Professional golfer Stephen Ames is nothing if not resilient.
He’s had to overcome sub-standard facilities, limited financial resources, a humourless immigration officer, the ill-health of a loved one, a bad back, and his share of drubbings at the hands of the world’s number one player.
But he has usually rebounded right side up, with his toothy grin, expressive features and candid nature intact.
And, in the process, he’s secured his place among the very best in his chosen profession, with stellar performances around the globe, including a runaway victory in the most lucrative tournament on the international golfing circuit.
The man from Trinidad and Tobago, now 43 years old, honed his craft in his early teens under a samaan tree on a hilly course set amidst an oil refinery not far from where he was born and grew up in Pointe-à-Pierre, whereas many of his current rivals have been at it from the time they could walk, playing on the finest manicured layouts, with leading coaches at their disposal.
Ames first signalled his ability as a 16-year-old, when he set the course record at the old Sandy Lane Golf Course in Barbados while representing T&T in the Hoerman Cup, the feature contest in the annual Caribbean Amateur Golf Championships.
He turned pro in 1987, not long after helping his national team clinch the Hoerman Cup at Mt Irvine in Tobago, where he later confirmed his talent against visiting European players competing in the Johnnie Walker Pro Am, which attracted the likes of former British and US Open champion, Englishman Tony Jacklin.
He gained further confidence with his triumph at St Andrew’s Golf Course in Moka in the 1989 T&T Open, one of the oldest tournaments in the western hemisphere, in which he also shared the crown a couple years later with veteran American pro Larry Ziegler when the event was shortened by torrential rain.
In those days, St Andrew’s was one of only three 18-hole layouts in the country, the others being at Pointe-à-Pierre and Mt Irvine.
But, despite the lack of local championship courses and suitable practice conditions, Ames had “game” and no lack of self-belief, and he packed his golf bag and headed off to take his chances on the mini-tours in the United States.
With the unflinching support of his parents, Michael and Marilyn, he eked out a living in those early years as a pro and today, with more than US$12 million in earnings on the US PGA Tour, golf’s toughest and most competitive arena, he recalled his first success away from home.
“It was in Florida somewhere. That was great…it paid my expenses,” he said with a hearty laugh, referring to the winner’s cheque of US$2,200, a far cry from the US$1.4 million he pocketed in March of 2006 when he won again in the Sunshine State, this time the Players Championship. That’s the richest prize in golf, labelled the fifth Major, as it attracts the strongest field in the game to the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.
“I had steak for dinner that night,” Ames exclaimed, reminiscing about the tough times he endured in the late 80s before hitting the bumper paydays.
“Living out of hotels, driving from event to event…not making any money. The first three years were hard.”
Then in 1990 he made his way onto the US Ben Hogan Tour, now known as the Nationwide Tour, which had been established by the PGA Tour as a feeder ground for the “big show.”In 1991 he won the Ben Hogan Pensacola Open in Florida.“I was able to pay back Dad, and off I went.”
But just when things were turning around and he was establishing himself as one of the better players on the Ben Hogan Tour, Ames’s sometimes loose tongue got him in trouble, when he “misrepresented” himself at a US border crossing and drew the wrath of an official, which led to his American visa being revoked.
In 1993, Ames had no choice but to cross the pond and become a member of the European PGA Tour, where he had to deal with the quirky weather and different playing conditions of the courses on the other side of the Atlantic.
The following year he achieved his first triumph on the European Tour, in the Lyon Open in France, and in 1996 he battled his way through gale-force winds and driving rain to win the Benson & Hedges International Open, one of Europe’s premier events, where among those trailing him were England’s Nick Faldo and Scotsman Colin Montgomerie.
Ames then attained his best-ever result in a Major when he finished in a tie for fifth at the 1997 British Open at Royal Troon.
But he still held the burning desire to play on the grand stage known as the US PGA Tour and, having secured a temporary visa, he returned to the States, where he lined up among the cast of hopefuls trying to earn their playing privileges for the lucrative line-up of million-dollar events through the six-day grind known as “Q School,” the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.
At the end of this heart-breaking process, Ames stood tall, finishing third to earn exempt status for the 1998 season.
