Monday, 31 August 2015

A Change Of Tack - Coming To An Inevitable Conclusion

I have a love hate relationship with golf and right now, it is firmly in the hate camp. My form has deserted me yet again and my swing and scoring is in the doldrums. You find your narrator wallowing in a pit of self pity and misery with his game and he's been thinking. My approach to this needs a fresh angle and I'm changing tack. The premise is still the same. I still have an unyielding faith in my ability to get to single figures. I just have a feeling my approach to this has been all wrong.

I had a lesson a few weeks ago. For the first few sessions afterwards at the range I was striping the ball and everything was in sync and temp was fluid and compact. Sadly my ability to play was severely restricted with the course shut and I didn't really get a chance to get out and try it, real time where it really counts.

Since then, form has been tailing off. I played poorly in Captain's Day in terms of ball striking terms and had to work overtime but managed to score reasonably although it was off the yellow tees and so the course was playing shorter and arguably easier. I played in the roll up the day after. Another round where I was fighting my game from the opening tee shot until the final putt dropped. I've been to the range in the last week to try and get to the bottom of the problem. Back to checking posture, checking tempo and working on a better one piece takeaway, all key elements from the last lesson. And all to no avail.

Range sessions have been unproductive and I'm hitting it poorly. The stock shot seems to be a weak shot right. The contact itself feels fine but it's starting right of target and moving further right. To be honest I'm just a little bit lost right now. It has been Longhurst Cup weekend at my club, Royal Ascot Golf Club. It's a medal format and players choose which two days out of the three of the bank holiday weekend they want to play. I played my first round on Saturday. It was a slog. I didn't hit a single iron shot well. I had managed to drive reasonably, especially early on, but missed green after green. I was fighting the swing throughout and in the end felt like I was playing every shot with fear and trying to steer it. I ran out of luck on the seventeenth hooking it out of bounds and then going for the green at the last from 149 yards, knowing I wasn't hitting irons well and carving it into the lake right of the green. A lay up, and a chip and two putt for bogey (net par) was the sensible option. My total was net 75 (+5) and so another 0.1 back on the handicap and to be honest if it wasn't for some decent chipping and putting in the middle part of the round it could have been a real car crash round.

And here's the thing. I could of played yesterday and got my second round done and dusted. I didn't and opted to spend a day with the wife. I just didn't fancy playing. I slipped out and hit a few balls late in the day but it was terrible. It meant I was forced to play my last round today. I knew what the forecast was and it wasn't good with heavy rain due. I opened the curtains and there it was. I simply went back to bed and haven't even bothered playing. I have never done this before. Can't say I feel great about it but I didn't enjoy my round on Saturday and there was no way I wanted to endure four hours in non-stop heavy rain just to submit a card and get another 0.1 back on the handicap.

I have a lesson booked for Thursday. It was supposed to be an hour working on the short game and giving myself an edge in an area that has been improving of late. It seems now I need an MOT on my swing and something to fix the problem. What that is and where it's come from is something I'll be sitting down with Andy Piper my teacher to find out. We'll be discussing where I go next. I still think lessons are important to my game. I've said many times golf has never come easy and I'm not blessed with natural co-ordination and timing. However I can't keep having lessons, making small forward steps forward and then huge backward strides. Why isn't it sticking and why isn't it working?

And yet I feel I know the answer in my heart already. A guy called Adam Cook took the time to comment on my last post (The Benefits Of Lessons). Thank you for taking the time (and if anything I write provokes you, please feel free to follow his example and post a comment). He talked about "finding positions" in my swing. While I don't agree with that I concede that I do seem to be trying to groove drills and swing changes too often. If I am going to work on my game, short game is where it should be at. I've become a range jockey bashing balls and trying to find a swing that perhaps isn't there. I just need something functional more often than not. Pretty or even technically perfect isn't necessary.

I need to change tack. This approach clearly isn't paying dividends. My handicap is heading north and while I have had degrees of success in 2015 I am no nearer getting to single figures. The biggest rub is that I look around my club and see guys who wouldn't know the way to a driving range or practice ground if you gave them directions. They barely work at their game and yet seem equally as consistent, if not more so than I am. Their handicap in many cases is lower and they hit buffer zones more regularly. Their game seems no better or worse than mine. They simply play more. If I am going to work on my game, it has to be from a hundred yards and in and on the putting green.

