Saturday, 31 December 2011

That Was The Year That Was

The dawning of a new year is fast approaching. I've played my last round of golf for 2011 and played rather well in patches and so can sign off in a positive mood. If I can turn back time and remember how to chip as I did in my youth then I'll be laughing next season.

So what did the year bring for me in golfing terms? Undoubtedly the highlight was playing in the Golf Monthly Centenary Competition. They hosted six national qualifiers up and down the UK and one in Ireland and the handicap division winners would head off to the Forest of Arden for the Grand Final. I entered at St Pierre, just over the Severn Bridge into Wales. This course has a history of hosting professional events in the 1980's including a Solheim Cup match and was in great shape in the early August sunshine.

Hitting my tee shot on the par 3 18th towards the impressive clubhouse

I went there in hope more than expectation and it was a good excuse for the wife and I to have a short break away. My form at the time was patchy and I went there with the sole thought of not making a fool of myself and trying to play at least a few good shots. I played steadily and somehow I managed to win the 10-13 handicap division with 34 points and book a berth in the finals. It was a real mid-season tonic as my golf to that date had been sporadic and I was losing a bit of faith

Collecting my spoils for winning the handicap division at St Pierre
If my form had been patchy in the qualifier, it had all but disappeared when I got to the Forest of Arden near Birmingham for the final in October. In fact it had been so bad I'd had a lesson the week before and had only had one round and a few range sessions to try and bed the changes in. Deliciously under prepared was the best way of describing the build up.

The Arden course was very long, playing 6,707 yards of the white tees and with six of the par fours measuring over 400 yards. I went with a game plan which was to play every one of those long par 4's as a par 5 and use my shots and hope that I could make a few pars elsewhere. It worked a treat and placing no expectations on my shoulders left me free to enjoy the game. In fact, I came second overall, losing on countback to one of my playing partners, an affable gentleman from Ireland called Bill Martin. It was so tight the countback actually went as far as the last six holes before he pipped me by 15 points to 12.

Bill Martin (left) and I enjoy the prizes at the Golf Monthly Centenary Final at the Forest of Arden
So what else did the year bring. Sadly Homer's Odyssey ran aground mid-season and the quest for single figures never got started once the fog of my short game horrors descended and became a volatile mix of mental confusion and dubious technique. It remains the one real issue but fear not as there are already plans afoot for the start of 2012 to resolve the problems.

Elsewhere I maintained my record of winning at least one monthly medal or stableford per year at Royal Ascot. I played in a number of club matches as well although I eventually lost my unbeaten record in a 5&3 defeat at Caversham Heath after a 17 game streak. It was a year of consolidation in terms of technique with a number of lessons with Paul Harrison from N1 Golf at Maidenhead Golf Centre giving me a solid platform. However I've now switched to a new teacher, Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Centre near Wokingham as I feel he is the man to take my game on and he's simplified what I need to focus on. The results so far are very promising and once we tackle the short game we can build a better, compact and repetitive motion to take the game onto the next level.

I played in the Volvo Amateur matchplay event with Mike Stannard, my regular and long suffering partner. We were drawn at home in the first round to a pair from neighbouring Mill Ride. In an epic contest it went to the 19th where one of the opposition drained an outrageous putt from off the edge of the green. It must have been forty feet in length and would have been at least ten feet past if it hadn't smacked the flag and dropped. The frustrating thing was it was the first and only time they had been in front all day. Gutted but we'll be back for another crack next year.

I've enjoyed a number of games at new courses including Camberley Heath and a Golf Monthly Forum day at Blackmoor in Hampshire. Both courses were a picture as you'd expect in the middle of a fine summer and both tested (and beat) my game. I also took part in a Powerplay event at The Grove near Watford. This prestigious venue hosted the American Express World Golf Championship in 2006 and there is a real aura about the place.

Powerplay golf itself is a new concept being driven by ex-Walker Cup Captain Peter McEvoy and is a revised stableford format. On each green is a black and white flag and players must nominate which flag they are going for. The black Powerplay target is normally in a harder position and if you score a net birdie or better then you effectively get double value stableford points. Each player must take 3 Powerplays (shoot for the black flags) in the first eight holes. On the last you can opt to take an additional Powerplay but if you make net bogey or worse you lose three points from the score.

The course was a real challenge anyway and having never played it before, it was hard to know where the right holes to take the Powerplays were. In the end I was too inconsistent anyway but the concept is really exciting and it would make a great social event at any club. I'm going to be sounding out Royal Ascot about holding one next Summer.

I've tried a lot of new kit out as well this year. My personal favourites were the R11 irons which have now found their way into my bag although the G20 irons from Ping were very good and would suit a broad spectrum of abilities. Perhaps the biggest surprise were the Cleveland CG16 irons I tried at the Forest of Arden. I've never really looked at their range before but these were long and with a superb penetrating flight along with a great degree of forgiveness

The R11 - simply the best irons I hit in 2011 and now firmly ensconced in my golf bag
And that was the year that was. It was another real up and down year, mirrored in many ways by my handicap which started within touching distance of single figures at 11. It has climbed the wrong way all season, hitting a dismal high of 14 before dropping back to 12 and finally finishing the year on 13. It sounds like a scratched record but a lot of that can be put firmly at the door of the ailing short game.

There are far too many people to thank individually, especially everyone I've shared a round with and met at various matches and events. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read the ramblings of this deranged fool over the course of the year. I hope the humble blog brought you at least some enjoyment, amusement and if nothing else helped remind you that compared to the state of my game, perhaps you aren't doing so badly.

I hope 2012 brings you and your loved ones everything you want and that your golf brings you joy and happiness and maybe the odd handicap cut and trophy along the way. Play well and see you next year!

