An ex-footballer who plays golf is nothing new, but former Manchester United winger Lee Sharpe takes the game more seriously than most.
After being plucked as a raw 17-year- old from Torquay United in the old Fourth Division, Sharpe quickly won trophies and tabloid notoriety under Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in the early 1990s, but his professional football career faded thereafter with injury-hit spells at Leeds and Bradford, before Exeter City released him, aged just 31, in 2002.
Since then he has made a living in reality TV, punditry, several ambassadorial roles and on the after-dinner speaking circuit. He has also been playing rather a lot of golf.
His handicap was two until a “bad couple of weeks” saw it slip to its current 2.6. But this minor setback won’t deter him from his long-term goal of making the European Senior Tour when he hits 50, in 2021.
“It’ll be a tough ask, because obviously you’re competing with a lot of players coming off the regular European Tour and entering the Seniors. I’ll have to get myself down to +2 or +3, which is a long way off at the moment, but I’m aiming high and hopefully we’ll get there.” He currently plays four times a week, as well as a couple of trips to the driving range at his home club in Horsforth, Leeds.
He is also heading to China to play in the World Celebrity Pro-Am at the glamorous Mission Hills Resort Haikou this weekend.
There, he will play alongside the likes of major winners John Daly, Gary Player, Mark O’Meara, and Suzann Pettersen, as well as actors Jeff Goldblum and Michael Douglas, and fellow ex-Premier League stars such as Paul Scholes, Robbie Fowler, Dwight Yorke, David May, and Gary McAllister.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” the 45-year-old said. “I’ve been to China before to play a bit of old boys’ football and I really love the place.
“There will be a couple of little wagers flying about with the other United lads, no doubt. David May and Scholesy play off eight, but should be off four or five. They’re a couple of bandits!” Sharpe’s previous overseas golf trips have included Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, Pearl Valley in Johannesburg, Laguna National in Singapore and The Emirates in Dubai, where he shot his best-ever round of two under par.
“I missed two six-footers for birdies on 17 and 18, so it should have been four under,” he remembers. “I left them both short as well. Utterly criminal. My thought process for that day was just to keep my back to the target. It was a simple thought and keeping it simple is so often helpful.” The mental side of golf fascinates Sharpe. He is the Zen Golf FlowMotion brand ambassador for the Golf in Schools project and immerses himself in Zen’s innovative coaching methods, founded by Sheffield-based Nick Middleton. His philosophy focuses on feel and mindset rather than technique.
“Nick blew everything out of the water that I thought I knew about putting,” Sharpe said. “His technique is to have no technique! It’s about the weight and feel of the putt.
“He has me putting with my eyes closed or looking at the target, not the ball. He takes the conscious thought processes and technique out of golf to make the whole thing more natural.”
Old Trafford regulars in Sharpe’s heyday will remember his natural, free-spirited style, which he has now transferred to his golf game. He found a kindred spirit when he got the opportunity to have a round with John Daly.
“A mate of mine, Simon Hurd from Horsforth Golf Club, is his agent when he’s in England and he arranged it.
“John gave me the best golfing advice I’ve ever received.
“He just told me ‘Grip it and rip it!’ He’s not much of a technique man; he’s just a ‘get out there, smash it, find it and smash it again’ kind of guy. That’s a philosophy I like.
“The best way to play golf is to have no attachment to the result — just go out and hit it. When people start protecting, guiding and manipulating, that’s when they hit trouble.” Sharpe first picked up a golf club when invited to join some fellow Manchester United reserve-team players aged 17. “I loved it from that very first time,” he said.
His subsequent eight years and 263 appearances in the famous red shirt of United are fondly remembered. He won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and European Super Cup, plus eight England caps. A hat-trick at Arsenal in the League Cup in 1990 was his personal high point.
Which all begs the question — what does he prefer playing, football or golf?
“Ripping a long iron close to the pin or a perfect drive down the middle is pretty phenomenal and if I could do it in a tournament with 50,000 watching, it would be just as good as scoring at Old Trafford,” Sharpe replied.
“But scoring my favourite goal — the backheel against Barcelona in the Champions League in 1994 — with the place erupting, that’s pretty tough to beat, if I’m honest.” Sharpe’s football career is also remembered for his famous goal celebration, in which he performed a Elvis-style hip-wiggle before using the corner flag as a microphone. Surely he has been tempted to recreate it using a golf flag, perhaps after holing a long putt?
“A few people have asked me to, but I’ve always refused. I might have done it on the 18th at The Emirates if I’d have holed one of those bloody six-footers!”
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