Monday, 24 March 2014

King Of Kings

The Golf Monthly Forum is a melting point of opinion, information and views on all things golf (http://forums.golf-monthly.co.uk/). For 2014 they have organised a stroke play event, The King of Kings, with a series of regional qualifiers taking place up and down the UK to provide winners to compete in a grand final at the world famous Hillside Golf Course in Southport. Hillside forms part of England's finest stretch of coastal links, being adjacent to Royal Birkdale and Southport & Ainsdale with Formby a few miles further down the road. All good but first there was the small issue of qualifying and winning the regional heat.



The South Eastern heat took place last Thursday at Camberley Heath Golf Club. Established in 1913 it was designed by the legendary H.S (Harry Shapland) Colt. His legacy is an outstanding heathland course where natural contours have been used to create a "strategic golf experience." It has a rich heritage with The Duke of York, later to become King George VI an honorary member and the Prince of Wales followed as a patron. Camberley Heath is definitely a Harry Colt classic. Set in 135 acres of heathland, framed by towering pines it has remained faithful to Colt's early vision. An ideal test for the gathered masses to test their game.

The regular follower will know I am making the final changes to my swing under the professional gaze of Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Centre. I had a lesson booked for the night before the qualifier. Working hard on posture and my turn we were tweaking the work from the previous week. The results were very promising although there was a nervous anticipation as I hadn't had any time to work on it after the lesson. Milling around the first tee watching the early groups go off didn't help the nerves as the majority sent their drives straight down the middle.

I was first up in my group. I knew a couple of my partners from previous forum meetings over the years and the final member of the group plays at Royal Winchester which has a reciprocal agreement with my own club Royal Ascot so we had a connection from the beginning. I pulled a five wood for the downhill opening drive. It is a relatively generous landing area. Despite my nerves I managed to replicate the swing I'd had in the lesson the night before and it sailed away nicely. A neat nine iron from 121 yards into ten feet settled any remaining nerves. I missed the birdie but a safe par to start. Worth their weight in gold in stroke play.

The second is lovely little par three that plays steeply uphill and with some cavernous bunkers at the bottom of the slope waiting to catch anything under hit. I played an eight iron into eight feet and the ball defied gravity, refusing to take the slope and turn into the hole. Still a par is a par and no stress.

I was in a superb place with the swing. Everything was clicking into place and when I sent the first driver of the day long and straight on the first par five on the card I was feeling good. Had it been a social round or even a stableford event, I would have been tempted to have a go at the green. Instead a little push with a six iron left just 78 yards. I hit my 52 degree wedge but flew it way too far. From the fringe I putted up to eight feet but missed the par putt. Still a bogey wasn't a disaster. Frustrating but no card wrecker.

I steadied the ship at the next and at the fifth hit a big drive, for me at least, although it was playing downhill. The hole measures 496 yards and plays as a par five. I had a hybrid left from 191 left but missed the green left. A safe pitch to twenty five feet left me staring at another par. The putter came to the party though and a snaking putt found the heart of the hole for a birdie four. Happy days.

I dropped shots at the next two holes but came to the par five ninth in a reasonable position. It is a lovely 506 yard par five. With a long carry over heather and a steep bank running down the left and a large bunker on the right the tee shot requires a slight draw. Sadly I started my drive too straight and it drew towards the left hand bank. I hoped it would find its way back down the slope and to its credit the ball had tried hard, but to my horror I discovered it nestling in a lateral hazard unseen off the tee. I had no option but to take a penalty drop and in the end a double bogey was the best I could do. Still I was out in 41 which compared favourably to the par 35 on the card.

The tenth is a tough opener to the back nine. Even more so playing into the teeth of a strengthening wind which was becoming at least a one club breeze. According the to the club website even after successfully making the long carry over the heather bank it leaves the toughest second shot on the course. From a downhill hanging lie a fairway wood is required to carry a second heather bank and reach the green on top of the hill. With the slope emphasising a fade, it's crucial the ball is kept left. I hit a cracking drive and had 187 yards left. I hit a lovely hybrid into the heart of the green to make a valuable par. I was back on track and  great way to bounce back from that nasty double on the previous hole. All had been forgotten.

Stopping briefly at the lovely halfway heart adjacent to the eleventh tee, we ploughed on. The next is a par three measuring 202 yards but was playing a mere 190 yards into the wind. I hit a five wood and truth be told couldn't have hit it any better. I was surprised to see it come up twenty yards short. Nothing you can do in those conditions but laugh at the absurdity of this silly game. Now regular followers will know that my short game is flaky at best and when it's off can be catastrophic. I had been toying with the linear method, as promoted by Gary Smith, a coach to the England amateur team and a Golf Monthly top 25 coach. However, Rhys and I had been working hard on a more orthodox method and I put my faith in the work and time invested. This was the moment of truth. Pulling an eight iron it was a simple chip of run of about thirty feet. However in my short game world there is no such thing as simple. It could have easily been a foot in front of me or I could have thinned it out the back of the green. Instead I executed to perfection and the ball stopped less than a foot away. An up an down for par.

