• Interview: Zane Scotland

The rise and fall - and rise again - of 'the next Tiger Woods'

Alex Perry
January 30, 2014
In 1999, aged just 16, Zane Scotland was the youngest player to ever qualify for the Open Championship © PA Photos

Anyone who has ever picked up a golf club has dreamed of playing in the Open Championship.

So imagine how Zane Scotland felt when, in 1999 and aged just 16, he became the youngest player to ever qualify for golf's oldest and most prestigious major.

Twelve months before, a young man by the name of Justin Rose wrote himself into sport folklore when he holed out from the rough around Royal Birkdale's tricky 18th green. Go back a further year and you might recall a certain Tiger Woods nonchalantly cruising through the field at The Masters to record-breaking effect. He was just 21.

Everyone was scrambling to find golf's next hottest talent. At 14, Scotland won a nationwide scheme to "Search for the Next Tiger", and his subsequent appearance at Carnoustie alerted the golfing world - and Scotland signed up with Woods' management team, IMG.

"It happened a bit quicker than I thought it might do," Scotland tells ESPN. "But it opened up doors for me. I was offered a few more invites to tour events. And, as a young amateur, it gave me more of an insight into what I wanted to do and where I wanted to play.

"At the time I was young and confident. I had no fear. I said, 'You know what? I'm going to be a golfer. And nothing is going to stop me.'"

Only it did. Not long after turning professional in 2003, Scotland was involved in a car accident that caused a whiplash injury, damaging two vertebrae.

It has been a long road back for Scotland since. It took four years for him to earn his European Tour card, which he failed to retain for the following season having missed out by some £50,000.

Then, more disaster, as a serious wrist injury kept him out of the game for a further year.

I wasn't enjoying golf at all and I started to wonder if it was even what I wanted to do any more
Zane Scotland

"We're quite lucky in golf," Scotland explains. "In other sports, you can come back from one injury. But two injuries and that can be your career done because you just might not have the time that we have to be able to make a comeback and continue to make a living from playing the game.

"It doesn't mean it's not difficult to make a go of things after injury. But what is different about golf is you can work really hard to get to where you are then in the blink of an eye something happens and you're right back at the bottom again."

But there was something much worse than the injuries niggling away at Scotland's mindset - he was falling out of love with the game.

Golf can be a brutal sport when you're not on one of the main tours. Standing over a two-foot putt knowing that the ball falling in the cup could mean you don't play the following week - it's easy to see why so many crumble.

"In 2010 I wasn't enjoying golf at all and I started to wonder if it was even what I wanted to do any more.

"Playing under financial pressure is one of the hardest things to do in golf. The big guys have their pressure of coming down the stretch on a Sunday in a major, but at the other end the real pressure is whether or not you can make enough money to play the following week.

"We have mortgages to pay and families to support as well. You have to be more business-minded. Playing an event costs money, so if a course doesn't suit me or I don't think I can do well there, then I'm not going to splash out a couple of thousands of pounds on flights, accommodation and entry fees."

Zane Scotland qualified for the Open in 2010 © Getty Images

Once again, it was the Open Championship that reignited Scotland's passion for the game.

"I qualified for the Open at St Andrews - and that proved to be a bit of a Godsend.

"It gave me the inspiration I needed to fall back in love with the game. In the final round of that tournament I got to play with [then world No. 4] Steve Stricker, and the little things like being back on the range with some of the world's best players around you.

"It's almost a sigh of relief because you're thinking, 'This is more like it.' It was a real boost."

Since that appearance at the Home of Golf, Scotland has made a living competing on the MENA Tour - a three-year old project based in the Middle East and North Africa.

"I heard murmurings of a tour starting in the Middle East," he says. "I could certainly see the benefits. It has everything in the way of courses, facilities, the weather, and the money needed to run these tournaments.

"The first year there was only four events so I made the decision to play in it, and I was one of the first people to take on the risk by not playing tournaments in Europe to go and play over there.

"The tournaments are impeccably run over there, and the courses and facilities are top notch. It just evolved from there. The tour is going in the right direction."

As is Scotland. He finished fourth in the inaugural MENA Tour Order of Merit in 2011, before coming second in 2012 and, just eight weeks ago, finishing top of the 2013 edition. So what convinced Scotland to take this alternate route to the top?

"They are really keen on supporting golf in the Middle East," he explains. "And it all played a big part of me falling in love with golf again. There is a bit of a mentality in golf that you must play certain events and on certain tours to get to where you want to go.

"When I was younger I used to be a bit aimless about the tournaments I played in, but now it's more a case of playing in the ones that will suit me and my game. It's not that difficult to decide between playing there or paying a lot of money to play in a tournament over here in the wind and rain trying to get on to the Challenge Tour. So I thought I would be better off playing golf in good weather on good golf courses.

I would love to be back on the European Tour, as it makes it easier to pay your bills
Zane Scotland

"It was a risky decision to make, simply because it's not the 'normal' route to take for a golfer with ambitions to play on the European Tour."

Scotland's MENA Tour money list win earned him a spot at this week's Dubai Desert Classic - arguably the most prestigious of the three tournaments played on the early-season Middle East swing - where he will be teeing up alongside the likes of Woods and Rory McIlroy.

"It's a good kick-start to the season," Scotland says. "It will be nice to get some money in the bank and garner some confidence from doing well in a decent tournament - and it may open doors for me later in the year.

"My expectations are not too high as I haven't played a tournament since the beginning of December, so I won't put too much pressure on myself."

But, perhaps most importantly, Scotland has come to terms with the fact he is not the next Tiger Woods that he was tipped to be at such a young age.

"I'm just enjoying playing again and in that mindset the rest will take care of itself. I would love to be back on the European Tour, as it makes it easier to pay your bills.

"But if I don't I will still enjoy my golf the way I do now."

Zane Scotland featured during last year's Dubai Desert Classic © Getty Images

Alex Perry is an assistant editor at ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexPerryESPN

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