The Unlikely Road to a Defining Moment
A chance encounter while mourning a loved one helped Laird Shepherd right his career and propel him to a British Amateur final for the ages
By Alan Shipnuck
For Laird Shepherd, death came before rebirth.
Once one of most promising prospects in English golf, Shepherd was derailed by a series of injuries. A year ago, his back was such a mess he resorted to working in a call center for Tesco, the UK supermarket chain, for eight pounds an hour. Night after night, Shepherd fielded calls from grouchy, hungry customers fretting over their deliveries. His girlfriend, soon-to-be Scottish Women’s Amateur champ Chloe Goadby, worked alongside him. “It was a very stressful environment,” he says. “It was a humbling experience.” When Goadby’s job was eliminated, Shepherd quit in solidarity. That only gave him more time to brood about his future.
Last December, Shepherd got a different kind of phone call, one he had long been dreading: His grandfather had succumbed to dementia after a long battle. Shepherd fled his flat in St. Andrews and returned to his native England for the funeral. During this sojourn he returned to the range at Rye Golf Club in East Sussex, where he had logged so many hours growing up. There he had a chance encounter with Tom Bailey, a boyhood friend with whom he had lost touch. But Bailey had heard through the wire that his mate was struggling, so he asked to see a couple of swings. Shepherd complied, haltingly. His whipsaw action evoked Jon Rahm: short and violent, but with a restricted backswing and lots of lateral shift. What the wiry Shepherd did not have were Rahm’s redwood thighs and huge caboose to power the club. Shepherd’s lower back and balky knees were paying the price; Bailey likens the cumulative toll of all those swings to a car crash.
His keen eye for mechanics had been honed in an unexpected place: a scruffy driving range in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Like his old friend, Bailey had battled injuries. Looking for salvation on the Internet, he came across videos of a jive-talking instructor in flip-flops who spouted iconoclastic ideas but did so with such conviction that Bailey was moved to cross an ocean to meet with him. George Gankas was not yet famous when Bailey arrived. As their relationship deepened, Bailey began to rethink his career path. He still aspired to play professionally, but he became increasingly intrigued with the notion of helping others. In England, Bailey helped finance his golf dreams by giving lessons. Now, standing before him on the Rye range, was a lost soul but an easy fix.
Bailey instantly recognized that Shepherd’s rigid, angular posture was the root of his injury ills. He laid his hands upon Shepherd, putting him into a somewhat slouchy address position that was more relaxed, more natural and free-flowing, paying particular attention to his pelvic tilt and spine angle.
“I know it feels crazy at first, as it goes against everything we would believe is fundamental good posture and textbook and looks and aesthetics,” says Bailey. It was so radically different that when Goadby first saw her boyfriend’s new stance she thought he was joking. But Shepherd hit a few balls under Bailey’s watchful gaze and was thunderstruck by the difference. “I felt free,” he recalls.
For the first couple of months of 2021, Shepherd worked with Bailey to retrain his body, often without hitting a single ball. Throughout the spring, Shepherd began piecing together his game. The results were slow to come, but every swing was a revelation because there was no pain. Still, the 126th British Amateur loomed as the ultimate test: two practice rounds, two stroke-play rounds and then, if everything fell right, up to six matches, including a grueling 36-hole final.
Beyond the physical demands, the British Amateur was emotionally fraught for the 23-year-old Shepherd because players he had once owned had passed him by during the years lost to injury. “He really did dominate university golf over here for quite a while,” says Monty Scowsill. “I looked up to him and kinda learned from him.” (Scowsill is his own inspirational story, having survived a bacterial infection of the brain that, as a boy, left him partially paralyzed on his left side; he was an accomplished cricketer as a teen before committing himself to golf.) But by the time he arrived at the Amateur, at Nairn Golf Club in Scotland, Shepard, once ranked as high as 156th in the world amateur rankings, had plummeted to 846th. He didn’t know many of the players in the field because the top guns he used to battle had all turned pro. Yet he felt a new kind of peace. “It can be quite daunting when you have to reinvent yourself,” he says. As for the good vibes he felt upon arriving at Nairn, he adds, “That’s a testament to, You just gotta keep going.” Shepherd’s date with destiny had arrived.
The Fire Pit with Matt Ginella podcast has brought to life Shepherd’s thrilling win at the British Amateur with a 4-part narrative pod featuring the voices of all the key protagonists.
Part 1: The “back” story
Part 2: The 2021 Amatuer Championship
Part 3: “It’s not possible.”
Part 4: Reflections