England's Dougherty stays positive despite slump

Nick Dougherty in 2009

Amid all the talk about European chances at this year’s Masters, one man will be conspicuous by his absence.

Step forward, Nick Dougherty.

Actually, maybe it should be step backwards. The affable Englishman has taken more backwards steps during the past 12 months than forward ones. So many backward steps that he’s slumped to 440th in the world from a career high of 46th, in February 2008.

This was never in the script for the man long ago anointed as the prodigal son of English golf. Dougherty was the golden boy of English amateur golf. He’s a Nick Faldo protégé, the six-time major winner recognizing Dougherty’s talent when he was a boy. Many thought that Dougherty would be challenging for majors by this time in his career instead of sitting them out.

Dougherty is a three-time European Tour winner who has stared down some pretty big guns in his time. He took down Thomas Bjorn and Colin Montgomerie to win the 2005 Caltex Masters in Singapore. Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington to win the 2007 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. His last victory came in 2009, when he won the BMW International Open after bettering Retief Goosen in the final round.

Dougherty seemed established as one of the new breed of Europeans ready to wreak havoc with the world order. It was just what was expected of a man who played on the same 2001 Walker Cup team as Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald.

Unfortunately, all was not right in Dougherty’s world. He was still hurting over the death of his mother, Ennis, in April 2008.

“Her death affected me more than I knew, and my game started to go downhill,” Dougherty said. “When things go wrong you start to look at things in your golf swing. I started to fiddle with my swing when it was my emotional state that needed fixing.”

As a result, Dougherty slumped to 121st on last year’s European money list. Desperation set in. “I must have listened to 100 people last year. I started reading golf magazines. I’d flick through pages and think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if I should try that?’ I started looking for answers everywhere.”

Things got so bad that he took drastic action. Before embarking on his 2011 campaign, Dougherty had two sessions with swing instructor Sean Foley. Foley might be the man in vogue now, given his high-profile role as Tiger Woods’ swing instructor, but he didn’t do much for Dougherty’s game. Rounds of 82, 81 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, his first event of 2011, were proof of that.

“Sean’s obviously a good teacher, but it wasn’t for me,” Dougherty said. “I tried to put into action the stuff he told me, but my game was awful, especially my driver. I just couldn’t keep it on the golf course. I lost seven balls in two days.”

Sometimes when the future looks bleak, it pays to look at the past. Dougherty did, returning to former swing instructor Damien Taylor, with whom he worked from 2006 to ‘08.

“Damien took video of me in Abu Dhabi and then showed me it alongside my swing in 2007. There was no comparison. He said, ‘You tell me,’ and I said, ‘Right. Let’s get back to where we were.’ ”

Dougherty missed his next two cuts before a freak hand injury, when he broke the second and fourth metacarpal bones in his right hand while slipping in the shower, ruled him out of the Dubai Desert Classic and the Avantha Masters in India. After a month off, he played consecutive weeks in Sicily, Andalucia and Morocco -- all missed cuts -- during a planned seven-events-in-eight-weeks stretch on tour.

“Unfortunately the only one I’m not playing is the one I want to play most: The Masters. But this is where I am, and that’s where I want to be.”

Dougherty doesn’t do doom and gloom. Though others might despair, he’s still the same happy, smiling Nick Dougherty of amateur golf. He always emphasizes the positive.

“I need to stop thinking about how far I’ve fallen. I need to realize I’m a lucky guy. Everything is going great for me right now in my private life. (He married Sky Sports presenter Di Stewart at the end of last year.) So to win again is the goal this year. I’ve won three big tournaments against top opposition, and I know I can do it again.

“The worst bit about last year was thinking you had hit rock bottom and then sinking even lower. That was hard to take.

“Hopefully I can look back at this period and see it as the most important part of my life. Going through what I’ve gone through teaches you a lot. I’ve been to some really bad places over the last couple of years.”

If Dougherty wants to join the vanguard of European golf, then he’s got a lot of catching up to do.

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