Sunday, 29 April 2012

Hard Going - Hung Tough

The weather forecast lied. That lovely lady on BBC's South Today said Saturday morning would be cloudy but dry. It wasn't. It was cloudy and wet and with a gusty breeze too. She forgot that bit as well. Had it been a normal Saturday I might have been tempted to roll over, give the Saturday roll up a miss and maybe hit the range later in the day. However having been selected to play for Royal Ascot in the annual match against local rivals Maidenhead, I was out in it whether I liked it or not.

By the time we pitched up for the pre-match meal and pleasantries, things hadn't improved. Surprisingly the Saturday gang had had twelve participants and they were already in the bar dissecting events. They said the course was standing up well particularly the greens and bunkers but there was standing water appearing on some of the fairways and green aprons. The brunch felt more like some kind of last supper.

I was paired with Colin Falvey, known to all and sundry at the club simply as "The Major". Short in stature but big in heart and a wonderful raconteur he can be a gutsy old warrior and he and I have enjoyed success before in these friendly matches. We were up against an amiable pair of Maidenhead gentlemen called Allan off an impressive 11 handicap and Derek of 18.

It's always a tough match against local rivals Maidenhead

 Things didn't start well. I made a real horlicks of the first after my tee shot finished some ten yards short of the green. I duffed the chip and having done so scared myself sufficiently to think my ball could walk on water and tried to putt through the edge of a puddle. It couldn't. One down.

One down became two down when Derek rode in with a nett par at the next, the par five. I'd missed the green left and again my chip was hardly encouraging. The rot was stopped by The Major at the next where he made a good half. Again I had short game issues. I'd hit a super drive and then pushed a seven iron pin high right of the green and duffed another chip as far as the fringe. Chuck in three putts for good measure and a six soon racks up. I was to redeem myself and finally play myself into the game at the next. A horrid slice off the tee and a second that was well wide of target left the ball nestled in some heavy rough with a bunker to negotiate. I'd been working on my pitching from the 40 yard mark on Friday night but that was off nice mown grass. However I trusted what I'd practised and executed and put the ball stone dead for a par and a half.

The deficit should have been cut at the next but the wind played tricks with my approach which seemed to balloon upwards on a gust and came up short on the front edge. With the flag on the back tier the three putt that followed was almost inevitable but as the Maidenhead pair could only match my six all was good. That was until we came to the 6th hole.

It is a bit of a terror hole for me at the best of time. There is nothing to it in theory.

Nothing to it!

Just a simple 178 yard par 3. However with out of bounds adjacent to the right and to the left it needs a straight shot. ( What Derek produced just wasn't fair. He hooked his tee shot and it was going left of the path in the photo. It hit a tree, ricocheted onto the green and finished ten feet from the cup. I was faced with having to hit the target to be in with a shout. I am pleased to say I trusted my swing (that should please Rhys my teaching pro) and put my hybrid on the green some seventeen feet away. My putt was good and I made par. Derek however decided to make the most of Dame Fortune and stuffed the putt in for a birdie. Three down and in big trouble. He wasn't finished playing games yet either.

I made a mess of the seventh. Fortunately nobody played it well and so Colin was able to make a half and keep the deficit at three. Allan had been playing well in the conditions and had been the lynch pin of the Maidenhead lead. He found the target at the short par three 8th and when The Major put his ball in sand I knew I had to hit another green. I played it well and was inside Allan's ball. His putt never had a chance to go in but I liked the look of my left to right six footer and rattled it in at a good pace for a birdie. Back to two down.

The ninth was halved and so we headed out onto the back nine. The rain was still coming down. It wasn't heavy but just a continual light sprinkling. To be honest the wind was more of a nuisance. My drive at the 10th was pulled left into the rough and I had to play out and lay up. Allan was on the front edge but Derek and Colin mis-hit their second shots and were both around 100 yards away. The Major duffed his, I came up short onto the front edge. Derek hit his shot which landed softly on the front of the green and merrily trundled along for a few paces and dived straight into the hole for a birdie. You can't play against that. Three down and only eight holes left.

I should have won the par three 11th. Everyone missed the green. I pitched to fifteen feet and hit the putt perfectly. It hit the back of the cup, jumped up and stayed out. If you were being pedantic you could argue that the pace was too hard but I thought it was good all the way. Another half and three down with seven left. Time was running out.

The course was beginning to struggle in places, particularly the back nine. It has always been the wetter of the two nines but the club have spent a lot of time and money improving drainage and it does play so much better than it did and to be honest, there were other courses in the area in far worse condition and struggling to remain open so it's a testament to the green staff and the club for their efforts.

Wet in places, the course stood up to the elements remarkably well

I won the 12th thanks to a nett par. Once Allen had hit a bad tee shot right of the trees that line the fairway he was never going to make a par. His partner had a bad hole and Colin struggled. To be honest I was virtually last man standing. Back to two down. Two became one at the 13th when I was the only one to find the green and despite a long and treacherous downhill part managed to make par.

My wingman was there for me at the next and somehow found a way to make a half. I had pushed my tee shot well wide of the target towards the thirteenth tee. I made a bad decision and should have played for a five as no-one was in position to hit the green in regulation. Instead I went for glory and came a cropper as I sent my ball right into the environmental area and took myself out of play. I really need to find a way to stop these unforced errors as they are occurring far too often especially in competitions. Still no damage done and one down and four to play.

The American golf commentators have a word I hate but is apt. Bouncebackability. The ability to make a hash of one hole and then play the next well. That is what I did. The par 5 15th is only 478 yards and was playing down wind. I blasted a drive dead centre and then took the five wood out. I've no idea why as it wasn't enough club to get home and all it did was bring the large bunker fifty yards short of the green into play. I duly obliged, hit it sweet and stuck it in sand. With Allan on the edge of the green in regulation I needed to produce. It came out great and made the front of the green. However I charged my first putt six feet past and opened the door to the opposition. However Allan hit a poor first putt and his par putt missed. I was left with a tough downhill effort to win the hole. I was actually quite nervous over the ball but the stroke was solid. All square.

Both The Major and I contrived to throw the 16th away in various ways. I was out of position off the tee, played a good recovery but was left facing a tough third shot from 157 yards into a stiffening breeze. I hit a really good five iron which held its line despite the effort of the wind to nudge it offline. However faced with a thirty foot putt I made a feeble effort, three putted and chucked it away.

By the time we reached the penultimate hole, a 218 yard par 3, the wind was gusting and the rain had become much steadier. The opposition both came up well short. I hit a fantastic three wood given the conditions and the context of the game but even that wasn't enough to get home. Allan pitched to six feet. Having had real chipping issues in the early holes and given the fragility of my short game anyway this was a tough shot. I didn't hit it great but it got onto the green and ran it some nine feet away. It was head to head. Allan and I. The putter was working and I drained the putt. Big pressure on my opponent but huge credit to him as he nailed his repost to make his par and halve the hole. Dormie one down.

The Major and Derek were both in trouble off the tee and effectively out of the hole. Allan had played first and put a good drive into play. I knew I had to make par to stand any chance and once Colin was in trouble knew it was all on my shoulders. I ripped one down there. Allan carved his second to the par five right into heavy rough and the door swung open. I put another fine swing on a five wood and blasted it down the left side of the fairway into prime position. By the time Allan had played several shots out of the rough all I needed to do was make sure I kept the ball well left of the greenside pond and find the putting surface. I hit it heavy but it was dry and I two putted to make par and secure a half.

It had been a great match and I was really pleased with the way I swung the club especially on the back nine under pressure. Apart from one poor swing on the 14th I hit it great. Given the conditions I was striking it very nicely and I just need to get the short game to fire properly to be totally happy with the state of my game. I was particularly happy with the way I was able to produce some key shots when it mattered and hope it is indicative of the new found faith in the one plane swing and that it is destined to stand up when required. I liked the way I hung tough and dug out some wins on some of the trickier holes coming home.

 I can't say our half was pivotal but it at least went some way to helping Royal Ascot record a narrow 3-2 win. I think everyone enjoyed it and in the end the conditions weren't too brutal and the course remained playable without it becoming farcical or a lottery. Having woken up today to gale force winds and driving rain I'm pleased to say my faith in the TV weather forecast has been restored. It was every bit as miserable as they predicted and even a golfaholic like me wasn't prepared to go out and practise in that. There's always tomorrow.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Club Membership - What Does It Take?

It's about that time of the year again when a lot of club members are asked for their annual membership subscriptions. Until recently, being a member of a club involved a lengthy process, including sitting on waiting lists until a space became available. Even when that happened it was a case of an interview, usually having to be proposed and often seconded before being allowed through the doors. The club would then ask for a hefty joining fee on top of the first year's subscriptions and so it became an costly process to get in.

