Even when they fade away, still they play.
Two days ago Philip Walton left his home in Ashbourne shortly after dawn to drive down to Mount Wolseley in Carlow for a pro-am. It was all for a good cause, to raise funds for schooling children with autism and other special needs, but it was a long day at the office. He didn’t get off the course until just before six o’clock, back home until after nine. He finished three over par, seven shots behind the winner, Gary Murphy. He actually struck the ball well but then he’s been striking it pretty well all season since he turned 50 to qualify to play on the Seniors Tour. It’s just translating ball-striking into lower scores that has been the problem.
It’s both a privilege and a curse, a form of joy and infuriation, continuing to play a game that you once excelled at but no longer excel at. As he says himself, “The money isn’t great these days.” The pro-ams don’t pay like they used to because there’s not as much money in the country as there used to. He doesn’t putt or win like he used. But, as he reminds you and himself as well, he’s still one of the lucky ones.
There are times he still strikes that ball as sweetly as he ever did and while they’re fleeting enough they’re enough to sustain him through all the wayward approach shots, the three-putts and all the torment only golf can throw at you. While you struggle to get a grip on the game, it still has a grip on you.
He endures because he’s durable as much as he’s been vulnerable. His finest hour was proof of that. This weekend 17 years ago at Oak Hill he clinched the win that secured the Ryder Cup for Europe. It was only the second time they’ had ever won Stateside. In many ways he’ll always be that moment: on the 18th, in tears, just like Seve and Faldo and Rocca. And why it probably meant so much was that six years earlier when Christy O’Connor Jnr ended up being the hero and closer, Walton was in tears for another reason entirely.
“I got screwed in ’89,” Walton says in his characteristically honest manner. “I played the best golf of my life that year. There was this sponsored competition recording the most number of birdies on Tour all year. I was the winner by 55 birdies. I missed only two cuts all year.
“But one of them was the last tournament before the team was picked and I went from ninth to 11th. Only the top nine were guaranteed selection. I played with Seve that week in Germany. I was still sure I’d make the team. After Germany I travelled to Switzerland. I was on the train down to Geneva. I had three Swiss francs in my pocket so I could ring home. There were no mobile phones then. My brother Alan answered the phone. He said ‘Are you sitting down?’ I said I wasn’t. He said ‘Well, you’re not on the team either. They went with Junior instead.’ I just hung up.
“Christy Junior was way behind me in the rankings but in the weeks leading up to the selection he was badpressing [European captain Tony] Jacklin quite a bit. Then they sting me with it. I was delighted for Junior when he nailed that two-iron shot. Great shot, great fella. But I was quite hurt that I wasn’t there.”
Why was he overlooked? He reckons Seve must have had a say in it. He loved Seve’s competitiveness but never quite looked at him the same way after ’89.
“Seve was almost the captain without being the captain. A few weeks later I met him again and asked him why I was bypassed. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Your grip’. I just started laughing at him. To be honest, I kind of lost interest in the game for a bit after that. There was so much politics going on behind my back. I’ll never know the full story but I’d love to know.”
But he would endure. The following 1990 season he would win his first tournament on Tour, beating Bernhard Langer in a play-off at the French Open, and play a key role on the Irish team that won the Dunhill Cup, a prestigious international team tournament St Andrews hosted every autumn. In 1995 he would win two more tournaments and secure automatic qualification onto the Ryder Cup team. And just like Christy would atone in ’89 for missing out in ’85, Walton’s heroics in Oak Hill would make up for his Belfry anguish.
It was a group full of strong personalities, some of them moody too. Faldo was brilliant but hard to warm to. Walton remembers playing a four-ball warm-up that week with Per-Ulrik Johansson against Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. “On one hole Johansson wouldn’t give Faldo a two-footer. Faldo just picked it up anyway. That’s the way it was, that’s the way he was.”
The others were more respectful, more supportive, Ian Woosnam especially. At times it was unnerving that week, the sense everyone was watching you, judging you, especially team captain Bernard Gallacher, but Woosie was there to guide you, help you. One day when they were paired together Walton fluffed a chip shot on the bank. Woosnam wasn’t having it and for an hour solid he tutored Walton on how to play that shot. “He just wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d got that shot.”
Woosie didn’t always help him though. They were paired together for the Saturday morning foursomes. The previous night they’d agreed Woosnam would hit off on the first. Half-an-hour before they were to tee off, Woosnam changed his mind. As it turned out Walton would be unfazed by that prospect and would rip it down the fairway to play a fine round, but things didn’t go quite so well for Woosnam. As Walton says, “Woosie played crap,” and Loren Roberts and Peter Jacobson beat them by one hole. Walton was pretty sure he’d done enough to merit another outing that evening but walking off the 18th, it was Woosnam that Gallacher approached, telling him he’d be out soon again with Constantino Rocca.
It didn’t do much for Walton’s mood, whatever about his confidence. While non-playing members are encouraged to follow their team-mates around the course, Walton declined and instead watched the afternoon’s action in the players’ lounge.
When they all returned there and Walton was drawn in the penultimate game, the Malahide man didn’t interpret it as a ringing endorsement from his captain. “I think he reckoned that myself and Johansson were weak links, that the match could be over by the time it came down to the last two games.”
