Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Driving Me To Distraction

Easter at Royal Ascot Golf Club means one thing. The annual bogey competition, the Haig Cup. It isn't a format I particularly enjoy despite being runner-up two years ago. Despite winning the Saturday roll up the previous week I wasn't comfortable with my form. Too in and out and too many unforced errors.

I'd had a playing lesson with Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Complex on the 11th. It was a chance for him to see how I performed on the course, particularly as I've been going through a phase of hitting it well in lessons and in practice without translating that to the course and good scores. The driver in particular had been causing me issues and I was struggling to get the ball in play regularly. A fairway in regulation figure of 48% for March was testament to the struggle I was having. Of course, the golfing gods were mocking and I was drove the ball really well with Rhys in attendance. He noticed a few things and gave me a few pointers but overall he was pleased. Keep doing the things you are doing and stay patient was the summary.

I had no real expectations about the Haig Cup. The bogey format is unforgiving. In basic terms, it is matchplay against the course where a birdie (net) equals a win, a par (net) is a half and a bogey is a loss. In stableford, bogey can still be your friend and at least a point keeps the board ticking over. In bogey there is no hiding place. The course never concedes a putt, misses a fairway or makes a mistake. It's unrelenting.

I played my first round on Good Friday with my usual playing partner Mike Stannard, an eight handicapper and Andy Gow, another single figure man off nine. My twelve handicap seemed a bit inadequate in this esteemed company. On a bright chilly day I was keen to play, enjoy it and not worry too much about the outcome. In recent competitions, the opening hole hasn't been kind to me. Today was different and I stuck my tee shot on the tough 229 yard opener to six feet. With my shot, I had two putts for an opening win. My first putt was well struck and caught the left lip but did a lap of the hole before spinning out some three feet away. Inevitably I missed the return and turned a win into a half.

I secured a win at the par five second holing an outrageous thirty five foot putt from just off the edge of the green for a gross birdie. From there, the course and I traded blows. I threw away a good chance at the fifth missing the green from 99 yards with my approach for a half. I then made a great chip and putt at the next to salvage another half. My short game is showing shoots of recovery and I've adopted a much more conventional approach. For now I have a clear mind and a technique that is holding up. It's been a long time since I could say that about my chipping.

As I have alluded, my driving wasn't perfect. I wasn't sending my little white sphere into another post code but I was finding the semi-rough. Not the end of the world but tricky enough to cause me to miss greens and not threaten to go ahead of the course. Still by the ninth tee I was all square. Another drive into the right hand semi left me 197 yards. The wind at Royal Ascot always blows into your face on the ninth. Always has and even in the height of summer with not a cloud in the air there always seems to be a breeze here. Today though it was playing downwind which gave me a chance to hit the green. I only managed to find the right hand bunker but my bunker play is progressing and I was confident of getting it out and still putting for a win. I executed in text book fashion but there was barely a grain of sand above the base and the bounce of the club skidded and the ball went over the back. In the end I lost the hole in meek fashion yet felt I had executed well on the approach and the bunker shot.

The opening two holes of the back nine are shot holes for me and should be good chances to make a par and get ahead. I hooked my approach at the tenth to miss the green and in the end I did well to salvage a half. A poor tee shot at the 178 yard eleventh led to another half. I found both the fairway and green in regulation at the stroke index 1, 409 yard par four twelfth. As normal I grasped mediocrity from the jaws of success and three putted from the front of the green to a back left pin placement.

One down became two down at the thirteenth. I continued to make miss the fairways, doing so on the fourteenth and fifteenth to ensure these were halved. The penultimate hole is a tough nut. Measuring 218 yards with out of bounds tight left, heavy rough not too far to the right and bunkers either side of a green that slopes back to front and right to left as you approach it, the putting surface is always hard to find. This is where a bogey in stableford isn't seen as a bad result. That is exactly what I got and found myself three down. Another miss right at the last off the tee meant I could only advance the ball down the hole on the 531 yard par five to leave 151 yards. It was a six iron but with the pond guarding the right hand side of the green it was a tricky shot. I executed well and made a solid par to reduce the deficit to two down after my opening round.

