Wielder of A Big Stick

Ian Woosnam, the pride of Wales, may be small, but pound for pound he's the best golfer around
March 28, 1988

First, fly to Manchester, England. Then drive 80 miles southwest to Oswestry, an ancient market town in Shropshire on the Welsh border. Go through the town on the main drag, noting an 11th-century church on the right. Then, on the Morda road leading south away from Oswestry, look for a pair of stone gateposts and a steeply gabled house set back among the trees. A white Porsche, the proud possession of the master of Dyffryn house, is parked in the gravel driveway.

Unfortunately, the master of Dyffryn has just suffered a temporary setback. He has had his license revoked for six months for driving the Porsche 122 mph on the M6 motorway. The West Bromwich magistrate who imposed the ban was unimpressed that the offender was Ian Woosnam, the tiny terror of British golf, and that he was returning triumphant after having helped Europe defeat the U.S. in the Ryder Cup for the second straight time.

However, when you have earned $1.8 million in one year for playing golf, a game you would gladly play for free if it meant you didn't have to muck out cow stalls for a living, you can afford to look on the bright side. "I'll sell the Porsche and buy another one in six months," says Woosnam, flashing a gap-toothed grin. "The £30,000 will do more good in a bank than sitting in the driveway."

At 30, Woosnam is a happy man. In 1987 he led the PGA European Tour with five wins, including a head-to-head victory over Sandy Lyle in the final of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, England. Although match play can produce fluky results, this one was no fluke. To get to Lyle in the final, Woosnam had to beat Nick Faldo, the British Open champion, and Seve Ballesteros, the best player in the world.

Then, late in golfs seasonless year, Woosnam, who's the son of a Welsh farmer, teamed with old friend David Llewellyn at Kapalua in Hawaii to win Wales its first World Cup. In the process, Woosnam also won the individual title. He completed his astonishing year with the biggest prize ever offered a golfer, $1 million, in the eight-player, winner-take-all Million Dollar Challenge in Sun City, Bophuthatswana. (As a result, Woosnam's has become the most prominent name on a "blacklist" of athletes who have played in South Africa.)

Woosnam entered only two tournaments in the U.S. last year. In May he played the Memorial at Muirfield Village, in Dublin, Ohio, where he finished 39th, and in August he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. But at the Ryder Cup back at Muirfield Village in September, he and his European teammates whipped the best of the PGA Tour 15-13, and Little Woosie became a star.

He and his partner, Faldo, had wins over Lanny Wadkins and Larry Mize, and Tom Kite and Curtis Strange in foursomes. In their four-ball matches, Woosnam and Faldo beat Hal Sutton and Dan Pohl, then halved with Sutton and Mize. The 5'4½" Woosnam lost his singles match to Andy Bean but astounded spectators by outdriving the 6'4" Bean more often than not. "He's one of the longest hitters, pound for pound, the world has ever seen," says Gary Player. So far no one has contradicted Player, certainly no one who saw Woosnam reach the long par 4s at Muirfield Village with a driver and a wedge.

Woosnam is not sure whether he was born strong or made strong by working on his father's 70-acre dairy farm in St. Martins, a village just north of Oswestry. "My first job when I was young was to drive the tractor from one bunch of bales to another around the fields," says Woosnam. "Then when I got older my job was to stack the bales. That's 60, maybe 70 pounds a bale you're carrying, and you pitch it up with pitchforks, 'pikels' we called them—don't ask me how to spell it. You stick it into the bale and then you pick up the bale and send it atop the loft. Not one, but 5,000 of them. Then there'd be the plowing of the ground and milking the cows twice a day. Used to be nonstop hard work. You can keep that job."

The third of four children, Woosnam says that all he ever wanted to be was "a sportsman," preferably a successful one. When he was seven, his father, Harold, entered him in a tiny-tots boxing tournament, which the boy won, earning the nickname Tiger. At school Ian played soccer and basketball, threw the javelin, ran sprints and did gymnastics. In spite of his size, he was reasonably good at all of them. "I enjoyed school, but only for the sports," he says. "That's all I went for. I wasn't too clever in school."

It was about the same time that Harold, who had played soccer and cricket on village teams, took up golf, and life at New House Farm began to change. Father and son would practice golf shots in the fields and make the half-hour trip to the picturesque golf course at Llanymynech Hill whenever they could. "Not more than once or twice a week," says Ian. "In summer when it's light till half past 10 we used to go up some nights after work. We'd leave at 6:30, get there by seven and play nine holes."

Llanymynech (pronounced, roughly, thlan-uh-MAHN-uck) Golf Club has 15 holes in Wales, two in England and one that straddles the border. The hilltop on which the course is located is the highest point for 10 miles around, and its vistas, when the rains let up, are of the mountains of Wales to the west and of the Vale of Shropshire to the east. At the foot of the hill is Offa's Dyke, which is part of an ancient fortification that was built to restrain the pesky Welsh. Beginning with the Romans, would-be conquerors of those original Britons used Llanymynech Hill as a lookout and also mined its limestone deposits for copper and other minerals. Today three of the club's holes border a gaping abandoned quarry more than 100 feet deep.

