Michael King has always been one very English golfer, who won on tour and played in the 1979 Ryder Cup. But after severe arthritis forced him to retire, he has helped design some of the best courses in Europe. Bill Elliott meets the man whose friends call him ‘Queenie’…
In these days of pre-prepared golf professionals, of young men who are already battle-hardened and media savvy before their short game is complete, it can pay to reflect on the way it used to be on the European Tour.
Believe me – if in this mood – there is no finer companion with whom to reminisce about the good, daft old days than Michael King, or ‘Queenie’ as he is affectionately known to friends and foes alike. Yes, even his foes usually confess to an instinctive liking for the tall Englishman who blossomed briefly but well on the European circuit between 1974 and the mid 1980s.
Interesting bloke, Mike. Along with a small waterfall of hair that seems to grow thicker as he ages, he always has carried himself with that easy charm so particularly accessible to a certain type of Englishman. My own early memories of him are of a pro golfer who stood out because he always seemed happy and he appeared to own a wardrobe consisting exclusively of the finest cashmere.
When I mentioned this to him, he laughed: “Oh, I’ve always had a champagne taste for life no matter how much I’ve actually been earning.”
These days Mike earns his living pressing the flesh of potential clients for European Golf Design, the course design experts owned jointly by the Tour and IMG and whose glittering portfolio of completed projects includes this year’s Ryder Cup venue at Celtic Manor. King himself has been signature designer on two of EGD’s projects, Ribagolfe II in Portugal and Marriott Worsley Park near Manchester.
How he got to where he is today, however, is a story of good luck, bad luck and debilitating illness. It is also not quite as posh as many of us once suspected.
Born in Reading to an estate agent father, he initially flew in the face of his insouciant image by attending state schools before heading off to the sports-mad Millfield School in Somerset. Here his dormitory head boy was JPR Williams (who, of course, became a legend of Welsh Rugby), while next door a certain Gareth Edwards plotted his own ascent of the old, biff-bash game.
Despite such neighbouring peers, Mike’s game of choice was golf. He was good too, playing twice in the Walker Cup (1969 and ’73) before heading off to the City to play at stockbroking.
His future, however, was rudely mapped out for him when he lost everything in the great crash of 1974. At 24 years of age he was broke. It was then that someone suggested he make use of the one skill he appeared to have, playing golf. So with the help of friends – names like Steven Evans, Eddie Healey and the late, great photographer Laurence Levy spill out of him as he reflects on the men who helped forge his life – he joined the circuit where, inevitably, he stood out and not just because he was over 6ft 2ins tall. Whereas the majority of pros back then seemed to have come from the hard world of club golf, King seemed to have lolloped his way onto the tour.
Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. For a start he had an overdraft of £800 the day he turned pro and he had also just been diagnosed with the cruel beginnings of ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic condition of the spine. The fact is that right from the start, Michael King knew that as a top-flight player he was going to face the end sooner rather than later.
“I always knew that, yes, but I was also determined not to let it stop me trying to enjoy myself. And I did quite well I suppose. I was quite a good golfer, certainly a good striker of the ball. That said, I was also probably the most mentally inept player in the world. If I was doing well I’d start making a speech in my head but by the time I’d completed it, I’d finished sixth.”
This was not always true, or at least once it wasn’t. In the autumn of 1979 he finally got to make that speech when he won the impressively titled SOS Talisman TPC at Moor Park in Yorkshire to finish the year the fifth ranked player in Europe. The previous week he had played in the Ryder Cup in West Virginia.
“Ah yes,” he recalls. “The Ryder Cup… I only got to play in the singles, sadly. John [Jacobs, the captain of that ill-fated venture] kept telling me I was due to play but then he kept putting me back so I had little else to do but practise and that meant I was really ready to go when we got to Leeds the following week.”
Five years later the arthritis had really kicked in and so reluctantly he had to give up his life as a touring pro. It was a tough time – and certainly tougher than he even now lets on – but once again a lot of friends rallied round. “You know, the friendships one forges on the way up are vitally important because you need those friends when you are moving in the opposite direction.”
These friends include the likes of Sam Torrance, David Feherty, Nick Job, Greg Norman and so many others. “These pals encouraged me out on to the golf course to partner them even though back then I struggled to knock the ball 150 yards off the tee. It meant a lot and it still does.”
By the time his arthritis hit hard, he had been a member of the players’ committee and the Tour’s board of directors. Behind the Roger Moore image lurks a more serious and thoughtful man than he would ever wish you to know but the Tour hierarchy had indeed noticed this and so offered him a role that involved meeting and, as always, effortlessly charming potential sponsors. It is from this role that he has segued into his job at EGD and a position he now clearly loves.
He still plays golf too. These games take place at Sunningdale, the club he first joined in 1968 and which offers him the sort of vaguely PG Wodehouse environment that he relishes. He joined as a young amateur because Gerald Micklem, the first gentleman of English amateur golf, told him it was a good idea. Not for the first time, Micklem was spot on.
His hero was Jack Nicklaus and one of his biggest thrills came when he was paired with the great man over the opening rounds of the 1981 Open at St George’s. Unfortunarely their afternoon three-ball – Jumbo Ozaki made up the trio – hit the mother of all Channel storms that day. Nicklaus returned 81, Mike hit 82. When I bumped into him that evening he grimaced and said: “I’ve dreamt of beating Jack and on the one day he shoots over 80 I lose to him by one.” The following day saw Nicklaus shoot 65 to make the cut. Queenie missed out.
Did I mention that Michael ‘Queenie’ King could charm for England? What is also true is that we won’t see his like again on the pro circuit, let alone feel that quality of cashmere.
by Bill Elliott, Golf Monthly.
Jack Nicklaus and Michael King during the 1981 Open at St George’s