Friday, 30 December 2011

A Hackers Guide To Royal Ascot - Hole 14 (Havells Field)

It's back to the par fours and another long hole measuring 430 yards off the white tees. However this hole tends to be fast running, especially close to the green and so does play a little shorter than the yardage book suggests.

This is how it is described on the club website:

A dog leg right, with a water hazard tight to the right of the green. The drive must be played down left side of fairway. Avoid like the plague, the oaks and deep rough on the right. Approach shots can be run onto this green and will require a medium to long iron.

Another daunting tee shot - avoid the big tree left (and its sister right of the dead trunk)
The large oak on the left is very much in play and needs to be avoided. The best line is on the fairway bunker on the apex of the dog leg although care must be taken as it is very much in range as the hole is usually down wind. There is also a large tree to the right, adjacent to the ladies tee and this can also cause problems if you hit a push or a block. At the moment the right hand side isn't too penal as the trees in there are still growing (the course is only six years old) and they are all staked and so a player can get relief. The grass has also been kept to a reasonable length and so it is possible to make progress if you do stray off the fairway.

The biggest obstacle though are the two large trees on the right edge of the fairway. Too straight, too short or too far right and these present a towering obstacle to be negotiated. The brave player may opt to hit a low one between the two trunks but most tend to circumnavigate, lay up and take a chance on a chip and a putt. It is stroke index 5 and so represents a shot hole for many.

If you have found the fairway, care needs to be taken as the environmental area runs along the right edge of the hole and at the edge of the green it is only some five yards from the putting surface and so anything leaking right can be in big trouble. There is a greenside bunker that traps some wayward shots but the best line is to keep it left and look for a favourable bounce off the mounds that surround the left side, taking care to avoid the bunker some ten yards short.

The 14th green from the right hand side
The green itself is bowl shaped and will funnel a shot in towards the centre. There is a steep shoulder on the back left edge which makes life interesting when the flag is positioned in that area. It is a long green by Royal Ascot standards at 32 yards in length.

As we've seen, the ideal shot is to the corner of the dog leg, far enough away from the two trees on the corner to give a long-mid iron in. Take one club less than the yardage tells you as it will run on this hole and so you can afford to be ten yards short and still find the heart of the green.

Although the website guide tells you to avoid the right hand side at all cost there is a little secret I can share. If you hit a true shocker and slice it towards the 13th tee box, it does take the two trees on the dog leg out of play and affords a straight, if longer shot into the green. Of course it does bring the environmental area (lateral water hazard) into play but he who dares and all that. In fact, I've been over there several times and hit a hybrid into the heart of the green and even manufactured a single putt birdie from such a wild tee shot. Similarly I've taken on the gap in the two trees and threaded long irons between them and watched the ball scuttle obediently onto the green thanks to the contours. It can be done but it isn't to be recommended.

If I'm being honest, providing you can get a reasonable tee shot away and miss the large trees short left and right as you view the hole then a nett par shouldn't be too much trouble. It is definitely a hole you can look at picking up a shot (nett birdie) and there really isn't too much to it. Don't become too complacent as we're about to enter the gruelling close and like the opening holes, there is plenty of trouble awaiting before you can sign that scorecard.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Old Year - New Spirit

I've been very fortunate this year to have the entire festive period off work and I'm not due back at my desk until January 3rd which has meant plenty of time for golf, golf and more golf. Having eaten way too much on the big day itself, I took myself off to the practise ground at Royal Ascot on Boxing Day. Unsurprisingly, I had it to myself although the course itself was pretty busy.

It was one of those weird sessions again. Ball striking wise I couldn't have been happier and I was hitting a 6 iron about 150 yards into a stiffish breeze. However it was the height, shape and dispersion that were the most pleasing. No more weak fades right, and the bad shot was a pull or hook left. For the most part it was because I was hitting the outside of the ball although some were down to timing issues and just swinging too fast and too long. Old habits die hard. The point was I'm pretty certain the club wasn't getting in the position I've been striding for and certainly not quite as it should be according to the Plane Truth website ( I've been using with my teaching professional Rhys ap Iolo. Style over substance? Maybe. It doesn't have to be pretty to work and I'll take whatever it was I was doing as it certainly produced the desired end product.

I played on Tuesday with Colin Osborne and Anthony Ayres (aka Kerching) from the normal Saturday gang. It wasn't a great round and the consistency wasn't there. However it did yield three birdies including back to back at 13 and 14. I hit a beautifully controlled wedge from 82 yards at the 4th to within six feet for the first. On the 186 yard par 3 13th, I took my 3 hybrid. If I was being critical the shot shape was a bit of a hook, or at least a raking draw but it pitched within inches of a slam dunk ace and stopped four feet away. Again, its hard to be critical when you are getting results.

On the 14th I found the fairway off the tee but again it was more of a over done draw than a perfectly hit shot. I had 178 yards left and took a four iron, not usually a favourite club. However my new one plane swing has given me so much more confidence and I feel I can make a good swing with any club in the bag. In truth it was on the outer reaches of my range but it found the front edge of the green and my trust old Ping did the rest rolling in a nice left to right from fifteen feet. There was some good iron play throughout and the putting was rock solid but it was the tee shots that left a lot to be desired. Work in progress there I think and it meant I was never really in the right place to play attacking, nay even controlled golf

Hard to score when you can't get it in play off the tee
I played again today with Kerching. Conditions were testing with a gusty wind and the odd heavy shower to spice things up. Again if I'm being hard, I didn't feel as though I was getting the club in the right place from a technical perspective, certainly not where I've been working on putting it in practise. However if you discard the lost ball on the 5th (a lovely 6 iron but just pushed a fraction and only ten yards right of the green but into some heavy grass and never seen again) I played the other eight holes in one over gross.