These days, things are changing. Many clubs have accepted that to remain viable and keep membership numbers sufficiently topped up, the traditional methods of recruiting new blood has had to change. A lot have ditched joining fees altogether. Those that have retained them, seem happy to do so in the comfort that they offer something that new members are prepared to pay for the privilege of joining. In doing so, the requisite to keep the numbers topped up is diminished and they are comfortable that once in, members will remain loyal for many years.

However, for many more clubs this isn't so. There simply isn't the loyalty to one club that existed twenty or thirty years ago where golfers would join and stay there for the majority of their golfing life. Membership is much more transient these days and golfers are far more nomadic in getting their weekly fix. They tend to sniff out the best membership deals, sign up for a year and then move on to the next best thing. It isn't a case of membership for life anymore.

It's a tough time for clubs trying to attract new members - and getting them to stay

This is why ditching the joining fee for many clubs was necessary to attract this type of player in the first place. Having attracted a new member in what makes a club a good proposition and what do they need to provide to entice the member to put down roots and stay for more than a year or two at a time. For me the biggest single draw is the course itself. It has to be a combination of many things but the absolute core fundamental is that it has to be in good condition, particularly the greens and tee boxes.

There are a number of local clubs, both pay and play and private members that charge fair chunks of money per annum but which I'd personally never join as the condition of the course isn't on a par with the outlay they are asking for. That might sound hypocritical as my own club Royal Ascot has been fighting a battle with their own greens over the last two years. They were in very poor condition with moss and disease and didn't improve much last season. However with the appointment of a new head green keeper things are starting to turn around and it has persuaded me to give it at least twelve months to see the outcome before re-considering my own position.

Aside from the greens, my course usually looks pretty good throughout the year, even in Winter. Temporary greens are kept to a minimum. They never use mats and the bunkering and tee boxes are now in good order. This brings me on to the next essential criteria. The course must present a challenge. If you take the assumption that a member will play at least once a week to make their subs worthwhile, then that is at least 40-50 round per year. If the course is bland, open and doesn't present the golfer with something to make them think, isn't it going to become humdrum very quickly? Places where you can spray it fifty yards offline onto adjacent fairways and still have a shot represent no challenge. I prefer somewhere where the drive is key, but the big dog isn't always the go to club and that a degree of thought is required to put the ball in A1 position. Throw in some strategic bunkering, well placed rough which doesn't have to be knee deep to be penal and some subtle greens and you have a recipe for a course that will set a tough test time and time again. Of course, if the view as you stroll around is pleasant too, with plenty of flora and fauna then even a bad round can still be "enjoyed" in wonderful surroundings. I was at Woburn a few weeks back and had a tough time around the Dukes course. However it mattered not a jot as the scenery and the course layout made it an enjoyable experience even if the golf didn't live up to expectations.

So we've found a course we enjoy and the price is right. What other boxes need to be ticked to sign the cheque. For my money, the next thing is the atmosphere and the members. I'm planning to spend a lot of time at the club and I want an atmosphere I feel comfortable in. I don't want a long list of do's and don'ts and looking over my shoulder all the time less I violate a dress code rule or sit in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm sure everyone has a tale to tell of being at a club and being pulled up over some archaic rule or because the socks were an inch too short to go with the shorts they were wearing on the course.

I want my 19th to be a combination of a friendly watering hole to dish out post round banter and perhaps enjoy a beverage and food whilst retaining a modicum of formality, especially on those occasions associated with being a member such as Captains Day, presentation night, club matches etc where formality (jacket and tie) is an integral part of proceedings. Above all else though I want to get along with fellow members and enjoy their company on and off the course. To that end, our competitions are drawn and so it is a great way for the new members to get to meet other members on a regular basis. The club also has informal roll ups throughout the week which are open to all and are the ideal way for getting a game. Royal Ascot even holds a new members social evening once every few months where those that have joined can meet the captain and committee and their fellow newbies and its a great way for them to arrange games and feel part of the place from the outset.

If I'm handing over the cash I want the club to meet my expectations - it's a lot of money per annum and has to be right
So we have a decent course, friendly members and a welcoming environment. Is that enough or do we need to be getting more for our bucks? In my book yes. I need to be able to play when I want. Many clubs operate a booking system and for the most part these work perfectly well. However, what happens if you get out of work early or fancy a round after work? It can be hard at the height of the season to get a game, more so if you are part of a municipal where the balance between the needs of members and the paying public is a constant balancing act. At Royal Ascot members can basically roll up and go out. The only exception to this is when there is a competition on and the tee is reserved but as these are published in advance there really isn't an excuse not to know. For convenience alone, this has to be worth several hundred pounds worth of my annual fee. I can rock up after work, early on a summer morning, or late on a Sunday afternoon, put my shoes on and go off. I've no qualms about clubs that operate a booking system. If there was the ability to get my name down at times to suit regularly, and not block booked by mates of mates, then it wouldn't put me off a new club providing parts one and two of my criteria, the course and the members/atmosphere were met. I guess it comes down to finding something that works for you.

The next thing I need are regular competitions where I can put my game and handicap on the line. I've been a member of clubs where booked tee times were required and that on competition days, people would queue for hours in advance to put their name and those of their mates down on the sheet. This meant as a newbie trying to break into this and get a competitive game was a nightmare. I know from comments by some on the Golf Monthly forum that things in some clubs haven't really moved on and that is sad. However for the most part the majority of courses that run club competitions, whether drawn, roll up or booked do allow new members in (subject to obtaining a valid handicap of course) and that is great. I couldn't join somewhere and not play the medal or stableford on an ongoing or regular basis. It is these card and pencil rounds that really test your golfing ability and there is something uniquely satisfying about coming into the 19th hole knowing you've beaten your handicap even if it isn't sufficient to win.

Are we there yet? Probably for many that is all they need or look for. However I'd add another couple of ingredients into the mix. Call me pedantic or fussy but if I'm shelling out it has to be what I want. The club has to be local. I can't see the point in sitting in traffic or driving more than 30 minutes to a course, no matter how good the layout or welcoming the reception. If I want to get out for a game after work it has to be somewhere I can get to in the midst of the rush hour and it should be somewhere I can get out of my car at the weekend and not feel tired or stiff from the journey. For many, there may be a choice of several clubs within a decent radius that doesn't make travelling an issue. I'm the same and for me, it then comes back to the other criteria to formulate some kind of shortlist.

There is one other aspect I'd like my prospective club to have. For a lot of players it is meaningless or merely a nice to have but for me it is important. It has to have decent practice facilities. As regular followers to Homer's Odyssey will know I'm something of an addict and if I'm not playing then I'm tinkering with my game. As a result I'd like a nice practice ground, ideally with a dedicated short game area and putting green. The bare essentials would have to be a putting green and somewhere I could work on the short game especially the chipping. If there wasn't a practice ground there are local ranges that would suffice but nothing beats warming up properly before a round. Good practice facilities should be seen as an asset. The more a member is up at the club working on their game the more opportunity for them to spend money either in the pro shop or behind the bar. That is definitely it for me. Perhaps it is asking too much in this day and age but I believe in demanding value for money and a four figure sum every year is a big outlay and so the club I join has to work hard to get my money.

I can't see an end to the current trend of golfers only taking up short term stays at any one particular club, and that means golf clubs are having to find new and ingenious ways to attract membership. My club, along with a growing number, offer open days which give prospective members a chance to look the joint over, meet key figures and play nine holes. Many are using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to promote themselves. Others are looking at spreading the cost via direct debit each month, adding incentives and generally sweetening the pill. The main method seems to be offering age related brackets offering a decreasing amount of discount as you get older. Is it enough though and once you fall out of one bracket would you look elsewhere and merely compare price?

Do golfers these days really care that much about the course especially if they are only going to be there a year or two at most. As long as they can get out and play regularly are they prepared to accept niggly issues like bobbly greens knowing that they are on the move soon. If they don't care about the state of the course then would they worry too much about the clubhouse either? I've noticed this year already there are more and more faces about the place I don't recognise and so the positive is that we are still getting new members through the door. The trick I guess is making sure they stay. It's a problem everywhere and one I don't think has a simple answer other than offering a decent facility at a reasonable price although how a club does that and balances the books is another matter.

And there you have it, my shopping list of requirements for joining a club. Too many items for many, perhaps not enough for some. To be honest I've no intention of jumping ship anytime soon especially as my course does look to be coming back to its best and the greens are improving. I've been settled for seven years now and Royal Ascot really does tick everything on my wish list. If you are looking for a new home and are in the vicinity, you could do a lot worse. If not, I hope that you find somewhere that makes you happy and that your golf is enjoyable, your handicap drops and you enjoy the camaraderie that membership brings.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Arc Of The Curve

"It's a funny old game" as one TV pundit regularly remarked. It certainly is. It never ceases to amaze me how golf has the capacity to change your whole mood dependant on what has gone before. Or is it just that I'm hopelessly addicted? Play badly or have a bad range session and the mood can be darker than the rain clouds we've endured this week. Have a good round or a range session where you are smacking it straight for fun and you radiate positivity and feel several inches taller.

