When I lived in Trinidad between 1996 and 2006 my journalistic career in that country began by writing and photographing features for Caribbean Beat, the inflight magazine of BWIA, now Caribbean Airlines. Recently, I revisited some of those features from the archives of Caribbean Beat and thought I would republish some of them on this blog. In those days my camera was a not very special Canon with not very special lenses (the difference in image quality compared to my equipment today is staggering!), with photos shot on slide film; nothing digital in the late 1990’s. But the feel and subject matter remains pleasing. I don’t have access to many of the published originals I took but have dug up a few and added others taken at the time.
In the 1990s and 2000s the Caribbean’s most famous professional golfer was Stephen Ames; to golf what Brian Lara is to cricket. As a golfer myself, who had once trained to be a professional, this was an assignment I really enjoyed.
Stephen Ames is putting Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean on the golfing map. Mark Meredith finds out how it all started
Chaguaramas Public Golf Course on Trinidad’s north-west peninsula. A still, sultry February afternoon. Vultures wheel lazily under a brooding sky, riding the thermals above the forested hills of Tucker Valley. White cattle egrets patrol the empty fairways and greens, undisturbed by flying golf balls and the cries of their frustrated owners. Insects, creaking bamboos, and silence. Nothing else.
Then, just as one begins to picture the howler monkeys coming down from the hills to forage among the thickets surrounding the fairways, the first car appears from the forest-covered canopy. Then another. And another. Soon, there’s a steady stream of taxis, school buses, cars and bicycles drawing up to the newly paved clubhouse car park. A crowd is gathering at the practice ground where piles of golf balls and assorted golf clubs lie. Rows of chairs are filled with chattering children. Parents and club members line the makeshift bar. One seating area, covered by a canopy, is cordoned off and guarded by armed policemen; there is a lectern and microphone. A sound engineer repeats: “Testing for sound.”
Motorcycle engines can be heard approaching along the narrow clubhouse road. Heads turn as a convoy of black limousines, police vehicles and motorcycle outriders sweeps past. A Benz bearing the registration plate “PM 1” unloads Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday and his wife Oma. Flanked by men in black safari suits, the PM and his entourage move towards their designated seats where they wait for the show to begin, and the man they’ve all come to see.
If Stephen Ames is surprised by the attention his presence has caused, he doesn’t show it. He chats quietly with people he hasn’t seen for nearly three years and is congratulated by well- wishers. He’s at Chaguaramas with his brother, Robert, also a professional, and two other pros from England and the US. Stephen is the star of this golf clinic for youngsters. It is part of Trinidad and Tobago’s “Week of Golf”, a programme of events to mark the re-launched, re- sponsored CL Financial Trinidad and Tobago Golf Open at St Andrew’s Golf Club, Moka, scheduled for the following day.
For Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean golf, Stephen Ames is what Brian Lara is to cricket, Ato Boldon to athletics, Dwight Yorke to football. It isn’t just that he is the most successful golf professional ever produced by the islands: he is the only touring professional to have been produced by them. Ames is based in Calgary, Canada, where he has lived for the last five years, married to Jodi, a Canadian. Now he is back home for a few weeks with his year-old son, Justin, and a reputation to be equally proud of.
Prime Minister Panday and Minister of Sport Pamela Nicholson are proud of him, too. They recount Ames’s triumphs to the audience who probably know them already: finishing fifth in the Open at Royal Troon last year, ahead of Woods, Faldo, Norman et al; winner of the Benson and Hedges Open in England in 1996; winner of the Lyons Open on the 1993 Volvo Tour.
Prime Minister Panday is new to golf, but he’s completely hooked. He chides his assistants for telling him to dress without his golf shoes. To everyone’s delight he is given a public golf lesson by Ames and asked to demonstrate what he’s just learned. The PM hits a succession of five irons in the air, and mostly pretty straight, to loud applause. Then, to a commentary over the PA by one of the professionals, Ames takes the five iron, and with a neat, compact swing devoid of exaggerated movement, effortlessly sends balls soaring towards the 200m mark, straight as a die, or faded, or drawn as instructed. Little boys sitting cross-legged on the grass follow theirflight, mouths wide open with awe at the power and accuracy of their local hero.
Anyone with access to American TV sports stations may soon start seeing much more of Stephen Ames. Prior to his two-week stay back home, Ames finished 3rd in the US PGA qualifying tournament in Orlando, Florida. Now he is up against the cream of American golfers, many of them products of golf schools and scholarships, worlds apart from Ames’s own golfing education.
