Monday, 21 October 2013

We've Created A Monster

Cast your mind back to when you first took up golf. For many, including myself, this was a long time ago. For me, the passage was a simple transition from the local pitch and putt to a week of lessons as a ten year old kid during the school holidays in the summer of 76. There was a dustbin full of balls and the pro took the group of kids through the basics of the golf swing bit by bit over the course of the week. We stayed there each day until the dustbin was empty.

For others, the path is via the driving range, maybe with a couple of lessons and then onto a local pay and play. For my good friend Rob Dickman this is what has happened. I'm not sure where the sudden interest in golf has come from other than the juices being whetted by a fantastic blog called threeoffthetee, and the onset of middle age. He's been to the World of Golf driving range on the A3 near his home in Surrey, had a couple of rounds at the local pay and play at Horton Park in Epsom and recently joined Epsom Golf Club as an academy member. He had his first round there on Friday and a lesson from the club pro Stuart Walker.

Epsom club pro Stuart Walker who has taken on the task of teaching my mate Rob Dickman to play - Brave Man!
Rob had invited me down yesterday to take him round and hopefully impart a little of the knowledge I'd gleaned along my own golfing path. The weather forecast was bleak with sunny periods and heavy showers, possibly thundery. Not ideal but in for a penny and all that.

I arrived in lovely sunshine but as we loitered on the first tee, a shower arrived. I'd just got the waterproofs on when it stopped as quickly as it started. I hate playing in the waterproofs and so whipped the jacket off before teeing off. Rob wanted to see how it's done (or not on current form). It plays just over 320 yards and the tee shot goes across a small valley and uphill to a green that looks like the proverbial elephant's graveyard. I got my three wood away. Rob made contact with his effort and it went forward and we were off. Nerves clearly played a part on the first hole for him but he managed to get to the green in a respectable four shots. I hit the green in regulation and then the fun started. My first putt was from around twenty five feet away, right to left and uphill. I hit it on the line I wanted. It got halfway there, veered to the right and meandered down a slope and almost back to where I was standing. I was left standing in astonishment. The green keeper clearly had a sense of humour and a four putt green put me in a troubled mood.

Rob Dickman (right) and I ready to start our round. If only we knew.....
We managed to negotiate the first three holes in the dry but as we got to the fourth, a short 258 yard par four the heavens opened. It was straight on with the waterproofs as it was torrential. Despite this I got a good drive away and found the green and secured a solid par. Rob had gone around in 124 shots on Friday. Pretty respectable for the first time on a tricky course. His goal was to just beat that. I was confident at the outset that we could go much lower but now the rain had come in I wasn't so sure.

We both struggled on the long par four holes running to the top of Epsom Downs and the iconic grandstand on the world famous race course. By the time we got to 331 yard seventh, it was as heavy as anything I'd experienced in thirty years of golfing. I hit a good three wood and a wedge to ten feet and rolled in the birdie. We decided to wait for the rain to pass. Having stored the clubs under a tree to give them some degree of protection, a sudden flash of lightening and a clap of thunder meant we concluded progress could wait. Some fifteen minutes later, it abated and we could continue.

Rob was making good progress. I was suitably impressed with the swing he has and clearly he's taken on board the information he's been shown in his lessons. If only I could wipe the slate clean and start again but with so many ingrained faults and nuances that's a pipe dream and for me it's about making the best of what I have. I was on a roll and followed the birdie on the seventh with a par at the eighth and ninth. My drive on the tenth went miles right although in me defence the sodden grip meant it slipped as I swung. I still managed to rescue a bogey so no damage done.

I was impressed with the way Rob managed to get the ball away off the tee. This was especially the case at the par five fifteenth. He smacked it straight down the middle and although the second was a little left he had a good chance to make the green in regulation. In the end he had to make do with a bogey six but there was no disgrace in that as the hole is stroke index 2.

The sixteenth is arguably the feature hole at Epsom Golf Club. It's a 288 yard hole (off the yellow tees) down a valley. For many it is a driveable hole. I cracked a splendid effort away and came up some forty yards short. In truth my chip was poor but the undulations on the green threw the ball all the way to the back. Facing a tricky forty foot putt uphill and right to left I came up some ten feet short and three putted for an ugly bogey. Rob had smacked another good tee shot away and although he had then topped his next off a side hill lie, his third finished just short of the putting surface. From some fifteen feet he nonchalantly rolled in the putt for a par. His elation was a joy to see. He was made up and to be honest his play had deserved a reward.