There was much more rhythm to the driving, irons were crisp and wedges accurate.The only downside came when we caught a female three ball up on the 10th (they had snuck on the 10th while we were still on the 9th and still hadn't holed out time we were on the tee). The waiting around and the inevitable speeding up and rushing when we were finally let through on the 13th meant that the timing and tempo was shot and the last few holes of the back nine were ragged and didn't do justice to the way I had been playing.

It's definitely in there. Rhys has given me a solid foundation to work on and although we have a long road ahead to eradicate a lot of the basic errors that lead to so much inconsistency, the fact that the ball striking has improved beyond measure is a solid starting point. I need to persevere on trying to get the club in a better position at the back and make my turn through impact better as I've been shown but Rome wasn't built in a day and twenty plus years of bad habits can't be wiped out in one thirty minute lesson.

I'm due to play tomorrow with my regular partner Mike Stannard but the forecast isn't looking good. I think its a case of getting out there and seeing. If it gets too bad there's no mileage in flogging ourselves for the sake of a social game and we can always call it a day after nine. I am positively bubbling with renewed enthusiasm for the game and can't wait for my next lesson (mental note to self - must get that in the diary) to build on the work done so far. I enter 2012 with a new spirit. Homer's Odyssey is back on course.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Dear Santa

I played in the usual Saturday roll up this morning. Numbers were depleted with people doing last minute shopping or under strict orders from "the boss" at home. I thought I'd try a different approach today and foresaked my usual warm up hitting a few balls on the practise ground to limber up and enjoyed a nice coffee in the clubhouse instead. Well, if I'm honest the work I've been doing down the range has been going reasonably well and I thought as long as I stretch and have a few swings all will be good. WRONG!

I stood on the first tee and felt very under prepared. The opening drive sharp right hardly set the right tone and the resulting "nil points" was probably no more than I deserved. I played the second and third okay but had another horror down the fourth. To be honest the swing was well out of kilter. I had no timing, no feel and no idea.

I made rare back to back pars on the seventh and eighth which lightened the mood. I made another par at the tenth too, hitting a perfect six iron from 152 yards into a fresh breeze and deposited the ball some six foot from the flag. The putt for birdie never scared the hole and to be honest the putter was colder than the temperature on the course and I never looked like making anything all day. That was to prove the last hurrah as the last remnants of a good swing and timing disappeared in a puff of pantomime smoke. There were the odd good drive or crisp iron to warm the soul but the mind had already wandered back into the sanctuary of the 19th.

As I wandered, nay trudged my way around the last few holes I wondered if it was too late to contact the big fella with the white beard and change my order.

"Dear Santa

My name is Martin aged 45 1/2 and I've been a very good boy this year. For Christmas I would like:
A golf swing I can rely on. I'm not greedy and eye pleasing or technically correct isn't essential
A putting stroke that is smooth and gets those damned fiddly three footers in once in a while
A short game. Please help as I can't chip at all and I'm getting desperate. I'll even throw in an extra mince pie.
A copy of "Bunker shots for Dummies". Any more time on the beach and I'm sending for deckchairs and a parasol.
Natalie Gulbis, Paula Creamer or Melissa Reid to help me with my game, ideally somewhere warm
My teaching professional Rhys ap Iolo to be on call 24/7 and for you to give him super-human powers to help him get me to single figures. It could be too much for a mere mortal.
The trees at Royal Ascot on the edge of each fairway to grow that bit quicker to add definition. I know we're only seven years old but I'd love the place to come on a bit.
Sophie Horn to help me unwrap my presents.

I hope this won't be too difficult for the elves to arrange and that Rudolph and the others will be able to carry the gifts to me. I've left the mince pie in the normal spot and my wife has asked me to say the mistletoe is where it usually is. I'm not sure what she means but she said you'd understand!!"

If I'm honest I'm not overly fussed. The new chilled, reticent Homer can easily shrug off such a set back. I wasn't in the mood mentally, hadn't warmed up and cranked started the swing and it was only the second round on the course with the nucleus of a new swing anyway. I need to trust the work I'm doing on the range, follow the feedback and help Rhys is giving me and believe that 2012 will be a good year. I'm starting from a reasonable position with my handicap standing at 12.8 (13 in proper money) and one cut gets me straight back to 12. Rhys is going to do a lot of work on "preparing to succeed" next season and if he can exorcise the short game woes and we can really get that area to rock and roll then that is where I'll shave some more shots off.

Still that is all for next year. I hope that what remains of 2011 is good to you and your families and that you have a wonderful Christmas. If you get some golf in over the festive break I trust the new golfing toys Santa is bringing work well and that you look resplendent in your new attire. Have fun, stay safe and enjoy.

Friday, 23 December 2011

A Hackers Guide To Royal Ascot - Hole 13 (Keepers)

Having walked off the hardest hole on the course, it's a short stroll to the tee box on the thirteenth and on paper at least the second easiest hole. "

Keepers" is another par 3 coming in at 186 yards and the Royal Ascot website describes the hole thus: "A short hole that is deceptively long Rely on the given distance, it is correct. As you walk to green you will see the dead ground that foreshortens this hole. The only one on the eighteen not to have a bunker."

The 13th hole - a par 3 and no bunkers. What could possibly go wrong?
As the view from the tee shows, it looks a nice easy hole. It is providing you club correctly because there is a steep bank at the front of the green and a gully before the putting surface that will eagerly gobble anything coming up short or hit too low and it will leave a testing chip often from a sloping lie.