Last night was a return to the range to work on the swing after the progress of the short game at the weekend. I'd neglected it last week as the chipping went into meltdown but it had been behaving of late and I wanted to keep it running like a well serviced engine. In truth, I always find it really hard after the working day to get into it mentally. I'm usually tired, if not physically then from the joys of an NHS profession and the vagaries of a daily commute. Even the venue, Blue Mountain Golf Centre in Bracknell isn't that inspiring. The mats are adequate as are the balls. It's the range itself. It's basically a large field with no distance markers and only a handful of targets to aim at. However it is convenient.
It felt kind of weird swinging fully again after so many hours invested in a chipping action. The initial results were interesting and I was "directionally challenged" with shots going left and right, and definitely not straight. So it was back to basics and ball by ball I regained control of the swing and in particular the club head. For a first session in a while I was very pleased. If I was being critical there were too many that were pulled or pushed a fraction and would inevitably have missed the green but the quality of the strike itself and the swing I put on the shot were exactly what I was looking for. These pushes and pulls weren't bad shots in themselves and would only have missed by a matter of feet, but a miss is a miss. It's good to be exact and demanding in practice and not accept second best.

So what can I say? Patience is key. Too many negative vibes and negative views creeping in. Perhaps understandable given the insipid last six months of 2011 I endured on the course where the 0.1 handicap rises kept on coming, the golf, even socially began to be a chore and the lessons didn't seem to fix the ailments. A change of teacher, total overhaul of the swing to a one plane model, or my interpretation thereof have really helped. It isn't quite right but functional and getting better all the time. Suddenly I'm riding the arc of a curve of positivity again. I've come further in terms of ball striking in the few months since Christmas than perhaps at any time in the last few years.

I don't begin to think that one good short game session and one good range session make a good score in the next round a foregone conclusion. However I do think I can stand on the first tee with a certain air of optimism and belief and that second word in particular is key. If you think you can, not just in golf but in most things in life, then usually you will. 2012 is going to be a glass half full type of year. Yes there will be low points and disappointments, but it's how I deal with these and bounce back that will go some way to driving on to single figures. Suddenly I don't feel as tired. Bring on the next session. Bring on the next game. Bring it all on.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Crisis? What Crisis?

If you have been following Homer's Odyssey, you'll know that its been a bit of a curates egg of late. There has been an outstanding performance in one of Royal Ascot's most prestigious events, the Haig Cup where I finished a gallant second. In six of the last seven years my score would have been more than adequate to have secured victory but I was blown out of the water by the eventual winner shooting his lowest ever score and recording a second round total that eclipsed my two round combined tally on its own. Add in his excellent first round and he cantered home. However since then, the short game, fragile at best, has gone into a frightening decline. I guess no-one said the pursuit of single figures was ever going to be easy.

I spent most of last week chasing that elusive chipping action that didn't result in a fatal duff two yards in front of me or the equally damaging skull through the green. Try as I might, I couldn't find anything despite using training aids like the V-Easy. Fortunately as it happened I was unable to play in the monthly medal on Saturday. I'm pretty sure it would have been carnage on the scorecard and that I wouldn't have been able to play with any freedom. There would have been intense pressure to hit every green to avoid the necessity to chip the ball. Heaven forbid that the lie around the green was bare or tricky.

I didn't play yesterday either. I didn't have the mojo and let's be honest the weather was hardly conducive. Instead I opted to hit the chipping area and stay there until my soul and spirit was crushed or I found success, whichever came sooner. It was a bit of a pain as every time I started to find a groove the heavens would open and rapid adjournment to the sanctuary of the clubhouse was required. Eventually the sun came out and I could get down to some serious work.

I'm sure what I have is far from textbook but it seems to work (for now). I asked my wife to come up after about an hour record a few to try and shed some light on what was happening. I promise these are the first two shots we filmed. Perhaps she needs to be on my bag or following me around more often.

Even shots to longer pins were better as this shot shows.

Even from side on it looks pretty connected and free flowing and a world away from the angst and heartache I'd endured all week. I think I need to get the weight even more onto the left hand side to promote a steeper, descending blow which would stop what seems to be too high a finish. I'm sure this low to high swing has led to some of the scooping action I've been suffering and probably the loss of connection in the arms.

However, I have made no bones that this really is my Achilles heel and it is the one are that is really holding me back. I'm working hard to improve and a lot of the practise this season will be focused on this. I'm going to go back to Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Centre once I've something that repeats and I can rely on. He is going to look at visualisation, shot selection and the mental side of things. He feels, and I agree with him, that the less I can focus on the execution and more on getting the ball to land where I want rather than worrying about the nuts and bolts on how to get it there, things will become a lot easier. As he rightly points out, you don't consciously think about how you throw a ball, you just do it. This should be no different.

In the end, success came long before the loss of my willpower or the elements threw in an unwanted abandonment. I got out of it all that I wanted and it's amazing how much one good session can do for the soul and your sense of well being. Suddenly everything seems that little bit rosier in Homer's world. I'm not going to get too carried away. The long game needs some nurturing this week to keep the decent swing I've had ticking over. The more I can keep chipping away (sic) at the short game and getting what I have to repeat and fill me with a warm comforting feeling that it won't let me down, then the more confident I can be in my game. Confidence breeds on success. I've proved I can do it not only in the Haig Cup but at the Golf Monthly event at Woburn (despite being ill) where I finished 3rd in the morning event. Take the knowledge that I can actually chip out on the course and let the game flow. The scores will come and the handicap cuts will take care of themselves. The quest for silverware and that elusive single figure handicap is ongoing and on track. In fact you could argue that with the final piece of the jigsaw in place now, I'm armed and ready.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Crazy About Coulsdon

I've already introduced you to Sandown Park Golf Centre, located in the middle of the famous racecourse. It was here that I took my first steps on the this golfing pathway with a week of lessons as a ten year old in the Summer of 76 ( Now I'd like to take you to Coulsdon Court Golf Club, the scene of my first ever eighteen hole round with my dear old dad, sadly no longer around to give his version of events. I did a piece some time ago that summed up nicely what it meant play with him (

The course was built in the early 1920's on the grounds of Byron's house. At the time the course was commissioned the house and grounds were owned by the Cearne Family and they decided to build a private course which was designed by Harry S Colt. It was leased to Croydon Council in the 1930s on the provision it was always kept as a Public Course. Formed in 1938 Coulsdon Court was established to provide golf for those who wanted to join a club and enjoy the company of fellow golfers. Here are some interesting facts about the place:

The course used to have 365 bunkers on it - 1 for each day of the year
Over 150 different types of tree exist on the course - Byron used to bring cuttings back from his travels around Europe
No bombs were dropped on the course during the second world war despite heavy raids on Croydon
Coulsdon Court had the first golf buggy in England.

Coulsdon Court possesses the cardinal virtues of situation and accessibility. The course is laid out on the plateau that tops the midmost of the ridges which run out towards Purley from the North Downs and standing 500 feet above sea level. It commands an immense stretch of hill and dale from the fringes of London on the North to Caterham Valley on the south. By road it is something like fourteen miles from Hyde Park Corner. From the 9th Green spectacular views over London are possible with all the major city buildings being clearly visible.

Standing there with the whole course before me I had butterflies in my stomach and for a moment I didn't want to play. What if I made a fool of myself or couldn't do it. I'd been progressing well on the range and the par 3 course at Sandown Park but this was something completely different. As a kid, everything just seemed so big. The holes seemed so long, the bunkers looked massive and there were trees everywhere. This is how the Coulsdon Court website describes the first hole:

"The first hole offers a relatively easy introduction to Coulsdon Court. The drive should leave you a short iron into the green but if you hook the drive there is trouble with a bunker or for the longer hitters trees on your left. A slice, although putting you into the well spaced trees on the right, should still give you a shot into the green unless you are really unlucky. Your second short iron is into a green protected by bunkers both left and right and sloping severely from back to front. Many a new player has seen his ball rush several feet past when putting from above the hole".

The 1st at Coulsdon Court... and so the golfing journey began
Let me tell you that for the first proper golfing shot this was no easy introduction and in my own tiny world was on a par with any opening drive in the last round of a major or the first shot of a Ryder Cup. The swing wasn't a thing of beauty but I did manage to get it away. To be honest the finer details of that inaugural round have disappeared in the sands of time. It seemed to be over in a flash even though it consisted of 130 odd blows and any number of lost balls. I have no idea what my dad scored or how well he played although we would reminisce about it for years to come, usually over a pint or two somewhere.