The 16th at Epsom - the weather wasn't as good as this. Not sure Rob really cared after making par
The next is a pretty little par three across a valley. Despite being a real short hole it is a small target to hit but with the honour, Rob stuck an iron to ten feet. He was playing like a golfer with far more golfing miles under his belt. I needed something special to put the pup in his play and put a nine iron to six feet. I think Rob got over excited sensing his first ever birdie and raced a down hill putt miles past and three putted. I hit a dream of a putt and watched aghast as it did a lap of honour and defied the laws of gravity and remained above ground.

Rob had a few issues off the tee at the last but once he got a ball in play he finished the hole in style, with a nice little pitch onto the green and two putts. I had a bit of a mare having got my drive away down the right. I carved my approach from two hundred yards miles right and I was fortunate that the hedgerow some thirty yards short stopped the progress of the ball as it was heading towards pane glass on the patio. Out of bounds I was forced to reload. My next was right but I played a nifty chip to six feet but missed the putt for a miserable triple bogey, my worse score of the day.

We adjourned to a local hostelry to meet up with my wife. Rob met up with an Epsom member and made up to find out he'd destroyed his previous best. My wife likened him to Tigger, the bouncy character from Winnie the Pooh cartoons. He was desperate to go out and play some more and I think had we offered to hit the driving range he'd have been there like a shot.

Rob has the golfing bug badly. Like Tigger he can't get enough and would happily have played on if he could
Rob has never struck me as a golfer but many come to this great game later in life. He has clearly had a good education as his basics were really solid. If I was being a little picky, his swing lacks impetus and is a tad too deliberate. This means that despite making good contact on a regular basis the shot lacks power. Straight but short. To be honest that isn't a bad combination to have.

He has the bug. We've created a monster and he is already looking for his next golfing fix. As the voice of reason, I've tried to explain that not every round will go according to plan. There will be days when he'll never want to see another golf club. Despite this though there will be that one shot in every round that will bring him back for more. My advice to him is to try and get some lessons over the winter, work on the drills, especially those on the tempo and speed of the swing, and be ready to hit the course next season. From there he can get his first handicap and he'll really be a golfer then.

I haven't played Epsom for many years and I'd forgotten what an interesting place to play it is. It is very short but protected by tight tee shots and greens which are still very quick. They drained impressively after the deluge yesterday and were slick. I dread to think how fast they'll be in the summer. They are small targets to hit and their undulations are the biggest defence. I think it will a great place for this new golfer to gain his spurs and I look forward to a return trip without the biblical rain.

As for my game it was a combination of poor driving in places with some decent stuff in between. Being short, I was able to get the ball round and apart from the last there wasn't too many disasters. I was able to course manage and plot a course and my short irons were pleasing and did give myself a few good birdie chances. My swing at the range has been one in progress but feels like it is going forward. I've not played too much recently and so converting this onto the course as the rounds at West Hill and Epsom showed isn't easy. I'm going to follow the advice I gave Rob and work at my game over the winter with my teaching professional Rhys ap Iolo. Unlike last winter I don't feel there is too much to change. It needs tightening and a few things need tweaking but the core swing is just about there now. The path is far better and I know Rhys has been pleased with progress. I need to work on the short game and this will be my main focus of attention.

I can't wait to see how Rob progresses. He has it and has it bad and having know him all my life I know he's one of those that likes to do things well and so will work hard at his game but he's also someone for whom it will never be the be all and end all. Might be a salutary lesson in there somewhere!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Seasons End

The Help For Heroes Day at West Hill last week was the last big even of my season. It wasn't suppose to be and I was due to play a club match at home against Tylney Park on Saturday. Sadly illness put paid to that.

So what did the season give me? On paper it has been a poor season. I started with the handicap at 10.1 and poised for an assault towards single figures following a productive winter programme with my teaching professional Rhys ap Iolo. We had even started work on resurrecting a dormant short game and there was a whiff of optimism in the air. As I sit typing this the handicap is tottering at 11.3 and dangerously close to going back to 12.

The cynical amongst you will say it was a terrible season and that anything else is window dressing. On one level I would agree and I never really attacked single figures and lurched out of the blocks at the start of the season like an asthmatic tortoise. Early on, the frustration levels were at critical as I struggled to recreate the work I'd done on the range over the winter into meaningful scores.

The ball striking was like night and day compared to last year and a testament to the work Rhys had done and the hours I'd invested improving my club head path and getting more with less moving parts. Perhaps the lack of a short game and a putter that had yet to warm up didn't help. On the plus side I had lost the big misses both sides of the course and knew my shop shape and where my bad misses were going. I just kept chucking silly holes into each round undoing all the hard work.

