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Minchinhampton professional Stuart Little always had a natural talent for golf

Gloucestershire South > Sport > Golf

Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Wednesday, 24th May 2017, 08:00, Tags: Back In The Day

Stuart Little Stuart Little

A journey that started with walks on Minchinhampton Common at the age of five with his grandad Dick has seen Stuart Little rub shoulders with some of the greatest names in golf over the years.

The Minchinhampton Golf Club professional, 50 in August, has played the sport all over the world but it is those early days in the rural surroundings of beautiful Gloucestershire that did so much to shape his life and career.

Stuart wasn’t born in the West Country, although he might as well have been because he has been here nearly all his life. In fact he is an Essex boy, being born in Chelmsford before moving to Nailsworth, near Stroud, with his family when he was four.

He was soon attending the infants’ and primary schools in Nailsworth before moving on to Highwood Comprehensive School. Highwood has long since been knocked down and its place in Nailsworth is now occupied by Forest Green Rovers Football Club.

By his own admission Stuart did not excel academically at school although when he left the education system he had GCSEs in maths and English tucked in his brief case.

“School wasn’t a major interest to me,” he said. “It was something I had to work hard at. All I really wanted to do was play sport.”

In those days Stuart was a true sporting all-rounder. “I played everything,” he said. “I was a county junior cricketer. I was an all-rounder and could swing the ball both ways.

“I remember that always annoyed my older brother Gavin because he always considered cricket to be his sport.”

In fact Gavin was a very good cricketer, playing with Jack Russell at Stroud, representing England Schools and going on to land a one-year contract with Gloucestershire.

Sport was a huge part of life in the Little household and Stuart was also a good footballer. He was a goalkeeper and was good enough to play at a high junior level.

So what made him become a goalkeeper?

“I was target practice for my two older brothers,” he chuckled, “but I enjoyed it.”

Despite his ability at other sports it was soon clear that the left-handed Stuart had a natural talent for golf.

“I remember walking with my grandad and his dog up on the common,” said Stuart. “I’d be five or six and I’d have a couple of clubs and just whack the ball. There was no real structure to it but it was something I enjoyed.

“When I was seven or eight I asked my parents if I could have some golf clubs but my dad John said ‘no’. We were very much a cricketing family.

“I saved up some money and bought myself a couple of clubs. I bought them individually. It was a very different time in those days in terms of availability, access, money and the general popularity of the game.

“I pieced my first set together over time – it was a real mix and match affair with all the clubs made by different manufacturers.

“I was about nine or 10 at this stage and was starting to get really interested in golf.”

Despite the haphazard nature of his golf club collection Stuart said he “never struggled to hit the ball”.

He remembers taking his clubs to Frocester Cricket Club where his dad played with his second oldest son Sean.

“When they were having tea I’d be outside hitting the balls from one end of the ground to the other,” Stuart said.

“Not every shot was a good one but some of the guys in the cricket team said that I looked as though I could play.”

That was to be put to the test in 1978 when he joined Minchinhampton Old Course. A year later he joined the New Course and from then on it was pretty much a life of golf, golf and more golf.

“It just progressed from there,” said Stuart. “I started entering club tournaments and played against the men. The club were very encouraging towards juniors and that made my life as a golfer that much easier.”

Not that it was all plain sailing.

“My first medal round score at Minchinhampton New Course was 113,” he chuckled.

He’s come a long way since then, of course, and, just for the record, his best score is 61 which just happens to be a pro-am course record.

That inauspicious start did not hold him back, however, and in 1983 he was chalking up his first major victory at the age of just 15 when he won the club’s scratch knockout tournament.

“That was a big tournament for someone so young to win,” said Stuart. “It was for 5-handicappers and better and it was a good tournament.

“I played six rounds of knockout golf and beat some good players.”

By this time Stuart had just left school so it was fair to say that he had just passed his first golfing exam.

Away from tournament play he was given a job on the club’s green staff. That meant he was essentially a groundsman and he was just about to take his second year exams when Chris Steele, the club’s current head PGA professional, offered him a job in the pro shop.

Stuart didn’t have to think twice and he became a trainee assistant.

“I started right at the bottom,” he remembers. “I was learning the trade, repairing golf clubs. They were fun days. I was working 60-70 hours a week over six days and earning £25 but loved it.”

And what did he do on his day off?

“I played golf, of course,” came the quick reply.

By now Steele had taken the young Little under his wing.

“He was a very prominent player in the region and I did a lot of caddying for him,” said Stuart. “He did a lot for me and was a big influence on me.”

That experience of working for Steele encouraged Stuart to turn professional in December 1985 and in 1986 he started playing on the West Region PGA.

He endured mixed fortunes initially but looking back those were character building moments for the then teenager.

“You have to believe in yourself,” he said. “You need to be resilient, stubborn and accept that there will be bad days.

“There is more disappointment in golf than almost any other sport because it’s impossible to win every time you play.”