A number of things struck me. How easy it seemed to be to get a game. Oh the naivety of youth. Yes it is a pay and play but I'm sure knowing what I know now that my dad had the devils own job trying to get us on at 4.00pm on a Saturday afternoon. In my mind we just jumped in the car, turned up, gave the nice man in the shop our money and toddled off.

Golf courses are very long. Although Coulsdon Court isn't long at around 6,100 odd yards as a kid it seemed to go on and on. Some of the par 5's, especially when you aren't moving it very far with each shot seemed to go on for ever. I still get that feeling now when my game is off.

Proper greens are very hard. I'd only played on pitch and putt and par three courses and neither of these had greens that you'd describe as well kept. Suddenly here I was on a putting surface where the ball didn't jump about. Not only were they much bigger than anything I'd come across but they were also a world away from what I was use to. Speed was mind blowing. OK maybe not, but as a ten year old kid these seemed to run like Augusta. They were so hard. I wasn't use to huge borrows and breaks and so to be honest once I eventually got to each green putting was a new world altogether and very much a lottery. Again, not much has changed in the last thirty odd years and putting can still be an alien concept.

It may not have the cachet of a big name course and may be seem by many as just a pay and play but to me this first round at Coulsdon Court was my bit of golfing nirvana. My dad and played there regularly each summer for a couple of years but I've not been back since. It would be nice to wander back there at some point and have a game and reminisce about a time when it never rained in summer, golf wasn't played in the head and a bad shot wasn't the end of the world. Where did it all change?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Phil Silvers And A Morris Minor

In the normal scheme of things I'm a great believer in the old adage "you only get out what you put in." However my faith in this is being sorely tested by the ongoing battle, mind over matter almost, that is my short game. I spent another 90 minutes last night in a biting wind looking for a swing that worked consistently. It is in there and I've gone through the ABC checklist (address, ball position and confidence in what I'm doing) and to be honest it feels right over the ball. It's what happens next that's the issue. Let me make one thing perfectly clear though. Whilst it is still a mess, it is still fundamentally better than before I had my chipping lesson a couple of months ago. The issue is it isn't reliable enough yet. Until I get that I can't refine it to something that is akin to a single figure player which is still the driving aim.

I've had problems keeping it all connected before, particularly the right arm and turning through impact. The right arm tends to get loose and in the old chicken wing position and the swing tends to be all arms and not a crisp turn with the torso through impact. The issue isn't so bad when the shot is 20-30 yards and I have room to make a confident swing and turn. As the distance becomes shorter, the stroke becomes quicker and jerkier. Things get loose and it's a horrible mess.
It was brought to my attention by a local PGA pro whilst practicing at the weekend that the backswing was very rigid with the wrists stiff and firm and that the swing path was very much on the inside. We spent a little time trying to get the club going back on a straighter path and letting the wrists hinge naturally and making a good turn. The question is why could I do it under his gaze and it click into place so readily with the ball popping up and landing at will. Left alone to my own devices last night I was more Phil Silvers than Phil Mickleson.

My gut feeling is there was way too much going on in my little golfing brain and it had reached overload. Keep the right arm connected, wrist hinge, keep the swing short and crisp, tempo, turn, landing area and follow through. Strangely enough when the wife turned up to see where I was (I promised I'd only be an hour) and we just stood there and chipped and chatted there was suddenly a release and freedom and some of the results were better. Clearly there has to be some correlation. The problem harks back to that word that has been absent throughout my game for so long - TRUST. I have it in spades on the long swing with all the work I've put in since Christmas and have it in the bunkers now following my recent lesson. Why can't I get it with the short game and chipping and why can't I find a stripped back and simple technique.

I look at my partners most weekend and all of them, even guys off much higher handicaps, manage to make it look so easy. There's me, a head full of chocolate frogs and producing something short and stabby or too long and floppy. Where is that compact crisp strike others find so easy to master? I need to empty my head on the first tee. I can do it. The Easter weekend success proved that. It just needs refining and I'm prepared to suffer a few nights like last night to build something solid and reliable.

Maybe it's as simple as getting use to a different swing path and keeping it working as one unit and just needs bedding in. Maybe the ravages of a hectic day and train cancellations got into my psyche and it was just a poor session. Maybe, like the long game you need the odd bad one to reiterate the process and make you enjoy the good ones. Maybe.
The plan for the rest of the week was to give the long game a tune up as it was mis-firing last weekend. I think it was just a blip as there was some good stuff at times but I wanted to get it back purring like a finely tuned Rolls Royce engine. It was more Morris Minor but I know the problem and the fix. However it's the weather that may be an issue. Heavy showers I can cope with, even blowing straight into the bay. It is the gusty, strong winds that will be an issue. Range balls are notoriously unstable at the best of times but trying to hit them in the wind can lead to some erratic ball flight and it can be hard to decipher poor shot from wind affected. If it does hose it down and blow a hoolie I'll stand there and chip. Not ideal off a mat but needs must. Let's make no bones about it, there is huge room for improvement but it is getting better. Perhaps not as quickly as I'd like but the work won't stop. Practice makes permanent providing it is done with a purpose and done properly. You DO only get out what you put in so my rewards can't be far away.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Feeling Nothing

Well after the highs of last weekend it was back to the relative sanity of the Saturday morning roll up. These are just as competitive in their own right as any honours board event but a chance to enjoy some golf in good company without the score being the be all and end all. Just as well really. I woke up dog tired and feeling below par and to be truthful stood on the first tee without a golfing thought in my head. In fact barely a thought at all. It was like being on auto-pilot.

That's the problem with this working for a living lark. It does tend to get in the way of important matters like golf. Yes, this week, and yesterday in particular, had been challenging in work but I always look forward to my roll up games. Today I couldn't get into it. The tone was pretty much set at the 1st. A good drive just short of the green was followed by a good chip and run to within a foot. I stood over the putt and what should have been a simple tap in was a shot gone as I pushed it right. There was no focus on the stroke at all.

I did make a par save at the 3rd, but to be honest the pitch I played after missing the green right was mis-hit and thin and if the flag hadn't got in the way and stopped it stone dead it would have been off the other side of the green. And so the pattern continued. Bad hole followed good. I missed both the fairway and the green for a sloppy bogey at the 4th and then made par at the next. A poor 5 iron at the 6th cost another shot and despite hitting the fairway at the next a snap hook approach put me on the back foot again. It needed a testing four foot left to right putt to make a five (nett par). I missed the 8th green and duffed my chip. My next shot from off the edge of the green was with the relatively safe putter and I managed to get close enough to make another bogey but there was no saving shot to redeem that into a nett par. I closed the front nine with a par courtesy of a chip and putt save although the chip was somewhat lacking and it was the seven foot single putt that did all the work. Out in nineteen points and absolutely no idea what had happened for those two hours.

The second nine was much the same. A missed green on the 10th from a good position meant just a nett par when a gross one was on the cards. I hit the green at the long 178 yard par three 11th but my first putt was clumsy and left five feet to tidy up. I managed to convert but that was harder than it should have been. After that, the mind really did go on holiday. I was trying over the ball but didn't really have a swing thought or plan for any shot. It was a case of hit it and deal with the outcome.

In the end I came back in 16 points for 35 overall and only good enough in the roll up for third place. It's a tough school at the best of times but there was a large turnout today and some good scores. I have to say that I didn't enjoy my round. Nothing wrong with the company and the banter. That was as it should be. Fun and light hearted. It was my game I was unhappy with. Everything was a struggle, almost a chore. I couldn't get a tempo going, I was fighting the swing off the tee and hitting my approaches. My normally trusty putter was strangely temperamental. Perhaps it knew I'd been looking at my old Odyssey White Ice #9 and thinking about giving that a run out as it responds better to quicker greens and I wanted to get a feel for it before they really started to speed up.