A classic example of this recurring theme came in the Stone Cup in May. An honours board event over the bank holiday, competitors play two rounds over any three days of the long weekend. I started my first round with a steady outward nine of seventeen points. The back nine was a cacophony of double bogey golf and too many one point holes for a measly haul of twenty nine points. My second round was an improved picture with eighteen points out but again I faded to have fourteen back and thirty two overall. This two round haul was mid-table anonymity and 0.2 back on the handicap.

The pattern was set and this would be a theme. I could string together a steady string of pars and then chuck a cricket score from nowhere. I was trying to course manage my way round and when we got the warm weather (remember that?) I was hitting three or five wood off the tee to keep the ball in play and still be in a position to hit the greens in regulation. It wasn't a case of firing blindly with a driver or not having a game plan for each hole and a plan B if the tee shot misbehaved.

As my year meandered on and club matches started up, I was finding the freedom of a partner a released and I was playing some better golf, especially away from home. I lost a match at Caversham Heath on the last, having been four up after ten holes. We were blown away in a barrage of net birdies and perhaps my partner and I wilted in the blistering heat but the quality of my play over the round eased the pain of defeat. A fine win at Tylney Park was reward for an excellent driving performance on a long course. At home I had a fantastic run and was unbeaten at Royal Ascot.

So where did the fault lie. Unquestionably the short game let me down. This has started to come back in the last few weeks and it is something that Rhys and I have top of the agenda for our winter work. When it was good I scored. I found my putting boots mid-season too. The first round of the club championship was a case in point. A net 72 (+2) included three birdies but it was a round ultimately undone by a triple and quadruple bogey on the 13th and 14th holes. Aside from that and I was right in touch with the first round pace setters. These were caused by errant tee shots and in one of my lessons Rhys explained that I seemed to rush my shots, especially under pressure.

We started working on pre-shot routines and it is an area I'm taking further and I've started doing some work with Pre-Shot Golf to take control of the monkey brain that seems to get in the way of me playing with freedom. It has helped resurrect the short game too, along with an improved and simplified technique.

So despite no short game, a handicap that has almost gone up two shots, an ability to self destruct and a lack of focus over the shot how can I possibly say the season has been good. Well the highlight has been the quality of my ball striking. It was a long and frustrating winter trying to bed in the changes but so worthwhile. When I was playing well, and there were many good holes this year, I felt I had the ball on a piece of string at times. What I lacked at times was self belief. I let the bad holes affect me and I stewed on my errors.

I had a nine hole playing lesson with Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Course. That was a chance for me to showcase how far I'd come and the state of my game. Naturally I started with an ugly double bogey but I think he saw enough to be happy that the goal of single figures was more than a pipe dream. We have been in constant touch throughout the season and a big thumbs up to him for being available on Twitter and Facebook and for looking at the swing via You Tube when things have gone astray.

The season has drifted along to a conclusion and although we still play competitions throughout the Winter at Royal Ascot Golf Club, weather permitting, the big events are done and dusted. In the end most of my performances have been firmly in mid table . Despite this I am happier with the state of my game in 2013 than at the same time in 2012. My bunker play is far improved and I am putting much better. My technique is sound and coped with the lightning paced greens at Caversham Heath and Woburn. I did change to a heavier Odyssey Tank #1 I'd trialled at a demo day in the Autumn which I feel will manifest into a trusty weapon on the slower winter greens. I am chipping and putting now and making several up and downs per round. Add in the odd sand save and what a difference it makes to the score and the golfing psyche during a round.

I am now driving the ball better and it is a simple golfing fact that if you get it in play more often you will score. Rhys has changed my set up at address and although it is a work in progress it is moving in the right direction and I am longer and straighter.

If I was to sum up the season, it would be a B-. Too high I hear you scream but I am taking into account the difference in the way I hit it. I need to eradicate the blow up hole and the work Rhys and I plan to do on the mental side of the game this winter will help. A stronger golfing brain akin to a short game and better club path and I still firmly feel this golfer has is destined for single figures.

I'm not at all melancholy. The golfing glass has been positively half full all year. It has been trying at times to keep it that way and maybe I do need to just hit it, find it and hit it again. It is hard. I'm not wired that way. I've never been naturally blessed with sporting aptitude and any fleeting success has always been achieved from hard work, good coaching and sheer bloody mindedness. I'm not going to change now so I'll carry on ploughing my own furrow. I have a clear goal and can see the path I want to take.

