Future is bright for king of the Castle
Peter Lawrie is thriving at Luttrellstown after a painful end to life as a tournament professional
By their very nature, anniversaries can be a source of mixed emotions. Which finds Peter Lawrie currently balancing the stark loss of a departed tournament career with the good fortune at landing the prized position of director of golf at Luttrellstown Castle CC.
He took up the appointment on September 19, a year ago this Tuesday. And coming as it did only three weeks after his last European Tour appearance in the Made in Denmark event, the transition became all the more traumatic.
"It hurt - very much so," he said. "And to be honest, it still does. You might think of a door closing, but I heard a door slamming shut. In fact, it had such an effect that I found myself seeking comfort from Paul O'Connell, who was coming to terms with his own departure as an Ireland rugby icon."
Here we had the reality of sportspeople facing two deaths, as in their competitive one and, ultimately, their natural one.
Ever the pragmatist, Lawrie endured a protracted grind for a European Tour card after capturing the Irish Close Championship at Royal County Down in 1996. His breakthrough came with success in the Challenge Tour Grand Final of 2002. And a year later, he became the only Irish winner of the Rookie of the Year award, though the high point of his career was still to come.
It happened on May 4, 2008 when, in a remarkable sequence of Irish success, he captured the Spanish Open in Seville, after his great friend Damien McGrane (Volvo China Open) and Darren Clarke (BMW Asian Open), had been victorious over the previous two weeks.
"I still remember it vividly," he said, his serious face breaking into a warm smile. "I was tied after 72 holes with local favourite, Ignacio Garrido, and we went down the 18th again in a play-off. When I last watched a video of it about two years ago, the image that jumped out at me was of the first tie hole. That was where Garrido hit it to four feet and, knowing he would hole from there, I faced a downhill 20-footer with a five-foot break from left to right to match his birdie. My ball seemed to stop on the lip before it dropped in and you could see on the tape the looks of disbelief from eager Spanish spectators while I was jumping up and down like a mad thing. When we went down the 18th again, I won with a par."
Which meant a handsome reward of €333,330 leading to eventual tour earnings of €5.8m. Not bad pickings. "No, indeed," Lawrie acknowledged. "A natural thought is where did it all go, until you remember how expensive tour life could be. Then, I was among those who bought property at the highest price before the crash. And in common with others, there were a few dodgy investments. But look, I have a nice house in Castleknock only seven minutes from here, a wonderful wife in Philippa and a bit of money put away for the education of our four young kids. I'm certainly in a better position than most people my age."
Apart from tournament success, Lawrie was elected to the European Tour's Tournament Committee responsible for selecting Paul McGinley as the Ryder Cup captain for the 2014 matches at Gleneagles.
"That's when I enjoyed a level of popularity I could never have imagined among certain of my peers," he said with heavy irony. "I remember two in particular, Colin Montgomerie and Paul Casey, asking me who I was going to vote for, and who did I think would get the captaincy. Which had me smiling to myself. I've been 10 years on tour at this stage and I'm thinking this is the first time they've thought of passing the time of day with me. And I would have hoped they knew I'd be voting for McGinley."
Had he a view on Clarke's handling of the whole process? "His behaviour was poor, at best," he replied. "That's the way I would describe it as someone who was privy to a few things that were going on in the background. If Darren was going to stand, let him make up his mind and stand. Go for it. But don't undermine another Irish candidate who really wanted it.
"My first ever committee meeting was actually picking the captain. And other than to say that we made absolutely the correct choice, I couldn't comment on anything else without breaking confidences."
Within months of that momentous decision in Abu Dhabi, Lawrie began his long goodbye to the European Tour. "Towards the middle of 2013, I started playing poorly," he said. "My confidence was gone. I had lost control of the ball off the tee and by the end of 2014, I had hit rock bottom and lost my card.
"In 2015, I played on invitations through the help of McGinley and Rory (McIlroy), which gave rise to an amount of back-stabbing and petty jealousy that really annoyed me. Walking into a players' lounge, I could sense them talking about me, resenting my very presence on an invitation. As someone who never sought attention, I was now in the limelight for the wrong reason. That hurt. It was especially difficult to get over the fact that I'd let it be known the pursuit of invites would be for one year only. That they wouldn't be seeing me again. And I meant it."
The end, which came in August last year, was eased somewhat by having been extended over three years. During that time, there were conversations with McGrane who was predictably supportive, saying, as Lawrie put it, the things any decent friend would have said in the circumstances.
As it happened, both of them failed to get their cards at the 2015 Qualifying School. "That's when I vowed to my wife and to myself that I wouldn't be going back there," he said. "As it was, my category was decent enough to get me into quite a few tournaments in 2016, which I duly exploited."
In late July last year, Lawrie was practising on the range at Luttrellstown when the club's vice-captain, Dave Heary, introduced himself. In the ensuing conversation, Heary mentioned that they had a vacancy for a director of golf. By way of response, Lawrie contacted the resort's chief executive, Colm Hannon.
The upshot was that a contract was already on the table while he competed in Denmark where he made the cut with opening rounds of 72 and 70. Then came a third-round 79. And when a rain-delay on the Sunday meant missing his flight home if he completed 72 holes, he decided to quit midway through the fourth round.
"I had had enough," he recalled. "So I told my caddie, Jack O'Brien, that we were going home. With that, we walked off the golf course and headed for the airport. And I never went back on tour. I had never previously quit in the middle of a round, so it wasn't the ending I had imagined. And I wouldn't recommend it. But when I explained the situation to an official, there was no issue. No reprimand." He was five months past his 42nd birthday.
Since then, Lawrie has applied himself earnestly to his new position, switching the front and back nines to achieve a better finish, while spearheading a new academy. As a player, however, he's not tempted by the Irish pro-am scene. "With no disrespect to anybody, having played the premiership, I don't want to go down the divisions," he said.
"This opportunity has been a great blessing and Luttrellstown are getting 110 per cent in terms of my time here, my effort, thinking about the job and trying to make the golf course what I know it can be. And I've brought probably 50 new members into the club. Though it can be testing, I relish the challenge. There might be somebody on the phone who's complaining about slow play or about not getting the correct starting time. And I'd think: 'God! I won the Spanish Open'. But it passes. People see these things as genuine grievances and it's my duty to look after them."
And all the while, he's gently adjusting a mental picture of himself from that of a successful tournament player, to his current reality.
Sunday Indo Sport