Sunday, 29 September 2013

Woburn - What A Pleasure

What do you call a collection of strangers who drive many miles to meet in the middle of the country to indulge in a similar passion? For those that have kept their thoughts out of the gutter, the correct answer is Golf Monthly Forum Members (http://forums.golf-monthly.co.uk/) and although there is probably a better collective noun out there, we all descended on Woburn Golf Club on Friday to play the Duchess and Dukes courses.

The last time I played in this event several years ago, I was struggling with flu. Proper flu and not just the man flu variety and didn't really enjoy it so with the weather set fair I was determined to have more fun this time and to be honest with my swing in a state of flux at the moment I wasn't overly worried about how I played as long as I enjoyed the day.

The Duchess' Course is sometimes considered to be the least challenging of the three Woburn courses, the junior sibling lying in the shadow of well respected and much heralded family members. However, like many younger siblings, it's not a charge the Duchess' takes lying down. Anyone who has played the course knows this is a layout that demands as much respect as the adjacent Duke's and Marquess' courses.

Woburn is renowned for holes that play through avenues of pines. Nowhere is this truer than on the
Duchess'. This layout may only play to 6,651 yards in length, 322 and 562-yards shorter respectively
than the Duke's and Marquess', but Charles Lawrie created a course that calls for a different sort of
challenge to the one he presented when he laid out the Duke's. One of the reasons the members play this course so often on their own is that they know anyone who can play this layout well has a good chance of handling the other two. Of the three Woburn courses, the Duchess' is the one that puts a premium on that most elusive of golf talents: the ability to hit the ball consistently straight.

I was in the first group out and with everyone else watching on, I threaded a driver magnificently down the right side of the fairway. I made a hash of the rest of the hole. My five iron approach looked great in the air but just failed to carry the cavernous bunker at the front of the green. I got it out but left the first putt woefully short to end up with an annoying double bogey.
 
I had gone with a game plan to use my three wood off a lot of tees to play for position. Sadly no-one told the three wood and it mis-behaved throughout the opening nine and I spent more time in the trees than I wanted. It is an unforgiving course if you are errant off the tee and has a huge impact on the scorecard.
 
The Duchess Course at Woburn - no for those that spray it off the tee
I went out in a measly eleven points. I wasn't last in my group and to be honest, having ditched the three wood in favour of the driver which was behaving impeccably, it could have been better. However my iron play was very shoddy and when I got into prime position I managed to miss the target.
 
The back nine is an extension of the front nine and each hole is a secluded nirvana of golfing paradise and it is rare to be able to even see another hole from the one you are on. I have to say that despite the time of year and early morning dew, the greens were magnificent and were a testing speed. I rallied on the back nine and made a better fist of things for a more respectable 14 points coming home. My irons were still letting me down and the quality of strike and direction were way off compared to my normal standard of play. At least my putter was keeping me in it. I had reverted to my Odyssey ProType Tour #9 fearing my recently acquired Odyssey Tank #1 might be a fraction heavy for the quick greens. I was making a lot of good putts that burned the edges but couldn't get any to drop. My pace judgement from length was great but it was those 10-15 footers I couldn't make.
 
In the end my 25 points was enough for mid-table anonymity. We adjourned to a two course carvery lunch which was exquisite and made it very difficult to leave and head out to the Dukes course for the second round.
 
Stand on the first tee of the Duke's Course at Woburn and it's hard to believe this magnificent layout has only been in existence since 1976. It has an old world feel of maturity and tradition, as if it has been around since the early 1900s. Mature pine trees, silver birch, chestnut and magnificent banks of rhododendron bushes provide a splendid backdrop to a course that is among the best inland tracks in the UK.
 
Few courses have been as right for golf as the Duke's. It is one of the most aesthetically pleasing on the eye in all of the British Isles. There is no prettier place than the Duke's in spring when the rhododendrons are in full bloom and nowhere is this more evident than on the par three 3rd hole. Played from a high tee to green just 134 yards away, golfers can be forgiven for casting golf from their minds to take in the view. All around are huge kaleidoscopes of purple rhododendron bushes, a nature lover's paradise. If any hole on the Duke's calls for you to remember Walter Hagen's plea for golfers “to stop off and smell the flowers as they go through life,” then it is this hole.
 
