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Qualified Success Philip Golding, a veteran of 16 trips to Q school on the European tour, has finally seen his persistence pay off

July 28, 2003
July 28, 2003

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July 28, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus
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Qualified Success Philip Golding, a veteran of 16 trips to Q school on the European tour, has finally seen his persistence pay off

An Englishman entered the merchandise tent at the Open
Championship last week and headed straight for the booth of Le
Golf National, a French resort. Once there, he tried to choose
between an immense panoramic photograph of the closing holes of
Le Golf's Albatros course, priced at 750 euros, and a smaller
print of the par-4 7th hole, at 430 euros. ¶ "Got a great par
there on the third day," said a man at his side. The Englishman
nodded. He apparently craved the framed photos for their
commemorative value as much as their aesthetic appeal. "I might
have to get both," he said.

This is an article from the July 28, 2003 issue

But it was a lot of money, and he is not a rich man. What's more,
he had not yet priced another memento he hungered for: a replica
of the massive silver trophy he had lifted over his head three
weeks before as champion of the 2003 French Open. "It's one of
the oldest trophies in golf," he said, sounding like a museum
guide. "It goes back to 1906." He rattled off some of the names
engraved on the trophy: "J.H. Taylor and James Braid, Walter
Hagen, Henry Cotton, Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman,
Nick Faldo. Unbelievable names." And now his own: Philip Golding.

Happily, the former club pro from Bushey, Hertfordshire, who will
turn 41 on Friday, doesn't have to reach for his wallet to be
reminded of his recent good fortune. Since June 29, when he
birdied the par-5 18th of L'Albatros for a one-stroke victory
over David Howell, Golding has been named European tour player of
the month and has received countless e-mails and letters of
congratulation and enough headline ink to float a barge. GOLDING
FINALLY SHAKES OFF THE MONKEY RAN the headline in South Africa's
Cape Times. GOLDING LAYS DUCK WITH A GOLDEN NEST EGG punned
Britain's Guardian.

Duck, if you aren't familiar with the term, is cricket slang for
zero. Golding, before his victory, had played in 200 European
tour events over 13 years without a win. He had also managed,
through an extraordinary combination of grit and inconsistent
play, to make a record 16 appearances at the European tour
qualifying school. Since a player goes to Q school only if he has
to--it takes a high finish in the six-round finals for an
otherwise nonexempt player to secure a tour card--Golding was the
poster boy for futility. One British headline writer, surprised
to see Golding's name atop the French Open leader board, took
this cruel swipe: THE LOSER IS LEADING.

Those who actually know Golding take a different view of his long
climb. "There are late bloomers," says Nick Bradley, Golding's
coach since 1999 and his companion on that shopping expedition to
the British Open merchandise tent. "Who's to say Phil isn't just
now coming into his purple patch?"

The late-bloomer theory makes sense. Golding was a cricketer of
some promise in his teens--he played briefly for the Middlesex
Colts, a county team at the high school level--and didn't take up
golf until he was 18. It took him all of a year to get his
handicap to single digits, but further gains came slowly. He
turned pro when he was 19 and served a three-year apprenticeship
at Arkley Golf Club, a nine-hole course north of London, to
become a Class A club pro. To supplement his earnings, he modeled
apparel for catalog photographers. ("I got £15 a week to work in
the golf shop," he says, "and £90 an hour for modeling.") He was
only 20 when he entered and bombed out of his first Q school. He
was still a raw player when he tried again and failed in '84,
'86, '87, '88, '89, etc., etc.

"Looking back, it was a bit silly," Golding said last week, as he
sat in the shade of a tent at Royal St. George's. "I had no
chance."

It wasn't until he won a satellite tour event, the 1990 Brussels
Pro-Am, that Golding could look at the European tour as a
plausible goal. It took him three more years, though, to finally
get through Q school. In the decade after, he served as scenery
at scores of Euro tour venues, never finishing in the top three
at a tournament, never cracking the top 100 on the money
list--but never giving up.

"It's a strange way of life, golf," says his wife, Sally, an
executive vice president of EMI Music Publishing in Britain.
"Missing the cut and coming home miserable is the order of the
day."

Pat Golding, the golfer's mother, says, "Many a time we'd pick up
Phil at the airport, and we couldn't think of anything to say.
All those heartbreaks." Golding's father, Tony, a retired
builder, appreciated the logoed golf shirts that Phil brought him
from South Africa, Hong Kong and Dubai, but even he wondered
whether his son was plowing a barren field. He says, "One day I
asked Phil, 'What are you going to do when you stop playing the
tour? Work in a shop?' He said, 'A golfer plays golf, he doesn't
work in a shop.'"

