Monday, 29 July 2013

Careful Planning Pays Off - Nearly

This weekend was Club Championship weekend at Royal Ascot Golf Club. As always, there were two prizes on offer, the gross prize for the honour of being club champion, and the prize for the best net score, the Derek Lane trophy. Realistically off an eleven handicap the gross prize is perhaps out of reach, but if you don't shoot for the stars, you'll never achieve anything. Perhaps a really low gross would put the cat amongst the pigeons. I certainly felt the game has been in there for a long while (and bored you saying it regularly). I had a practice round off the back tees last Sunday and knocked it round in eight over including a nasty double bogey so I knew I could do it.

The idea of the practice round was to allow me to develop a strategy for each hole. I've heard for ages the top players saying how they had a plan to tackle these fearsome courses at major championships and figured why not do something similar. I wanted a plan A and a plan B. The plan A was for the ideal tee shot leaving me in perfect position and in good shape to hit the green or lay up depending on the hole. Plan B was all about limiting damage if I was out of position to ensure that if par was out of the question, I wouldn't rack up big numbers.

Key to my plan was limiting the use of the driver. I am much happier with my new custom fitted G25 driver and my driving is steadily getting better. However with the bone hard conditions, I felt capable of using my three wood to get the ball in play without sacrificing too much distance. The second part of my master plan was to ensure I kept to my pre-shot routine. This has been drummed into me by Rhys ap Iolo in my last lesson and I'm trying hard to develop something that doesn't feel forced or contrived and to use visualisation to picture the shot and focus on my target.

All well and good. I was in the fifth group out with a regular partner from my usual roll up group, Jim Hanley and a guy I'd never played with called Colin Pike, who it turned out was a fellow pupil with Rhys at the Downshire Golf Centre. The course looked superb. The greens had been rolled and double cut and were much quicker than we had been use to in recent months. Given the state of them over the past eighteen months it is a real testament to the vision and hard work of the new head green keeper and his team. Quick and true and all you can ask for when putting.

I started off slowly, missing the green right and having to make a knee knocking four footer for net par. I made a solid par at the second but I missed the green with my approach at the third and a three putt led to a nasty double bogey. I followed that with a bogey at the next after hooking my drive and being forced to chip out sideways. By the time I arrived at the par three sixth, a real nemesis in the past I needed to make a move. I didn't hit the four iron cleanly, indeed it was a bit on the thin side, but it was straight and rolled up to six feet. I converted for a rare birdie and I was back. I was steady for the remainder of the front nine and managed to get out in 41 (+6 gross).

My back nine started with a great drive. It was one of the few holes I'd planned to use the driver on and I shaped it perfectly with a hint of draw. A wedge to the heart of the green and two putts for a stress free par. The 11th is another par 3 played towards Ascot race course and the main grandstand forms an impressive backdrop. The green is at an angle and provides a narrow target. I hit my tee shot perfectly and it looked very close from the tee. When I got there it was four feet away. I converted for my second birdie and now right in it.

The 11th green with the Ascot race course grandstand lurking between the trees
I had planned to use three wood off the 12th as the driver has the potential to run through the fairway and into the semi rough. I hit it well but it cut and failed to clear the line of trees protecting the right side of the fairway forcing me to chip out. I made the green with my third to secure a bogey. Proof that even the Plan B strategy was working. And then......

And then.... What can I say. Sometimes in golf it just comes right back and bites you on the rear. Here I am hitting the ball well, calm and in control of my emotions and going along nicely. I come to the 186 yard 13th and boy did it prove unlucky. I teed up my ball, took my 3 hybrid and stood behind the ball. I went through the same routine I had done, took one final look at the target paused and hit it plumb out the toe. It only went about 100 yards and right and was fortunate to find the edge of the fairway on the adjacent 14th. It should have been a simple pitch in to rectify the situation but I hit that fat. I chipped on way too far and left a thirty five foot putt. I had the obligatory three putt all bad holes seem to finish with and had racked up a triple bogey.

Only 186 yards. What could go wrong
Last year the 14th had been my undoing in round one and I had racked up and ugly nine. I was determined to exorcise that particular demon. It is a long par 4 measuring 430 yards and is a slight left to right dog leg. There is thick rough left and the right hand side is protected by a group of small (staked) trees that prevent a direct passage should you go that side. It was a hole I had planned to use driver on and I wasn't concerned about what had just happened. I was driving well. I caught it well but it started a little left of my target line and began to draw and appeared to run close to the line of small trees and more worryingly the real thick rough. I played a provisional and repeated the shot, perhaps with a greater hint of hook and almost certainly into the rubbish. After much searching and close to the five minute limit I found the original. I had to take an unplayable but had a swing.

Perhaps for the first time I made a bad decision and deviated from the plan. I should have hit a mid-iron pitched on and given myself a putt for a bogey. Instead I pulled hybrid and tried to get close to the green. I only succeeded in carving it out of bounds right. I nearly repeated it with what was now the fifth (penalty drop, hitting the third shot OB and reloading). I chipped on from the rough and two putted for another triple. The 14th had got me again.

I hit the green in regulation on the par five 15th and fortunes changed when I rolled in a long thirty foot putt uphill, left to right for a birdie. If I could just steer a steady course for home, maybe, just maybe, I could get close to level par net. I'd accepted that the gross prize was out of reach after two triples and a double! I made a solid bogey on 16 and hit came up just short of the green on the penultimate hole for another bogey. My chip had been good but I couldn't find the hole from five feet. I managed a solid par to close the deal on round one. Home in 83 gross (net 72 or +2). I'd managed to achieve my first goal and make the halfway cut. I would definitely be back for day two.

