Phil Golding came close to the breaking point last August. The five-time winner on Europe’s Staysure Tour (now the Legends Tour) posted the following tweet: “Looking at Twitter, FB & other social media platforms and seeing EVERY #TOUR around around the world playing golf apart from us on the Seniors @StaysureTour. Really getting quite fed up with this now! For me personally..no golf..no income. I hope other players are physically & mentally ok.”
The 58-year-old Englishman is currently a committee member on the tour and, though several of his colleagues were grateful to him for speaking out, had his knuckles rapped by officialdom.
“It was the sheer frustration of the situation which made me kick up a fuss,” he explains. “They pulled the plug on the tour in April and the situation today is that we haven’t had any competitive golf in 18 months.” In truth, his tweet may have done more good than harm as the European Tour rustled up a couple of small events at the end of last year.
Paul McGinley, the 2014 Ryder Cup captain who plays among the over-50s between commentary stints for Sky Sports and also serves as one of the Legend Tour’s ambassadors, had no trouble understanding how the regulars among the seniors must have been feeling.
“Lots of those guys would have missed the big money (on the main tour) when it was available and, for them, 18 months without an income is very, very tough,” he told my Global Golf Post colleague John Hopkins recently. “That tends to get forgotten.”
“Part of the problem,” McGinley continued, “is down to the age profile of over-50s. The cost of creating bubbles, as they have done on the European Tour, would be prohibitive bearing in mind it is not a financially lucrative tour at the best of times.”
From 2013 to 2019, Golding did well in that environment. His five titles included the prestigious 2018 Senior PGA championship at the London Club. Yet, out of nowhere, his follow-up seasons went badly awry.
Since Golding had just submitted his tax return when we spoke, he had some figures to hand. In 2019, he had been well short of covering the £69,700 he had forked out on travel expenses and so forth. “The whole year was a financial disaster for me,” he said. “I was in the throes of a divorce; I had just finished paying my son’s school fees – and the bills kept flooding in.”
And then, of course, the 2020 tour never happened.
Golding, a former “Mr Essex,” has had more than his share of setbacks in a career which started in 1981 after he had switched from cricket – he played for the Middlesex Colts – to golf. He won three times on the Challenge Tour but his record on the main tour was beyond bizarre.
To explain, he paid 18 visits to the European Tour’s six-round Qualifying School, visits which were bisected by a single tournament win. After all those Q-School visits (16 of them by then) people might have expected that victory to take place in, say, Outer Mongolia, while Europe’s best were playing in America. The victory came, in fact, at the other end of the spectrum. Namely at the 2003 French Open, the oldest and most coveted national open in Continental Europe. All the top players were there but he ended up one shot ahead of David Howell, with Peter O’Malley and Justin Rose sharing third place.
Golding remembers everything about that week of weeks but, by way of a prelude, he began with a conversation with Ian Poulter ahead of the 2002 Italian Open at the end of the previous year.
Poulter was talking, animatedly, of how he needed to win to get more points for this and that. Golding, meantime, squeezed in a quiet mention of his rather more humble target. He needed a top-10 finish just to hang on to his card.
Though Poulter achieved his goals, Golding was not so lucky. After a closing 64, he looked as if he had done enough, only to be squeezed out at the last minute. On the bus to the airport, he told his friend, the Argentinian Ricardo González, “That’s it. I’m stopping. I’m not going back to qualifying school.”
“You can’t stop now,” González countered, “you’ve just shot a 64.” Golding was not inclined to change his mind but, with a push from his ex-wife, Sally, he signed on for the Qualifying School at the 11th hour. Finding himself a caddie was still more of a last-minute job. However, after meeting a disillusioned accountant called Mike Boddy while walking the course, Golding signed him up. It didn’t matter that the fellow had never caddied before. Golding said he would teach him and together they finished third and Golding recaptured his card.
The relationship continued to go well and, when it came to the following year’s French Open, Golding was leading the field after the third round. “Luck,” he says, “was on my side.” Firstly, in O’Malley and Howell, he had “two absolute gentlemen” as playing companions on the Saturday and Sunday. For another stroke of fortune, he cites the seventh hole in the final round. His ball was heading inexorably for the ditch down the right of the hole but somehow hopped to the far side of the water. He had to play the shot with his feet on one flank and the ball the other but, having escaped a penalty, he walked off with a par he will never forget.
"Plenty of players are far more talented than I am but I am dogged. Whatever the circumstances, I never, ever, give up."
A Ben Hogan tip helped him tie things up at the par-5 18th. Needing a birdie to win, he hit the perfect drive to leave himself with 177 yards over the water. He had already taken a 7-iron out of the bag when Hogan’s advice about negotiating water – “It’s one more club or two more balls” – had him pausing in his tracks. Away went the 7-iron and out came the 6. He caught the green and two putts later it was all over.
Asked what he thinks his record tells us about him, Golding is brutally honest.
“I’m not proud of it, I have to say, but, then again, I’ve always been pretty hard on myself,” he said. “Plenty of players are far more talented than I am but I am dogged. Whatever the circumstances, I never, ever, give up. I missed out on a lot in the way of weddings and social functions during my time on tour, but to get that big win made it all worthwhile.”
Today, the man who might qualify as one of the most dogged golfers on the planet is practising as hard as ever ahead of the ’21 season. It will start in May in Austria. “Ryan Howsam has done a brilliant job,” says Golding of the man who founded the Staysure empire and has part ownership of the Legends with the European Tour. “More amateurs are going to be involved but that should work well.”
As one who had his spleen removed at the age of 18, Golding is on the “vulnerable” list and is hoping to get his COVID-19 vaccine any day now.
“Hopefully, all my fellow seniors will be getting theirs before too long and things can start to get back to normal,” he said. “So, all I want now is a vaccine in my arm, a card in my hand and a touch of my old form.”
That sheer doggedness of his could take over from there.