Monday, 15 June 2015

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

When your narrator left you at the end of the last entry, he was teetering on the brink of a handicap increase up to 13 and a step further away from the desired single figures target. As you'll know if you read my humble offerings regularly, it's not a case of playing badly a lot of the time and that it's close but I'm managing to chuck some bad holes into every round to ruin any good work I've put in during the round.

Last weekend was the monthly stableford. I'd had a short game lesson at Lavender Park Golf Centre with Andy Piper who changed my set up, grip and way I approached pitch shots and in particular bunkers and I'd invested most of practice time (which has been limited) into working on that. My long game had been a little neglected and there was a degree of nervousness after a practice session the day before hadn't gone to plan.

The weather was unseasonal with a very strong wind up around 20 mph promising to make it a real challenge. As all golfers know, the opening tee shot of the day, especially in a competition, is a scary proposition and the first hole at Royal Ascot is a long 229 yard par 3 with out of bounds close enough right to catch a sliced effort, a pond short and left for a hooked shot and two bunkers left and one right of the green. Despite the ever present danger, I picked a target, trusted the swing and bashed a five wood majestically onto the green. Two putts later and I was off and running with a par. I made par at the next and should have made it a hat-trick at the third but threw in an annoying three putt from twenty feet. And then one of this pesky road crashes popped up.

The fourth is a real sleeper. On the card it's only 320 yards with a Harry Colt style bunker in the middle of the fairway about sixty five yards short of the green to catch anyone trying to attack the green off the tee or getting to aggressive. The green is the biggest protection and slopes severely from right to left and back to front.

It should just be a fairway wood or hybrid and a wedge or short iron in. However I hit a poor tee shot right into heavy rough and a copse of trees. I had a back swing but a truncated follow through courtesy of a silver birch but managed to play a great nine iron recovery and considered myself unfortunate that it ran over the back and off the green. I didn't play a great chip but then three putted and didn't score any stableford points. All that good work in the opening holes pegged back in an instant.

If you are a regular reader you'll know I've embraced a concept called New Golf Thinking, a book (available on Kindle and Amazon) that helps you think better. I was lucky enough to meet John O'Keeffe, one of the co-authors at The Grove last year to go through the book and it's techniques. It has really helped and one of the chapters deals with spiralling down, which simply put, means not letting one bad hole lead to another, and then another. I made an up and down for par at the fifth and sixth to keep momentum going and managed to reach the turn with an under handicap score of nineteen points.

I made a net par and then threw in another three putt at the par three eleventh to lose ground. I made a par at the hardest hole on the course (according to stroke index) the twelfth. And then another road crash. A big snap hook of the tee at the 178 yard thirteenth into a hazard left of the hole. A drop, a hack, a chip and two putts and a seven and no points. The fourteenth is a left to right dog leg measuring 430 yards but usually plays down wind. This was the case and I managed to get a good drive down to the dog leg and a clear sight of the green. I hit a poor approach into a bunker thirty yards short of the green. For most club golfers the long bunker shot is tough and the last time I was in this bunker it was wedged under the lip offering no chance to get it out and on. This time it was playable on the up slope. I drew my 52 degree wedge, set up as per my lesson and played it to perfection. It soared out, pitched and checked and followed the contours of the green all the way to the bottom of the hole for a welcome if unexpected birdie.

Progress continued with a par and a net par and then at the seventeenth I threw in my third bad hole of the round. It's a tough par three at 218 yards with out of bounds hard left. That's where I stuck my tee shot. I played three off the tee which was so far right it was on the fourteenth fairway. I pitched well and two putted but that was an ugly triple bogey and no points.

I knew that I was going well and that a par (net birdie) at the par five final hole would give me 36 points. Now many of you will know that thinking ahead like this is a dangerous thing and it's something New Golf Thinking speaks about but it's been a while since I was in this position. With the wind wreaking havoc I was thinking it may have got me into contention. I hit a good drive and a fabulous fairway wood to leave a nine iron from 118 yards with the wind blowing hard into my face. I made a very nervous swing and pulled it left into a bunker. I trusted my new technique and splashed out to six feet and made the putt for a sand save par.

Conditions were so bad in the wind that CSS (competition standard scratch) went out to 73 (+3) and my final tally of 36 points was good enough for a nice 0.6 handicap cut back to 11.8. More importantly it gets me closer to 11. Furthermore, I managed to win division two. GET IN. Not only was it a win, and a handicap cut but I am now qualified for the Royal Ascot Masters, and end of season thirty six hole medal event open only to competition winners. A triumvirate of reasons to celebrate.