Stephen Ames was introduced to golf when he was 12. He was a natural sports player, swimming and playing tennis competitively. But he was a bit too good: he soon found himself running out of opposition his own age. Relying on older people for games was difficult because they were mostly working adults, with little time to spare. Some of his friends, though, had started playing golf. One day, while walking with them along Pointe-a-Pierre Golf Course to his house which bordered one of the fairways, he “had a go”.
“The feeling of trying to hit a golf ball was thrilling,” he recalls. “I realised this was a game I could play by myself and get a lot of enjoyment from. I got the bug. I was out there every day, chipping, putting, driving. As soon as the sun was up I was gone — till the sun came down. It was like being in my own shell. I didn’t hang out with my friends a lot, and I wasn’t very talkative. I was shy. But playing golf in my own little world, I was happy.”
As any amateur knows, bringing down your handicap to single figures takes years; and for most it’s a goal that remains forever distant and unobtainable. However, Stephen Ames is one of those people who excel at any sport they turn their hand to.
By the age of 15 he was a scratch player, a zero handicap, and had won his first monthly medal at St Andrew’s G.C. In 1980, at 16, he broke the course record at Sandy Lane golf course in Barbados, shooting a 66. The local press started paying attention. His confidence soared, he says; he knew he could do it again.
Meanwhile, his education had suffered; he just hated studying and loved playing golf. But there was no thought yet of golf as a profession. He finished school and went to the US, doing a degree in Business Administration. He hated that, too. Returning to Trinidad, he began working for his father, Michael, who ran a maintenance business at Point Lisas. He worked in the accounts department and then in the machine shop. “I sat down every day and thought: what the hell am I doing here?”
Ames’s golf kept improving. He played as much competitive amateur golf as he could. He was hard on himself; he had a short fuse and he pushed himself, knowing he could do better. The pressure to perform was coming from within, he says. When Stephen was 23, Michael Ames suggested he try his hand as a professional, “to see what I could get out of it”. Unlike Europe and America, turning professional in Trinidad didn’t involve lengthy apprenticeships and examinations. Instead, he entered his next event solely for the money. It was at Pointe-a-Pierre G.C. and he won it. He followed that with the Jamaica Open where he placed a creditable 11th.
The next step was to join a tour. He opted for mini-tour events in the US, popular four-day competitions among up-and-coming pros. He paid his US$500 entrance fee and chased a first prize of $5,000. He had to win to eat: there were no golf lessons or pro-shop to bring in the greenbacks. But the four-day format, and playing with other professionals week after week, was an invaluable experience.
In 1989 he qualified for the Canadian Tour, playing his way slowly from West to East coasts. He learned more about the game, and himself.
“I got to realise how important it was to have an all-round game,” he says. “Every part had to continue to work well in order to place well and make a good cheque. You’re rooming with a guy, trying to save money, flying to some events, renting cars, paying hotels. It was expensive. It’s a lot more difficult to play with that much pressure to make money hanging over you. I made about $15,000 Canadian, but I spent it all just getting to those events.
“It was rough, but it was fun. I realised playing on that tour how much I thrived on pressure. I absolutely loved it. I remember having $1,200 left in my pocket and I still had to pay $600 for the next event. I knew I had to get off my arse. A week later I finished eighth with 3,200 bucks. Here we go! I thought.”
Ames joined the Hogan Tour, now the Nike Tour, the stepping-stone to the US PGA Tour. He says it was probably the best experience he ever had. The Hogan Tour boasted quality fields: players like Tom Lehman, Jeff Maggert and John Daley. Nobody paid attention to the fact that he was from the Caribbean, but they may have looked at him differently when he started posting some imposing scores.
He spent the next five years playing on the European Tour. He knew many of the pros from their visits to Tobago to play in the Tobago Classic (once the Johnnie Walker) at Mt Irvine Bay Golf Club. He enjoyed their company, finding them much warmer than their American counterparts who, he believes, were none too keen on foreign successes on their soil. He also enjoyed the golf courses more.
“To me, a British links is golf. You have the option of what type of golf shot you want to play: the low bump and run, or high in the air. In the States it’s all in the air. In the British Open you have the wild heather and rolling fairways; in the US Open it’s perfect tee boxes, not a brown speck anywhere, beautifully trimmed and very nice, but I didn’t get the same out of them.”
Stephen Ames has never lacked confidence. His introduction to the ranks of the world’s most famous golfers on the European Tour — Faldo, Ballesteros, Langer, Woosnam, Olazabal — didn’t faze him. He says he wasn’t overawed by reputations, though he admits that watching Nick Faldo practising was like watching a magician, such was his precision — “the closest to Ben Hogan in ball-striking ability.”