The tall tree to the right of the green will catch anything pushed and if you are too far right may well stymie any sort of direct chip to the flag. Left of the hole is a ditch that separates the hole from the adjacent twelfth fairway and will catch anything hooked. There is also a large oak standing guard to the left of the green surrounded by lush heavy rough and so anyone hitting a draw into the hole needs to be sure they don't over-cook it.

The view back to the tee
The green is fairly big compared to many on the course but it one of the most contoured and runs steeply from front to back and from right to left as you look at it. Hitting the green is no easy task but once safely on the putting surface, there is plenty of work still to be done to secure a par. It is only stroke index 17, but even the low handicappers find it a challenge and it regularly plays well over par in monthly competitions and belies its innocence.

An elephants graveyard of a green. Very contoured and very hard to putt on successfully
The green is also surrounded by trees and the canopy means this green is often shaded and so can be much wetter than the others which has an effect on the speed of chips and putts. There isn't really a good place to miss this target. Left is lush rough. Way right is deep, deep rough and the potential for a lost ball so slicers beware. Short is short grass but with the big slope up to the front of the green to contend with.

As the picture illustrates it is a real roller-coaster and depending on the flag position, the unsuspecting visitor can be made to look very foolish through no real fault of their own. It regularly catches seasoned members out too. A birdie here is a real rarity, well for me at least. A par is really like getting a shot back on the field and a bogey four isn't the end of the world.

Like all of the par three's we've seen on our meander around the course, it has the potential to put a real dent in any scorecard. This one in particular with it's cunning design, dead ground and tricky green doesn't really need tricking up. There has been talk over the years of introducing either a pond or a bunker short of the green but in my opinion it should be left as the designer intended. Another small but beautifully formed hole.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Plane Truth - The Moment Of Truth

Fresh from a lesson and a measly 50 range balls practise it was time to put the kernel of a new swing under severe scrutiny in the first round of the Royal Ascot Winter Knockout. Fortunately it is a four ball better ball format and so I had my trusty partner Mike Stannard as my go to guy. He has been enjoying a stellar end to the season with a series of handicap cuts and top three finishes in club competitions. However he'd need to have his A+ game not only to carry the burden of my game but to see off the powerful combination of Geoff Estcourt (12 handicap) and John Munday (5 handicap). Even suffering from a heavy dose of "man flu" or a bad cold John Munday would be a tough nut to crack and Geoff is renowned for never giving up.

These guys have a reputation within the club for being dour competitors and very hard to beat. Both possess what might be politely termed agricultural looking swings but they both have an adept way of getting it round in good fashion and as a better ball team tend to combine very well. This was not going to be easy and the path to glory couldn't have started with a tougher draw.

Saturday was bitterly cold by the time we teed off at 9.00am. I managed to hit a decent first shot with the latest swing incarnation just right of the green pin high but with a bunker to go over. My partner went right and somehow we failed to find the ball. With John on the edge of the green I needed to get close and so a duff into the frozen bunker was an unorthodox approach. Still I manged to get it out to twelve feet and then canned the putt to leave John a testy little three footer for par. He made it and we were one down immediately

In truth the golf wasn't sparkling and everyone seemed to find ways of making simple errors. In our defence we were subjected to a heavy wintry squall on the 2nd and 3rd holes that necessitated full waterproofs. With several layers of clothing already to keep out the cold making a good turn and swing was proving almost impossible. We lost the 4th to par when both in good positions after the drive. Unforgivable. Playing the 5th the opposition gave us a glimmer of hope with errant tee shots and Mike hit a corker off the tee. However he failed to capitalise and mis-hit his second. Some of you may have spotted a more positive Homer, one who is trying to see the best outcome on every hole. I told him par would still win the hole. We both found the green with our approach and both made five and sure enough par was enough. We lost the 6th to go back to 2 down but I won the 8th being the only one to find the green and to be honest the new swing was doing ok. Not great but functional and I was getting it round.

I managed to make a valuable half with a good four footer, right to left at the 9th to send us to the turn just one down and all to play for. I hit my best drive of the round to date at the 10th and followed it with a solid five iron from 154 yards into a stiffening breeze to find the green. In the end par was good enough and back to all square. Mike came in again to win the next to give us the lead for the first time. It was to be short lived. Geoff came to the party at the 12th by sinking a real teaser of a putt across and down the slope. If it had missed I was waiting to convert my five footer. It never looked anywhere else and his par, net birdie was good enough.

Mike then came into his own and won the 13th and I found a way to make a solid nett par at the next to win the hole and give us a two up advantage. I told Mike that the long par five 15th would be pivotal and playing into the wind a par would be hard to beat. In the end it was enough for a half although we all made hard work of the hole. John chipped and putted for par and Mike had to do the same.

My partner had been driving superbly all day and at the tough 16th with out of bounds all the way down the left he didn't let me down and put his ball in the perfect spot. Although he missed the green with his approach and the chip wasn't great, he holed out for a five, but with a shot at the hole, the net par was enough to secure a hard fought 3&2 win.

It would be churlish of me to say anything other than Mike's back nine performance up to and including the 16th was the real difference. John and Geoff played their usual steady stuff but Mike gave them no margin for error and so any mistake they made was punished. From my own perspective I was pretty happy with the way I played. The ball striking was much improved and the bad shots weren't as wayward. The swing wasn't as I'd have liked it but I couldn't afford to get too wrapped up in technical thoughts and had to try and focus on finding a way to offer my partner a modicum of support.

