His walk is jerky now, that of a man with a back problem, and he has difficulty bending down to pick up his golf tee. The swing? That’s as slow and steady as ever. As smooth as pouring oil. But anno Domini has got to Paul Lawrie, as it does to all of us. As he made his way round the Renaissance course in Scotland last Friday, Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion, was clearly struggling, not managing to get much oomph into his swing or, as he put it later, “slapping too many shots.” His hip hurt. These days it often does.
More than once he stopped, put both hands on the butt end of his club and bent over to relieve the pain.
In other circumstances Lawrie might have withdrawn on medical grounds. He is 51 after all, an elder statesman of the European Tour and much respected. But this was no ordinary round. It was his second in the Aberdeen Standard Investment Scottish Open, in his 620th start on the European Tour and his last. The authorities had given him partners worthy of his status in the game. One was Martin Kaymer, a major champion who was also on the European team at the 2012 Ryder Cup. The other was Stephen Gallacher, a fellow Scot and fellow Ryder Cupper. At the end then, Lawrie was surrounded by friends.
His career in Europe had begun in 1992 and brought him eight wins, including that Open triumph at Carnoustie, and 59 top-10 finishes as well as two Ryder Cup appearances. Eight wins? Pretty good. Finishing in the top 10 in an average of every 10th tournament? Steady indeed. Longevity? He played to a high standard for three decades and few do that.
Nick Faldo always wanted people to say about him, “Did you ever see Nick Faldo play?” and many people did. But you could also ask, “Did you ever see Paul Lawrie play?” and know that it sounded realistic, not inappropriate. The question didn’t hang in the air.
To many, Lawrie’s was a stellar career, one worth trumpeting from the rooftops. But Lawrie is a modest man, not given to shouting the odds. “It’s not a bad innings considering I turned pro (in 1986) with a 5-handicap and I didn’t think I’d play any European Tour events,” he said. “I haven’t been a great player but I’ve been quite decent.”
Decent? You can say that again.
In character, Lawrie was clearly spoken, a firm voice with a distinct Scottish accent that, to another’s ear, sounded gritty and quite deep – which is appropriate given that he was born in Aberdeen, the Granite City.
His character underwent a stress test of considerable strength after he had won the Open at Carnoustie, then referred to as “Carnasty,” having begun the last day 10 strokes behind the leader before winning in a three-way playoff. For some time after, he felt that his victory was not given its full credit. Too often, accounts of the last day of the Open centred on Jean van de Velde’s misfortune rather than Lawrie’s outstanding play.
There was some truth in that. But the way journalists covered that last day, tilting the balance significantly towards the Frenchman, was explained to me recently by a colleague of mine who was covering the tournament for a British news agency, as indeed I was for The Times. “Yes, he (Paul) didn’t get the credit he deserved, but at the same time someone triple-bogeying the last hole of the Open when three ahead, and doing it in the way van de Velde did, made it a day we will never forget.”
Some players take a lot from golf without feeling the need to put anything back ... Lawrie is the opposite. Few have done more for the game. No wonder he is so highly respected.
For a while, Lawrie’s grievance against much of the rest of the world – one so strong that, according to a friend, he made himself ill – made him appear chippy, sometimes verging on the surly. What also grated on his ears was the mispronunciation of his last name. Too often it sounded the same as Shane Lowry’s, the 2019 Open champion, when in fact it should have rhymed with lorry.
The rehabilitation of Lawrie began at the 1999 Ryder Cup. He and Colin Montgomerie led the way for Europe morning and afternoon on the first day and were unbeaten. They lost their foursomes on the second morning only to win their four-balls in the afternoon. In the last day’s singles, notorious for what happened on the 17th green, Lawrie kept calm and beat Jeff Maggert, 4 and 3. To win 3½ points on his debut was impressive, even for the Open champion.
Thirteen years later, in his second and last Ryder Cup, Lawrie came good in the singles at Medinah. He was fifth man out and with the match very evenly poised, the US having led 10-6 overnight, Lawrie registered an emphatic victory against Brandt Snedeker to continue Europe’s recovery. “The Open will always be the biggest thing I achieved but Medinah was close,” he said. It is sometimes overlooked that before that Ryder Cup he had been as low as 400th in the world rankings before fighting his way back into the top 30.
There is no danger of Lawrie disappearing from the limelight. He will play the Legends Tour for those older than 50, As he does so, he’ll keep a very close eye on his golf centre, the Tartan Pro Tour, the Paul Lawrie Foundation and the Five Star sports agency, all of which he started. Some players take a lot from golf without feeling the need to put anything back to help current and future generations of players. Such players can seem selfish, oblivious to their responsibilities, real or imagined. Lawrie is the opposite. Few have done more for the game. No wonder he is so highly respected.
“Paul Lawrie to me is an Open champion” said Wayne Riley, the former ET player who is now a TV analyst. “Only now is he getting the credit he deserved. To come from 10 behind on Carnasty is mammoth. He is an ambassador for Scotland. He is an ambassador for the European Tour. He is an ambassador for our game. He is truly a great Scot. Paul, you’re a beaut, a champion golfer.”