The late bloomer
Matt Cooper looks at the stunning performance by Paul Wesselingh on this year's Champions Tour.
By Matt Cooper
Last Updated: 24/12/13 8:59pm
The biggest cheque Englishman Paul Wesselingh cashed in his brief 13-appearance career on the European Tour was worth €13,855, for finishing T68 in the 2004 Open Championship.
In contrast it's estimated that this year alone Swede Henrik Stenson has cashed over $20 million in on-course earnings.
It would seem, therefore, that the two men have very little in common - and yet this year they have plenty.
Because in 2013 they bossed their respective tours right to the very end: when the biggest prize was on offer at season's conclusion, they didn't merely maintain their standards - they actually improved upon them.
There are wins, there are good wins, there are very good wins - and then there are performances like those which Stenson and Wesselingh produced.
Stenson, of course, won the DB World Championship to confirm his number one spot in the European Tour's Race to Dubai. His victory was stunning, his final total six shots better than his nearest challenger.
Wesselingh's story is less well-known - which makes some sense because he thrived on the European Seniors Tour - but his efforts should not be overlooked and, even in a year of fine golfing tales, his needs repeating.
He might have ended 2013 in Stenson-style, winning the end-of-year MCB Tour Championship in Mauritius by five shots to finish top of the European Senior Tour Order of Merit, but his route there was anything but similar to the Swede's.
Curiously, this is not the first time that the careers of Stenson and Wesselingh have crossed paths.
Back in 2001 Wesselingh was a club professional whose success on the regional PGA circuit earned him a start in the Benson and Hedges International Open. Wesselingh shot 78 on Thursday and then retired midway through round two with a bad back.
The winner that week? It was Stenson.
In between times it's safe to say that both men have had quite a journey. Stenson lost form, found it, hit the heights, lost it again and then rediscovered it once more in glorious fashion.
Wesselingh, on the other hand, returned home to his family, continued to give lessons and play the odd minor tour event. Then six years ago he began to think of the European Senior Tour.
He first played golf aged seven but he was no prodigy. "I wasn't particularly good," he explained to SkySports.com after his win in Mauritius. "At 16 I was only playing off 12.
"I got it down to three and I became an accountant. But a desk job wasn't for me. I wanted to be a coach and a club pro."
Did he dream of playing for a living?
"I had a couple of half-hearted attempts at the main tour in the early 90s." He laughs. "My game wasn't up to it - I was rubbish really.
"Things changed when I met Howard Bennett in 1990 via the LET player Lora Fairclough. Within two years I'd played in the British Open. Howard changed my swing and things developed quickly after that."
By this stage he and wife Tracy had three young boys and he preferred to watch them grow up rather than travel the world chasing a golf dream.
But by his mid-forties he recognised that his game had matured.
"I began to work really hard about five, six years ago. I played on mini tours to get tournament-ready and I improved my fitness. It was always my intention to aim at the seniors."
When he gained a card through tour school he finished second in his first event and won at the fourth attempt, in the PGA Seniors Championship at Slaley Hall. By the end of the year he had added another six top ten finishes and was crowned Rookie of the Year.
Many might sit on their laurels after such success, but Wesselingh had been waiting for his opportunity for years. He was in no mood to coast.
He started 2013 by successfully defending his PGA Seniors Championship title and soon added victory in the Bad Ragaz Open.
"It was going so well that a few of the guys suggested I give Champions Tour Qualifying School a go," he said. "But I decided to focus on the Order of Merit, headed to Taiwan and won the Fubon Open there."
He arrived in Mauritius confident - the deep confidence that comes from long term success.
"I've trusted myself. A couple of years ago I wouldn't have attacked the 18th like I did in round two. You have to go for it at this level.
"Last year I was stepping on the tee and a bit awed by the players and what they've achieved. It's wonderful to play with them. But I now feel like I can compete with them."
The week in Mauritius, at Constance Belle Mare Plage, began with a press conference by the beach and was followed by a hitting contest to an island 210 yards out to sea. Colin Montgomerie, David Frost and ebullient Frenchman Marc Farry, who has close connections with the event, were at home amongst the razzamatazz. Wesselingh looked a little awed.
But the confidence he discussed was immediately apparent on the golf course. He opened with a round of 67 and talked of being patient, of how his self-belief aided and abetted that patience.
He also told of a secret strategy: "Swim in the sea first thing," he smiled, "and plunge pool after the round."
A round two 66 left him three clear of Colin Montgomerie, who was himself three clear of the rest of the field. It set up the perfect finale: the form player versus the biggest name; the one-time club pro versus one of the Ryder Cup's greatest-ever matchplayers.
Conventional wisdom around the first tee insisted that Montgomerie would thrive and Wesselingh wilt in the final round. Not for the first time, conventional wisdom got it wrong.
Although both players appeared a little apprehensive on the first three holes, Wesselingh maintained patience and composure, whilst Montgomerie, driving a buggy rather than walking, didn't. The three-shot lead had become a seven-stroke advantage after only five holes.
Monty was being Montied.
Birdies on seven and eight gave Wesselingh an eight-shot lead on the field. He dropped two shots on the back nine but on the par-five final hole he fired his fairway wood approach to four feet. It was a stunning way to seal the deal ("Gutted though," perfectionist Wesselingh muttered afterwards, "I missed the eagle putt.").
The entire week had been a stellar performance; his game had withstood the greatest pressure it had ever experienced to complete a fourth win of the year and confirm top spot in the Order of Merit.
Throughout his 30s and 40s Wesselingh had watched his fellow Seniors succeed on the main tour and now he had beaten them over the entire season. Little wonder he was emotional when the scale of the achievement hit him.
"I can't tell you how proud of myself I am and how honoured," he said. "To play with Colin as well - a hero of mine - it's been fabulous."
Andy Stubbs, Managing Director of the European Seniors Tour, was on hand to put the triumph into perspective.
"It's been wonderful to see the arrival of Paul on the European Senior Tour and his success this season is a reward for the incredible amount of work he has put in, both prior to joining us and in the two years he has been with us on the Tour.
"It is an amazing achievement to follow the Rookie of the Year in 2012 with the Order of Merit title and John Jacobs Trophy in 2013, and not only is he a great champion, he is also extremely popular with the sponsors, promoters and Pro-Am partners that he plays with, as well as his fellow professionals."
Wesselingh became, as of this year, a full-time tour golfer. It's a long way from the Belfry in 2001.
Stenson and Wesselingh had very different weeks that year, but they've had very similar 2013s and both have similar aims in 2014: Stenson wants to become Sweden's first major champion. Wesselingh, too, says: "The next thing for me is to do better in the majors."
"I love being in contention. I get nervous but I really enjoy it. Some of my best rounds in the last two years have been when I've been in contention so I hope for more of the same, hopefully in the big ones!"
In the Indian Ocean Paul Wesselingh confirmed his career Indian Summer.
And there's more to come.