In was a great game and played in a wonderful atmosphere. It's always a pleasure to play with John and Geoff and to be honest it was a very pleasing win over arguably one of the pre-tournament fancied pairings. The draw hasn't been kind to us though and potentially we face our good friends Matt Davis (aka Sundance) and his partner Colin Osborne who is another tough old fox providing they get through the Christmas Eve encounter.

As for me, its more range time this week. I've watched the video drills I've been given on the Plane Truth website and have a clear mental picture of what I'm trying to achieve which is definitely something I didn't have before last Thursday. The information Rhys ap Iolo has given me is clear and concise and makes sense. I need to get the back swing sorted first and get the club in the right position. From there everything else falls into place.

It is definitely a good feeling at the moment. We're still in the competition, have scored a famous victory and my swing held firm. There is a long way to go and 2012 will no doubt have as many ups and downs as this year. I've only got social golf to enjoy between now and the new year (although the Saturday roll up can be as feisty as any grudge match or championship event once the banter starts on the course) and so I can get the new swing working. The hard work starts again at Blue Mountain on Tuesday evening but there is a new and positive Homer emerging and that might just make him a rather dangerous customer. 2011 was the year of the Homer with my Golf Monthly success but 2012 is going to be bigger and better. Stand clear because I'm coming through.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Plane Truth

As promised, I took the plunge on Thursday and had a lesson with a new teaching professional. I'd opted for Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Complex near Wokingham as he has been following my exploits via Twitter and had contacted me to say he thought he could simplify the approach I had been following and get rid of a number of my swing faults.

I have to admit to being quite nervous, not only laying my golfing imperfections to a new set of scrutinising eyes but because I had a winter league match with my golf partner Mike Stannard on Saturday and was worried any changes that were too dramatic would leave him to fend alone against a formidable pairing.

Rhys is an advocate of the Plane Truth System which sets about exploring whether an individual has a one or two piece swing and working from there. After filming and watching me hit a few, Rhys delivered his verdict. The results were no great shock although the explanation was a real light bulb motion. In essence I was coming in way too shallow into the ball and my hands were following a down the path line through impact. This meant not only was I having to do 101 things to try and get the club square at impact (hence 101 different bad shots) but it meant the club path and follow through and club path weren't good. The hands are dominating the arms at the top of the back swing and the club points across the line

As this was only an initial thirty minute lesson the focus was primarily on the takeaway with a feeling that the club is much wider, with the left arm turning lower and tighter to the body. I have to say that I was expecting to hit a few horrors as it is much flatter that I'm use to but the ball striking was a revelation. I am giving myself more room to turn, can come down steeper without feeling my arms are trapped and the club face can travel back around my body after impact in a much more neutral position.

I've attached a link to a video Rhys took to emphasise the point. Ideally my hands need to be closer to the red line and there is still a loss of spine angle and head movement, but its a case of one step at a time. The Plane Truth system talks about every golfer having positive and negative swing faults. If you picture a see-saw the idea is to work on these until the flaws are ironed out and the swing is 100% balanced.

I have to say I really enjoyed the session and Rhys has given me a lot to think about and work on but initial signs are very promising. He seemed to see some potential and has said single figures is a realistic possibility next season although I haven't had the heart to show or mention my chipping which makes my long swing look positively Luke Donald like.

I hit the range last night to try and work on the changes I've been shown. One of the biggest plus points of seeing Rhys and using the Plane Truth system is they have a fantastic website pupils can use which has access to lots of drills and tips for each fault. Rhys flags up the issue and it links straight into a breakdown of the cause and a video showing what should be done and the drills to go away and work on.

The range was bitter and with the car saying it was only 2 degrees and a howling wind blowing I opted for a small basket of fifty balls. I was conscious of really getting the club as wide and as far away from my body as I could in the takeaway, into what is termed a laid off position with the club face pointing at the sky. From there I need to just rotate back through the ball and the club needs to exit to the left with a feeling of my right palm facing upwards. The changes compared to what I'd been doing are huge but the results were pretty good and quick to come. I know I'm probably not technically correct yet and Rhys is quite a strict task master, but only because he wants each player to get the most from their game. The ball striking just seemed so much easier and the majority of the shots if not straight would have been playable and the flight was so much higher and crisper.

It's early days still but I'm definitely looking to pencil another session in soon. Everything just seems so much clearer now and I feel really energised about my golf again. I've had so many false dawns and troughs that I need to be wary but I do think the change in teacher has made a huge difference. Sometimes it just takes a different point of view to make it slot into place.

The problem would be taking this massive change onto the course and with only 50 range balls under my belt before the 1st round of the Winter knockout, I 'm pretty sure my partner Mike was as nervous as I was. Would it be a disaster, would it work, and if it came down to a pressure cooker finish would it hold up and could I rely on it? So many questions to answer and you'll have to wait to find out exactly how it went!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

A Hackers Guide To Royal Ascot - Hole 12 (Henry Cotton)

We've reached the 12th hole, named after the three time Open champion who has been associated with Royal Ascot since playing in the inaugural boys championship in 1921. This Boys Amateur Championship has now grown into an major event on the golfing calendar and some of the modern greats have tasted success in it.

 This hole is ranked as the hardest on the course according to the stroke index and is a 409 yard par four which doglegs at a ninety degree angle. The course planner describes the hole:

"Don’t ruin a hard fought for score at this point, play well within your limitations. Drive at part of fairway you can see. Play your second towards green and if you have to, use your short game to secure your par. The green is receptive."

The 12th - a daunting tee shot and a tough second to follow
For many, the ideal shot is straight down to the corner of the dog leg which leaves a second shot of some 200 yards or so. However the braver golfer can risk carrying the large tree adjacent to the 11th green and then trying to fly the row of smaller trees that line the right edge of the fairway. Successfully do so and you are left with nothing more than a short iron into the green. However fail to make it and bogey or worse is almost always the result.

