Not many aspiring sportsmen would turn down the chance to play for one of his country’s top clubs. But golf course designer Andrew Mair’s career was set when he was just a boy.
ONE wintry Sunday morning in the 60s a group of golfers gathered at their local course in the wilds of the Scottish Borders to chip in with some off-season maintenance work.
The men, bred with the sport in their blood, set about looking at ways of improving the course which had been there since the 19th Century.
Among the many tasks facing the gaggle of old guard golfers was re-routing a hole on the site which had been designed by three times Open Champion Willie Park.
One plucky 13-year-old lad, who had developed more than a promising swing, having played the game from the age of seven, piped up and suggested moving the tee box to an island and building a small footbridge.
The chairman loved the idea, and so began young Andrew Mair’s lengthy career in golf course design.
“We used to pitch up on a Sunday and do a bit of winter work but that was the first time I had made any sort of contribution of note. Knowing that Willie Park had designed the course is what really got me interested in it,” says Mr Mair, now 56, looking back to his defining moment.
Today the father-of-five hasn’t lost his passion for the sport which filled his childhood days growing up in the picturesque village of Innerleith.
His obsession has taken him across continents, to the peak of sporting achievement and has helped him build up a multi-million pound empire which is poised to take over the golfing world.
Having adopted the North-East as his home, the Scot runs Newcastle-based A World of Golf with his business partner and former Ryder Cup captain Mark James.
The company has helped develop over 160 golf resorts around the world and is planning a multitude of new projects in international markets including Russia, Brazil, Cyprus and Croatia.
At home the former professional golfer wants to build a multi-million pound indoor golf facility in the region – a project he tried to develop five years ago only to have his planning application rejected in favour of a new training ground for Newcastle United.
“Newcastle United came in late and, to use a footballing term, they took our legs off.”
For his resurrected plan the entrepreneur is currently looking for land and investment for the project which he hopes will introduce more North-East youngsters to a sport which he says is too often misconstrued as being elitist and snobby.
But Mr Mair’s life may have been very different if not for his father who introduced him to golf when he was barely as tall as a nine iron. And the pint-sized putter soon showed his prowess for the game alongside a number of other sports.
The self-confessed non-academic was captain of Peebles High School’s golf and football teams and even had a foray as a promising rugby player.
“I remember we had a teacher called Butch Smith who used to put the fear of death into everyone and I had to always ask to leave his history classes early to play sports on a Wednesday.”
“I wasn’t the brightest spark at the time but I was very good at sport. I think it was a Scottish thing in those days when you didn’t sit round watching telly, you got out there and did sport, fishing or whatever.”
When the Scotsman left school at 16 he made his first step on the corporate ladder by landing a £20-a-week job at the local knitwear factory.
Also around this time the sportsman was offered football trials at Hibernian Football Club in Scotland and Charlton Athletic in London.
“I had a week’s trial at Hibernian which I really enjoyed but had the most miserable week of my life at Charlton. It wasn’t much fun being a young Scotsman in London who no-one wanted to talk to.”
In the end he was offered a three-year contract at Hibernian although his father persuaded him to turn it down.
“My father told me if I made it in football and I got injured my career would be finished and even if I didn’t get injured my career would only last until I was 30, where as a career in golf would go on for years,” he recalls. And so he rejected a career that most Scottish school boys would have dreamt of but held on to his desire to make it big on the fairways. Meanwhile his job at the knitwear company helped him on his way.
“Like most people in those days, when you left school you were almost sponsored by the local knitwear company Ballantyne’s.
“It was a management role and I had to train up on all aspects of the firm but I desperately wanted to get into golf.
“I gave my mother £5 a week for board and banked £10. I did this for two years so when I left the company and got a job as an assistant pro golfer, which only paid £5 a week, I relied on all those 10 pounds I had saved previously.
Now in his dream job, Mr Mair’s week involved working in a golf club near Edinburgh, teaching the sport as well as pursuing his career as a promising golfer by taking part in tournaments.
“I always wanted to see if I could become a professional golfer.
“You can do two things in life, chase the ambition which might not work out in time but at least you’ve given it a go or you could sit back and say ‘if only’.
