Rob Taylor meets former Ryder Cup star and three-time European winner Peter Baker at South Staffordshire Golf Club.
Before I tee off on this jaunt through Shifnal-born Peter Baker’s illustrious golfing career it’s incumbent upon me to frame his significant sporting success within context. Today, youngsters looking to make it big in sport are spoilt by a marketplace overrun with options, which pander to their every whim and cater for their every need.
Of course success in sport – and in particular, golf – is expensive, but you can’t just buy your way in. It may appear easy to all of us armchair pundits when we watch sport on TV but the Herculean dedication required in order to win is borderline heroic. This dedication is lacking in most of us and is certainly not par for the course. In Peter Baker though, it is his defining quality. And it needed to be because things were far tougher back when a young Peter was making his first foray into the game his father introduced him to at the age of five.
“Dad took me to Lilleshall Golf Club on Saturday mornings,” remembers Peter, now 49 and speaking to me from his seat as top PGA professional at the South Staffordshire Golf Club, “we’d have one ball and one club.”
“When I was in my early teens I’d think nothing of cycling from my home in Codsall to Wrottesley Golf Club; I’d stay for hours practising. In school holidays I’d routinely be there from dawn to dusk – I once played 54 holes in a day at Lilleshall.”
A trailblazer of his kind, Peter found odd things – things that are today just taken for granted – challenging: “I’ve played in red wellies as a lad because there was no such thing as golf shoes for children – I mostly ended up having to wear Ladies’ shoes.” It seems fitting somehow that he recalls using a set of [pioneering Scottish amateur Ladies’ champion] Jessie Valentine clubs. And even then he’d often require his father – who worked at Rockwell Thompson metalworks – to regularly help fix up his tired old clubs. All of this adversity served to steel his dedication still further; because already he had an insatiable appetite for the game he stills loves to this day.
“I loved the fact that unlike in other sports I didn’t have to rely on anyone else. With golf, if I put in enough hard work and practice, I could achieve success.”
Always a keen sportsman at Codsall High School, Peter was encouraged to further his interest in golf as often as possible while at school. His raw talent was clear to see and Peter, now coached by Alex Lyle – father of notable golfer Sandy Lyle – began competing regularly.
Winning a national boys’ competition run by the Daily Express at 16 brought Peter to the La Manga Club in Spain, face to face with golfing heavyweight at the time, Seve Ballesteros. It taught him that there was still much more to do: “Seve ran a clinic down there. By this point I thought I was pretty good but watching him hit for an hour brought me down to earth a little.”
Peter went on to enjoy an impressive amateur career, winning the Brabazon Trophy in 1985 and representing Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup. He turned pro in 1986 and really made a name for himself in 1988 by winning the Benson and Hedges International Open at Fulford, beating Nick Faldo with an eagle on the second play-off hole.
A “golden” run up to the 1993 Dunhill British Masters at Woburn saw him garner a course record on the Duke’s Course, winning with a seven-shot victory over a field that included the likes of Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo.
“Winning there was a fantastic moment – and to win in that company, it was massive for me. When you’re playing on a top course against the top players in your home country, it’s very special.”
Peter then surfed this wave of glory right onto the prestigious European Ryder Cup, putting himself among the top nine players in Europe. He continued on the European Tour for a further 15 years and at retirement had played 597 tournaments – averaging 20 or 30 a season – on courses all over the world.
During his career he’s had many fond favourites – Sunningdale Golf Club in Surrey and, home to this year’s Open Championship, Royal Birkdale – as well as definite bogey courses, like Royal Lytham and St Annes, which “never suited his eye.” But, he confesses: “I was tired out from the rigours of touring in the end.”
He was however always determined to stay within the game that he “still lives and breathes” and, after working as a mentor to the current crop of professional players on tour with Champions of Golf, coaching seemed obvious. That he would use his honorary PGA member coaching status at the club he has been a member of since the age of 15 was obvious also.
“It has been really nice in the seven years I’ve been at South Staffs to have been able to pass on my knowledge and help people improve at the game they love.”
Set in 160 acres, the 6512 yard par 71 course is considered to be one of the Midlands’ finest courses. On most days you’ll find Peter ensconced inside the Pro Shop, overlooking the first tee. From there he runs lessons on swing improvements as part of the Peter Baker Golf Academy.
I point out to him on this glorious summer’s day that there must be worst places to work. He smiles and retorts: “It’s my second home.”