The format requires players to put two cards in over the four days of the Easter break but they can pick and choose which days they want to play. With the forecast for later in the long weekend deteriorating I opted to play on the Saturday. I went out with two stalwarts of the Saturday roll up, Jim Hanley and John Moss.

The trend was repeated from round one. Too many missed fairways put a large strain on the rest of my game and made it hard to win holes and reduce the deficit. I missed the fairway left on the third, only by a foot or so and only had a nine iron in from 130 yards. The approach was horrid, some might call it a near shank and I was way right. A deft pitch from forty yards to four feet salvaged a par and a win. Suddenly the overall deficit was down to one. That lasted one hole losing the fourth to a bogey before a par (net birdie) at the fifth restored the score to +1 on the day. Playing the sixth, I took a four iron from 177 yards. I hit it well and it missed the green by by a matter of yards, caught the cart path and flew forward. It was never seen again. I don't mind a bad score, whatever the format, if I make a bad swing but this was perfectly struck. Mind you no-one said golf was fair.

I lost the shortest hole on the course courtesy of a messy double bogey and by the time I made a half at the ninth I was back to one down on the day. As I'd done the day before, I made mistakes at ten and eleven and hit the twelfth in regulation again to three putt yet again, this time from some ten feet closer. I lost the thirteenth again and suddenly I was two down on the day and four down overall.

I missed another fairway on the long 430 yard fourteenth but had a good lie in the semi rough and was able to hit a glorious five wood into the heart of the green to make a great par and reduce the deficit. I made a horrible swing on the seventeenth. Too quick with too many moving parts I hit a duck hook. Heart in mouth time it looked for all the world like it had to go out of bounds but somehow pulled up in the rough to leave a pitch in. I put it fifteen feet away but never looked like holing the putt. Driving off the last hole, I hit the ball right towards the out of bounds but we were all in agreement that it was in play and in the rough. Despite using my full five minutes search time, I never found it. The rough wasn't particularly thick and it is a popular area and so I was surprised and not a little frustrated and annoyed. It left a bit of a bitter taste and I finished three down on the day and five down overall.

In the end my efforts were good enough for a mid table finish in thirty third place out of ninety entrants. That was a fair return bearing the poor driving and the fact the putter on both days was out of sorts (36 putts on Friday and 34 on Saturday) and a lot of short putts were missed. In the second round in particular I never really got the ball running at the hole on those crucial three footers. The holes were cut in some tricky places which didn't help and they were running quicker, testament to the great work the green keepers have been doing getting them back to former glory after a few years infested with moss and disease, but I too tentative.

On the plus side my ball striking, aside from the driving was very solid particularly in the longer end of the bag. My pitching and chipping is coming on nicely and there is much to be encouraged by. If I'm honest, there was probably a +1, level score in there. Not enough to have won but it would have been nice to have come out on top against the course. As it was, my score was about right. Too many unforced errors and spurned opportunities but I am still moving in the right direction. The driver was the culprit. There weren't too many that were wild and most were only yards off the mown grass but with the rain and sun the semi rough is becoming juicy and definitely becoming a half shot penalty in some places when the ball sits down.

So where do I go from here? Well there was a buffer zone and a 0.1 handicap increase but given the tough format and the fact I only just missed two buffer zones that'll do for me. My focus of attention this week will be on getting the driver working but also getting some time on the practice green and getting use to making those three and four foot putts again. The reads were good but there was no pace to the putt. Be confident and don't worry about the one back a la Mickleson I think. The swing is generally in a good place and I've my very hush hush event at The Grove next week which will sort a lot of stuff out for me. More than that I am not at liberty to divulge at this juncture. I'll keep plugging away and staying patient. The weekend wasn't a disaster and more good stuff than bad. Hopefully with some constructive practice behind me I can make a good showing in the medal on Saturday. If not I'll dust myself down and try again. I've ploughed my own furrow for a good few years now and my steadfast belief that there is a single figure player waiting to break out remains undiminished. Homer's Odyssey continues and as long as I don't get driven to distraction off the tee, the progress I'm making will get me there.

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