I'm not playing tomorrow. Family duty and all that jazz but will be back out there working on the short game. Yes the swing was wonky. Yes the putter was lukewarm and yes I chipped poorly. I trust my long game and I trust the direction it is going in. My putting has been sound and is one area that I'm not worried about. That leave the short game. It is getting there but it isn't good and it isn't reliable. Everything need to be focused into this area of the game. I love trying different shots from different lies so it isn't that I'm shying away from the challenge. I have just not found a technique I can hone and I can't always clear the mental fog and get too hung up on the why and how instead of the end result. Like everything in my game right now though it is getting better. I'll put a few hours in tomorrow and see where it takes me. Worse case scenario my teacher Rhys will get that call and we'll go back and look at it again. It'll come

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Perfect Partners

Forty years ago today the first drive of The European Tour was struck when the 1972 Open de España got under way on April 12. Here are a few stats highlights from the last four decades (courtesy of the European Tour website)

Open de España - began April 12, 1972, played at Pals Golf Club and won by Antonio Garrido, beating Valentin Barrios in a play-off





€ 1,732,068,862




50- Seve Ballesteros

8 – Colin Montgomerie

706 - Sam Torrance

€27,275,465 - Lee Westwood

17 years and 188 days - Matteo Manassero - 2010 CASTELLÓ MASTERS Costa Azahar

48 years and 34 days - Des Smyth - 2001 Madeira Islands Open

2007 Estoril Open de Portugal - Pablo Martin
2009 - Johnnie Walker Classic - Danny Lee
2009 - 3 Irish Open - Shane Lowry

Antonio/Igancio Garrido
Craig/Kevin Stadler
José Maria/Alejandro Cañizares

Antonio/German Garrido
Seve/Manuel Ballesteros
Edoardo/Francesco Molinari

82 - Ernie Els

183 - Colin Montgomerie

510 - Sam Torrance

258 (-18) - Ian Woosnam - 1990 Torras Monte Carlo Open
258 (-14) - David Llewellyn - 1988 AGF Biarritz Open

259 (-29) - Ernie Els - 2003 Johnnie Walker Classic

As I got into my golf starting way back in that sultry summer of '76, there seemed to be an increasing amount of the sport televised, mainly on the BBC. I can remember golf forming an integral of the Grandstand schedule in the summer months and watching a host of top players of the day in the company of Peter Alliss and Alex Hay. The coverage brought many magical moments but my personal highlight was Bernhard Langer playing his shot from an ash tree by the 17th green in the 1981 Benson & Hedges Championship at Fulford near York.

Sadly though, golf has diminished on the BBC and we are left with meagre scraps these days. The European Tour meanwhile has grown and grown from its own humble beginnings and is venturing ever further afield. Fortunately for the avid viewer, the baton has been picked up by Sky who have covered more and more events over the years. Their coverage, particularly in majors, WGC events and the Ryder Cup has continued to not only extend but embrace the new technologies available. Whilst I miss the cosy feeling of the late 70's and 80's that the BBC coverage gave, it has been abundantly clear that live sport coverage and especially one as complex and schedule consuming as golf is no longer high on the list of priorities at the Corporation.

As someone who appreciates being able to switch the TV on when he comes back from his own golfing exploits to see the European finest plying their trade anywhere from Vienna to New Delhi the recent news that Sky and the European Tour have signed a deal for another six years worth of coverage and next three Ryder Cups is fantastic news. Sky Sports began showing live European Tour golf in 1993 when it screened less than 60 hours of coverage from five tournaments. This year, the broadcaster will broadcast more than 4,400 hours of golf programming from more than 200 tournaments worldwide featuring not only the European Tour, but Seniors events on both sides of the Atlantic, and ladies golf from both the European and US Tours. The deal will take the partnership between Sky Sports and the European Tour into its 25th year, a relationship that has witnessed a huge increase in events, prize money and countries visited, while the Ryder Cup has become one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

The new contract provides Sky Sports with TV, mobile, online and tablet rights for:
RYDER CUP - Exclusive live coverage of three Ryder Cups: Gleneagles in 2014, Minnesota in 2016 and Paris in 2018. The 2012 Ryder Cup from Medinah will also be live on Sky Sports as part of the existing deal.

EUROPEAN TOUR - A minimum of 28 events from the Race to Dubai and exclusive live coverage of all four World Golf Championship events: the Accenture Matchplay Championship, Cadillac Championship, Bridgestone Invitational in the USA and HSBC Champions tournament in China.

Barney Francis, Managing Director of Sky Sports, said: "Our viewers have seen the growth of the Tour, the rise of the Ryder Cup and European golfers on top of the world rankings. Now they can be promised even more. "This new deal brings three more Ryder Cups, more exclusive tournaments and six more years of golf right through the calendar - all in HD, online and through mobile devices. "We have a valuable partnership with the European Tour; they have the events our viewers want to see and we have enjoyed the European Tour's continued growth. We now look forward to taking this relationship well into its second decade."

George O'Grady, Chief Executive of the European Tour, added: "We are delighted to extend our already tremendously successful agreement with Sky Sports for another six years, including three Ryder Cup matches. "We commend Sky for their pioneering and innovative technological advancements during the term of our previous agreements, embracing the move into High Definition coverage of the whole of the Tour and, for the first time ever, the development of groundbreaking 3D transmission of The Ryder Cup. Our television supporters have benefited from seeing virtually every shot played in this unique match.

"The Tour has unquestionably benefited from this outstanding commitment over those previous agreements, during which time we have seen so much new talent emerge from all the countries that we visit. We are pleased to announce this agreement when the top three in the Official World Golf Ranking are all European Tour members representing Sky's home territory of GB and Ireland."

Like all things, time moves on. Gone are the days of pastel coloured jumpers, check trousers (unless you are Ian Poulter) and large hair which seemed etched in my memory bank watching the golf. Some of the tour stars of the day such as Robert Lee, Howard Clark and Wayne Riley have all found careers in the media both on TV and the written word and so can offer their own unique perspective. Clearly the home viewer has never had it so good, but is there a possibility of the coverage reaching saturation point. Indeed, is there now an argument that there is so much golf worldwide that it deserves its own dedicated channel in the same way Formula 1 has on Sky. Golf is almost a fifty two week per year phenomenon with an event somewhere in the world most weeks. I'm sure they would be able to produce a raft of programmes, educational, instructional and entertaining to fill the slots in between.

We were perhaps spoilt a few years ago with such a dedicated channel on the ill fated Setanta platform. It seems to function well in the US with Golf Channel a big leader in coverage and as an entertainment source in its own right. Such features as the recent Masters Breakfast Show on Sky show that with careful thought and planning, a highlight package can be so much more than rehashed clips. Add in some detailed instructional shows for the millions of weekend players, perhaps reinventing shows like "Big Break" and maybe travel features and I feel Sky are on to a winner. Build it and they shall come.

The European Tour also has a TV presence with its own show, European Tour Weekly. There has to be an opportunity for both Sky and the Tour hierarchy to get together and make programmes to develop the European Tour profile, perhaps taking some of the features that are crammed into the thirty minute ETW slot and making them dedicated programmes for scheduling on the stand alone Sky Golf Channel should it come to fruition. Of course this all comes down to economics, not only in terms of cash but of scale and I'm sure Sky and the Tour have looked at the prospect of a dedicated channel. In the meantime, it seems that the viewer will have to make do with just the 4400 hours of coverage and 200 events per year flashed through to our living rooms. Tough I know but I'm sure I'll cope somehow.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Too Good To Be True

Well the results have been announced and we've weighed in to use racing parlance and sadly, despite my best efforts I've been relegated into second place in the Haig Cup at Royal Ascot Golf Club. I had a sterling first round in the event which is a bogey competition played over the Easter break. Players have to play two rounds but can choose which of the four days they go out on. I started on Good Friday and did really well to finish +3 for the round and lay second going into my next round on Easter Saturday with the clubhouse leader one ahead on +4.

It had been a decent round, particularly in terms of my short game, so often a weak link. Four consecutive up and downs to salvage par from the 9th through to the 12th which included two consecutive sand saves from greenside bunkers at 11 and 12 are testament to the renewed belief my teaching professional Rhys ap Iolo has installed and the dedication and hard work I've put in to try and get a modicum of consistency. It is still a long way from the finished article and still way too flaky under pressure but those four saved shots really made the first round score.

If that was good, my second round was superb. I set a personal best score in competition play going round the front nine level par gross with a birdie at the par five 2nd and the tough (stroke index 2) 7th hole offset by a careless bogey at the 6th where I pulled a nine iron left and at the 8th where my seven iron into the short par three was too greedy and although it pitched four feet from the flag there was no room to stop it on that portion of the green. It rolled off and I was left with tricky chip back which didn't really leave me in a position to make the par putt.

The back nine was a case of getting in my own way mentally and the realisation that I was well and truly in the mix. I need to work a lot more with Rhys this season on the mental side, developing a pre-shot routine and making sure it is the same in terms of the amount of time I take on every shot. If I can stay in the moment and not wander forward two or three holes, the next time I contend should be easier.

The closing holes of the second round were cases in point. I took a five wood at the par five 15th and blocked it way right towards the 16th tee to meekly lose the hole when a six iron and a wedge onto the green would have sufficed. I hit the green at the 16th after a tight and steered drive (definitely anti out of bounds left). Although it was a long, forty foot effort, length and line were way out. I hit the 17th with a good bad un and then three putted from twenty feet. Those two halved holes I thought might have a bearing.

