The toughest opponent I've faced

Golfmagic's Andy Roberts sits down with Britain's greatest ever golfer at Urban Golf

Andy Roberts's picture
Mon, 28 Jul 2014
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Sir Nick, you've won 41 times as a professional including six major titles, three at the Masters and three at the Open Championship. Which one stands out the most?

The 18th hole at Muirfield where I won two of my three Open Championships holds a very special place in my heart.  Real nerves when trying to win my first Open in 1987 (image right) and then again in 1992 (image above) when clawing my way back from having the lead, losing it, and then needing a four up 18 to win. That's the ultimate pressure you get in this game. So I would say hitting both those last two shots under pressure into that green in '87 and '92 were both very special moments for me and ones I look back on with pride.

Winning the Open by five shots at St Andrews, The Home of Golf in 1990, was obviously great. Out in the sunshine with a lead, I could enjoy that one. And then there's the '96 Masters, the one most people consider my most recognisable major victory when coming from six shots back on the final day to beat Greg [Norman].

I'd agree with that, especially as it was the first Masters I ever watched. What exactly did you say to Greg on the final hole?

I wrote it in my book but everyone thinks it's a big secret! No, I genuinely felt sorry for the guy. I was lucky. I had won majors and lost majors before that, but I never had any scars from the losses which was pretty nice. You know you screw up but whatever. Greg had a six-shot lead heading into that final day and to blow it, hey I didn't know what to say, so I just gave him a hug and said 'don't let the bastards get you down' before heading into the lion's den (referring to the media). I thought Greg handled it all pretty well. I'm not sure I could have handled it the way he did.

Who is the toughest competitor you've ever faced?

Seve. He was always bouncing around and he never gave in. You just never knew what was going to happen next. I played with him on the final day at Lytham during that Monday finish in 1988, and it was probably the greatest round I have ever witnessed alongside someone. There was hay flying around but the ball would always land on the green and he'd hole the putts. There was me going fairway, green, three-putt!

The passion Seve showed at the Ryder Cup was amazing, too. He got away with murder when he was captain of the European side in 1997. At the beginning of the week, he said 'I don’t want any of you under pressure, just go and play, enjoy yourself and good luck'. Remember those pan pipes? Well that was the music he put in the locker room for us. All the caddies would quickly change it when he was out the room but then Seve would always change it back when he came back in. Then on the Saturday night, he changed his attitude. He was passionately shouting out to us in the team room, in his strongest Spanish accent: "Now we have a chance to win! I want you to put your ball on the green, don't hit it in the trees, don't hit it in the bunkers and don't three-putt! He was great. That was Seve.

After his passing, I didn’t appreciate how much we played together in our day. He would always be showing you a shot in practice. I remember seeing him on a bunker green at Bay Hill once. He was out there hitting bunker shots with a 3-iron and he was sending these things next to the pin with spin! A couple of weeks later, we were practising at TPC in the bunker at the front of 18. We were walking up to the green and he wanted a bunker competition with a 3-iron. I went first and hit mine to 10-feet. He says 'yeah that's pretty good'. He then gets in there, shuffles his feet, splashes it out and backs it up next to flag before giving me a little wink. He really was something else.

Did you personally choose your Pringle jumpers back in the day?

Absolutely. I used to go in to Pringle on Monday mornings and work with the team to choose them. Way back then, I tell you that was real cashmere in those days. They were £350 in 1987 and it was the best quality cashmere in the world. The rep there at the time used to help me out and he'd say to me we’ll wear that one on Sunday to win.

How did you maintain your focus for 72 holes of competition over four days in varying weather conditions?

Intensity. I felt Thursday was always important. Every shot has importance. Thursdays, I was probably a bit more amped up than the average guy. I would always tell myself to step the pressure up and make myself really appreciate the value of each shot. I wanted to make birdies as quickly as possible, but that's tiring to play with that intensity for all four days. I liked to stay in the same golfing intensity.

My hero was tennis player Björn Borg and I watched how he played his big matches. I later learnt in life just how mentally strong he was. He used to practice in fifth set mode. So when he came out for matches, he was in fifth set mode in the very first game of the match. I have tried that in golf and it's exhausting!

The hilarious thing was I tried that at Riviera in 1997. I wanted to win the US Open so badly that year so I said right let’s pretend it’s US Open week and play with intensity. I won. Then when I got to the US Open at Congressional in June, it bloody didn’t happen. I finished tied 48th!

You're a keen fisherman. What is the connection between golf and fishing?

I love my trout fishing. It's not sitting on a river bank and waiting for your float to go down, you actually see a trout and work it all out. There is skill to cast it and land it right in front of his nose. If he takes it, you've got him. We put the fish back because we love them. It’s the hunt of seeing the fish, working out what he’s doing. A bit like golf, if you screw up or the line’s wrong or the hook’s off, he’s off. Any mistake losing a fish, it's like a double bogey.

And finally, what was it like to meet Ben Hogan back in 1992?

Very cool. It was at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fortworth. I was actually on my way to a Genesis concert in London at the time and my manager said 'I’ve just got word back that the only youngster Hogan will give time to is you'. We quickly turned the car around.

By the time I met him, it was unfortunate because he had started to lose his memory. I think he was 82 at the time. It was pretty harsh. We tried to recall his famous 1-iron shot into the 72nd hole at Merion in 1950 but he couldn’t remember it, neither hitting three balls off the tee during the 1953 Open at Carnoustie. He just couldn’t remember it which was a great shame. We sat in his office and had a meal on the veranda overlooking the course. I remember he had hands like steel. He never wore a grip so I asked him whether he had tendonitis or anything and he said he had nothing of the sort.

The saddest thing was in the locker room, he said come back and see me again. You know, this guy had a reputation of being as hard as nails! Unfortunately he passed away so I never got the chance to see him again, but I did get the chance to see Sam Snead and he was hilarious. When I walked out the door on the Sunday morning of the 1996 Masters, Snead, who always sat in the same chair, said to me 'oi Nick, what are doing working with that f****** Leadbetter." I replied 'thanks Sam, but I think I know what I’m doing.' He came back the next year and said 'I guess you were right'.

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