When Ian began to travel to junior tournaments away from home, Harold made a decision. "Between milking the cows and running up to Llanymynech and the kids not being interested in the farm, I changed my farming policy," he says. "I sold the cows out and went into cereals to give me more time to run around with Ian. I went with him everywhere. Used to do all his caddying to save on expenses. Caddies cost money."

Father and son traveled the Midlands and Scotland pulling a trailer behind the family car. "It was good fun," says Ian. "We'd tow that around to all sorts of different places."

At 16, Ian left home and school and went to work at Hill Valley, a golf course 25 miles from Oswestry. For two years he was a greenskeeper and sometime bartender in the clubhouse. "Them was the wild days, them was," he says. "Discos every night and drinking beer, but it was good fun. I was going out, but I was practicing a lot, working at my game pretty hard. But I wasn't giving myself a chance. I was messing around too much. It wasn't really till I was 18 that I got down to it."

For many years, as an amateur and later as a professional, Woosnam played golf in the long shadow of Lyle, the son of the professional at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire. "He was always in a league a bit better than me, playing for England when I was sort of just struggling around," says Woosnam. Lyle was as big, easygoing and promising as Woosnam was small, tempestuous and self-immolating. Even as a junior, Lyle never threw a club. Woosnam not only threw them ("all the time," he says) but beat, bent, snapped and kicked them as well. His mother, Joan, cringes at the memory. "When he used to play for Wales and was well in the lead and he'd made a bad shot, oh, it was terrible," she recalls. "I used to be ashamed to go around with him."

"Being a Welshman is a disadvantage for a sportsman," says Harold. "They are really excitable people. It's taken Ian 11 years to get where he is, and I could never understand why. He was that much better than the others, but they used to qualify and he couldn't. I think it was his nervousness and his Welsh breeding."

Harold would know. He is small, wiry and, according to his son, hotheaded and stubborn. "He wanted to be a professional boxer," says Ian. "In them days his parents said, 'You're not being a boxer; you're going to be a farmer and that's it.' End of question. That's what he had to be. I think that's why he was so keen to give me a chance to do something I wanted to do."

When Ian was 18 and wanted to turn professional, Harold canvassed the top golfers in the area. "The opinion was he was too small," says Harold. Perhaps remembering his own disappointment at not being allowed to box, Harold gave his permission. He organized a party of Hill Valley and Llanymynech members, who raised £500 to see Ian on his way. The money didn't last long. "I only qualified once in four tournaments, and I didn't win any money," says Woosnam. "After that I was on my own."

He kept going by winning a little money on the Midlands Circuit, a minor tour near Manchester and Birmingham. When that money ran out, he returned to Hill Valley to work behind the bar for a spell. He and a pal from the club, Tony Minshall, traveled to tournaments in a blue VW camper, living out of it at tournament sites.

In 1979, Woosnam acquired a sponsor, MTM Engineering of Oswestry, which was willing to put up £5,000 a year against 50% of Woosnam's earnings after expenses. For two years MTM saw no return on its investment. Then, just as Woosnam's career was about to take a turn for the better, MTM's business went sour. "They were desperate for money by that time," recalls Woosnam. "They were ringing me up in the middle of tournaments wanting some money." In the third year of the arrangement Woosnam won £100,000 and returned £30,000 of it to MTM. "They went bust and I was just starting, but they got back double what they gave me, anyway," he says. "If it weren't for them, maybe I wouldn't be where I am now. They gave me a chance to play."

During those dark years Woosnam frequently played the Safari Tour, a six-week tour in Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. "It was a nightmare sometimes," he says. "You'd get diarrhea, and the weather was so bad. I was fortunate. I always had a place to stay. So many lads went out one time that there wasn't enough people to house them, and they got stuck in a hotel without air-conditioning and mosquito nets. I remember one poor lad, he slept in the bath, in water. He couldn't get the mosquitos away."

In 1981, Woosnam finished eighth in Africa, a performance that raised his hopes that he might qualify for the Italian Open. "I was playing well, so I thought, It looks like I'm going to start doing well this year," he says. When he failed to qualify for the Italian, the blow almost finished him.

"Every year I had improved a little bit, but that was the worst year I had," recalls Woosnam. "That was the time I thought I wanted to just give up and apply for a club job. It was a disaster."

Woosnam, however, is not a quitter, so the next year, 1982, he returned to Africa. One day on the practice tee at the Nigerian Open he was hitting shots alongside Gordon J. Brand, a Yorkshire pro who had won the Ivory Coast Open in 1981. "I was hitting every ball within a few yards of the caddie," says Woosnam, "and Gordon was all over the place—over the fence, 30 yards right—but he was shooting 68s and I was shooting 78s. I said to meself, I'm going to go all out and hope for the best."