In the end I got a handicap cut for my efforts from 13.3 to 12.0 so it isn't all bad. The eventual winner came in on the Sunday with a +9 second card to go alongside his +2 first effort and so cruised to a four hole win although my +7 was in turn three clear of third place. Sometimes you just have to hold you hand up and say you were beaten by a better man on the day. It is beginning to grate though. I came second at the Golf Monthly Centenary Finals at the Forest of Arden in October on countback. How cruel was that? Now I put in a performance that really vindicates the decision to swap teaching pros, encompass the one plane methodology and the leap forward in terms of a functioning short game. There are only so many times you can be the bridesmaid. I've been going on for ages that there was a good score in there. Finally I've been able to do it under pressure and not only that but I've been able to shoot low on day one and go out and improve on that on day two.

Rhys has been trying to get my swing much steeper. He has had me working on a drill with a tee placed to the left of the ball about an inch or so away and trying to focus on hitting the tee peg and the ball. I've worked on it at the range and the quality of the strike and the direction was much improved especially with the driver. That was all I had in my head on every shot. "Hit the tee peg." It was as good as I've hit it on the course in years.

Nothing left to do but reflect on what might have been, gird the loins and face the challenge of winning another event off a lower handicap figure. I can go lower still and frittered a few shots away over the two rounds. If I can align a mental fortitude with consistent shot making and striking then a handicap of 10 is definitely on the radar for 2012 and maybe even that magical single figure handicap that is a cornerstone of Homer's Odyssey. Congratulations to Mr Munk on his outstanding achievement but be warned, Homer is on a mission now. I've had a taste and I want more.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Blubba Watson

The final round at the Masters at Augusta lived up to its reputation as one of the iconic events in the sporting calendar. It was a captivating evening of twists and turns and there were times when a clutch of players must have thought they had a chance of donning the famous green jacket.

In the end, Bubba Watson emerged victorious in a tense play off against South African Louis Oosthuizen, when he managed a par at the second play off hole (the 10th) and the former Open Winner could only make a bogey five.

Bubba who? Well if you didn't know anything about the winner, here are 10 facts to help you along

1 — He was born in Bagdad. Not the one in Iraq, but the slightly less well-known Bagdad, Florida. In the 2000 census, there were fewer than 1500 residents.
2 — He's never had a golf lesson. In an era where golfers are coached, coached and then coached again, Watson is entirely self-taught. As a boy his father showed him how to hold a club, and thereafter it was all Bubba, who has also reportedly never watched a replay of his swing.

3 - He owns one of TV's iconic cars. The American spent $110,000 on his 'dream car', but eschewed the big brands to buy the General Lee from television show The Dukes of Hazzard. Now, there were plenty of General Lees, but the one there was special; called "Lee 1," it's the one that jumped the police car in "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV series' opening credits. Destroyed in the jump, it was restored in a 16-month process.

4 — He didn't care for France. In 2011 Watson warmed up for the Open by playing the French Open. The plan was to broaden his horizons and see a little of the world, but after a miserable time at the tournament, where he was frustrated by fans flouting rules about cameras, he revealed he wasn't especially impressed by Paris' sights. "I miss my home. I don't know the names of all the things, the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch (Arc de Triomphe), whatever I rode around in a circle. And then what's that - it starts with an 'L' - Louvre, something like that. One of those."

5 — He did his best to build bridges with the French. "I would never want France to think I was bad-mouthing the place," Watson said apologetically. "I didn't know how to pronounce the names the right way. They say it was disrespectful. I'm sorry for that. I didn't mean to be disrespectful. But I play golf. I'm not a history major. I didn't understand that I was the big star of the week because I don't go over there [Europe] that much. There is a lot of learning I have to do and a lot of growing up I have to do. I have to choose my words carefully. I am sorry for the words I spoke."

6 — His 6'4" wife played basketball. Angie Watson and Bubba have been together since their time at the University of Georgia, and have now been married for seven years. She played professional basketball in Europe and in the women's NBA. Not only is she literally head and shoulders above other golfing WAGs, but having retired from basketball she's now her husband's agent.

7 — He's just adopted a son. A week before the tournament, the Watsons adopted one-month old Caleb after a four-year process. Watson's commitments at the Georgia tournament meant that he has not yet had to change a nappy.

8 — He's been part of an all-golf boy band. US golfers Watson, Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan set up a boy band ahead of the 2011 US Open to record a charity single. 'Oh oh oh' was a feast for the ears, and if you don't believe me, google it, listen and decide for yourself.

9 — He talks to Justin Bieber 'almost every day.' Bubba is living the fantasy of many teenage girls, hanging out with pop prince Justin Bieber. The singer said that he counted Watson amongst his closest friends. "I talk to him almost every day," Bieber said. "He's a good guy.I'm all right at golfing, I'm not the greatest. Bubba says I'm terrible!" What Bieber thinks of 'The Golf Boys' record is unclear.

10 — And his real name... Bubba has always been known as Bubba — but his real name is Gerry. The golfer claims his father gave him the name because he was "fat and ugly" as a child.

Oosthuizen was the first to make a major move when his approach to the par five second found the front of the green and then rolled on the heavily contoured surface and eventually ran all the way to the hole and with its last breath dropped into the hole for an albatross two, only the fourth in Masters history.

Left handed Phil Mickleson was going along in steady fashion but his charge was de-railed at the par 3 4th hole where an errant tee shot hit the grandstand and ricocheted into an unplayable lie and he did well to eventually make a triple bogey six. There was a British surge to keep the UK viewers glued to their sets Flamboyant Ian Poulter mounted a late charge but ultimately started too far adrift to really influence events and petered out with a double bogey at the last. Justin Rose must really be regretting dropping four shots in the last four holes of his 3rd round as finished four under for his round. Again he came with a run but had too many shots to make up.

It was Lee Westwood that had really carried British hopes. I think a lot of golf fans were willing him to shake the "never won a major" monkey off his back and again it was a case of so near, so far. There isn't a player in golf that is playing better from tee to green but Westwood simply can't get the ball in the hole with regularity and even less so under the pressure of a final round at a major. Whether that has now become a mental problem rather than a technical one I'm hardly qualified to say. However there was a revealing statistic that said before the final round he had already had 21 putts more than Phil Mickleson.

If Westwood could have converted some of the superb birdie chances he gave himself or even holed a couple of par saves to keep his momentum going at vital times then I think he could have won the Masters with a couple of shots to spare. Alas it wasn't to be. He looked visibly upset when he was interviewed afterwards as though the realisation had struck home and although he tried to be bullish about the future and his ability to hole putts I was left wondering if he was actually trying to convince himself and not the watching public.

Local favourite, Matt Kuchar, a graduate from Georgia Tech gave the home fans a stunning run at the title, especially when he eagled the 15th to get to -9. He gave a shot back at the tricky 16th and couldn't find a birdie over the last two holes to put pressure on the leaders.

It was Bubba who was locked at the top with Oosthuizen and when he went on a run of consecutive birdies from the 13th to the 16th hole he rocketed from -6 to -10 to join the South African who had been plying his trade quietly since the second hole miracle. In the end neither could land that knockout punch and we were heading for extra holes. Fortunately for UK viewers Monday was a bank holiday and so there wasn't a need to get to bed for work in the morning. Personally I couldn't get enough of this mano vs mano action.

In the end both found trouble on the second play-off hole the 10th on the course. Oosthuizen actually found a better lie but his approach ended up some twenty yards short of the green. Watson was amongst the trees, and although his swing was un-obstructed he needed to move the ball some thirty feet left to right in the air. He hit a career shot and the spin on the ball actually took it on towards the hole. Oosthuizen could only chip to fifteen feet and missed the downhill par putt and the tall American took the two putts he had in hand to win the title.

Bubba Watson in the famous green jacket
I have to say I feel for Westwood in particular. He has come so close so often in these majors and can't find a way to win, even an ugly win. I do think his short game and putting are his Achilles heel and although these have improved hugely in recent years they remain susceptible under pressure. I know he's worked with a few short game coaches but I do wonder why he hasn't sought advice from putting gurus like Stockton and Pelz or even used the famous sports psychologist Bob Rotella. It was Rotella who was part of Westwood's great pal Darren Clarke's team when he won the Open last year and as a simple outsider I wonder if there isn't anything he could do to boost the positivity Westwood has on the greens. A lot of the putts I watched last night, especially for par, seemed tentative and his body language almost seemed resigned to missing them.

Compare that to someone like Rose or Poulter who were charging up the leaderboard. They weren't scared off the treacherous greens and had to go for their putts to maintain their challenge and holed out with gusto. Above all others though was Oosthuizen. His putting in the final round was awesome and he looked like he would make everything and for a long time did, especially those crucial ten and twelve par putts he converted. I'm sure Westwood will get the major he deserves sooner rather than later. He is far too good not to.

