‘I’m going to try and qualify for the US Seniors’ Open’

Ivan Lendl’s golf dream lives on despite failure to qualify for the US Open. He may not have qualified for the year’s second major, but Lendl’s obsession with golf still burns bright, says Lawrence Donegan.

Ivan Lendl is a man possessed but he is not, alas, a man who is about to provide one of the more sensational upsets in recent golfing history and qualify to play against Woods, Mickelson and the rest of the gang at next month’s US Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

A duffed bunker shot at the first hole, followed by a missed tiddler for par at the second brought an early end to his chances of advancing through the local qualifying stages, the first step on the long road leading to a coveted spot in the second of the year’s major championships.

Fours hours, 30 minutes and a grand total of 77 shots later, Lendl, winner of eight tennis Grand Slam titles and his fair share of celebrity golf tournaments, is sitting in the clubhouse at Wethersfield Country Club, scene of his demise, trying to describe his relationship with a sport that appears to an outsider to have dominated his life since injury ended his tennis career in 1994.

“Obsession is too strong a word,” says the 48-year-old who was once said to have played 300 rounds of golf in a single year as he attempted to improve his game. “My attitude was to see how good I could get. The 300 rounds a year was an exaggeration.

It was more like 250 rounds. Golf gave me something that tennis couldn’t give me any more. I need to compete. I had been trained to compete all my life and I couldn’t just walk away from that. I would have bitten my dog.”

If the dog remained unbitten, Lendl surely was, is and, it seems, always will be. Hence, the countless hours spent on the driving range and practice green, the time he spent on the pro-am celebrity tournaments, the handful of attempts to qualify for the US Open, the five times he played in top-class professional events, twice on the European tour and three times on the Nationwide (“I never finished last — there were guys who withdrew every week”) and, oh yes, the three daughters who are all enrolled in the David Leadbetter golf academy in Florida and are acquitting themselves well on the US Golf Association’s junior circuit.

Marika, aged 18, Isabelle, 16, and Daniela, two years younger, have won tournaments in their age group and are ranked inside the country’s top 100 junior players. All have their gaze fixed on a career on the LPGA tour.

“They came to the sport because I was playing it a lot,” Lendl says. “Marika played a lot of tennis at first but she kept getting injured. I asked her to quit. Eventually she did but she didn’t take up another sport, which meant we butted heads a few times. Three months later she asked me if she could have a puppy and I told her she could if she played golf for six months. She said okay and then she got hooked and I didn’t have to bother with a puppy.”

Lendl, who is as friendly and warm in person as he was detached and icy on the tennis court, tells the story with fatherly affection. He is, as he puts it, committed to his daughters’ golf careers but, equally, is aware of the pitfalls of pushing them too hard. The world of golf, like the world of tennis, is littered with parents living vicariously through the gifted children.

“I don’t need to live my life vicariously through anyone. I live, have lived, a great life already,” he says brushing off the suggestion he might fall into the dreaded category of “pushy parent”. “Tiger’s father, Earl, was the perfect example. Thousands of parents get it wrong but he is the one guy who did it perfectly. He knew exactly the right time to step away. And I’m trying to do the right thing. When I was being coached by Tony Roche, my parents wanted to talk to me about my tennis.

The last thing I wanted to hear was ‘your backhand isn’t good’ because that thought would then flash through my mind when I was on the court.”

But if he keeps his swing tips to himself, he has plenty to say on the mental aspects of the game, and why not. Watching him negotiate his way around the tight Wethersfield course with a golf swing that might politely be described as functional, it is obvious he stills retains the psychological strength that was such a feature of his tennis career. “I teach my daughters never to give up when they are on the course,” he says.

Paradoxically, he would be entirely supportive if any of the three girls decided they had had enough of golf. “Whatever they want to do. Whatever will make them happy will make me happy. If Marika was to tells me one day she wants to pack it in then I would say ‘fine, I hope we can have some games of golf at the weekend’.”

As for his own golfing career, it is safe to assume that “packing it in” is not an option.

It won’t be long before all three girls will be at college. He will have more time on his hands, plus his 50th birthday beckons, which means he will be eligible to play senior golf. “I have made a resolution with myself to do more workouts and take more care of my body so I’ll be able to swing the club a bit harder,” he says. “I’m going to try and qualify for the US Seniors’ Open — it’s a bit more realistic than trying to beat the young guys. Then there is the Champions Tour qualifying school. I might try that. What have I got to lose?”

Spoken like a true golfing obsessive. Not that Ivan Lendl is obsessed with golf, of course.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008