The iconic 3rd on the Dukes - shame the blooms weren't out on Friday
Play the course early in the afternoon when the setting sun illuminates the majestic pine trees and you'll feel inspired. That the course is in existence is down to the tremendous foresight of the late 14th Duke of Bedford. He had the vision to realise that the combination of woodland and sandy soil which comprises this part of the Woburn estate was perfect for the game of golf. He commissioned Charles Lawrie to design not one, but two courses. Thus the Duke's and nearby Duchess' courses were created within two years of each other.
 
Greens are set in natural amphitheatres. The natural ravines and gullies that run through the course have been incorporated into the design as if they had been part of Lawrie's original intention. Thus the huge swale to the left of the par-5, 5th hole becomes an obstacle that has to be carried if par or better is to be achieved. Similarly, the drop off to the right of the 13th green naturally forces the player to aim left, bringing the left-hand bunker into play.
 
To be honest I enjoyed the Dukes more. It is more forgiving off the tee and with my driver still working well in the afternoon I was able to string a good score together going out helped by a birdie four at the fifth following three opening pars. Sadly, I started to make a few errors on the back nine, partly through fatigue and partly through poor shot making and my iron play still wasn't great. Indeed I saved the best for last on the short 322 yard par four. I hit a good five wood off the tee leaving a nine iron in. I finally hit one well and stuck it to four feet. Although I didn't make the birdie a closing par left me with fond memories of the Dukes and the day and my 33 point total was good enough for third place overall in the afternoon results.
 
If anything, the greens on the Dukes were even quicker than those on the Duchess which seemed to always be in shadow and so the dew was slow to clear. With the sun able to dry the Dukes greens they were a yard quicker and so true. My putting was still very solid but like the morning round, the ball was scared of the dark and refused to drop.
 
One quirk on the Dukes course is the tame fox that appeared from nowhere on the 14th hole. It had no fear of the golfers and edged closer and closer in the hope of a few titbits and seemed to give a derisory scowl if no-one offered any treats. It seemed in good health too.
 
This chap had no fear of humans. I didn't risk getting it to eat out of my hand but it took a piece of fruit bar from right by my feet
The day was a fantastic success and the thirty or so members of the Golf Monthly Forum enjoyed a couple of post round drinks as the presentations took place before heading off to all points of the compass. If the day is repeated next year I will definitely be putting my name down and for £135 to play these fantastic layouts, with bacon bap and coffee before we started, the delicious two course lunch and complimentary stroke savers for both courses, it was exceptional value for money.
 
I've no idea where my iron play went. I am usually very comfortable with this facet and it is getting out of position off the tee that is my down fall. I drove very well and had I been able to find more greens with mid irons in my hand and hit any of the par threes on either course I could have done much better and indeed may have contended for top spot in the PM round.
 
I was due to play the monthly stableford yesterday but with my mother in law in Harefield Hospital about to undergo a triple bypass and also feeling absolutely shattered having walked 36 holes I pulled out. I worked on the short game and my putting today and will hit the range this week to try and find an answer to the issues with my iron play.
 
I've got a week to get the game in gear before a big event next Monday. The Golf Monthly Forum in conjunction with Golf Monthly magazine's support are holding a golf day in aid of Help for Heroes at West Hill in Surrey. Another majestic course and similar to the Duchess in many ways I hope I can plot a smoother passage especially as I'm in the auspicious company of the Golf Monthly Editor, Mike Harris. It isn't too late if you are interested in making a donation http://www.bmycharity.com/GolfMonthlyForumHFH2013 or if you wish to give a prize for the charity auction afterwards, please contact Rick Garg (RickG) on the Golf Monthly Forum.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Battle Of The Sexes

Having had a lesson with my teaching pro, Rhys ap Iolo a week ago, and struggled to bed the changes in, I was nervous about playing in the inaugural match between the men and ladies sections of Royal Ascot Golf Club. The fixture was to celebrate the opening of a newly mapped course for the ladies off the yellow tee boxes rather than their normal red positions. It has given them a far more challenging option and a SSS of 73 is testament to the difference the yellow tee positions make.

The rationale behind this is to give the ladies section a harder course to play for prestigious competitions and some club matches but to also attract better players to the club to bolster what is already a thriving and important part of the golf club. It is another sign that the club is really trying to move forward and be a welcoming place to play offering a good test of golf.