The simple tee shot is normally the safest on the 12
The second requires excellent club selection. It usually plays down wind but there is a large bunker some thirty yards short and right for the sliced approach and a pair left and right of the green to welcome anything drifting off line. If you are too long there is a slope at the back of the green and the ball will run towards the environmental area some ten yards behind the green. As you cannot enter this protected area a penalty drop from the drop zone is the result so caution must be exercised.

This green is another that runs from front to back and has a big swing on it from right to left as you approach. There is thick rough either side of the green and it makes playing a finesse shot to land the ball close very hard. A large green by Royal Ascot standards it is imperative you get the right club. A putt from front to back or vice versa will really test your touch and nerve.

Get the right club in your hand as there is danger all around
As with so many holes on the course the drive is paramount. Even if you don't risk the carry, par is possible although coming in with a fairway wood, hybrid or long iron does make it a tough ask. The best plan for most is to find the fairway, play into a favourite distance and try to make an up and down. It usually plays close to 6 in monthly competitions and so there is no shame in making a five nett four and walking off to the next tee.

I've had more than my share of disasters. It usually involves being too greedy off the tee and having to play a recovery from behind or underneath the row of trees. If you fail to recover properly, the next is usually from juicy rough and brings the bunker short right into play. From there it is easy to come up short or hit it too well into the environmental area. However there have been rare moments of genius and the odd birdie (nett eagle!!!) thrown in from time to time. It's a good matchplay hole. Giving or receiving a shot here it is never over until its over. I've played a club match and given a shot here and still won it with a 6.

It is a well designed hole that asks a lot of questions. Are you brave enough to go the short route? Can you hit a straight one to the corner of the dog leg when you really need to? Do you have enough firepower to get home in two? Can you find a two putt when you reach the green?

So there you have it. As Clint might have said standing on the tee "do you feel lucky punk?" Take it on and succeed and you'll be richly rewarded with par or birdie. Fail to make the grade and the card may take a terminal hit. A hole that earns it spurs as the hardest on the course.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Glass Half Full - Well Sort Of

Lets start with the facts. It was Christmas stableford time today and I managed a meagre 29 points and finished 35th overall. Not my finest hour. However in my defence the -5 overnight temperature and frost meant we were on temporary greens and my heart is never in it when that happens.

I've been working hard on getting the club more in front of me and to be honest I used the round as nothing more than a glorified practise session. There some very good tee shots, particularly the 5th, 10th and 15th but the irons weren't as good as I'd have liked. On the positive side of things my short game, so often not so much the weakest link as the missing one, was much better today It was just as well as temporary greens usually means a lot of fiddly chipping as the targets are so small and hard to get close to.

Despite all this, the initial signs are good. I need to get some serious range time in and make the move feel more natural. At the moment I feel as though I am coming over the top (and sometimes do) but when it is good it is very, very good.

I was partnered today with my four ball partner Mike Stannard and Tommy Goode who remains a feisty competitor even at his advanced years (well 70 is getting on a bit!). The good news for me is that Mike is in imperious form, well apart from one shank and even then he recovered brilliantly. His good shooting was good for 41 points and 2nd place. Tommy was his usual mixture of very good with the odd faux pas thrown into the mix to keep things interesting and he managed a respectable 37 points.

So where does that leave me? Well if I'm honest I'm trying to be upbeat and take the plus points from the round. I've plenty of time to get things moving in the right direction this week ready for our Winter Knockout match next Saturday. The draw hasn't been kind and we've got ex captain Geoff Escourt and his right hand man John Munday both of whom own "unique" swings but on their day are capable of getting it round well. I've got my own "unique" swing and can be dangerous too especially with Mike as my "Steady Eddie." It promises to be an epic and if I can follow the advice from Rhys and really get the club in a good position then I'll be a real foil for my partner.

I've a date with the range tomorrow morning especially as the forecast for later in the days isn't so good. I need a clear head, positive thoughts and good tempo. If they fall into line and I hit it as I did when I went to the range on Friday then we are going to be in a strong position going into 2012. If not, well I can always revert to a glass half empty type of guy, book some lessons and get some help. Hopefully Mr Half Full will win the day.

Sunday, 4 December 2011


Given the forecast and the persistent drizzle when I got out of bed at 6.30 am, the prognosis for golf yesterday was not good with gusty winds and squally showers on the cards. However as I pegged my first shot of the day up at 8.00am in the company of good friends Colin Osborn and Matt Davis there wasn't a breath of wind and there were breaks in the clouds. The course was pretty wet after several days of rain but still in good nick for the time of year.

I wasn't expecting much from the round and was using it as an opportunity to get some on course practice in rather than worry about posting a good score. I was dutifully surprised to hit a majestic opening 3 wood into the 228 yard first that flew high and with a nice touch of draw and which found the putting surface with ease. A nice par to start.

I wouldn't say the remainder of the round was a shambles after that but it was a real mixture of some decent shots and the odd horror. However most frustrating was the fact that every single iron shot seemed to be heavy. Fat shots and winter golf are not a good marriage and it really took its toll on confidence and scoring.

In a fit of pique I decided to hit a bucket of balls in the afternoon to prove to myself the swing, and in particular the stuff I'd been working on, were on the right track and that it had all been some sort of one off aberration. In truth I would probably have been better off staying in the warm.

