Lonard's Late Change

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The boy didn't realize that Peter Lonard was cross after a poor round at a recent tournament in Sydney; that this wasn't the best time to come at him with pen and pad. But Lonard took a deep breath and started scribbling. The boy asked, "How'd you go?" Lonard sighed, "No good today. Bit cranky." He smiled, encouraging older fans who'd been holding back to come forward. He posed for photos and chatted, not trying to charm, just doing his best.

Whether he's mingling with the public, dealing with reporters or striking golf balls, Lonard these days looks at ease. Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin once said that the more he played the game, the surer he was "that a man's performance is the outward manifestation of who, in his heart, he really thinks he is." Having made it back from debilitating illness, periods of self-doubt and a spell in something like a real job, Lonard knows better than most of his fellow pros how lucky he is to play golf for a living.

How far can he go? Until last year, when he excelled in his first tilt at the U.S. Tour and soared up the rankings (he's now the world No. 27), few people would have given him a chance of winning one of golf's four most prestigious titles. When Australians looked for a successor to the fading Greg Norman, they tended to settle on youngsters Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley. Both have great potential. But in a short career Baddeley's made overly bold statements about his prospects, talked a lot of psychobabble, streaked his hair and worn clothes garish even by golfing standards. In other words, like the more settled Scott, he's still growing up.

At 35, with a sun-ravaged footballer's neck, Lonard is the better for having a little more life behind him. World No. 1 Tiger Woods has changed the game only up to a point since his reign began in the late '90s. Predictions that golf would be taken over by lithe young athletes haven't come true. In the latest world rankings, only two of the top 10 are under 30 - Woods (who's 27) and the Spaniard Sergio Garcia (23). Lonard isn't the next Norman. He's a quieter man who lacks his countryman's freakish talent and couldn't possibly give as many majors a shake as the Shark did over a decade. But there are signs that he's capable of great deeds. As Lonard prepares for his first U.S. Masters next month, former Australian pro Jack Newton says the Sydneysider "has gone to another level this past year. He's become a bit of a machine. I think he's very capable of winning a major."

Perhaps Lonard's a late bloomer because he was a late starter. He was 12 when he played his first round, on a lousy beach day while holidaying on the New South Wales Central Coast. When he was 16 "something captured my imagination," he says. He isn't sure what it was - probably an image from a Masters telecast - but he clearly remembers announcing to his parents one night that he was going to be a golf pro. "That sent a shock through the house," says Lonard, whose father worked for the same insurance company for 45 years and needed convincing there was a way besides a stable job to financial independence.

Like the English champion Nick Faldo, Lonard is an only child temperamentally suited to solitary practice. Without lessons or instructional books, he was off a handicap of four by the time he was 17. He sought out Sydney-born coach Gary Edwin, who videotaped Lonard's swing and asked him what he thought of it. The pupil thought it looked sound and said so. Recalls Lonard: "Gary then tore it to shreds."

In a seven-hour lesson, Lonard was shown a whole new way of swinging a club. Previously, he says, all the coaching snippets he'd heard involved "old-style stuff like grip and keeping your head still." Edwin told him to forget those things and concentrate instead on posture and what he called "the levels of your swing." Watch weekend golfers and their shoulders move up and down in the course of their swing; the pros' shoulders stay level throughout. To this day, whenever Lonard has swing trouble he reviews the points he learned in that first lesson.

Edwin sent him away with some drills, which Lonard practiced eight hours a day for a month. The effect on his game was dramatic. He was fit and strong but had been hitting the ball "nowhere," he says. Now his drives were whistling into the distance. Even for the best players, catching the ball dead center happens only a handful of times per round. Lonard's strike rate these days is better than that. "Most of the guys will tell you," says Newton, "that there aren't too many sweeter hitters of the ball than Peter."

What might be called phase one of Lonard's pro career wasn't flash. In the early '90s, he won a pittance in Europe as he learned the difference between a fine club golfer and a successful pro, who must play at his best while handling the rigors and temptations of travel. Lonard had little time to adjust. In 1992, he became ill with what was eventually diagnosed as Ross River fever. He suffered severe joint pain, eyesight problems and a crushing fatigue, which he fought by stuffing himself with sugary foods. In about a year, he says, "I went from 80 kg ripping fit to 115 kg."

Thinking his touring days were over, he pleased his dad by accepting a job as the pro at Sydney's Oatlands Golf Club. Life was quieter but fulfilling. "I got real enjoyment out of giving people lessons and seeing them improve," he says. "You take someone off [a] 27 [handicap] and they play to 20, they come in like they've just won the lottery."

Ross River fever ripped about three years out of Lonard's golfing career. Slowly, he regained the energy to practice and to compete in minor events, and as his body shrunk his determination to have another crack at the big time grew. In 1997, he became the first club pro to win the Australasian Tour of Merit. It marked the start of phase two, which carried him last year to the U.S. circuit, where he had four top-10 finishes, barely missed a cut and won $A2.7 million. After more strong showings this year, including reaching the semi-finals of last week's World Match Play Championship in California, he agrees with Newton that he's ready to challenge in a major.

In his 20s, when people told him how exciting the life of a golf pro must be, he'd grumble about constant traveling. Time away from competitive golf made him realize how much he loved it. "There's nothing better than playing in front of galleries and having to hit shots under pressure," he says. "I felt really happy that I'd been given a second chance." Rather than finding the U.S. Tour intimidating, he felt at home in a country where, he says, "there's no shame in wanting to be better and doing everything you can to improve."

Single and childless, Lonard doesn't have to deal with what many pros say is the toughest part of the job - walking out the front door. Golf is his life and he has three goals for the year: win a U.S. tournament, break into the world Top 15 and be on the leader board in a major on the Sunday afternoon. The Masters is unlikely to be the one: a man needs to have been burned by Augusta before he can hope to conquer it. Lonard's only ever walked the course, in 1997, when Woods blitzed the field to win his first major and people said the game was different now, that it was a young man's game, after all. But it's not. Not entirely. As much about stable judgment and emotional courage as physical excellence, golf still has room to give a late-blooming Australian the best times of his life.