But of course, it wasn’t. It would go to that penultimate game and its last hole, Walton seeing a three-hole lead with three to play shrink to just one. After Walton had birdied the par-three 15th, Jay Haas holed out from the sand on No 16. Then Walton missed a five-foot putt to seal it on the 17th. At that stage he was reeling.
“On the 18th tee all I could see was heads all looking at me. I hadn’t the nerve to hit it over their heads. I ended up hitting it a bit straighter than normal, into the right rough but it was quite a good lie. It was better than Jay’s anyway. He sky-hooked it left and it took him seven or eight minutes to play his second shot.”
Walton’s second would see him hoist a 5-wood into the steep bank short of the putting surface. It meant the same shot Woosnam had been showing him all week. It wasn’t quite as good as Woosie or he had played it in practice — “the rough was a foot long and the green was like a sheet of glass” — but it got on the dancefloor and when his 15-foot putt cosied up to the hole, Haas conceded.
How did it feel? At first, sheer relief. Joy had nothing to do with it. He just wanted to shake hands with Haas and then just get off the green. But then everyone else came onto it, hugging and kissing and crying, and before he knew it, Walton was crying tears as well.
Of course he cherishes that moment. Looking back, it was made all the sweeter for missing out on ’89, maybe it was a blessing in disguise to miss out that week. But he can’t say he enjoyed the week itself because of the constant scrutiny and he can’t say he enjoyed the following few years either.
“Definitely that Ryder Cup did take something from me. Maybe it’s that I’m not one for the limelight and I couldn’t easily go for all that.”
Within two years he felt burned out and would love to have opted out for a year but he couldn’t, to the point he was soon left out by not playing well enough on Tour. In 1999 he missed 13 cuts and made only £28,000 for the year. In 2004 he eventually won his card back but the following season he struggled as well and faded into obscurity. As he’d once say himself: “Once you start slipping in this game, it’s very hard to stop it.”
Every now and then his name would resurface. He’d win qualification for the 2008 British Open. Then in 2010 he grabbed national headlines when Brian Cowen famously drank a bit too much before going on the national airwaves. It turned out that when a tipsy Cowen was holding court among his Fianna Fáil cronies he did a mean — in every sense of the word — impersonation of Walton’s distinctive high-pitched voice. It was reported that Walton demanded an apology from the then Taoiseach but Walton now maintains that he and his position was misrepresented at the time.
“I had nothing to do with that. A fella acting on behalf of me took action without any permission from me and stirred the whole thing up. I never mentioned one word to the press; it was this other guy that wound the whole thing up. To be fair to Brian Cowen, he sent me a very nice letter afterwards. I hold no grudge against the man. I impersonate people myself. Ask Eamonn Darcy and the way I can take off his golf swing. It doesn’t matter to me, all that.”
How did he pass the last few years? Playing the pro-ams and the Irish circuit, doing some corporate days, knowing his career earnings and his wife Susanne’s income was enough to keep them going. Raising his two daughters and mentoring his 19-year-old son Rhys, a solid four-handicapper. And preparing himself for the Seniors Tour, which he joined when turning 50 back in March. He’d worked a lot on his physical fitness in particular but now that he’s back it’s his mental fitness he intends to prioritise now.
“It’s been like going back to school again,” he shyly smiles. “It’s taken some getting used to because I haven’t played this level of competitive golf since 2005. It’s strange, the guys who are kicking your ass, the likes of Ross Drummond and Karl Mason and PJ Russell and Des Smyth, were all guys I met back in ’83 when I turned pro.
“It’s a lot more relaxed this time, there’s no cut, but it’s just turning the 73s and 74s into 68s and 69s. I still love competing and I’ve learned a lot this year. I’m playing lovely, solid golf. I drive the ball better than I ever did, to be honest. I just need to tidy a few things up. It would give me such a thrill to win on the Senior Tour, that’s what I’m building up to, so the fact I’ve yet to do that means it’s been quite disappointing for me.”
There are two tournaments left, in Taiwan and Mauritius, before it winds up, before starting all over again in May. He plans to work on his mental game in particular over that time, going back to a few meditation and breathing exercises he used to regularly practise when he was at the height of his game.
He now sees Rory McIlroy at the height of his. What a player, what a talent. The first time Walton encountered it was when McIlroy was nine. “We played the back nine on the Island together on a cold January day. He was only a little fella yet he never missed a shot. I said to his dad, ‘Don’t spoil him. You know, don’t give him brand-new clubs all the time, make him work for everything instead of giving him everything’. Gerry said, ‘Philip, don’t worry, I won’t’. There’s no doubt he’s the best player in the world today. It was unbelievable what Pádraig [Harrington] did, winning those three Majors, but Rory’s going to win even more.”
And the Ryder Cup? At the outset, he has a slight fancy for the Americans. They’re at home. And they’re marginally the better putters. Putting is the key. Doesn’t he know that well from being on the Senior Tour? Doesn’t he know it anytime images of Oak Hill have appeared on our screens this month? “It was on Sky the other night again — how Europe won the 1995 Ryder Cup. A buddy texted me, ‘You were a good putter back then’!” And he laughs. He doesn’t often laugh, Philip Walton, particularly when the game hasn’t given him much to laugh about since Oak Hill, but he says, he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. “It’s a great life, playing a game, meeting great friends, great players.”
And for one moment in time on an 18th green in New Jersey, he was the best friend all those great players could have.