That winning feeling. It's been a long time coming at Royal Ascot but it's good to be back.
Despite all the reasons to be cheerful part three (as Ian Dury once celebrated in song) I am frustrated by my ongoing ability stop the bad holes creeping in. I've been moaning about this for ages and have been trying hard to be strong mentally but I'm struggling. It's never the same hole every time, the same type of error and seems to come from nowhere even when I think I'm going well. It is something I think I need to sit down with a professional and dissect in greater detail. I got away with it this time as the wind made it incredibly difficult and not many managed to score well. I won't be so fortunate all of the time.

June Stableford Statistics

I am happy though. You have to be whenever you win and get a handicap cut thrown in. I was thrilled that I got up and down from two out of three bunkers, and made up and down almost 50% of the time. Vindication of the good work I put in after my lesson and the difference a few simple changes can make.

This weekend was the monthly medal. Again, your narrator went into it not swinging well. I had two practice sessions on Thursday and Friday and neither were great. Too many moving parts and the swing felt out of kilter. I was still hitting it half decent but it was a struggle. Medal golf is tough. Every shot counts and there's nowhere to hide. This was going to be a bumpy ride.

I was in sand left of the green on the first and made a nervy escape and two putted for a net par. I was long with my approach at the second and tried to nudge a putter down the slope but I was woefully short. I should have chipped it. Unforced error. And then it began.....AGAIN. Our third has a carry over a protected environmental area and I hit a rubbish drive, pulled low and left and it was off to the drop zone to play my third and I still had to clear the hazard. I nailed a hybrid. I've worked hard on the pitching following the short game lesson, and I hit a great effort to five feet and holed the putt for a bogey five. A great escape.

I was really fighting the swing all the way. I never felt comfortable over any shot. I missed the green at the par five fifth with a short iron and came up short at the par three sixth. I made a rare (for me) par at out seventh hole, a long par four with a ditch crossing the fairway. This is at the landing zone for a driver forcing players to lay up off the tee or take on a long carry into a narrowing landing area. I hit a hybrid off the tee and the same club onto the green and two putted. I hit the green at the shortest hole on the course, the 139 yard par three eighth. And then it happened again. I chucked in a four putt green. Yes you read that correctly. Four putts from no more than twenty feet. How? Why? What a way to walk of with a double bogey having done the hard work.

I was out in 44 shots or three over my handicap for the front nine. I wasn't swinging great but for the most part was getting it round. It was functional, attritional golf. Not pretty. I opened the back nine with three straight pars, hitting greens in regulations. That said I still wasn't confident over the ball and wasn't feeling the swing. I returned to the scene of one of the meltdowns from my stableford win, the thirteenth. This time I hit a far better tee shot but it missed the target left into a heavy lie in clover. I chipped it out well. Too well really and it checked and came up eight feet short. I'd been struggling with my putting all round and hadn't come to terms with the speed of the greens. This time I got the ball to the hole and scrambled a good par. I was back in the game and back level with my handicap.

A net par at the fourteenth kept the round on an even keel. And then it happened. Another bad hole. I hit a terrible drive. A big yahoo that sliced right on a left to right wind and into heavy rough. I could only hack it out and then compounded the situation by hitting my third into a fairway bunker. The approach was short, the chip came up short and two putts later it was a miserable double bogey to put my round back on the back foot. I scrambled an ugly bogey down the sixteenth and didn't play the hole well but got away with it. The seventeenth was another bad hole the week before and this time I came up short and left. I chipped well. Again too well and it came up short, gripping on the surface. A majestic par putt from ten feet for a fine scrambled par.

I made a solid par at the last and it was back in 39 shots (+4) gross and a total of 83 shots, nett 71 (+1). It was safely in the buffer zone and good for sixth place in division one. I was short by three shots and while you can argue that four putt accounted for two of those, it's hard to see where the other was wasted. While you could argue the double bogey at fifteen was the culprit, I'd suggest that my game wasn't really good enough on the day. I wasted shots with missed greens (the second, fifth and fourteenth) and it was a struggle from start to finish.

June Medal Statistics

In hindsight, it has been a great couple of weeks. I won and perhaps more satisfyingly managed to construct a competitive medal round without playing well with no more than a double bogey on the card. That's progress and I'm in a good place. Work continues on the short game. In my head, I want to become the best short game player at the club, especially from sand. Perhaps an unrealistic aim but if I can get an electric short game that functions under pressure, something I've not had in the armoury for many years, it gives me a real safety net when I don't swing well as per the medal round.