I dropped a shot at the next when my drive went left, my recovery came up short from the semi rough and I could only pitch to ten feet. The thirteenth is another par five and a chance to steady the card again. Another drive found the fairway. I pulled the five wood attempting to position the ball as close to the green as possible. For the first time all round, the swing got away from me. I topped it a mere hundred yards or so and was left with 162 yards. In the wind it was a five iron but another mediocre swing saw it sail weakly to the right and into a deep bunker. A lovely recovery to seven feet gave me a chance to make a par I really hadn't deserved and so it was perhaps justice that the putt shaved the lip and stayed above ground.

The 13th hole at Camberley. Another beautifully crafted hole

A par and a bogey followed. It has been a long time since I've been in contention in any competition of note and I was beginning to feel the pressure a touch, knowing that I had played some controlled golf and swung the club as well as I had in the last eighteen months. A real vindication to the skill of Rhys and the time I'd invested in making the changes to my game.

The seventeenth at Camberley Heath is a brute playing 428 yards into the wind. I hit the ideal drive down the left hand side, fading into the centre of the fairway. In the wind, I had 202 yards left and opted for the five wood. It was a career shot, starting left of the green, fading back on line, pitching short and running onto the putting surface. With the flag at the back it kept running the length of the putting surface and finished no more than three feet away. In truth I should have made a birdie but I never really got the putt running at the hole and I was almost more nervous of running it two feet past. Walking off I actually felt like it was a shot gone instead of a par and one of the potential disaster holes safely navigated.

The last is the signature hole at Camberley Heath. Not for the faint hearted, the drive has to negotiate the heather covered hill. The more you are prepared to take on the shorter the approach. It is a partially blind shot to an elevated green with a deep bunker right of the green and a putting surface that slopes from back to front and makes it a challenging finish to the round. I took a fairly conservative line with a three wood and had 98 yards left. It played downwind and it should have been a mid wedge but I hit a pitching wedge. It went long and left a tough putt from the muddy fringe. My first effort was too strong and sailed five feet past. I couldn't make par and finished with an annoying bogey.

The approach into the iconic signature hole at Camberley Heath, the closing 18th
However I'd navigated the back nine in just a four over par 39 for a grand total of 80 shots, nett 68 (-3 off my 12 handicap). There was a nervous wait for the results to be announced after a fine meal in the Captains Bar in their sumptuous club house. In the end, there was a tie for first place and the result would be decided on count back. Those that have followed my golfing exploits over the years may recall I got to a national final before, back in October 2011 at the Forest of Arden. This was to celebrate Golf Monthly's centenary and having won the qualifier in St Pierre in Chepstow I lost the Grand Final on count back over the last six holes (http://threeoffthetee.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/fine-margins.html). With the other golfer being a real Golf Monthly Forum stalwart, Rick Garg from the Centurion Club, playing off five I wasn't optimistic given my previous history. However this time there was no need to worry and I'd been crowned King of King regional qualifier for the South East.

Where to start? Well, I have much more confidence in the new Ping I25 irons and feel so much happier looking down on the thinner top line compared to the G25 that preceded them. I have rarely felt so in control of all aspects of my game for whole round. I felt so in charge of the swing and the lesson the night before had merely emphasised the work Rhys and I had done and that we are on the right path. There is still more that we can refine and the short game I fear is still in the hands of the golfing gods every time I go out. Today though confidence breeds confidence and the gods were smiling on me.

It has just told me that Homer's Odyssey is on course and despite rolling over to a 12 handicap there is a great summer ahead of me and that the handicap cuts towards single figures will surely come. I am so happy that I have the game and can actually pull it out when required. Of course I owe Rhys a debt of thanks but also to my partners on the day who kept the mood light throughout and made it easy to keep loose and not score orientated. I was booked into the London qualifier at Ealing Golf Club next weekend but no need to play in it now. My work, for now is done and I can get myself set for the challenge that Hillside will no doubt offer, especially if the wind picks up. No doubt, there will be some degree of coverage on the forum page within a Golf Monthly magazine coming to a news stand near you and the final will certainly get a good degree of coverage. Don't say you haven't been warned.

In the meantime, if you want to find out what all the fuss is about get yourself over to the Golf Monthly forum and join the party. There are always matches, meets and competitions going on at courses covering all four corners of the country. For now though, I'm going to try and ride this wave of form and see if I can start carrying it over into the next few qualifiers at Royal Ascot. As for now, hail the King!

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