Scottish Treasure

LARGS, Scotland – At 10 a.m. on a cold, windy day in June, Bob Torrance is in his usual spot. He is seated on a red plastic chair in the drab surroundings of the Inverclyde National Golf Training Centre. Torrance is in the first driving bay watching Michael Sweenie, a Turnberry assistant pro, hit balls.

A small, portable table sits next to Torrance. On it rests an ashtray, a box of biscuits and a cold cup of tea. There are no high-tech video cameras, computer analyzers or swing aids. “Why would I need a camera to tell me what I can already see?” Torrance said.

Torrance, 76, dispenses advice sparingly. He watches Sweenie’s swing and ball flight, and compliments in his distinctive gravelly voice, the result of a lifelong chain-smoking habit that makes his words sound like metal spikes on asphalt.

Torrance is one of the world’s best swing coaches, but his drab surroundings are anything but world-class. The name National Golf Training Centre pushes the term editorial license to new limits. There are only eight dilapidated-looking bays, with simple artificial-turf mats. Players pick up their own balls. Torrance warms himself with cups of tea made in a maintenance shed.

Turn up at Inverclyde almost any time of the year between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., rain or shine, and you’ll find the Scottish swing guru.

“I’m up here every day when I’m not at a tournament,” said Torrance, who grew up and still resides in Largs, on the west coast in Ayrshire. “Why wouldn’t I be here? This is what I love doing.

I still love the game, even after all these years. I’m still learning about the golf swing.”

Bob Torrance has worked with just about every successful PGA European Tour pro, from Ian Woosnam to Padraig Harrington. Torrance guided Woosnam to the 1991 Masters title. He coached Harrington to victory in the British Open last year at Carnoustie, the Irishman’s first major championship. When the British Open returns next week to Royal Birkdale, Torrance will be on the range with Harrington and many other pupils.

Torrance began his life in golf just up the road at Routenburn Golf Club, where he often combined club-pro duties with greenkeeping. It was there that son Sam developed the game under Bob’s watchful eye, leading to 21 European Tour victories, eight Ryder Cup appearances and a spot as Europe’s victorious captain in 2002.

Sam’s success vaulted Bob into the spotlight. Many European Tour pros wanted lessons from the man who had honed Sam’s silky action.

“Sam was the making of me,” Bob said.

Bob Torrance never has wavered in his belief that the game is built from the ground up.

“I’ve always felt that the legs are the most important muscles in the golf swing,” Torrance said. “Hogan proved that. So did Nicklaus. So has Tiger Woods. I also believe the two most important areas of the golf swing are the takeaway and the start of the downswing.

“But I’ve always believed if something works, then don’t change it. If you work on a player’s strong points, then you automatically will strengthen his weak points. But if you work on his weak points, then you will weaken his strong points. Never weaken the strong to strengthen the weak. Why would you want to do that?”

Torrance’s swing philosophies might not have wavered much, but his personal life has. He has battled a drinking problem that nearly finished him. He has had two bouts off the bottle. The first one lasted 14 years and ended in the early 1990s, though he’s not sure when.

As a result, Torrance lost most of his players.

“Going back to Bob is the best thing I ever did,” six-time European Tour winner Paul Broadhurst said. “I started with Bob when I first came on Tour, but he was on the drink in those days. Sometimes it just wasn’t worth working with him. Maybe the best thing Bob’s achieved in his life is beating the bottle.”

Torrance’s current temperance movement has lasted 12 years.

He can’t remember what made him see the light, or the exact date, but he knew it was time to stop.

“It was for my health,” he said. “I wasn’t getting anything done. If I hadn’t quit then, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

European Tour pros don’t hang around bars until the wee hours these days, but it used to be commonplace.

“The culture is different now,’’ Torrance said. “It used to be normal to have a few beers in the evening. Nowadays, the young guys hardly drink. They’re all in the gym. That’s a good thing. Besides, there’s too much money now to go risking your career.”

Torrance credits his wife, June, and friend George Wigan with helping him beat the booze. “George came into my house every morning and every night to check on me. He would search the house to make sure I hadn’t hidden a bottle. I might not be here if not for him and June.”

Sweenie, 22, isn’t the first unheralded player to benefit from Torrance’s largess. Torrance seems to take as much joy from teaching relative unknowns as he does coaching major champions. He demands the same from Sweenie as he does from tour pros.

“Butch Harmon’s son Claude once asked me what I thought the secret of golf was,” Torrance said. “I said: ‘You’re standing on it.’ ”

It’s a reference to Hogan’s credo, that the secret to the golf swing is in the dirt. Torrance believes in that adage more than any man alive. He made two pilgrimages to Fort Worth, Texas, to spend time with Hogan at Shady Oaks Country Club. Torrance hit balls in front of Hogan, and the two became firm friends. Maybe that’s why Torrance has the utmost respect for players willing to spend as much time on the practice ground as he does.

“Bob could see I was serious about learning, and he took me under his wing,” Sweenie said. “His enthusiasm is unbelievable. I’ve improved no end, but I still find it hard to believe one of the world’s best golf coaches has endless time for me.”

Torrance will be on the Royal Birkdale practice ground from sunup to sundown. He’ll be there as long as Harrington and others need him.

Turn up at Inverclyde the following Monday and he’ll be there, too. The surroundings won’t be as luxurious as those at Royal Birkdale, but Torrance will be doing what he loves: trying to increase his knowledge of the golf swing.

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