Royal Ascot Golf Club is in a state of flux this week as the world famous Royal Ascot horse race meeting takes place. We give over swathes of the course to helicopters, coach parking and the sheer volume of traffic makes it hard to get in and out of and to be honest it's worth avoiding. I'm giving it a wide berth and opting to work on short game and have a lesson booked for Wednesday to try and get on top of my swing. It isn't far off so won't need major surgery. I'm heading to Oxford and a course called Studley Wood on Thursday. We have a reciprocal agreement with them and it has a fantastic reputation especially for their greens. On Friday I'm off to Reigate Hill for a social game with my best mate. This is a great facility and as well as a short but taxing course has a fantastic practice facility (http://www.reigatehillgolfclub.co.uk/surrey_golflab.htm).

It has been a long time coming readers and despite my fine round a few months ago at Blackmoor Golf Club, this was the first time in a couple of years that I've won at Royal Ascot. I'm chuffed, more so about the handicap cut and really feel that at last I am starting to get the rewards my efforts have deserved. I need to carry this forward. I am still certain I can make single figures. I have been told this by several teaching professionals and I know it is in there. I hope the shock of such a positive and upbeat post hasn't caught you unaware. I am a happy golfer and with big events like the club championship coming up, there's a lot to be optimistic about. Good news and time to reflect and enjoy!

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Hillside And Beyond

Southport, a quaint seaside town on the North West coast that is also home to some fine golf courses in a very short piece of land amongst the dunes. I was up there to compete in the Golf Monthly Forum "Race To Hillside" National Final having qualified in the Southern Area event at Blackmoor.

The day dawned warm and sunny but with a stiff old breeze blowing off the Irish Sea. As a links golf novice I was nervous about what lay ahead. Form hadn't been good, this was a tough course against some very good players but having said that, it was also about having fun.

Next door to Hillside is Royal Birkdale. Arguably the most famous of the trio of courses it has hosted eight Open championships and will do so again in 2017. The last one in 2008 was one by Padraig Harrington. There is a fine time line that shows exactly what they have achieved over the years (http://www.royalbirkdale.com/club-history). It has an iconic clubhouse that rises from behind the eighteenth and I was keen to have a look around before the serious part of the trip too place

The famous Royal Birkdale clubhouse
It is a tough start and looking down the first hole you can only imagine the pressures the top players face (http://www.royalbirkdale.com/course/holes/first-hole).

The 1st hole at Royal Birkdale

Standing beside the 18th green where Opens are won
From Royal Birkdale it was a two minute jaunt to Hillside. It is ranked number 30 in the Golf Monthly top 100 courses and we received a very warm welcome in the professional shop and clubhouse. Wanting to do my best I wandered out to the practice area including a superb short game facility. It was here that I was to get a rude awakening. I was hitting the ball nicely and had a smooth tempo and all was good. All except that it was straight into the teeth of the wind and even with my driver, I was struggling to get the ball past the 200 yard marker. Others came and I felt better when they also struggled.

The short game area had an immaculate green that wouldn't have been out of place on any course along with two deep pot bunkers, a taste of what lay ahead. I was managing to get out without too many issues and my short game was in reasonable shape. Time to get to the first tee and get it on.

Ready to play beside the short game area
There were seven regional winners going out in two groups. I was in the second group and so had a chance to see how the first group tackled the opening hole. It's just shy of 400 yards and has the Southport to Liverpool railway hard down the left and with a fairway bunker right. The fairway was quite generous but with the wind blowing right to left and having seen several tee shots already blown towards the railway and out of bounds it was still a daunting task. In the end my tee shot was aimed at the fairway bunker but I blocked it right of that into heavy rough. It was a nervy start and an opening double bogey

The lull before the storm
After a few nervy holes I settled down. The opening holes meander along the side of the railway line and across the tracks lies Southport and Ainsdale or SandA as it's affectionately known. Like Hillside it is an Open qualifying venue for this years championship. SandA has its own prestigious history (http://www.sandagolfclub.co.uk/about_southport_and_ainsdale_golf_club) and has hosted the Ryder Cup twice.

I was managing to play the longer holes well but was struggling with the par threes including a lost ball off the tee on the seventh. However I bounced back with par at the next and in the end managed to go out in thirteen points. The tenth at Hillside is a glorious par three playing 172 yards uphill between two large dunes flanked with pines. I carved another wild tee shot right and again failed to score. It wasn't the start to the back nine I was looking for. However I was finding my feet and started to make a few bogeys (for net par) and the odd par (for net birdie). There were a couple of problems, including an annoying three putt but in the end, my fourteen points coming home was a decent effort.

To illustrate how hard this course was playing, the thirteenth played 402 yards. I hit my driver right out of the middle and flushed a five wood but despite two of my best shots of the day I was still twenty yards short. The wind was playing its part.

In the end, my twenty seven points may sound a paltry return, but it was good enough for third place after count back. The winner managed thirty one points playing off a seven handicap. I think everyone enjoyed the challenge but there's no doubt the course was the winner.