But what do you do when the golf gods grind you under their
heels? That's the question Golding faced last November at the
Italian Open in Rome. Needing a spectacular final round to retain
his tour card for 2003, he shot a career-best nine-under 63 and
won about $20,000. He was on his way home, thinking he had kept
his card, when his mobile phone chirped. It was his dad, bearer
of the bad news that he had ended up 119th on the money list,
about $3,000 shy of the magical top 116.

"I won't say Phil was a broken man, but his spirit was broken
that day," says Sally, who had to persuade him to return to Q
school for the 16th time. "I told him, 'You have to go back to
school. You cannot shoot 63 in the Italian Open and think you're
not good enough.'"

In retrospect, it was unlikely that a man whose surname is one
consonant away from golfing would give up the game. Still, it was
a pleasant shock to Golding's family, never mind Golding himself,
that he was at Royal St. George's last week as a player and not
as a purveyor of sweaters or resort property. He walked the
grounds at a tourist's amble. His eyes, behind wraparound
sunglasses, frequently took in the giant grandstands and
spectator-covered dunes. "It's only my second time in the Open,"
he explained. (He missed the cut at St. Andrews in 2000.) This
time, of course, he hadn't sneaked under the ropes at the last
minute by surviving a final-stage qualifier; he had made the
field by virtue of his position on the European tour money list.
What's more, he arrived to one last fanfare of publicity, the
Euro tour announcing that he had won a trophy and £1,000 for his
favorite charity for making the shot of the month.

Shot of the month? Given Golding's history, it was the shot of a
lifetime. He needed a birdie 4 on the 72nd hole to win the French
Open, and there he stood in the fairway with a seven-iron,
preparing to hit his second shot to a green surrounded by water
and an expectant crowd. In England his family watched on
television--or pointedly looked away. (Says Sally, "Phil's mum
was in the garden with her head in her hands, saying, 'I can't
bear it.'") Golding's older brother Neil, a schoolteacher in West
Africa, stared up at the telly in a pub in Togo, barely able to
breathe. Philip, in the fairway with 167 yards to the hole,
suddenly remembered a quote from the humorist Henry Beard: When
playing over water, you can either hit one more club or two more
balls.

"So I decided to hit six-iron instead of seven-iron," Golding
said last week, noting that the wind increased slightly as he
approached the ball. "Thank God I hit the green."

He did more than hit the green. His ball nearly landed in the
hole on the fly, stopping 15 feet away. From there it was a lag
putt and a tap-in for birdie, and Golding had his long-delayed
taste of victory. Or, as yet another headline writer put it,
GOLDING THE PERPETUAL PUPIL PASSES TEST AT LAST.

"It tells people that dreams can come true," Pat Golding said
last week as Phil played with his two-year-old son, Lucas, in the
yard of a rented house in Sandwich. It pleased her, she added in
true British fashion, that he had won "calmly and with some
decorum."

Victory comes with all kinds of rewards. Golding's tour card is
now secure through 2005. He gains entry into next month's NEC
Invitational in Akron. He has signed an endorsement deal with a
chain of fish 'n' chip shops. He has not, however, bought the
navy-blue Porsche he has long dreamed of owning.

"Sally said I have to win another tournament before I can have
that," he says.

In the meantime the golf gods will have a few more chuckles at
his expense. They hurled 35-mph winds at Golding last Thursday
afternoon, and he was all over the St. George's dunescape on his
way to a first-round 83. "I must have found all the sand in
Sandwich," he said. "It was in my eyes, my hair, everywhere." He
played better in Friday's still-stiff breeze, but a 78 left him
well below the cut line.

That was the bad news. The good news was that his family had
commandeered a corner of the Bollinger hospitality tent and had
iced down several magnums of Champagne for a reunion that
included a couple of cousins; Philip's twin sisters, Alison and
Beverly; and a surprise drop-in from Togo, brother Neil. By the
time Philip got to the noisy tent, two magnums had already been
consumed and an American had spilled bubbly on Tony Golding's
trousers. Everybody was smiling.

Philip was smiling too. For his birthday, which was a week away,
Sally had bought him the two framed photographs from the
merchandise tent. "It's a wonderful present," he said, no doubt
remembering how those sun-streaked closing holes of L'Albatros
had looked on a certain Sunday afternoon in June, lined with the
smiling citizens of France.

Lifting his glass to friends and family, the late bloomer said,
"Here's to you."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH DOWN AND UP Golding had a rough week at the British Open but was able to relive his French Open victory at the merchandise tent.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH WATER HAZARD When not on the course at Royal St. George's, Philip goofed around with his son at their rented house in Sandwich.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH ALMOST FAMOUS A practice round (below) didn't help Golding make the Open cut, but autograph seekers were a welcome novelty.
What do you do when the golf gods grind you under their heels?
That's the question Golding faced last year.
Victory brings all kinds of rewards. Golding signed an
endorsement deal with a chain of fish 'n' chips shops.