Day two dawned after overnight rain. The greens had been double cut and double rolled and so were playing even quicker. Fortunately it was dry but a strong breeze had got up making conditions very difficult. I was partnered with Ian Ruddick, an affable chap I hadn't had the pleasure of playing with for a long time and my good friend Darren Appleby. Both are from the Newcastle area so I was playing with the Geordie Mafia.

Having made the cut, I'd decided that round two was going to be played with an air of freedom. No pressure and I wasn't fussed whether I shot 66 or 96. I was just going to play with a sense of fun. I hit a great opener to the edge of the first green and although I walked off with a four, the positive mood was set. I made a bogey, coming up short with my approach at the second and missed the green left at the third having found the ideal spot on the fairway. I hit the ideal tee shot to the left edge of the 4th but I was 74 yards away. Too much for the gap wedge and too far for the sand wedge. Playing down breeze I opted to try and force the shorter wedge in. Basic error and it came up short and I racked up another bogey. I made a par at the 5th but came up short at the par three 6th. I'd opted to play the 4 iron into the wind even though I wasn't convinced it would get there when the hybrid was the correct club.

I was out of position off the 7th tee and played over the large oak protecting the left side of the hole and proceeded to then hit a wedge heavy and short. After a pitch on and two putts I'd made a sloppy double from nowhere. Another bogey followed at the shortest hole on the course, the 8th but managed to hit an exquisite pitch from right of the 9th hole having carved my approach way right. I had to float it over a bunker to a tight pin and stuck it to two feet. I was rightly proud of my effort

My tee shot was blocked by the large oak on the left of the 7th but no excuses for racking up a double bogey
I managed to get out in 42 so only one shot worse off than round one despite my sloppy golf. I needed a great back nine to try and get as high up the final standings as possible and hopefully match last year's 6th place in the gross and net events. Having found a great position off the 10th I only had a nine iron in. I went through the routine but something didn't feel right over the ball. Instead of backing off, I almost speeded up, put the club behind the ball and had almost pulled the trigger before I knew what was happening. I hit it fat and managed another three putt to start with a double.

Having made the birdie at the 11th the day before I had good memories. It was playing longer into the wind so I pulled hybrid. Another horror. A big hook left, with the wind taking it further left. It was almost in danger of coming back round and hitting me from behind. I played a provisional which found the green. I had a cursory look but the knee high grass put me off looking too hard and I opted not to bother and made a double bogey with the second ball. Ouch!

I needed to rally. I made a par at the thirteenth and so had saved three shots on the previous round. The 14th though hadn't finished with me. Perhaps as a reaction to going left in round one I carved it right. I found it and had a swing and wanted to hit a low punch towards the 100 yard marker. I actually hit it too high and it flew up and caught the branch of the tree protecting the corner of the dog leg and dropped straight down. I came up short with my next and made a double. Still that was still a shot better than my effort twenty four hours earlier.

My race was more or less run. I only had 129 yards into the 15th green and pulled that left into sand to rack up another bogey. I launched a great three wood down the tight driving hole that is the 16th and left a five iron in. I didn't hit it great and missed left but chipped to a foot and salvaged a par.

The tight 16th drive. It is out of bounds in the trees left and a narrow landing area
I made the edge of the green at the 35th hole but my chip was poor and I made a bogey. Standing on the final hole, I stuck with my plan and chose the three wood. I hit it flush but pulled it left into the thick rough on the left side. My provisional was hit well and found the fairway. The original was lost and finished the championship with another three putt. It left a nasty bitter taste. The back nine was a mess, and it all came to an 88 (net 77 +7).

Overall my two round score of +9 net was only good enough for anonymity in the middle of the field in 35th place. So what can I draw from the weekend? First and foremost I had done enough to make the cut with ease and had I not made a mess of two holes would have been close to going out in the last few groups and the lead. So I can take comfort that under pressure of the biggest event of the year in the club calendar it held together pretty well. My plan was robust and worked and the pre-shot routine gave me something solid to focus my attention on each shot.

The second round wasn't as bad as the scorecard may indicate. Ball striking was largely solid although the tempo did quicken on the back nine and the pre-shot routine suddenly felt out of kilter, rushed and forced. It is still something I have only recently adopted with my teaching professional Rhys ap Iolo. I am still trying to find my way with this and it isn't something I feel I own yet.

My game plan was well thought out and for the most part my club choices and shot selection were positive. Not too conservative but not reckless either. Yes there were some mistakes, especially at the 14th first time around. There were some bad shots, mainly in the second round when I seemed to swing too quickly. However there were some good ones as well. Three birdies in round one and a sublime pitch at nine in round two cheered the soul.

If I was being pedantic I would give my performance 6.5/10. A few too many three putts and too many errors. It is becoming a source of increasing frustration that I can play to or under my handicap for fifteen or sixteen holes in most competitions but somehow find a way to contrive a way to large score on the other holes to miss the buffer zone and add another 0.1 to my handicap. It is creeping up now and stands at 11.1, up from a starting point of 10.1 at the beginning of the season. However I don't feel my game is regressing. It is in a better place than this time last year technically but I can't make a score.

That is becoming the biggest issue. It is something I need to address with Rhys and see where we go. It is usually a destructive tee shot that is the catalyst although not always. I am wondering about finding a way of developing the game plan on a regular basis but playing your home course can be a case of familiarity breeding contempt and maybe I don't give every shot the respect it deserves. I hope this is where the work on routine and visualisation will start to help. I need to make sure the ball is in play off every hole on the course. That is what the good players at my club do. They don't seem to have that one destructive shot. I am getting better. I am moving forward. I am Homer and I will be a single figure golfer. This weekend was a good one. Careful planning paid off - nearly. 

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