Not that Stuart had too long to wait for his first big success. That came in his debut year in the West Region PGA championship at Launceston where he announced himself as a serious player.

“It was against a very strong field,” he remembers. “Andrew Sherborne, David Ray, Mark Thomas, Chris Steele, Glyn Davies and Gary Emerson were all playing.

“I shot a couple of 68s and took home a lot more than the £25 I had been earning a couple of years earlier,” he chuckled.

That win opened some doors and a year later Stuart got his first taste of the big-time when he was invited to play in the PGA at Wentworth.

“That was a real eye opener,” he admitted. I was in the same group as Frank Nobilo and Richard Boxall but I didn’t make the cut.”

So what went wrong? 

“I’d been going up through the stages but suddenly I was on the big stage,” he said. “Everything was larger than life and I found myself practising next door to my childhood heroes like Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosman and Nick Faldo.

“I’d watched all these players since I was 10 and I was star struck.” 

He may have struggled alongside the stars in a high profile tournament in England but it was to the sunshine in South Africa that Stuart was to head to next, playing on the Sunshine Tour for the next three winters.

Peter Evans from Royal Porthcawl had advised him to go and Stuart was delighted he took his words on board.

“It was the turning point in my career,” he said. “I was making cuts and I found that I could compete to a degree.”

It gave Stuart the confidence to go to Tour School in 1991 in a bid to qualify for the European Tour.

“It’s everyone’s ambition to play on the European Tour,” said Stuart.

He played on the Tour in 1992, 93 and 94 but said he “didn’t do too well”.

“I didn’t really make any money,” he said. “It was very different in those days. “I finished 144th one year and if I’d have finished in the same position 10 years later I’d have made four times the amount of money. The Tiger Woods effect hadn’t kicked in in the mid-1990s.”

However, it was for personal reasons rather than financial concerns that Stuart left the Tour after 1996 and he wasn’t to return until 2000.

During this time he took up a position as assistant professional to Forbes Hadden at Lilley Brook in Charlton Kings.

He has fond memories of his time at the club and said: “They were a good three years. They made me feel very welcome and I got on very well with the members. Whenever I go back there now I am always very warmly received.”

The competitive juices had not left Stuart even though he was no longer on the European Tour. His form was good in the late 1990s and he notched up some decent wins.

He shot a 64 and 66 in Divonne in France in 1998 to beat Craig Stadler, won a big pro-am event that brought him to the attention of IMG and was nine under on the Duke’s course at St Andrew’s when he beat Jeff Maggert.

Those performances encouraged him to believe it was time to have another crack at the big boys and in 2000 he rejoined the European Tour.

And this time he was ready. “I was older, wiser, but crucially better,” he said.

His standout year came in 2005 when he finished 65th in the Order of Merit, winning 350,000 euros in prizemoney.

“That was a good year,” he said. “There were many good tournaments but my best finish was when I came second in Tenerife behind John Bickerton.

“It was a good solid year and I really, really enjoyed the whole season. I was able to compete against all the top players and playing so many tournaments definitely helped.”

He was to have two more years on Tour before the death of a close friend convinced him that the time was right to turn his back on the Tour.

“My friend had asked me to keep an eye on his dad in Minchinhampton so it felt like the right thing to do,” he said.

A shoulder operation in 2009 to cure a longstanding problem was a big success and in 2010 Stuart returned to Minchinhampton Golf Club as a PGA professional.

It meant his time was split between teaching and playing although if the chance came along to play in a decent tournament he wasn’t about to turn his back on it.

One such opportunity was handed to him in 2011 when he was selected to play in the Great Britain and Ireland PGA club team against the US in California, a tournament based on the Ryder Cup format.

“That was alright,” he laughed. “You’ve got to pick the right ones.”

Stuart was one of the older members of the team but still played in all five matches, winning one, halving two and losing two.

Collectively the team were disappointing and were well beaten but Stuart retains happy memories of the event.

“It was a fantastic experience,” he said, “and my own performance wasn’t too bad.”

These days Stuart, who is married to Ruth, spends 80 per cent of his time teaching the next generation of golfers all the tricks of the trade he has learned over the past 40-plus years.

Asked to assess his own game he said: “I’d say tee to green was my strength. My short game around the green, chipping and bunker play was okay – certainly good enough.

“The weakest part of my game was my putting, that was my Achilles heel.

While Stuart says he loves being back at Minchinhampton – “it’s a great golf club with a great membership” – there may be one final twist in the Stuart Little story.

That’s because later this year he will eligible for the European Seniors Tour. “I am not certain what I am going to do,” he admitted. “There are many things to consider.

“It obviously depends on what the club’s view is and how much Chris needs me in the shop.

“If the club were to give me the green light, though, I’d like to give it a go. I’d like to test myself again.”

Fans of golf in Gloucestershire had better watch this space.

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Stuart Little has played golf all over the world

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