Littlestone Golf Club wasn’t the place you’d expect to find a one-time British superstar the week before the U.S. Open.
As David Howell, Padraig Harrington and Stephen Gallacher, former Walker Cup teammates of the “can’t-miss kid,” prepared for the U.S. Open, the man who literally and figuratively once stood head and shoulders above them was walking the fairways at the Ladies’ British Amateur Championship.
Gordon Sherry – who stands 6 feet, 8 inches – easily was visible in the distance around the 18th hole. Sherry towered above the few spectators, mostly family members, watching a group play the par-5 finishing hole. He was at Littlestone as an adviser to the University of Stirling golf team, and was monitoring Alexandra Marshall’s progress through to the match-play stages.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to pan out for a player who was expected to be Scotland’s answer to Nick Faldo.
Ten years ago, Sherry was touted as the future of British golf. He won the 1995 British Amateur Championship in a 7-and-6 romp over Michael Reynard at Royal Liverpool. The victory earned Sherry a spot in that year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews. The Scottish giant warmed for the game’s oldest championship with a fourth-place finish in the Scottish Open at Carnoustie behind Wayne Riley, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie.
At St. Andrews, he was feted as if he was one of the top players in the world, not a 21-year-old amateur. The media hysteria was fueled by an added attraction in Tiger Woods, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. It was a match made in heaven: The future of American golf going head-to-head with the man many expected to tower over British golf for the next 20 years.
Athletes often are hyped to the hilt, then fail to live up to expectations. It’s part of sports. Players are built up so high, but many times the outcome is disappointment.
Sherry, 31, is a perfect example of publicity overkill.
The Scot did nothing to halt the media train. In fact, Sherry jumped on board, stoked the engine and took the controls. He had no trouble sharing his dreams and expectations with the world, mixing jingoism with bravado that had the British tabloids singing hallelujah.
Sherry began making headlines the year before St. Andrews when he fought his way through the British Amateur at Nairn to face England’s Lee James in the 36-hole final.
“Not only am I planning to win, I’m going to win it for Scotland,” Sherry said on the eve of the final.
The Scottish tabloids, always happy to engage in rampant nationalism, had a field day. Sherry lost, 2 and 1.
Still, a legend had been born. The future of Scottish golf had arrived, a colossus of a man reared on links golf on the Ayrshire coast.
Sherry finished the 1995 season in style, leading Great Britain & Ireland to its first home Walker Cup victory in 24 years over a U.S. team led by Woods.
Sherry had finished ahead of Woods at the Scottish Open, British Open and Walker Cup.
Here was a rivalry in which Woods surely would play catch-up.
“I had Gordon Sherry on my side, and we dealt with the Tiger factor by insisting that Sherry was the better player,” said then-GB&I captain Clive Brown. “We believed it too. Gordon was huge for us that year. He led the team not only on the course, but in the locker room, too. He was the unofficial player captain that week.”
The British Amateur triumph gained Sherry an invitation to Augusta for the 1996 Masters. Perhaps caught up in his own hype, perhaps intent on finishing his honors degree at Stirling, Sherry was rusty when he arrived at Augusta. He and Woods both missed the cut.
Sherry turned professional shortly afterward, took his seven allowed invitations on the PGA European Tour, missed three cuts and earned only £11,512 (approximately $20,800). This was not the total most expected Sherry to make. The first of six unsuccessful Q-School bids soon followed.
Ten years later, his face remains boyish, and his eyes still sparkle when he speaks. But they do not dazzle as they did that intoxicating summer. Ten years of trying to find the path to success has led to many detours. Sherry is a PGA-qualified professional. He is an as adviser to the men’s and women’s golf teams at his alma mater. He also is director of coaching with ProDream USA, a joint venture with former Walker Cup player Lorne Kelly dedicated to helping young Scottish players attain golf scholarships in the United States.
“Working with the university team has been very rewarding,” Sherry said. “I feel I have so much to offer because I’ve been there. I’ve been through the mill, the worst side of golf, and my aim is to make sure these players don’t go through what I went through.”
Sherry is not jealous of other Walker Cup teammates that have enjoyed professional success.
“That’s not my nature,” he said. “There’s no mileage in being jealous. None whatsoever. I’m happy for Padraig and Stephen and David. They’ve played well and they deserve it. Me, I’m just trying hard to look forward.”
Looking forward means another trip to European Tour Qualifying School this season. Sherry feels his efforts on that front have been helped by reuniting with former coach Bob Torrance, the man who helped take him to British Amateur glory.
“Leaving Bob was a big mistake – huge,” Sherry said. “I should never have left Bob and gone to other coaches. They were good coaches but they were not on Bob’s level. Bob has coached most of the best players in the world. It was through him I won the Amateur, finished fourth in the Scottish Open and had played so well. Yet for some reason I felt I needed to change. Why?
Worst move I ever made.”
Part of Sherry’s mission is to make sure those who come under his wing do not fall into the trap he did.
“For some reason I thought I had to follow a certain pattern,” Sherry said. “I know now there isn’t one, but I got caught up in all that. Who says you have to spend ‘X’ amount of hours on the practice ground, or you have to hit it a certain shape, or change your coach. So many guys get out on tour playing a certain way, and then they get on tour and feel they need to change. Why? That was me. I had played my entire life with a 10- to 15-yard draw, then I turned pro and felt I had to hit it straight. Why? Those are the sorts of lessons I want to pass on to up-and-coming players.”
Torrance said instructing others has been a positive for Sherry.
“Gordon is enjoying the coaching,” Torrance says. “He’s never off the phone asking me for advice on how to fix a certain problem he has with a player, and I’m only too glad to help.
“There was a lot of pressure on Gordon when he first turned pro and it was all or nothing then. It’s good he’s got the coaching to fall back on now because that takes a bit of pressure off him. He’ll be fine, though. He’s been through the mill, but deep down he’s a winner.”
Sherry can pinpoint his fall from grace. It happened at the 1996 Masters.
“I wouldn’t change anything up to winning the (British) Amateur,” Sherry said. “What I would like to change is my preparation for the Masters. That was the start of my downfall because I just didn’t play enough competitive golf up to the Masters, which was stupid.
“That was a huge blow to my confidence. I’d played fairly well at the (’95 British) Open and felt comfortable, and yet I went to Augusta and shot 78-77 and felt as if I was hitting sideways. I had no competitive edge because I hadn’t played much. To be honest, I’ve never actually got that competitive edge back.”
Sherry worked hard on his game, but now feels he put too much emphasis on practice instead of getting the ball in the hole.
“In 1995, I was playing a lot,” he said. “Yet I went from playing a lot to spending a lot of time on the range. That’s OK, but you’ve got to play, too. I ended up getting caught up in too much technique when I should have been playing more, even if just in bounce games with mates. That’s a mistake I see young players make. They don’t spend enough time playing and so they don’t know how to make a score, and at the end of the day that’s the important thing.”
A comeback won’t be easy. He hasn’t played much since finishing 78th in earnings (£2,294 in 10 events) last year on the EuroPro Tour, a developmental circuit that’s a rung below the European Challenge Tour.
Still, a hint of the old bravado returns when Sherry talks about going for his tour card again this year.
“I still believe I can play at the top level,” Sherry said. “I’m still 31 so it’s not as if I’m old. I’ve got a lot of time left. Look at Vijay Singh, he’s 42 and he’s (among the top players) in the world. Look at Todd Hamilton. Who would have thought he’d win the Open last year?”
With that, Sherry makes his exit from the Littlestone links. He has promised to cook dinner that night for Marshall and three other members of the Stirling team. Hardly the feast that was promised in those heady days of a decade ago.