He was encouraged by Seve Ballesteros who had spotted his talent and admired his swing, often volunteering to play practice rounds with the young Trinidadian. The charismatic Spaniard has since become a good friend.
In 1996, in truly awful conditions of freezing 50 mph winds and rain, Ames — almost unrecognisable in a black woolly hat pulled low over his ears — ground his way to a memorable victory in the Benson and Hedges Open, against the weather-hardened veterans of the European Tour. He says his mind was there, even if his golf swing wasn’t.
But his career highlight has unquestionably been his 5th place at Troon’s Open in 1997. The Trinidad Express trumpeted: “Ames tames Tiger”. The boy wonder finished on one under par, Ames finished four under.
“It was a great experience,” he says. “Not so much a battle against the other guys, but a battle from within. I played the easier front nine holes badly, and the much more difficult back nine exceptionally well. I just couldn’t get started.
“I loved the atmosphere. It’s 10 times better than the US Open. In the British Open there are huge galleries, just for the practice rounds. The experience for me was fantastic: clapping me 150 yards down the last fairway — ‘Look at Ames! He’s from the Caribbean — tied fifth!’”
Ames is being coached by Irishman and ex-touring pro Denis Sheehy, who has remodelled his swing. Now, Ames says, there is much more economy of movement, with the result that he is striking the ball better than ever, hitting it 30 yards further.
He appreciates very well the benefits of a good coach, but believes modern professionals have it easy compared to the generation of his hero, Ben Hogan.
“He had the best swing I’ve seen. What made it the best swing? Ben would have said he ‘dug it out of the dirt’. He hit a lot of golf balls, thousands of them, until his swing was perfected. It took him a long time, about 10 years before he started winning. Today, golfers are doing it through teachers who are putting them in the correct positions. You can virtually jump out of college and start winning on the PGA Tour, thanks to teachers.
“I have to give Denis full credit for turning my ball striking game around. Now we’re working on the short game. My chipping could be stronger, my bunker play is weak, and my putting is very weak.”
Ames will work hard to put these faults right. He rises to challenges, isn’t easily satisfied, and that’s probably bad news for some pros on the US PGA Tour. In March, in his first event on the Tour, the Nissan Open in California, he finished third, nine under par, three behind Tiger Woods and Billy Mayfair.
As he isn’t elegible to play in the Ryder Cup, his nearest ambition is to qualify for the President’s Cup, when the USA takes on the Rest of the World, bar Europe. Trouble is, he has to get ahead of other overseas players like Nick Price, Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Jumbo Osaki, Frank Nobilo . . . Another ambition is to put Caribbean golf on the map. He’s made a good start, but he can’t do it all; he knows part of the problem lies at home.
“Golf is a nothing sport in the Caribbean,” he moans. “The younger generation is taking more interest, but everybody’s still stuck on cricket and football. I’m doing the Pro-Am and clinics to promote the game, trying to get the Government more involved in giving something back to the game itself. Nothing has been done for golf in T&T: cricket’s got it, football’s got it, athletics has it, everybody’s got it. I would like to see everyone benefiting from golf: more courses, more juniors playing, golf as part of the school curriculum, like cricket and soccer.
“Golf has built me for the person I am now. Golf has shown me a lot as a person. I’m a mature man now and can handle situations which have nothing to do with golf, but it’s golf that’s taught me that maturity. It can do that for other youngsters, too. In sports like cricket and football, you can play your heart out, but if the other 10 guys aren’t with you, you’re not going to win, are you? In golf, it’s you, you, you.”
Ames admits he’s obsessed with golf. Just like his younger brother Robert, he collects videos of golfing greats, past and present, stills of broken-down golf swings, old books, but he’s not into ancient niblicks and putters. He leaves that to Ben Crenshaw. To him, the golf club isn’t the interesting part — it’s the person swinging it.
The desire to do better makes Ames tick, and he has buckets of ambition to go with it.
With the commitment and will to succeed that he has already displayed in his late-starting career, there seems no reason why his superb performance in last year’s British Open should be a one-off. And, as if to demonstrate this desire, his return home for the T&T Golf Week resulted in his promptly breaking the St Andrew’s course record during the Shell Pro-Am with an eight under par 64.
Personally, I have no doubt of Stephen Ames’s ability. I lay on the ground three feet from his clubhead and asked him to belt a succession of golf balls over my head while I took some pictures. I just knew he wouldn’t top it, and I still have my teeth to prove it.