However, Augusta belonged to a tearful Bubba Watson. A fantastic event, and a worthy winner. It sparked scenes of jubilation and the normally laid back American was in tears, not only immediately after his win, but in the interview and the presentation.

Bubba turns into Blubba as emotions get the better of him
I don't know what it is about Augusta and the Masters but year on year they find a way to deliver thrilling golf against a kaleidoscopic background and the final round in particular never ceases to enthral and captivate me as I follow every twist and turn at home. I applaud Bubba for his achievement and can't wait to see what the next chapter of Masters history brings.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Playing The Waiting Game

After my successful opening round in the Haig Cup at Royal Ascot I was back this morning to complete my second and final round. Conditions were a little harder and although it was warmer, there was a little more breeze to contend with. It seems my +3 score was usurped yesterday afternoon and I wasn't in fact the clubhouse leader but was sitting in second place.

I have to be honest and say its been a long time since I've gone into a round in contention. I know I had success at the Golf Monthly Centenary qualifier at St Pierre and then in the grand final at the Forest of Arden but they were stableford events, over one round. It was a case of trying to score as many points as possible and see what happened. Here I had to deal with a level of expectation, not only from myself but from my regular playing partners and the usual suspects in the clubhouse. I wrote yesterday about having previous for implosions and to be honest some of that was trying to take the heat off and a case of "so what" if today was a horror. I wanted to play well and show it wasn't a flash in the pan.

There wasn't that many nerves on the first tee and I was pretty relaxed. I'd already mentally prepared that in a worse case scenario and I had a first hole shocker and lost the hole to the course that there would be plenty of opportunities and plenty of time to recover and it wasn't the end of the world as I know it. In the end, a great three wood into the heart of the green banished any doubts and my par and a win got me off to a flying start. My drive down the 2nd was a tad too far right and close to the out of bounds for comfort. It landed in a downhill lie and I had the corner of the boundary fence to contend with and didn't want to top it out of the confines of the course or hit a fade/slice and stuff it over the fence. In the end I hit a great six iron into position A1 and put my wedge to within eight feet. I wasn't trying to make birdie and looked to simply two putt and walk away but the ball dropped and i was two holes up and one under par.

Some days you have an inkling it might be your day. Today was mine. I hit a poorish tee shot at the 3rd which headed towards one of the trees on the edge of the environmental area. We didn't see it land so I was forced to hit a provisional. As we walked up, there was the first shot sitting up and in the clear. Granted my five wood was rubbish and missed the green by a good twenty yards but it was so much better than it could have been. I was faced with a pitch over a bunker. This area has been a bete noire but I executed sufficiently to get the ball on the green some twelve feet away. Again I'd mentally thought two putts for a half and move on having dodged a bullet. The putt never left the centre of the cup and dropped for an unlikely par and a win. Definitely one against the head.

A routine par at the next and it was onto the 5th where I'd hooked it left yesterday and lost a ball and the hole. No such trouble today and I creamed a drive away. I pulled my second into the rough but with only 115 yards left hitting the green should have been routine. Sadly not and I pulled it left. Another pitch over a bunker and a definite tightening of muscles going on and a lot of chattering in my head. I did enough to get it on the green and managed to make a half but it was a chance gone.

The 6th is a killer for me. Always has been. Today I hit a four iron and this was when I knew I could be in business. I hit it thin but it cleared all the ditches and streams and finished some ten yards short of the putting surface. I elected to play a simple pitch and run but hit it too hard and it would have been out the back of the green if the pin hadn't intervened. It crashed into the flagstick and stopped a few inches away for a fluky par. I've often been told that you need to capitalise on your good fortune in golf and I definitely made hay at the 7th. Fine drive, so much better than yesterday, and a five iron into the heart of the green. I couldn't see the line of the putt at all and the downhill twenty footer was really just coaxed into the vicinity but made it all the way to the bottom of the cup for an unlikely birdie and a totally unexpected win.

What you receive with one hand is given away with the next. I hit a good looking seven iron into the 8th but it was about a foot too far left and bounced off the green. I couldn't repeat my chipping exploits and could only make a bogey four to give a hole straight back. Unperturbed, I found the green in regulation at the 9th and two putted for another win. Out in level par gross and +4 for the front half and +7 overall. Heady times.

Arguably the biggest challenge in golf isn't getting the ball around the course but dealing with the pressure within and the constant chattering that goes on between the ears. I was pumped on the 10th tee and got another fine drive away. Suddenly I was thinking about what would happen if I won that hole, maybe a couple of halved holes here and there and what would be a good score. I don't know what happened to the nine iron approach but it was messy and everything felt rushed. It was as if I'd played the shot almost before I'd settled over the ball. It missed way left and time to try out the chipping game, this time with the pressure racked up a notch. I passed the test and got it on the green. It wasn't the time to be fancy. Two putts, a half and move on.

Things were going to get ugly. I was definitely thinking too much and the loose flowing swing from a few holes ago had been replaced with something too deliberate and controlled. I thinned another four iron tee shot at the 11th and for a moment it looked lie my luck was holding and it was "a good bad un" as it ran towards the green. However the ball forgot to stop once it got there and ejected itself out of the back. When I got there it was right on the edge of a lateral hazard, just outside the confines but in a filthy spot. I could only bumble it a few feet forward and my putt from off the green was woefully short. My putt for the half never had a chance and one back to the course and still a long way from home.

I had nailed a drive at the 12th yesterday and today wasn't quite as good but it was safe and playable. I took my 3 hybrid from 202 yards to try and get it close to the green but caught it perfectly and sent it to within twenty feet of the cup. Another win and status quo resumed. The 13th had been the scene of another lost ball and a defeat twenty four hours ago but I was determined it wasn't going left today. In fact, it was a fraction too far right but got a "Homer" and it kicked left when the slope should have dictated it going right. It was at the back of the green with a real Augusta like downhill, double breaking putt. The first effort was tentative and I left myself an ugly three feet. It didn't find the centre but made the drop and I'd escaped with another unexpected par and a half.

Pressure can do funny things. The driver had been resolute all day and had held up at the start of the inward run. Nothing felt different on the 14th tee and I thought I'd made a decent pass at it. The reality was different. A semi-topped effort that only just cleared the thick vegetation some hundred yards away. It was lying okay but I still had three hundred yards left. I opted to hit a six iron to try and leave a mid iron in. It was probably the best shot of the day, especially in the circumstances and put me in the fairway with only 152 yards left. The ball always releases at the front of this hole and I wanted to hit eight iron but wasn't sure it would make the trip so went with the seven. It might have been indecision or poor execution but I missed the green left - again. I took the putter as it was bare and nasty but under-cooked it to about nine feet. A soft loss was on the cards and I'd already started thinking about where I could make it up. I was stunned to see it drop, perfect weight. When it's your day, it's your day.

Four up on the day and four holes left. Even if I melted and lost every hole I'd still be +5 overall. I got another long and straight drive away at the 478 yard par five 15th and was in position A1+. No need for any heroics and a mid iron and wedge onto the green and two putts was sufficient. So why was I standing there with a five wood? In my mind I was swinging it well and sort of wanted to prove to myself that I was relaxed and that I could make a good shot at it and even if it didn't come off and get close to the green there wouldn't be too much left to mop up. This shot went right, and then a bit further right. A straight block that ended up close to the 16th tee. I never committed to the pitch and came up short. This time my chipping and putting couldn't save me and I'd meekly given a hole back from nowhere. Schoolboy error of the highest order.

The net result of all of this apart from denting the scorecard was to make me even more tense and agitated. I got a drive away at the tight 16th although it was a steered effort rather than a full bloodied swing but it stayed away from the out of bounds which was all I was worried about. I was 214 yards away and pulled the 3 hybrid to just get me down in the neighbourhood of the green. From deep within the memory bank, or perhaps more a testament to my teaching professional and all those range balls I'd hit I dug a perfect execution out and got the ball onto the front left edge. It left a forty footer downhill and what I thought was left to right putt. The ball went right to left and ended up at least seven feet away. Definitely one for the mis-read column. I missed the putt and had gifted a gilt edged chance to settle the nerves.

I managed to find another ugly mis-hit off the tee at the penultimate hole that was covered on gold. It was a low runner that chased all the way to the green. Fifteen feet with a big swing on it but a chance to steal a march. I thought I'd hit the putt well but it died a death and pulled up lame some four feet short. The flat stick had gone ice cold and I never threatened to convert for an unlikely win. Still another hole gone, another half.