My lesson was to work on a stronger set up position to make a better turn and get the hips and shoulders on a better and parallel position. The feeling is to get the left shoulder higher and making a shoulder controlled turn. The strike and path when it works is much stronger but it is proving a little tricky to bed in properly. I'm hitting some ugly cut and slice shots and feel I'm coming over the top or getting into impact with a closed face and seeing it go way left. The good ones are on a more powerful trajectory and I am compressing better. I just need to add more of the good ones and lose the bad ones. It is coming and I've got plenty of time to work on it with the season coming to a close in the next few weeks.

With this in mind, the match against the ladies section off the yellow tees was a good testing bed. The format was four ball better ball and I was paired with a guy called Roger McNamara. I've not had the pleasure of his company before but off 28 I was hoping he could be a dangerous partner. We were paired against Patty Dismore, and Heather Wing. Patty is doing a fantastic job as junior organiser and has worked tirelessly to get our junior academy up and running so successfully. Heather has developed a reputation as a fine competitor and been doing well in competitions so they weren't to be underestimated.

As the lowest handicapper I was giving plenty of shots which given the state of my game was a bit of concern. My opening five iron off the 164 yard par three (what a difference from the usual 229 yard mark we play off) was a bit off the toe and hit a green side bunker. I played a great splash shot but missed the putt. Fortunately my partner was on hand to seal the half. A par at the next won the hole, and despite my own issues down the third Roger won that too. I made a great par save at the par five fifth to win that and by the time Roger made a superb birdie at the eighth we were five up. That was the score at the turn.

I won the tenth with a good par. I used all my luck for September up on the 12th tee. I tried to cut the corner of the dog leg and hit a ropey old shot. We heard it hit timber very solidly and had no idea where it went. After a search in the vicinity of the trees without joy, I ambled towards the fairway only to see a ball sitting there innocently and unaware of the fuss it had caused. It was mine. I hit a good iron but it came up short at the front of the green and I was left with a twenty yard putt the length of the green. I coaxed it up to a foot and made a par. It was enough to seal the match 7 and 6.

In defence of both Heather and Patty, they didn't play anywhere near their best and playing a competitive round off the yellow tees was clearly a tough test. It does bring a lot more of the hazards into play, especially the ditches on the 2nd, 3rd and 12th. Also, there are some tees that are now a long way back and at a different angle that gives the hole a different complexion.

In the end, the men ran out 8-1 winners but not all the matches were as one sided as ours. To be fair our Captain, Ken Martin put out a very strong side made up of club match regulars. His opposite number Anthea Winn also put a strong team out and I think the more the ladies play off the yellow tees and get use to the course and plan their strategies accordingly, the better players they will be. I hope this becomes a permanent fixture in the diary. It was a fantastic success and next year I think the ladies will a real force to be reckon with.

My game is in a bit of a holding pattern. I seemed to have bought a batch of golf balls that are scared of the dark. I felt I putted well yesterday and the new Odyssey Tank putter is coming along nicely. However the ball refused to get into the dark hole. It must have lipped out at least five times. My swing though was all over the shop and I didn't feel I swung it well and scrambled to make a half decent score on some holes. It was disappointing especially off the yellow tees and with a big day out at Woburn this Friday I am hoping to make the changes work soon. The work I did in the drizzle this morning has improved my mood and I can see the improvements coming along. After tuning my swing, I worked hard on the putting stroke and made a slight difference to the address position, getting the arms closer to the body and the stroke feels more compact and controlled. I seemed to have found the missing "something" in the chipping stroke today too which is a big leap forward.

As I've said throughout the 2013 season it is close but I can't find a way to make it count on the course. Some good stuff is still ruined by the odd XXX horror show. Too many little mistakes, bad swings, mental errors and the odd bit of bad luck has added up to too many 0.1 handicap increases. That said, the quality of the ball striking is so much better and the bad ones are still in play. Having spoken to Rhys about Winter work, there is a bit of tidying up of the swing to do but nothing major. Chipping and putting is where it's at so I can make scores even when the swing isn't quite on song.

I had a great day yesterday even if the game was way off where I wanted it. It is great to see the ladies section at Royal Ascot looking to progress and develop. The club seems to be attracting new members on a regular basis and so the more we can offer the more we can keep these and make it a great place to play and relax afterwards. If I was a gambling man, I would say the men vs women match in 2014 will be even more hotly contested and a much closer affair. For now though, I'll keep working hard to get the latest lesson bled into my swing and reap the rewards.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Royal Ascot 2013 Captain's Day

Last Sunday was Captain's Day at Royal Ascot to celebrate the current incumbent, Ken Martin's year in office. The weather had a decided autumnal feel after the recent hot spell, with a couple of hefty showers to make life interesting and a big field going off a two tee start. It was good to see Ken and his chosen charity, Macmillan Cancer Support, getting the backing of the membership. In my opinion he has been a very good club captain.

