Auckland-based Aussie Peter Fowler defied a crippling back injury to win $482,000 and the John Jacobs Trophy on the European seniors tour last year. Sports editor Kelly Exelby caught up with the laconic professional before yesterday's A1 Homes/IBM Omanu legends tournament
Gripped by despair and frustrated beyond reason, I came desperately close to giving Peter Fowler a consoling bear-hug after he loped off the 18th green a beaten man at Tauranga 21 months ago, unsure how much longer he could continue playing through chronic back pain.
Fowler had just tied for 14th at the Carrus Tauranga Open, but just when he should be moving into the best years of his career, the genial Auckland-based Aussie was on the verge of chucking it in and finding a real job for the first time in his life.
"I'm uncertain what my future holds, long or short term," a glum-looking Fowler said as we sat under a tree beside the 18th. "Playing a round of golf pain-free is all I want ... I haven't been paid for eight months so I either play or I give up. I'd almost be better off loading garbage cans."
What a difference a year-and-a-bit makes.
Yesterday, 52-year-old Fowler greeted me in the carpark at Omanu with a wry grin and firm handshake, his injury woes a distant memory after an unbelievable 2011 highlighted by winning the European Senior Tour order of merit with earnings of €302,323 ($482,000), making him New Zealand's second-highest paid golfer (or golfer with Kiwi connections, anyway) behind Danny Lee.
Fowler did it tough, holding off former Ryder Cup player Barry Lane to win the coveted John Jacobs Trophy by €32,154. He battled for two years with a disc problem in his back (which ironically happened in practice before his senior tour debut) but won twice in 2011, grabbing his maiden title in the ISPS Handa Seniors World Championship last June before coming from seven shots back on the final day to win the Bad Ragaz PGA Seniors Open in Switzerland a month later.
He was runner-up in the ISPS Handa Senior World Championship at Mission Hills in China, the Casa Serena Open and Van Lanschot Senior Open, with a remarkable top-10 in 13 of his 18 appearances, nine inside the top five.
Now working his way back to fill fitness after tidy-up surgery on both knees, Fowler used yesterday's $10,000 A1 Homes/IBM Omanu Legends Pro-Am to help boost his fitness ahead of a May return to Europe.
Fowler finished in a tie for 10th after an even-par 72, with Aussies Mike Harwood and Mike Ferguson finishing joint winners after five-under 67s. Harwood set himself up with a hot first nine, making five birdies to turn in 31, but coming home was harder with the wind blustering, and he offset a bogey on the par-five sixth hole with a final birdie on the ninth, his last hole.
Ferguson was over the card early but a seven-under stretch in 10 holes brought him back, although a bogey on the last cost him the outright win.
A man of few words, Fowler feels he's got more game in him as he hunts down an even better 2012. "I've played pretty solid and consistent golf and was in there [contending] most weeks. I played good the year before without scoring as well, but my fitness and body held together and as long as that continues there's room for improvement.
"There's a lot of good players out here I'm still learning from - Sam Torrance, Carl Mason, Ian Woosnam ... they play so well and I have to pick the bits of their game and add them to mine."
Fowler played 519 European Tour events in a career spanning 25 years, winning once in the 1993 BMW International Open when he held off major champions Woosnam and Bernhard Langer. His best finish on the Order of Merit was 22nd in 1989, the year he also won the World Cup for Australia when he partnered Wayne Grady. "After the struggles that I've had over the years  meant a lot to me," he said. "I honestly didn't know how long I could keep going, with my back surgery the big unknown, but I plugged away in the gym and you always keep hope that once the body's in some sort of shape then results hopefully take care of themselves."
Fowler's achievement was acclaimed by Harwood, one of his closest mates on tour and a British Open runner-up, who said topping the order of merit was testament to his long-time friend's toil, with Fowler long regarded as one of the hardest working players on the circuit.
Fowler and Harwood first met as 14-year-old juniors in Sydney, starting their golf apprenticeships together three years later, and travel, practice and often share houses together in Europe.
Harwood, a former PGA and Volvo Masters champion, said Fowler was a fantastic role model for any golfer aspiring to do anything in the game.
"That's Pete, a dedicated guy whose life is golf, and I don't think it would matter what you threw in front of him he'd make an effort to come back," he said before teeing off yesterday.
Harwood doesn't think he's seen Fowler hit the ball better, even at his peak in the 1980s and 90s. "I think about where he's been the last 30 years and the fact he couldn't practise as hard last year, spending more time on his short game because of his back.
"Chooky's probably never swung the club better in his life, so maybe not working as hard tee-to-green has actually made him a better golfer. Also, when you're on your arse and maybe the pressure isn't there each week to perform it is a good thing, and what's incredible is that despite his consistency Chook was chasing everyone down going into the last round each week. We'd all go out and have even par last rounds and he's be putting up ridiculous numbers, shooting 66 and running us down with room to spare."