“I always say you should go with your instincts, give it a go and if it doesn’t work at least you’ve tried.”
However, despite being involved in a sport often associated with the wealthy middle classes, there was little glamour in his job.
“I had no regrets about leaving Ballantyne’s but there were hard times as a young golf assistant and there were days when I wondered where the next meal was coming from.
“My main job was looking after the shop but I also used to clean the members’ shoes for extra cash.”
By the mid-seventies Mr Mair, now a fully fledged golf instructor and player, was working south of the border at Warwick Golf Club.
“Moving down south was a real culture shock. I was used to teach the old school golfers but here it was the jack-the-lad types who were just taking up the sport.”
While his career progressed, he continued to make a name for himself on the golf circuit.
During the 1970s he won the Usher Vaux Championship at Haggs Castle, pipping Brian Barnes – a leading European Tour golfer of the day – to the title. He also won assistants’ championships in Scotland and the Midlands.
Looking back nostalgically he says: “Golf’s changed dramatically since those days.”
“Today the European tour stretches all over the world, it starts in Australia, goes to Singapore, and they’re even talking about going to India now.
“In my day we’d jump in the car and drive from Edinburgh down to Birmingham or somewhere to play in a tournament – a big event for us.”
Ultimately he was forced to give up professional tournaments due a weakness in his wrists but refused to leave the sport completely and still longed to be a golf course designer.
His lucky break came when he answered a phone call meant for one of his superiors while working in Warwick.
“One of the chaps at the golf centre had applied for the director’s job at the Forest of Arden Club but he’d gone on holiday so when the phone call came from them asking him to have a look at the site they asked if anyone else could come down instead.
“I went down and advised them to reroute six or seven holes.
A fortnight later I got a call from them and they said ‘look we know you haven’t applied for the job and we’ve had 39 applications but we’d like to offer it to you’. So that really threw me straight into the deep end.
The young director developed the Forest of Arden site which is now the flagship course for the Marriott Hotel group and propelled Mr Mair on to the course design scene. By the mid-80s the golf addict had firmly established himself in the industry having worked on a number of high profile projects.
However it wasn’t until he signed up to work for Golf Services International that he found his spiritual home.
“The company owned six courses across the country including the one at Gosforth Park and so they sent me there to have a look at it.
“I was meant to go there for six weeks but when I came down in the first week I called my father and I said, ‘I can’t understand a word the Geordies are saying, they can’t understand a word I’m saying but I’m having a great time’.
“It was so friendly and everyone wanted to help me and I felt as though I had almost arrived home. I love the place and I’ve settled here.”
While the designer was impressed by the warmth of the North-East people, the sight that greeted him at the Gosforth golf course was anything but impressive.
“I had a look at the way the course was being run and I told the client the best thing to do would be to close the door and throw away the key.
“It was run down and there was no money being put in by the company that owned it.”
The course was ultimately turned around and Mr Mair eventually acquired it to act as the headquarters of his fledgling business.
While his new business flourished, the Celtic football fanatic set about adjusting to North-East life by adopting Newcastle United as his second team.
He recalls how a chance meeting on the golf course with then manager Joe Harvey led him to spending his first game at St James’ Park sat next to football legend Jackie Milburn. While the eighties were a barren time for the Scotsman’s new team, it was boom time for the golf industry which went hand in hand with the flashy get-rich-quick mood of the decade.
A number of Mr Mair’s rivals enlisted the help of professionals like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to raise the profile of their businesses and eventually Mr Mair followed suit.
Professional golfer Bernard Gallagher, who was unable to partner Mr Mair due to his Ryder Cup commitments, suggested Mark James, a former Ryder Cup captain who lived in Leeds.
“I drove down to see him but I must admit I was apprehensive at the time as he came across as a dour man on the fairways, but I knew within 10 minutes of meeting the fella that he was ideal.
“He was an easy-going pleasant chap with a dry sense of humour and that’s what you need in a business, you need to have fun times as well.”
The partnership has certainly paid off with the duo now plotting a course for global domination in an increasingly competitive industry.
And Mr Mair has come a long way since, as an eager 13-year-old on a remote Scottish golf course, he announced his arrival on the course design scene.