I was off the first tee and looking to find something in competitive play that has been missing in recent weeks. On the downside, my swing had felt a little out of kilter for a while and range sessions had done little to fix the problem or give the confidence a boost. Warming up did little to light the spark. A double bogey on the first courtesy of an errant tee shot leaving me unable to hit the green with my recovery meant my mood was instantly downbeat. I got a great drive off the second and left me with a rare chance to go for the green in two. It isn't something I'd normally contemplate in a competition but had decided the game wasn't really there and so could go out with some freedom and just have some fun. I came up just short and right but pitched to a couple of feet and made a birdie to tidy up the first hole error.

I hit the third in regulation but an ugly three putt from thirty feet was a disappointment. Having split the fairway down the short fourth I only had a pitching wedge in. I put a real shocker of a swing on it and pulled it way left. It caught the bank left of the green and before it had got there I knew the outcome was out of bounds. It lies no more than twenty feet left of the putting surface and coming off the slope with pace there is nothing to stop it. I had no option but to drop another. This time I played it properly and stuck it to five feet and made the putt to rescue a bogey five.

I pulled another wedge approach at the par five fifth. Another miracle recovery shot allowed me to rescue par and I even managed to find the green at my nemesis hole, the par three sixth. Being Captain's Day there was the inevitable nearest the pin at the shortest hole on the course, the eighth and despite being the second group out, I got it to a respectable twelve feet to get my name on the sheet. I couldn't make the birdie but another up and down at the ninth meant I had turned one under handicap with nineteen points.

The tenth hole is a shot hole and a good drive and approach to the heart of the green should have led to a par, net birdie and another shot gained. I raced the first putt a couple of feet past, trying too hard to make a birdied and then missed the one back. It hurt and it was a chance spurned.

I made a net par at the next finding a bunker of the tee on the par three but standing on the stroke index 1, twelfth hole I was still in good shape. That was until I carved my tee shot way right trying to cut the corner of the dog-leg and ended up losing a ball. I dropped a shot at the next too. The fourteenth has been a bit of a card wrecker for me in recent months. It's a tight driving hole. You need to hit it far enough to be clear of the trees to the right of the fairway but there is heavy rough and trees if you err too far left. I made a solid contact but pulled it left. I hit a provisional and put it almost in the same spot. The provisional was actually out in the open and playable. The first one was against a tree trunk and although I managed to get it a few yards out and playable I was still nearly 230 yards from the green. I pulled my five wood and made the perfect swing and the ball ended up twelve feet away and I only just failed to make an improbable par.

In the end, despite a rare par at the long par four sixteenth and a dropped short at the seventeenth, I knew I wasn't going to win but a solid last hole would see me hit the buffer zone. In the end my net par was enough to do just that and despite a slightly disappointing 15 point total on the back nine, the 34 point total was better than I had anticipated.

There was a good prize table including Henry Cotton trophy, presented to the club by the three time Open champion. The winner of Captain's Day and the recipient was Ray Grubb.

Ray Grubb receiving his prize from club captain Ken Martin and next years captain Anthea Winn
A special mention should also go to single figure golfer Dave Grove who managed to record a hole in one on the sixth hole.

Dave Grove tells exactly how he managed to make an ace at the 178 yard 6th hole
As well as charity buckets for members to make contributions to the Macmillan Cancer charity, there was also a bit of fun outside the clubhouse where a ten yard bucket challenge was set up adjacent to the tenth tee. Players were given a chance to chip into a bucket placed ten yards away. Not as easy as it sounds but great entertainment especially for the watching masses

Get the ball in a bucket from 10 yards. What could be easier?
All in all it was a great day capped off by a free drink courtesy of the Captain and a lovely bowl of chicken and chips over which to discuss where it had all gone wrong for many and how it came right for those picking up prizes. Of course the day couldn't have run as smoothly as it did without the efforts behind the scenes of many unsung heroes and so I'd like to add my thanks to everyone who helped make the day a huge success.