Every now and then there are real Fellini moments and I had one at the Downshire Golf Complex. One of those that follow this rollercoaster ride of a pursuit towards lower handicap and golfing glory is their top teaching pro called Rhys ap Iolo. He has said via twitter that he was concerned that what I am being shown in my lessons and then trying to execute are not necessarily compatible. It was this that in part was the catalyst for my thoughts on looking at my current teacher and how my progress seemed to have stagnated (see

Rhys ap Iolo - switched on a golfing light in the brain

I was coming to the end of what was a fruitless basket of balls as he wandered past having just given a kids lesson. He watched me hit a couple and took a quick video. What he said was so simple, so bang on the money and such an eye opener. Basically, the first part of the swing is fine. Not perfect but functional. Regular followers know that I have a tendency to come up in the shot on the downswing and lose spine angle and my current teaching pro Paul Harrison has tried to fight this by making my posture more upright and turn more on top of the ball.

What Rhys showed me was that basically the club was so far behind me on the way down, it needed the magical dexterity of the street magician Dynamo to get it back to the ball properly. I am not that talented. All he wants me to do is feel as though the club is travelling as far left as I can get it through impact and imagine I have a winter mitten on my right hand and to throw that behind me as I follow through.

Quite simply it gets the club far more in front of the body on the downswing. This will get me turning better through the shot and most importantly give me the room needed to deliver club on ball. Although it is going to feel as though I'd hit everything straight left and even as if I'm coming over the top (usually a big no no) with the way I swing I need to trust it and believe and it will go straighter and with a more powerful compression.

Behind all this mumbo jumbo was a simple message. Stick with the slightly lower posture I preferred (I'd found the new change difficult to embrace and stick in the memory) and change the way the clubhead travels. Nothing earth shattering. I only had a few balls left to try and get it working but it was clear from those and the way they flew better than the bucket that had proceeded them that there was method in the madness.

I was limited time-wise today but was desperate to get out and try it. Initial signs are good. The one thing that did disappoint was the fact that I videoed what I was doing and although it felt infinitely different and impact and direction were 100 times better the swing itself and particularly the clubhead direction wasn't as radically (if at all) to the left as I'd hoped. It had been a real OMG (Oh my god) moment when I started hitting 9 irons and they were longer and straighter than anything in recent memory. It seemed to work through the bag but there was a lack of consistency once we got to the 6 iron and beyond. It might have been me getting quicker in the tempo as time got short but the session had reinforced Rhys's comments and those where I'd managed to get the club in front were very, very good.

I am definitely going to work on this again tomorrow night. How can something so simple clarify the issues I've been having. It does beg the question why the position of my club on the downswing hasn't been picked up before and such a simple fix offered. Questions will be asked the next time I see my current teacher though. My thanks to Rhys though for taking the time to stand there and watch the failings of a golfing fool and hopefully after a few sessions I'll be able to get something on film to send him and get some kind of positive feedback that I'm on the right path.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The View From The (Very) Cheap Seat

For the armchair golf fan it has been another full on season. For those of us who bow down to the Murdoch dollar we've had a Summer of almost weekly action on both the European and US Tours along with the majors and the Solheim Cup. The good old BBC were on hand to provide us with their usual high class Open coverage and to give us a thrilling home win in the Walker Cup.

As I sit here on my favourite chair, cup of tea in one hand and remote in the other what was it like for us the viewing public. The majors were certainly action packed and anyone successfully picking all four winners is more than likely relaxing somewhere significantly warmer and worrying about which yacht to take out of the harbour tomorrow.

Augusta to me always represents the start of the golfing season. The clocks have just changed, my course is beginning to awaken from Winter and I look forward with a clean slate to handicap cuts, monthly medal wins and lots and lots of golf. Of course somewhere along the line expectation and fulfilment become blurred and don't always meet in a happy marriage. At Augusta in April, Rory McIlroy demonstrated that expectation, especially in a major, especially for such a young man doesn't mean it's a done deal. It was car crash viewing watching him in the last round of the Masters.. You couldn't believe how a man so in control for three days and with the field at his mercy could disintegrate and become almost unable to get the ball in the hole.

A last round no-one could have imagined.
With Rory slipping back there was still a Major up for grabs. Many got themselves into contention but Charl Schwartzel was the man to deliver a finish of immense skill and courage. His 66 was the low round of the day and his two shot margin of victory was crafted by birdieing the last four holes.

Schwartzel enjoys his first major success
The next major was the US Open played at the fearsome Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland between June 16th and 19th. Again, the armchair fan in Britain could follow the action on TV and again it proved to be unmissable viewing. There were many, myself included, who had tweeted, written and commented on phone ins, chat rooms and talk shows that McIlroy would take time to recover from the scars of Augusta. He took precisely one round at Congressional and led after day one with a stunning six under par 65. No need to watch from between the fingers in front of your face for this one.

McIlroy was a tour de force throughout and by the start of the final round had an 8 shot lead over Y.E. Yang. Even though this was an even bigger lead than he took into the last round at Augusta I was still worried for the young man but his birdie at the 1st calmed my nerves and I could enjoy copious amounts of tea and biscuits throughout the evening as he strolled to a imperious eight shot victory.

No last round meltdown this time
Called me a sentimental old fool but there is nothing better for the armchair fan that the Open and the velvet tones of Peter Alliss on the BBC. He is a true icon and although there are those that suggest he is past his prime, to me he is the voice of golf and I'd love him to carry on and on. Like others such as O'Sullivan (horse racing) Walker (motor racing) Maskell (tennis) Pickering (athletics) Carpenter (boxing) and Arlott (cricket) he is the epitome of the sport they covered particularly on the BBC. Maybe there is something in this sentimentality lark though as the winner in that far flung corner of Kent was truly a People's Champion.