The finalists in front of the 1930's clubhouse
Southport is certainly blessed when it comes to quality courses and if you are ever in the vicinity you really should play one or more of these venues. It isn't cheap but these places are so iconic and in such fabulous condition it's worth every penny and if the wind blows I can assure you that you'll be hitting a lot of shots so you will definitely get your money's worth. That said, they aren't fearsome and are fair but challenging. A fantastic trip and third place was above my expectations.

It was back to Berkshire (a five hour road trip) and the Stone Cup over the bank holiday weekend at Royal Ascot. This is a stableford competition over thirty six holes but where the players can choose which two days out of the three they want to play. I played my opening round on the Saturday.

Things got off to a quick start and I opened with two pars, dropped a shot at the third and then parred the next two. Regular followers will know I've had issues at the 178 yard par three sixth in the past but today I hit a solid four iron to within ten feet and made a very rare birdie. Level par gross after six. Rare territory. I dropped a shot at the next but it is the second hardest hole on the course but then, almost inevitably I chucked in a road crash hole. I cannot seem to keep these off the card and it's a big problem. The hole only measures 139 yards but I missed the green miles left, duffed a chip, chipped on and then inevitably three putted. I made a net par at the ninth and was out in +5 gross and more importantly twenty stableford points.

I always view the first two holes of the back nine as a chance to pick up shots. They are a mid length par four measuring 371 yards and a par three of 178 yards. However today I only managed to make a net par on both. Not a problem but a chance missed.

I thought my luck was holding when I made an outrageous par on the twelfth, the hardest hole on the course having not seen the short grass once thanks to an outrageous twenty five foot putt. I gave one away at the next but two more pars and I was back under handicap. The sixteenth is a tough par four with out of bounds tight left. I took a three wood for safety and didn't get all of it and it was short and right. I was forced to lay up and was in the middle of the fairway with just an eight iron in hand. I have no idea why it happened but I pulled it miles left of the green into an unplayable lie and in the end the quadruple bogey was never going to add to the points tally. I dropped another at the penultimate hole which always plays harder than its stroke index of 13. I had a chance to par the last but failed having missed the green left again with an eight iron and was reliant on a six foot putt to make a bogey (net par).

Still, with two holes where I didn't score, it was still thirty six points and twelfth place on the opening day. In these competitions spread over several days you can't win it after round one but you can play yourself out of contention and so I was pleased with my work but was also very annoyed at the bad holes and the ongoing problem of throwing killer shots in from nowhere.

Stone Cup 1st Round Statistics

Back for more on the Monday I knew I needed a similar score or better to be competitive. There were some impressive scores in but I started reasonably. Not as well as my first round but level with my handicap after three holes. It could have been better but for an annoying three putt on the third. And then, like round one, a huge score appeared from nowhere on the fourth. I missed the fairway right into heavy rough and with a tree hampering the swing. I moved it forward and then hit my pitch over the back of the ground. I chipped back on and had to hole a fifteen footer for bogey and a point. I missed. And the one back and that was a triple bogey.

The rest of the front nine was fairly steady. I missed a green from 135 yards at the fifth but for the second competitive round running made par at the sixth this time courtesy of a sand save from the right hand bunker. In the end I was out in seventeen points which considering the horror at the fourth was decent effort especially as I didn't feel my game was quite on key. I got the dropped shot back at the tenth and was level handicap with eight to play and a chance to kick on and challenge.

I lost ground again at the eleventh after missing the green right and hitting a poor bunker shot. I was holding position until the fourteenth. I found the fairway with a good tee shot and hit a good approach from 201 yards but pulled it into the bunker short and right. It left a long bunker shot. Or it would have but when I arrived at the ball it was rammed in the face under the lip. I had no stance and did well to get it out at all. I chipped on and two putted but another double bogey. Damn.

Stone Cup 2nd Round Statistics

I made par at the par five fifteenth and a net par at the tricky sixteenth but could only manage a single point at the final two holes. It was a whimper and I finished with thirty two points and 68 points overall. In the end I finished eighteenth overall. Not as good as it could have been but a steady performance none the less.

On the downside, the Monday round was another 0.1 back on the handicap and I'm teetering on the edge of going up to 12.5 which is a 13 handicap in new money. Not what I had planned at the start of the season and if I'm honest not what I feel I've deserved. So many rounds are being punctuated by these two killer holes. It isn't even the same ones every time or I'd have revised my course management on them by now.

I am still upbeat. I still have total faith in my chances of getting to single figures and will keep going. I'm enjoying my golf (apart from those pesky bad holes each round) and loving the journey. It has been an interesting few rounds to Hillside and beyond. With the season now in full flow it's time to take the good points from my links odyssey and bank holiday challenge for a Royal Ascot major and go for it.