Woosnam went on to finish second in Nigeria, and from that point on he began to relax. His terrible temper dissipated. He learned to live with his bad shots, and he became, by his own description, "more pleasant on the golf course." His scores improved immediately. He finished third on the African circuit that year, automatically qualifying for the Italian Open, in which he tied for second. "That was my breakthrough, really," he says. He got his first victory a few months later at the Swiss Open.

"I think you've got to have a fiery temperament, though," he says. "If you're bad-tempered, you've got that drive to win. There's not one top professional golfer I know that hasn't got a bad temper. They're holding it in all the time. The only one I suppose that hasn't is Lyle. In fact, if Sandy had a temper, he'd be the best player in the world."

Joan looks upon her son's difficult years as an apprenticeship. "Everybody's got to learn his trade, whatever he goes into," she says. "I think it's just as well to have done it as he has done it."

By 1983, with his prospects brightening at last, Woosnam was ready to settle down. He renewed his courtship of Glendryth Pugh, whom he had known since their childhood in St. Martins. He bought a flat in London to be near Glen, who was working as a nurse at St. Thomas' Hospital there. They were married in November 1984. Woosnam sold his flat, and the couple moved back to Oswestry.

Glen, now the mother of Daniel, 2, and expecting another child in June, is a no-nonsense housewife. She keeps their five-bedroom house spotless, a toddler who takes after his father out of trouble and her fun-loving husband toeing the mark. "Never get fed if I'm at home," says Ian good-naturedly, as he digs into his "fry-up" in the Llanymynech clubhouse one rainy day. "Too busy cleaning the house. My missus cleans the house every single day. She drives me nuts. You don't talk to her when she's cleaning the house. I hate the sound of a Hoover, honestly. I have dreams about it."

When the roar of the Hoover drives him out of the house, Woosnam retreats to the snooker room with its 100-year-old table in the new guest house, which also has a bar, a trophy room, a sauna, a whirlpool and a satellite dish. A window in the north wall overlooks the town cricket ground. "You can sit in nice comfortable chairs and watch the cricket match," says Woosnam, surveying his domain. "It'll be nice when come home on a Monday. I can get a few lads around, have a few drinks." He even talks of adding a covered swimming pool to the garden on the south side of the house. "If you're happy, money makes you happier, doesn't it?" he says.

Woosnam's business affairs are handled by the London office of IMG, Mark McCormack's Cleveland-based sports management firm. Although some of IMG's top European clients avoid heavy taxes by establishing homes in havens such as the island of Jersey or Monaco, Woosnam seems an unlikely candidate for expatriation. "I've got a million," he says. "That'll do for me. All my family's here. If I have to pay the tax, I'll pay it. That's it."

A rich golfer without a major championship is a rich golfer. Nothing more. Woosnam intends to be something more. Until now his chances even to play the majors have been few. Aside from the British Open, in which, after missing the cut in 1982, '83 and '84, he has finished 16th, third and eighth, respectively, in his last three tries, he has had two disappointing appearances in the U.S. PGA Championship, and that's all. This year Woosnam will play at the Masters, which has issued him an invitation for the first time, and at the U.S. Open, for which, for the first time, he is exempted from qualifying.

Last summer Ballesteros made it clear that he thought the Masters and the U.S. Open had erred in overlooking Woosnam, who had finished in the top six of the European Order of Merit, the equivalent of the U.S. money list, for three years running. Not everyone agreed. British golf writer Peter Dobereiner wrote, "Eight tournament victories in nine years, four of them in lesser events, demonstrated his potential, but they did not comprise the credentials of superstardom."

Today Woosnam's credentials are in order. "I've played in America," he says. "I like it. The golf courses suit me. The only trouble is it's such a long way away. I just want to play a few tournaments, as many as I can on invites. The circuit's good, but I don't think much of the players and their attitudes. Our tour's different. It's so friendly. I don't get that impression in America."

Pressure on Woosnam and the rest of Europe's growing number of golf stars—Ballesteros, Lyle, Faldo, Bernhard Langer et al.—to play in the U.S. is lessening as the European tour grows. Woosnam's first U.S. appearance of the year was last week at the Bay Hill Classic in Florida, where he finished 19th, and he plans to enter seven or eight more events here in 1988. He says he wouldn't miss the U.S. Open for anything, well, almost anything. Only the arrival of the new baby, which is due around the same time, could keep him from playing in the tournament.

"People tell me it gets harder," says Woosnam. "I've had it hard. It can only get easier."

PHOTOPHIL SHELDON"If you're happy, money makes you happier," says Woosnam, who won $1.8 million in '87. PHOTOLEO MASON/SPLIT SECONDThe World Match Play trophy Woosnam won was a big hit with his son, Daniel, as well. PHOTODAVID CANNONBallesteros gave Woosnam a shower of the bubbly after Europe's 1985 Ryder Cup win. PHOTOLAWRENCE N. LEVY/YOURS IN SPORTWoosnam, shown here at St. Andrews, is short in stature but plenty long off the tee. PHOTOTREVOR JONESHarold Woosnam shifted from dairying to growing grain so he could travel with Ian. PHOTOTREVOR JONESWoosnam learned the game at Llanymynech on the England-Wales border.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)