Once a can't-miss, Dougherty struggling to find his way

Nick Dougherty finished dead-last of those to play two rounds at the Africa Open.

The golden boy of English golf has lost his luster. That much was obvious from the Africa Open leaderboard.

You had to go a long way down that leaderboard from winner Darren Fichardt to find Nick Dougherty’s name. In fact, you had to go all the way to the bottom.

The one-time can’t-miss-kid finished dead last. He came 154th out of the 156 field, but the other two – Carlos del Moral and S.S.P. Chowrasia – only played one round before withdrawing from the tournament.

Dougherty, a three-time European Tour winner, never threatened to make the weekend. He missed the level-par cut by 15 shots after rounds of 80 and 79. That was two shots worse than the previous week’s effort in the Joburg Open, when he recorded scores of 79 and 78.

This is not how the story of Nicholas Dougherty is supposed to turn out.

The affable Englishman shouldn’t even be teeing it up in tournaments like the Africa and Joburg Opens. Had he followed the script set out for him about 15 years ago, he should have been back in his home in Sunningdale, England preparing for next week’s WGC – Match Play Championship.

He should easily be among the world’s top-64 players at this stage of his career. Somehow, he’s got lost along the road to success.

Dougherty was destined for stardom since junior golf. His peers nicknamed “golden balls” in amateur golf because he was the darling of the English Golf Union.

His name was always first on England team sheets, and for good reason. Dougherty could back up his selection. He was a prolific winner in his amateur days. He counts the European Under-21 Championship, World Boys’ Championship and Lake Macquarie Amateur Championship among his list of successes.

The kid from Liverpool played on the same 2001 Walker Cup team as Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell. He won three out of his four matches at Sea Island, Georgia, to help Great Britain & Ireland defeat the United States. He partnered with Donald to a foursomes win over Eric Compton and John Harris. He recorded singles victories over James Driscoll and D.J. Trahan.

Dougherty made an easy transition to the professional game, even if there were distractions early in his pro career. He got his card at the European Qualifying School on his first attempt. He kept it for the next few seasons, although he didn’t always spend as much time on the range as perhaps he should have. He like the social life maybe a little too much, spent more time courting young ladies than working on his bunker play.

However, he settled down and hit pay dirt in 2005 when he took down Colin Montgomerie and Thomas Bjorn to win the Caltex Masters. He overcame a quality field two years later to win the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews. Then in 2009 he outlasted two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen to win the BMW International Open.

God was in his heaven and all was right in Nick Dougherty’s life.

Then his world crashed in around him. He lost his European Tour card in 2011 and has failed to get it back at the last two European Tour Q-Schools. From a career-high of 46 on the Official World Golf Ranking in February 2008, Dougherty sank to 1,021 in April 2012 and entered the Africa Open at World No. 637.

He spent last season on the European Challenge Tour trying to regain one of the top-20 spots to get back on the main tour. He finished 39th.

The Englishman won’t play many more main European Tour events this season. He played in the two South African tournaments on sponsors’ invitations. Yet these events are so low key that even players at the lower end of the European food chain get to play. Dougherty’s status is so poor he doesn’t even qualify for such tournaments.

Part of Dougherty’s problems can perhaps be traced to paralysis by analysis. The Englishman has had more than his fair share of lessons from different coaches over the past few years. His search for success even included an 8,000-mile, two-day round trip at the end of 2010 to see Sean Foley for two one-hour sessions.

While success has been hard to find on the course, the Englishman has found happiness off it with marriage to former TV presenter Di Stewart. They married at St. Andrews in 2010 and gave birth to first child Maximilian last year.

No one deserves anything from this game. Arguably no sport defines Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest than the ancient game of “gowf.” However, everyone in the European game would love to see Nick Dougherty’s smiling face back on the main tour. Hopefully he can find his way back to the future.

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