A couple of weeks ago, Jay Sigel was mentioned in these pages as an amateur who, if there were any justice, would by now have been awarded his place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. As writer Jim Nugent noted, he won five USGA championships and played in nine Walker Cups.
Global Golf Post could have set the proverbial cat among the pigeons with this Sigel suggestion. Of course, the American should be in there with golf’s elite but, looking at things from a UK perspective, so, too, should Belle Robertson (Scotland), Mary McKenna (Ireland), Peter McEvoy (England) and Gary Wolstenholme (England).
The now 51-year-old Wolstenholme, who played in the first of his six Walker Cups two years after Sigel made his ninth and final appearance, is perhaps the most obvious candidate. He won two Amateurs – the second of them when he was 43 – along with a host of other global titles. These included the Scottish, Welsh, Chinese, South African and Finnish Open stroke-play championships.
Though his younger amateur rivals would tease, “If you couldn’t chip and putt, you’d be playing off 24,” Wolstenholme had arguably the finest Walker Cup result of all time when he defeated Tiger Woods at Royal Porthcawl in the match of 1995. He may have needed a driver and 5-wood to reach the fifth green as against Woods’ driver and 8-iron but he beat him just the same.
“Gary makes life easy for a Walker Cup captain,” said McEvoy, the shrewdest of Walker Cup captains. “When you are looking for the right man to play a Woods or a Casey Wittenberg, you don’t have to look beyond him. He has what it takes to unsettle a player and the process usually starts at the first. As often as not, the other fellow will have drawn confidence from hitting much the longer drive but will have ended up losing the hole to a birdie.”
Nugent could not have been more right when he hinted at long-serving amateurs no longer being revered as they once were. Wolstenholme should have finished his amateur career on a well-deserved high but, in 2008, he received a phone call from the English Golf Union to say that he would not be selected for England again. They had decided to concentrate on their Under 25s. (For what it is worth, they did not change their tune when Tom Watson finished second in the Open at the age of 59.)
Wolstenholme had always intended to keep playing in the upper echelons of the amateur game until he switched to the senior arena, but now he had to change course. After getting a touch of his own back by defeating the best of England’s young cubs in the 2008 Lee Westwood Trophy, he disappeared into the no-man’s land that is the PGA Europro Tour.
In order to give it his best shot, he had to leave his job as a part-time marketing manager at Kilworth Springs and, with expenses high and prize-money low, he soon ran out of cash. This was no time to be selling his house but that is what he had to do; the debts were mounting by the minute.
On the plus side, he won among the Europros and, as he approached his 50th birthday, he was handed a single Senior Tour invitation – for the Travis Perkins at Woburn. Everyone sat up when he finished as well-placed as third. He earned himself some money – £16,550 – along with a place in the following week’s event in Czechoslovakia.
Once there, he did the equivalent of a Tom Lewis. Just as young Tom recently avoided the European Tour’s Qualifying School by the simple expedient of winning the Portugal Open, so Wolstenholme gave the Seniors’ school the slip by capturing the Casa Serena Open.
He has never looked back.
This year, he has annexed the Australian Senior Open and is set to make off with Rookie of the Year honours in Europe. In his first 15 months, he has bagged a total of £246,000, enough to clear his debts and to set about buying another house.
“Yes,” he says, “I’m doing well, but I’m very aware of those who aren’t. It costs around £60,000 to play out here and anyone finishing outside the top 40 will struggle to break even.”
He may languish at a less-than-glamorous 94th on the driving distance stats on 239.9 yards, but his short game is the envy of every senior.
It was Barry Lane, who is currently lying second on the Senior Tour Order of Merit to Wolstenholme’s fifth, who turned to him the other day and said, “Gary, I really do admire you, the way you’re not intimidated or fazed when people outdrive you. I love the way you go about your business.”
That meant everything to Wolstenholme.
No less surely than he was ousted from the England team, this six-times Walker Cup man deserves to be ushered into the Hall of Fame. Not just for his results but for being as a patron saint to the shorter hitters of this world.