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Laird of the lawn Willie Wood is happily retired but still in the groove

AS sporting legends go, they don't come more durable than the Scot who began his bowls career as Camshaft Junior.

Willie Wood, now 76, could have emigrated to Australia in the 1970s but he chose to come home and went on to win 137 Scotland caps. Picture: Nick Ponty
Willie Wood, now 76, could have emigrated to Australia in the 1970s but he chose to come home and went on to win 137 Scotland caps. Picture: Nick Ponty

Yet it was not until he started playing under his real name, Willie Wood, that he tasted success. From Gifford in East Lothian, Wood made his outdoor international debut for Scotland in 1966, aged 28, and his latest indoor international came this year at Stanley: a record-breaking victory over England in the British Isles Home Internationals.

Wood gave up the outdoor game in 2011 after 137 Scotland caps spanning 45 years. "That doesn't count Commonwealth Games or World Championships," he says. "Indoors? I'd my first cap in 1972, but went to South Africa every year until 1979 when the internationals were on. Then I did not play until about 1986, because I went into business. I could not very well leave the business to go and play bowls. So I have 87 caps indoors, I think it is."

He has logged a million miles of long-haul travel: nearly 40 times round the world. He has two golds (one in singles, one in fours) plus silver and bronze from his record eight Commonwealth appearances, and a record 15 at World Championships. The last of these was in 2008, gold in the fours at the age of 70. He was ignored by Scotland in 1986 - he was reigning world silver medallist, no less - so his Games haul might have been even greater.

He was ridiculously barred from selection for the Games in his home city because he was a professional. Ridiculous, because the likes of Seb Coe and Steve Cram, in England's athletics team in Edinburgh, were earning far more than Wood. He was bitter at the time, but says: "It's water under the bridge. I'd like to have played before my own people, in one of my favourite tournaments. I knew Balgreen like the back of my hand."

Given his recent outstanding form in the Scotland indoor team was the decision to rule himself out of Glasgow 2014 premature?

"I'm 76. If you were a selector, would you pick a 76-year-old before a man of 36 or 40? I felt it was better to go out at the top. I was world champion at the time.

"The international was in Edinburgh, my home city, where I'd played a lot of bowls, and in front of my own people. Enough was enough. I have to accept I've had my day.

"I've had a great career and all good things come to an end. It was the right time to do it. I enjoy watching good players, and I am still involved at the highest level of the sport: I still play national championships. It's just I don't play for Scotland outdoors, that's all.

"Some of the greens are heavy now, and I sometimes feel I haven't got the strength I used to have. I'm okay on the quick stuff, but your muscle goes a bit as you get older."

He recalls a conversation with his old adversary, 82-year-old David Bryant, and the Englishman's comment: "I can't get it up any more." Wood guffaws at the double entendre. "I didn't want people to be sitting on the bank saying: 'He'd have got that when he was younger.' I did not want to hear that sort of thing. You can hear that tittle-tattle coming from the bank, so I decided to call it a day."

Yet he was with a Scotland team (two men, two women) for the Dutch Open in Haarlem last weekend, as an ambassador, comfortable not to be playing. "I have heard nothing from the Commonwealth [Games team] yet: whether they have any role for me. I'll just have to wait and see. I've not applied to do any job there, or for any tickets. If it's a sell-out, it will be a first at a Commonwealth Games. But I'll be there. I'd do any ambassadorial thing."

Despite the honours, one ambition eludes Wood. In 1967, his father won the Scottish singles title; three years later Willie lost in the final. "I've been beaten in the final four times since my father won it," he says. "I think time is running out. It is hard to get away from your own district early in the season, when the greens are really heavy. You have to get past that, and win the championship of your club."

Wood's father was known as "Camshaft" because he owned the first overhead camshaft motorcycle in East Lothian: an ES Norton. "They used to ride under a nom de plume, so your boss would not know if you were off your work. When I started, I played under 'Camshaft Junior'. But I wasn't winning anything. I stopped it and went on to my own name, and started winning. It was just a follow-on from my father, to be identified by the rest of the bowlers as Camshaft's son. When I changed, I had instant success."

He sold his garage business in Haddington to play professionally in Australia in 2001, but confides that he might have gone there earlier, and had he done so would probably have ended up playing for Australia. "In 1974, after Christchurch [where he won singles bronze] I was tempted to emigrate," he said. "I got an invitation from a businessman who owned a tyre company. He wanted me to work for him and play bowls. My wife and I had no relatives in Australia, so eventually we turned it down. The man died within a year.

"David Bryant and I had the best years of the sport, from the early 1980s to early '90s. There were more tournaments on TV, more money in the game. We had the same agent, working for us, getting sponsorship and things. There's nothing like that now. If you get sponsored you only get a set of bowls or a pair of shoes, something like that. We got money, paid by companies.

"You have to have a job now. Nobody is getting a living from bowls now, except in Australia. You play for a club and get paid, and any prize money you win, the club matches it, dollar for dollar. That's not happening anywhere else."

He highlights two achievements: "I went to South Africa in 1973, and played Bryant in the singles final. He was in his prime, and it was my first time abroad. It's a beautiful medal, came from the gold mines in Johannesburg. Winning the Commonwealth singles in 1982 was another major highlight."

He opted for bowls aged 12. "The alternative was swimming at North Berwick's outdoor pool. You had to get buses, and change. So I just went and played at the bowls. I'm glad I did. It's got me all over the world and I had a great career. If I'd gone for swimming I wouldn't have got anywhere. I can't swim to this day."

Though his grandfathers, uncles, father and mother, all played, there is no dynasty. His son Colin plays golf. "He tried bowls, but people on the bank kept saying 'you'll never be as good as your father'. That put him off. People said that to me, when my dad was playing. I ignored it and just kept plugging away."

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