He wasn’t exempt from his visa problems, though, and he spent the early months of ‘98 attempting to regain admittance to the US. That didn’t stop him from becoming the first rookie to post a top-ten that year with a third-place finish in the Nissan Open, in Los Angeles—his very first PGA Tour event—where he found himself locked in combat in the final round with eventual winner Billy Mayfair and a certain Tiger Woods, who was just setting out to scale golf’s highest heights.It was the first of a few confrontations Ames would have with Woods, who to date is well clear in their head-to-head showdowns. But more on that later.
He still had his hurdles to clear off the course as, owing to further wrangling over his visa, he did not start his 1999 campaign until May. But, according to the PGA Tour Media Guide, “he made the most of the 18 events entered, making 11 cuts and finishing among the top-ten four times.”
And there was more good news in 2000 when he received a two-year extension on his US visa. With that distraction off his mind, Ames went on to establish himself firmly among golf’s elite, climbing the world rankings to a high of 17th and raking in the dough, culminating in what is referred to as his “career year” in 2004, when he was eighth on the PGA Tour’s money list, with 11 top-ten finishes and earnings of more than US$3 million.
That included his long-awaited maiden victory on the US Tour, at the Western Open, at the Cog Hill Golf and Country Club in Lemont, Illinois.
While his supporters—especially those gathered at his parents’ home in Trinidad to follow his progress on television—had their hearts in their mouths during the final round, well aware that he had come close on a few occasions and faltered, Ames looked like he was out for “a walk in the park,” as he himself later put it.
“By the 15th hole I was thinking about my acceptance speech…I had to get back to reality in a hurry,” he recalled on his return to T&T at the end of that amazing season, when his fellow Tour pros gave him the nickname “Cash Cow.”
“Unbelievable” is how he described the feeling as he walked up the 18th fairway at Cog Hill, his ball safely on the green and just two putts away from wrapping up the honours.
And of getting it done: “Massive…the relief. It was a weight off my shoulders. I think my fist pump showed that.”
And after younger brother Robert, who was his caddy for almost three years on the PGA Tour, gave him a bear hug, the first ones to congratulate him were his Canadian wife Jodi and their two sons, Justin and Ryan, now ten and eight.
But those happy memories were interrupted the following year when Jodi, a flight attendant whom he had first met while flying between tournaments, was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to undergo surgery. Ames went through the motions most of that season, but still managed three top-ten results and made his first appearance at the prestigious Masters in Augusta, Georgia.
Then, with Jodi on the road to full recovery, Ames enjoyed his finest hour, at the 2006 “Players,” where he again had a “walk in the park” in the final round, shooting a five-under 67 to annihilate an all-star field, including Woods, by an incredible six shots to be acclaimed as Trinidad and Tobago’s Sportsman of the Year.
That triumph came just a few weeks after an embarrassing first-round loss to Woods at the WGC-Match Play Championship, following which the margin of defeat—nine and eight—became Ames’s new moniker.
Before their clash, Ames, who later claimed his words were taken out of context, was quoted as saying: “Anything can happen…especially where he’s hitting the ball,” referring to Woods’s sometimes errant driving.
Woods admitted Ames’s comments did motivate him, as if he needed any encouragement.
“We all know Stephen is a person who likes to speak his mind. He’s opinionated and I think he’s very honest. And when he’s asked a question, he answers it honestly. And I think that’s what he did there in that instance,” is how the man who is arguably the best-ever golfer described his counterpart from T&T.
They were paired together again in the final round of the 2007 PGA Championship last August, when Woods secured his 13th Major title and Ames struggled all day, only to drop out of second place into a tie for 12th.
But, if previous history is anything to go by, Ames should soon return to the limelight, despite having had to alter his swing since suffering back spasms last year.
After all, he knows it’s just a case of big men trying to hit a little white ball into a hole.“You should play the game for what it is—a game. Have fun,” is his advice for youngsters taking up the sport, a refreshing attitude that has earned “lots of compliments” from fellow players, the media and the fans.
“It’s a game, not life and death,” added Ames, who remembered he had “a double-bogey, but there was a guy who can’t walk sitting in a wheelchair at the back of the green. Why are you pissed off?”
Ames has also earned plaudits in the land of his birth and his adopted home of Canada, where he became a citizen in 2003, with the establishment of the Stephen Ames Foundation three years ago. That generated the Stephen Ames Cup, which is played for annually between teams comprising the best junior talent from Trinidad and Tobago and Canada.
Not bad for someone who a few years ago was counting his pennies. Now Stephen Ames can afford his share of steak dinners, thanks to his prowess at what is “just a game.”