Fourteen years ago I found myself at Hawkstone Park, Sandy Lyle’s old pad in north Shropshire, and where his father Alex was the club professional for so many years. Sandy, however, was not the reason for my visit back then. Instead, I was at the club because I was a consultant to the PGA’s Mastercard Tour, the circuit they called the learning, not the earning, tour. My role was to think of ways of blowing some publicity into these events. It wasn’t easy.
Nobody knew the players – some raised inquisitive glances in their own households – and though there was a few quid available to the winner it was the sort of money that could be spent swiftly in a chip shop. No, the publicity had to be based on the occasional individual story.
The best I ever came up with was thanks to a pro golfer who liked to be known as ‘Gypsy’ Joe Smith. Joe was a unique character and, yes, he proudly came from one of London’s best-known gypsy families. It was when Joe played at Prince’s on the Kent coast that he sparked my interest. This he did by dying the red cross of St George into his hair, Joe’s idea of homage to the Royal St George’s club that, as you know, abuts Prince’s links.
I felt this was a mild form of eccentric charm, but the tournament director thought it contravened the code of behaviour demanded of pro golfers and so had a chat with Joe, a talk that ended with Joe agreeing, reluctantly, to wear a cap. This was interesting enough, but it was when I talked to Joe that the real story emerged, for it turned out that he often earned extra money via bare-knuckle fighting. Why he wasn’t already a member of St George’s remains beyond me.
Joe, however, wasn’t at Hawkstone Park. In fact I now cannot remember anyone who was playing at this particular event, but what I can remember is the young, rather desperate looking teenager standing beside the practice putting green, absent-mindedly batting a few balls.
He was there when I arrived at 8am and he was still there when I walked past again a couple of hours later. So I asked this lad what time he was out and he explained that he did not have a tee time, that he was first reserve and that he had driven down from Southport that morning, leaving at 4am in the hope that someone pulled out and he got a game.
There was a very good chance of this happening for someone always pulled out of these Mastercard events. The kid’s luck was out, however, because everyone turned up and by 12.30 the final group had assembled on the first tee and it was time for my new young pal to begin the drive back to Lancashire. I said goodbye and passed over a Coke for his journey.
That was the last time I spoke to Lee Slattery, but I have followed his career ever since this chance encounter in Shropshire. Over the years he has popped on to the European Tour and swiftly popped off again. He has battled glandular fever and at one time seemed to have quit the game altogether. In-between times he has held down various jobs – usually in shops – back home in Southport.
You’ll know his face because his dark, brooding good looks mean that he is the face of Galvin Green and regularly appears in adverts in this magazine. Most people assume he is a male model rather than a pro golfer. Not now they don’t. Hopefully, the majority of you will realise that after years of trying and 183 tournaments he finally fell over the finishing line in the recent Madrid Masters to secure his playing rights for the next couple of years, and much else besides.
He came to the last hole three shots clear and needed all of them after nervously finding a bunker with his second shot before dumping his third into the water. In the end he needed two putts from 15ft for victory and just managed it. As he came off the green he said, “I can’t feel my arms”, he was so jittery. I have never been more delighted to see a winner smile with relief. For Lee, a journey that began at 4am in the summer of 1998 had finally reached its intended destination. For me, a circle had been completed.
And for everyone out there a lesson was endorsed whether you are a hacker, a top amateur or a professional. It is simply this: whatever else you do in life, keep trying. Then, probably, take a long nap.