Darren Clarke has always had a popular place in the hearts of golf fans throughout his career. He has always seemingly liked the odd pint, smoked the odd fag and generally played golf with a smile. However when he lost his wife Heather to the demon that is cancer and then played a few weeks later in the Ryder Cup he cemented himself in the psyche of the golfing fraternity. His career has dipped in recent years but towards the end of 2010 and early in 2011 there were signs that a settled family life and a fresh enthusiasm for the game were bringing him back to form.

Even so it, very few expected to see his name on the Claret Jug come Sunday evening. It had been a compelling four days. Thomas Bjorn had returned to the course where he so nearly won in 2003 and featured prominently throughout but again came up short. The game of golf saw the emergence of another home grown talent in the shape of Tom Lewis who played alongside Tom Watson in the opening round and carded a 65 to lead with Bjorn after day one.

However it was Saturday that perhaps had everything for the viewer. The weather took a turn for the worse with heavy rain and strong winds making conditions hazardous. It certainly made some of us feel better to see the top players finding it as tough as we do in our monthly medal in such weather.

The weather in the final round was much better although the wind meant that scoring would be tough and control of the ball was a must. Clarke had moved through the field to sit on top of the leaderboard, just ahead of Dustin Johnson of America.

It was a fascinating final round. Phil Mickleson made a mockery of the conditions to charge to the turn in 30 but his bid for glory was to stall on the closing stretch. It was becoming a two horse race between Clarke and Johnson but when the American tried to go for the green in two on the par 5 14th he hit a horror shot out of bounds which cost a double bogey and gave Clarke a 4 shot lead. In the end the Ulsterman cruised to victory by three shots.

Definitely one for the people
It was certainly a popular win not only for golf fans across the world but within the game too. It was certainly a long night and Clarke was featured in the press the following day having partied all night but still looking remarkably good on it. A great winner, with Peter Alliss providing the perfect words on a perfect outcome.

The last major, the USPGA is regarded by many as the poor relation compared to the others. Certainly it doesn't seem to have the panache in the UK that the others do. Maybe its because we're not as au fait with its history I don't know. Either way, its the last chance of the season for us to find that comfy spot on the settee and settle down to some high class golf into the small hours.

For those who who view this event boring, the joke’s on you. Yes, for the casual fan, this looked like the Blueberry Hill Monthly Medal for a while but by the end of Sunday, it was one of the most exciting majors of the year. For starters, it wasn’t Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner’s fault that they were the last men standing. The strongest field in golf teed off on Thursday, including the likes of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and 100 of the top 102 in the World Golf Ranking. This had a bit of everything from Rory Wrist to Tiger Rap. For McIlroy, his tournament was effectively over on the 3rd hole of round one when he hit a tree root and injured his wrist. In fact he arguably came within a three-inch root of ruining the most promising career in the game,

Then there was Tiger, and the bizarre showing he made hitting one crooked shot after another. He hit 22 bunkers, 11 fairway and 11 greenside in two rounds and only saved par from the sand four times. Not only was this his worst performance in a major but five club professionals beat him.
So we didn’t have what experts might call a ratings bonanza, but we did have a gutsy thrill-a-minute finish. Forget the anticlimactic playoff where Dufner missed a 5-footer for birdie on 16 and three-putted 17. Focus on the positives. Keegan Bradley is the first player in recorded history to make a triple bogey in the final nine holes of a major and go on to win the tournament. Keegan Bradley delivered an unforgettable finish.

Bradley was five shots behind with only three holes to play after his chip shot raced across the 15th green and into the water, leading to a triple bogey. It led to one of the most stunning turnarounds in a major. Bradley made back-to-back birdies, including a 35-footer that rattled into the cup on the 17th. Then came a monumental meltdown by Jason Dufner. Unflappable all afternoon, he hit his tee shot in the water on the 15th for the first of three straight bogeys that led to a three-hole playoff. Bradley birdied the 16th hole in the playoff,  his first outright lead of the day and went on to win by one shot.

Bradley - held his nerve and a long putter
However Bradley will also go into the record books as the first major winner to use a long putter. To the golfing purist these should be consigned to golf room 101 and I'm sure there are those in the committee rooms at certain clubs up and down the land crying into their pink gin at the sight. It wasn't the last time this year that we'd see such a putter and the site of Phil Mickleson with one on tour a few weeks later certainly raised a few eyebrows.

For the armchair golfer that was that. As much emotion, elation, desperation, despondency, joy, brilliance, incompetence and at times farce you could ever hope to see in a year. There was just time to cram in a glorious win for the European team at the Solheim Cup and for the Walker Cup boys to hold their nerve when it mattered to bring home that trophy and the TV year was done.

No time to snooze this season
What has a mere hacker like me taken from all this?. Well for one thing we can never take this game for granted whether you are one of the best in the world like McIlroy coming to grief and then rising like a phoenix from the flames or shooting a triple down the stretch like Bradley and finding the strength and self belief to carry on. Perhaps that is the biggest difference of all. Yes, we can all get it round to some degree on our local course, but usually a collapse of McIlroy proportion or at a critical stage like Keegan will leave indelible marks on our fragile golfing persona. Tee it up next time and it is there at the very forefront of the golfing brain eating away at your confidence.

Perhaps we need the apparent "don't give a damn" laid back persona of Clarke. I can think of a few in the 19th at my club that would have played him off scratch in the partying afterwards. Either way, the dark nights are here and the azalea and rhodedendrum of Augusta seem a long way off. As for me I'll continue to hit the range, and enjoy the challenge of Winter golf looking for that piece of magic. When that fails I'll comfort myself watching the top guys make it look easy on great courses in great events. Majors and TV. Is there really anything else?