As the season draws to a close there is still much to look forward too. More social games peppered with a monthly competition should keep the golfing juices flowing. I'm off to Epsom next weekend to join an old friend taking his first steps into this wonderful but frustrating game. That should be fun. I've got the winter programme with Rhys to look forward to. I enjoy the hard work that goes into trying improve and yes I do get frustrated when I don't feel I'm getting the results I think I deserve but I am determined Homer's Odyssey will continue apace and the ultimate destination of single figures remains a realistic objective.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Help For Heroes Charity Day - West Hill Golf Club

Yesterday saw the Golf Monthly Forum ( annual charity day in aid of Help for Heroes. This has been a regular date in the diary since 40 forum members went to the inaugural day at Luton Hoo and raised over £2,200. That was three years ago. It returned the following year to Luton Hoo and 55 golfers raised £6,500. Last year 80 players played at Blackmoor Golf Club and raised a superb £11,500. This year it was even bigger and for the first time West Hill Golf Club was playing host to 103 golfers.

West Hill is one of the triumvirate of courses in the area, along with Woking and Worplesdon, that regularly feature in the top 100 courses in the UK (this year West Hill was 88th in the Golf Monthly top 100). West Hill is truly one of Surrey's oldest gems, a heathland course, designed in 1907. It's protected by brook, trees, heather and gorse and the changes in elevation provides an enjoyable test of golf. From the moment you enter through the imposing wrought iron gates it really is golf from a bygone era.

The Help for Heroes charity for founded by Bryn and Emma Parry after a visit to the Selly Oak hospital. It is a charity which provides direct, practical support, primarily to those wounded in recent and current conflicts. It launched on 1st October 2007. Help for Heroes don't care about the rights and wrongs of war, but believe that if young men and women are prepared to volunteer to serve their country on our behalf and are hurt whilst doing so, they deserve our support. They want the support to be the best and the be there for life

In order to get into the spirit of the day and pay my own humble nod of gratitude to our troops, I dressed in patriotic red white and blue. I was paired in the esteemed company of the Golf Monthly Editor, Mike Harris and a couple of fellow forum members, Preet and Stuart or LIG and El Bandito as they are known on the forum.

The masses are gathering as I get the pace of the putting green

I've known Mike for a number of years and was privileged enough in April 2009 to be offered the chance to edit the forum pages that still appear every month in Golf Monthly's magazine. I've played a few times with the great man but not for several years. It was a shotgun start and we were lucky enough to be off the first, a tricky 393 hole, going down hill before a second shot to a raised green.

The view from the 18th. The 1st green nestles to the left between the trees
Mike and I took on LIG and El Bandito in a little match alongside the stableford competition with the losers putting £5 per man into the charity bucket. Mike took the opening drive under the gaze of a small crowd of competitors, club pro and the photographer there to record the days events. He cracked one away and then it was my turn. I got it away perfectly and it sailed into the blue sky and wandered down the dew covered fairway. I was left with a seven iron to the elevated green and hit the front edge. Two good putts and I was away with an opening par

In patriotic colours for the H4H day I crack an opening drive straight down the middle
My driving was very solid over the opening few holes but I was having issues with my iron play, similar to the first round I'd played at the recent day out at Woburn Golf Club. It was frustrating. I went right at the second, although it was off a hanging lie but recovered to make a net par. However luck ran out on the pretty 465 yard par four that runs along the main line railway into London. I'd cracked a good drive away and was left with 225 yards. I decided to go for it but carved it way right. Despite the ground being open amongst the imposing pine trees I couldn't find it.

I recovered at the next, a long 193 yard par three. I was the only one who managed to find the putting surface. Both LIG and El Bandito chipped onto the putting surface. Mike was next to go from the left of the green and duly holed out for a birdie two and a win in our match. I left my first putt five feet short coming up a steep slope and missed the next. Still, it was a net par and I was going along reasonably well.

As the round progressed, the inability to capitalise on good drives, along with the odd errant tee shot heavily punished by the vast swathes of heather meant the score card was taken a hit. I was finding it hard to make a good swing with my irons and it was beginning to play on my mind. In the end the outward score of 14 points was about right but had I managed to hit a few greens with approaches it could have been a bit better. Mike had been the study of steady play and in the match we were one up at the turn.

My swing deserted me around this point and by the time I made an up and down from sand at the twelfth I had only added two measly points to the half time total. Fortunately, there is a superb halfway hut at the back of the green and we adjourned for a welcomed sausage bap and a drink.

