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.

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