that in the past has come and gone with the capriciousness of the wind, had found a consistency at last. It was resolutely mediocre. To cap it all he has a back problem.

"My swing has been terrible," he said at the US Open. "And my confidence is low. It's hard to win tournaments when you don't know where the ball is going."

So what chance has he at the Open Championship at St Andrews this week? None, if you listen to his direst descriptions of his back - "There is a shooting pain, it sometimes goes down to my knees. I don't know how I can cope with it" - but like a lot of his race he is apt to wallow in gloom. A good round, a few holed putts and his mood is transformed.

"He is a perfectionist," Phil Morbey, his caddie since 1987, said. "He thinks he can hit the ball to two foot or less every time. So sometimes he gets annoyed with himself when he finishes 15 feet from the flag. But when he gets confident he is unbelievable."

Woosnam is a streaky golfer. He wins his tournaments in runs of blinding form that arrive almost out of the blue and then fade away again. He is probably the least arrogant of the leading golfers, afraid of no one but beset with doubts too. Self-belief is everything with him and there have been hints that a mood swing could be imminent.

In the final round of the US Open for example, Woosnam was probably the best on the course, tee to green for 12 holes, and was let down only by his putting. Minute alterations in his aim on the greens and he would have been playing on Corey Pavin and Greg Norman's nerves. At the Irish and Scottish Opens, too, there have been shafts of light.

Even his back injury can be seen as a symptom of progress. After consulting Bill Ferguson, the man who has coached Colin Montgomerie from childhood, Woosnam has altered his swing and the pain he has suffered is probably the result of using different muscles. He took Sunday and yesterday off to give his frame a break.

"It's a shocking pain," he said, "and it's stopping me coming through the ball properly. I'm frightened to commit myself. I'm having physiotherapy and taking pain-killing tablets but obviously I wouldn't want to be taking too many of those in an Open Championship."

Ferguson has encouraged him to strike the ball with a stiffer left wrist, curing a tendency to hit the ball to the right. And when he is free from pain Woosnam is upbeat. "It sounds illogical," he said, "but it seems to work. If I could just have the confidence to let it rip I'd be pretty close. I'm hitting it further, which is a good sign. I feel like it's coming. I'm swinging better and at least I know what I've done wrong now if I make a bad shot. Before I didn't have a clue."

Which has implications beyond this week. A Ryder Cup team without Woosnam, who was Europe's top scorer at The Belfry two years ago, would be severely weakened and, as he is on the fringes of the top 10 places in the standings that guarantee qualification, he could be depending on the captain Bernard Gallacher's choice. That is by no means a formality as Nick Faldo is hardly playing this side of the Atlantic and Jose-Maria Olazabal has a foot injury that might also require him to be selected. "I will play in the six tournaments up to the end of the qualification period and that should be enough," he said recently. "All I need is a good week, a big win and I'll make it." And if he didn't? "To be quite honest I wouldn't want to meet the Americans if I wasn't playing well."

His body language suggests he thinks that is unlikely. The forlorn figure which trudged the fairways as he missed the cut three tournaments in succession this season has gone and been replaced by a perkier man altogether. He even looks happy, when he is not worrying about his back. "At least I have a smile on my face again," he said. A broad one for certain if he prevails this week.