Refreshed, we continued to the pretty 13th, a short par three measuring just 149 yards. This hole was designated as a charity hole and anyone missing the green had to pay a £1 fine into the bucket alongside the tee box. I took a six iron as the wind was into my face and took a swing. I made a good contact and the ball found the target. A good par got the scorecard ticking along again

The 13th which carried a fine for the H4H charity for anyone missing the green
The back nine seemed to fly past and we were soon on the 16th. From the tee this visually looked one of the best holes on the course. It plays through an avenue of trees with a ditch and brook awaits anyone going too far. From there it plays slightly uphill to a green that tilts from front to back. We all hit great tee shots and I found a swing with an iron to deposit a seven iron safely on the green. I hit a good first putt but the contour of the putting surface caught me out and it curled away from the hole and left a five foot putt I couldn't hole. It also allowed LIG to tie the match up with two holes to play

Another beautiful hole. I found the green in regulation but couldn't find a par
The eighteenth was also a charity hole. Playing off the white tees it measures a massive 440 yards and there was a £1 fine for anyone not making par. That's harsh! The club website describes the hole perfectly

"A fitting finishing hole that requires two good shots to make the three level green. From the tee the middle or just left of the centre is the line, followed by an approach which must avoid the deep bunker guarding the front right of the green and the rhododendron bushes on the left. The green itself presents a further challenge to overcome as it has three tiers and being too bold will leave a very difficult two putts and a flirtation with the OOB which is not too far over the back. Finish with a par and you can reward yourself with that well earned drink in the bar!"

I didn't hit a great drive, leaking it right into a heathery lie and had resigned myself to opening the wallet at the green. I chipped out and left an eight iron in. As if to put a line under my woeful iron play I hit a poor shot, thin and slicing right of the green. Not wanting to finish with an ugly double bogey I was pleased that my chip and run with a seven iron ran out perfectly to leave a tap in from less than a foot.

A long par four closing hole and a fine for the charity for anyone not making par
Our charity match was all square. Mike Harris had missed the green left with his approach was fortunate not to nestle under the rhododendron bush. LIG had smacked a drive away and was unlucky to see it roll a foot off the fairway as the 18th was also the designated long drive hole and his effort would have moved the marker on and won him the prize. His second found the front portion of the green and he and El Bandito were in prime position. Not for the first time, Mike played an exquisite chip and left it four feet away. LIG could only manage to three putt and so it came down to this putt. Mike made it for a win on the last green. In truth, my contribution had been negligible throughout. An odd half here and there and winning one hole.

After the golf there was a two course dinner followed by a charity auction. There were some terrific lots up for grabs including a great one from Golf Monthly offering one person a chance to be Editor of the magazine for the day, including lunch and drinks after work. I thought for one moment my bid on the night was enough but sadly a higher bid had been lodged by someone who couldn't stay. Curses. I had some cunning plans!. I did manage to acquire a four ball voucher for a game at Bramley Golf Course near Guildford and another for the Army Golf Club. I'm hoping to use these next summer during Royal Ascot race week when my golf club is reduced to twelve holes and the racing traffic makes access incredibly hard. A good way to still get my golfing fix.

It was a fabulous day, marked by perfect weather at a great venue. The organisers presented Help for Heroes for a cheque for £15,500 last night but with the money for auction lots still to come in, side bets still to be honoured and other monies due, that is set to raise higher. I can't wait for next years event. Hopefully it will be at the same place but wherever it is played it is set to be even bigger and even better.

From a personal perspective I am a little down. My game isn't firing. I played in the usual Saturday roll up and couldn't string any consistent holes together. There were some good holes and several bad ones. I played nine holes on Sunday afternoon and spent a couple of hours on the practice ground but can't find that missing link. I feel that I am constantly fighting the swing and despite trying to work hard on the changes from my last lesson it is proving hard to bed in. On the plus side, the changes I made to my address position for the tee shots is paying dividends and I am much happier with the way I am getting it off the tee.

I'm off to the range tomorrow to try again. I know what I am working on and when I get the club in the right place it is falling into place and I can turn onto the ball, compressing it perfectly and getting it away straight and true. Yesterday it felt the club was too shallow. As it was a charity day and my handicap wasn't on the line and it wasn't all about the golf. With a club match and the monthly stableford at the weekend I need to find something that can get the ball around.

That however is a quandary for another day. Yesterday was all about helping a worthy charity raise as much money as possible. There are plenty of days out organised by the Golf Monthly Forum members. There are also some wonderful prizes and opportunities put up by the magazine exclusive to forum members and so if you aren't already a member, what are you waiting for? Get involved and hopefully we can be pegging up together at the next Help For Heroes day next year.