From a personal perspective, the buffer zone was a welcome break from a string of 0.1 handicap increases. I felt I played with a modicum of freedom especially the front nine but as soon as the realisation of a good round being within my grasp, I began to focus much more on the score (probably why I three putted the tenth) and the swing got quicker and tighter. It's hard when you aren't entirely sure of your swing but I have to say overall, the lost ball on the twelfth aside, I was rather pleased with how it played out. There is still work to be done on the swing over the winter and I will be speaking with my teaching professional, Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Centre, about what we need to tighten in the next few weeks now the nights are drawing in.

For now though, a big thanks to Ken for a great day and a great year in office and I look forward to seeing how Anthea Winn handles the mantle of club captain and how Roger Wing gets on as Anthea's vice captain. They have a tough act to follow but I am sure both will make their own mark on the club and keep it moving onwards and upwards in 2014.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Product Review - Odyssey Tank #1 Putter

I didn't mean to. I really didn't. Having gone to a recent Odyssey demo day at Royal Ascot, I had my head turned by a recent incarnation of Odyssey putters. Speaking with the Odyssey fitter and going through their Eye Fit (http://uk.odysseygolf.com/more/putting-info/eyefit/) they put the Tank #1 in my hand. It didn't help that the first putt I tried with it, a fifteen foot left to right effort, slipped sweetly into the hole. Short putts found the centre of the hole with alarming regularity and distance control on long uphill and downhill putts was sublime.

In the end I was hooked. I had tried to persevere with my Ping Anser or the Odyssey ProType Tour #9 milled model but I was lacking confidence and to be honest had been looking for a new spark for a while. I knew my wrists tended to breakdown in the stroke if I didn't work on it regularly and wanted something to keep them quiet. I am not a big fan of these super size grips and so was interested to see how a heavier putter would help. If you are after a perfectly balanced putter that will improve your stroke with greater stability through impact, then you need the impressive Odyssey Tank Putter. A big statement but it really does what it says on the tin.

The counter balance stability weighting system is 30g in the grip end combined with a heavier head of 400g to create quiet hands through impact. The quieter your hands are the less likely you are to twist or flick your wrists through impact making you putt more purely and more consistently. That is what the teaching pros and magazines all tell you but in reality it really works. I picked it up from the club pro as he opened the shop on Saturday morning and was making the first putt in anger on the first green some twenty minutes later.
 
For the technically minded amongst you, another reason this putter achieves a superior level of stability is through the total club MOI. The putter has a total club MOI that is 34% higher than a standard putter with a 19% increase in total club weight.
 
The Tank putter features the new and improved White Hot Insert. According to the marketing suits at Odyssey this insert has been highly engineered for a more consistent sound, feel and tour proven performance. I have to say that it definitely isn't as soft as the milled face of the ProType but it isn't as firm as previous incarnations of this insert. The RRP is £139 but a little bit of looking online found it on sale cheaper and credit to Ali White, the club pro at Royal Ascot, he managed to price match the lowest price on the internet.
 
The Tank #1. Heavier than a lot of others on the market
So what's the verdict. Well first round out I found that I got a bit lazy with the stroke and expected the weight of the putter to do all of the work and forgot that I had to do something at my end. As a result a lot of early distance putts came up several feet short. The feel though was satisfying. On the plus side I was holing out these tricky three footers. From close distance it was a case of back and through.
 
It must have helped as I managed a respectable 36 points in the Saturday roll up and managed to take the money. I found a degree of consistency in my game sorely missing in recent weeks and there were precious few moments of concern. The tempo was smooth and the "monkey brain" conspicuous by its absence.
 
Frustrated by the lack of distance control so obvious at the demo day I took the putter onto the practice green on Sunday for a vigorous getting to know you session. Remembering that the idiot holding it had to do some work; they haven't got an automatic version, I worked on a short back and through stroke. My putting stroke had always been a little long, arguably longer than necessary and I'd been told numerous times that there was a degree of de-acceleration. With the Tank, the heavier head and counter balanced grip does make it much easier to make a shorter concise stroke and I could feel the tempo was more even.
 
I was happy with the shape of the putter and had wanted to go back to a bladed face which is why I'd been playing with the Anser 2 and the #9 model had fallen from grace. The insert is still firm and there is a nagging worry in the back of my mind that on a course with much quicker greens than Royal Ascot where I usually play, that the heavier putter may struggle. I've only had the one full round so far but the initial reaction is positive and I think this one is a keeper.