By this time mother nature had taken an interest and there was a light rain shower falling as I teed it up at the last. I just wanted to get the tee shot away without the need to put a waterproof top on and to be honest was quite prepared to get drenched to do so. It was a decent effort, just right of the fairway. I followed it with a glorious hybrid to within fifty yards of the green. By now the old pulse rate was increasing and I was getting twitchy. I was undecided about a bump and run or a pitch in with a half swing. Both had their elements of risk at this juncture but I went with aerial route and it landed some ten feet away. Nearly there. I wasn't going to go birdie hunting and coaxed it down to the edge of the hole and tapped in for a par which was enough for a win.

There you have it. +4 on the day and +7 overall. My best golf in many months and the biggest thrill for me was not only holding it together for the second day running but actually going out and exceeding what I'd achieved yesterday. I rode my luck on both days, particularly on the front nine today and I'd definitely forgotten what it felt like to be in contention. There's that nervous energy, the racing mind and the tightening muscles to contend with. I really gave away three great opportunities at 15, 16 and 17 but held it together at the last.

My handicap will tumble which is all part of Homers Odyssey, my quest for single figures and silverware. It's now a waiting game until everyone finishes their two rounds, the scores are collated and we'll see what happens. Everyone will say they've left shots out there and I definitely did over the two days but I also drove very well, have started to scramble better and the putter for the most part has been rock solid. So much to take away that's good and positive and I can't wait for the results and my new handicap mark.

I need to build on this. The short game is still only a work in progress and needs to be firmed up some more. The technique is still not 100% trustworthy. I need to play in the practice bunker and develop a feel for different yardages and getting the ball out on different trajectories. I definitely need to invest some time with my eight iron, the nine and the pitching wedge and stop that silly miss left. Above all though I've got to enjoy the moment. Win or not I need to enjoy what I've achieved. Yes it was tough on the back nine but if you can't enjoy playing under those conditions you shouldn't really be entering competitions. I relished it and I am gagging to peg it up again in the next one and keep this run going. I've written on here before about being a streaky player and this may be one of those hot streaks. Time to ride the wave.

Friday, 6 April 2012

No Chickens Are Being Counted

That fanfare you can hear is the sound of me blowing my own trumpet. Why the self-congratulatory and strangely upbeat mood you may ask? Finally, after months of promising the faithful blog follower that the swing was coming, the short game was getting better, heck that I could even get out of bunkers, I put together a round of golf that pulled everything into a hugely satisfying combination of all these facets working as one. It was good, very good, but there were at least three shots left out there.

It was my first round of the Haig Cup. It's a bogey format where you take on the course. If you score better than par (or net par) you are deemed to have won the hole. A net par is a half and a net bogey or worse and you've lost the hole. The person that ends up the most holes up over two rounds wins. It is open throughout the Easter break and you can choose which two days you wish to play. Simple.

There was a covering of frost on Bedborough Field a.k.a the practice ground when I went to warm up and it seemed the world and his dad (not a lady member in sight) wanted an early start so the first tee was rammed. We were hanging around for the best part of an hour and that can never be good for a fragile golf psyche like mine. I was worried that any hint of tempo and rhythmn I'd built up would be lost.

The opening tee shot wasn't a thing of great finesse or technique and was a big looping hook but I'd started it sufficiently wide, or in other words aimed badly, for it to work and find the green. A rare occurrence at the best of times let alone in a competition and I managed to make a comfortable par to take an early lead on the course. I made an error of judgement on my second to the 2nd and put it in the rough and couldn't control the nine iron approach which found the back bunker, close to the back lip and on a downslope. A bit of an early test for these so called new bunker skills but I got it out and settled for a half.

I made a par at the 3rd, another rare beast and followed it with another at the 4th to be +2. The 5th hole is about as wide a driving area as we have on the course and to be honest is one of the few holes that holds no fear usually. I've no idea where the big hook came from then although I think it was down to simply swinging too fast on that shot. Either way it was out of bounds left (and never seen again) and so I reloaded. I never looked like making a birdie with the second ball to rescue a half. Onto the 6th which has been a real terror hole in competitive play. Today though I was going to be brave and banish those memories. In truth I hit the 4 iron pretty well but it was a hair left and caught the greenside slope and went left. The chip wasn't great, still better than it has been, but a four was another defeat. I managed a half at the 7th despite a wayward tee shot and got down from the fringe at the next.

The 9th hole always plays into the wind and today was no exception. I pushed the tee shot right and it found the light rough. I went with a five wood when hybrid would have been the better choice and hit it way too thin. It avoided the bunkers and finished about ten yards short of the green. The first chance to really test the chipping. I hit it really well to within three feet and converted for a par and a win. +1 at the turn.

I missed the green left at the 10th. Sitting on a bare lie with the edge of the bunker to negotiate to a tight pin placement it wasn't looking appetising. However in a moment of clarity and great visualisation I reached for the putter. The group on the 11th tee AND my partners found this hysterical and there was much mickey taking. I hit it with sufficient pace to take it past the edge of the bunker without any danger of it dropping in. That would have made me look very foolish. It found the green albeit eight feet away and so I felt my shot choice was vindicated. A minute later I was walking off with a huge smug grin and much fist pumping after making the par putt. The group on the 11th were suitably impressed.

I hit a pretty ropey tee shot on the par three 11th and found a greenside bunker. The green is long and narrow and so there wasn't acres of space to land it in. I wanted to make sure a) I got it out first time and b) it was on the green and not launched forty yards over the putting surface. Anything after that was a bonus. It came out like a dream and left a six foot uphiller. Easy peasy and that was three consecutive up and downs to win the hole. +3 and rocking.

I pured the tee shot off 12. Right out of the screws and as good as I can hit it. Adrenalin can be a wonderful thing. It cleared the large tree by the 11th green and flew the line of trees protecting the fairway with ease. And into the wind for good measure. I think I was being overly ambitious to hit a 7 iron from 152 yards but I caught it well. The wind pushed it right a tad and it wasn't really enough club and it was back in more sand. Again the execution was good and it came out first time. After recent weeks that is news worthy on its own. It wasn't that close, maybe ten feet but the putter was on fire and I sunk another. Four up and downs in a row and back to back sand saves.

In case you are of a nervous disposition, you may be relieved to know the real Homer came out to play at the 13th and I hooked the tee shot left into the hazard to weakly give back one of the holes. To be honest although it it stroke index 17, the hole plays longer than its 186 yards and I'd always take a four here and walk away. I'd had it down as a potential loss anyway so mentally at least no damage down although the tee shot was disappointing.

I made a net par (halved the hole) at 14 and 15 and after a long and nervous wait on the 16th cracked a decent drive away. This is a real tight driving hole with out of bounds only some ten yards left of the tee, running the length of the driving area. I hit a good hybrid for my second which just ran through the back of the green. To be honest there was no reason not to chip it, and I'd even taken a club with me onto the green in case. I simply didn't trust myself having got into such a good position and thought the putter would have been the safe play. I under hit it and missed the six footer left to give away a real opportunity to steal another hole.

I have to be honest and say I was pretty edgy on the 18th tee. It's been a long time since I had a decent competition score going and the last isn't an easy drive with out of bounds waiting to trap anything pushed or sliced and two big oaks ready to block progression down the hole if you venture too far left. I went a little right, and there was a heart in mouth moment until it started to draw a fraction and it wasn't too bad. I played a second that was a little too far left and found a heavy lie in the rough. It was only a wedge in and to be blunt I got a little tight on the shot making sure it didn't go right into the pond and as a result pulled it onto the left hand collar. The first putt down the hill was great and left maybe a foot and a half at most. However I had to wait while my partners putted and then decided to finish off  and hole out. I had too much time to think about making it and winning the hole and when it came to it I hit the poorest putt of the day. No conviction and it was almost as though I'd thought it didn't matter and I'd take the half anyway. Gutted and it upset me more than the two lost balls from the wayward drives and left a bitter taste in the 19th that is still lingering.

On the plus side the +3 score was good enough to be clubhouse leader by the time I left. I have to be very happy with the game today and it is proof that the decision to change teaching pros and the swing was the right way to go. The driving today was solid as were the irons although I did miss a few greens. What a difference a short game makes though. I've said on here all along once that start to work it makes scoring so much easier and it was proven today.

Of course, it's a two round event and I've history for bigger implosions than Rory McIlroy at last years final round in the Masters and can melt quicker than ice cream in the summer sun but tomorrow as someone once said is another day. I can't win it after one round but I could have played myself out of the event and so if I can shut up the voices in my head (not those ones!) and use the six inches between my ears in a positive way the game is there. Win or lose tomorrow, and I'm counting no chickens, I'm just going to go out and enjoy the game, the company and the course and what will be will be. For four hours today I finally looked like a golfer and there will be a handicap cut of some description to come for the score today so there is much to enjoy. Cue one more blast on that self blown trumpet!