But here's a paradox, perhaps part of my DNA. I have a lesson and work on my game and move a little way forward. If I don't work on my game and then chop it around I feel I need to go back out and work harder on my swing. Perhaps I need to practice smarter and better. If I don't work on my game I don't play well. At least that's how it has always felt in my mind. We have winter on the horizon (sad but inevitable) and so playing opportunities are reduced to weekends and even then only if the great British weather permits. Does that mean I sit about and resist going out and working on my game? Do I use the dark months to re-evaluate my target. Is single figures even realistic any more, especially as a handicap of 13 beckons. Sitting here, morose with the rain auditioning at my window, the answer is still a YES. A change of tack is necessary and as I've alluded to it has become almost inevitable. Single figures are still achievable.

Something has to give. I've decided I'm still going ahead with my block of lessons over the winter. The work I've done in 2015 to date with tempo in particular has paid some dividends allied to the better takeaway it does give a swing of fewer moving parts.....when it works. However the biggest area has to be translating what I can do on a range onto a course and that into low scores and handicap cuts. To this end I'm absolutely certain I've over thought this now and my equation of working on technique equalling better golf is incorrect. Good technique is essential, hence the need to work on a smoother tempo and swing. However getting my head right is even more important. I need to clear the junk, de-clutter my golfing my mind and play with freedom on the course while bringing my range game with me.

This should be an interesting challenge for my teaching professional but one he seems up for. He seems convinced, like me, that we still have a single figure golfer in there. I just need to look at a fresh way of tapping into him. To this end, range sessions are being restricted to one per week on the full swing. No more than that. I'll play every opportunity I have over the winter. I usually baulk at playing on temporary greens in the winter as they are usually stuck on the edge of a fairway, are impossible to hit into effectively with an iron and it become a lottery to get it close with a chip or putt on frozen and rutted ground. However I'll be swinging the club, not having any technical thoughts and can use it to work on short game and driving, two areas that can always be better. If the weather is totally inclement any additional range work will be looking at distance control and pitching, looking to improve accuracy with short irons (8 iron down to sand wedge).

Having read this post so far, please don't get the idea it is all doom and gloom. Yes your narrator is frustrated with the state of his game and the fact that in hindsight I should have submitted a second score yesterday and posted a total (I've effectively no returned having only put one card in). However, with a lesson to come this week to cure all that ails me, I have a great opportunity at the weekend to reignite the flame with a strong showing in the "Masters". It's an invitational event open only to competition winners at the club over the last twelve months. I'm in courtesy of my win in the June stableford. I don't think the swing is far away. Laughable when you consider how I hit my irons on Saturday (and at the range last week and yesterday) but every time I've seen Andy Piper for a lesson it has been a quick tweak, a bit of remedial work and away I go. The problem has then come over egging the pudding and grinding it out on the range to get the changes to bleed into the swing. The first and second sessions post lesson are usually very good before it tapers off. This has to change.

The equation is simple. More play, less practice, certainly on the long game. Short game still needs work and that area of the game is now my main focus. Others seem to be playing and improving and I am working on my game and not doing so. Change of tack. Fresh approach. It can't do any harm.

So what can you the reader derive from all this waffling? Nothing more significant than I've reached a turning point in my golfing pursuit of single figures. I didn't enjoy my round at the weekend and perhaps this odyssey has become all encompassing. Golf is suppose to be fun at this level. I am always a glass half empty sort of guy. Always have been. That said I do normally enjoy my game and there's always something to bring me back. On Saturday there were some good up and downs and so the chipping and clutch putting is getting better. I drove reasonably well in places. See, not all bad. In fact, the chipping in particular is coming along nicely.

Let's see what Thursday and next week brings. No point looking back. Single figure golf doesn't come without effort, some set backs and disappointment along the way. Time to take stock, reassess and try a new way. I see it as an inevitable change of tack and I'm back under full sail again.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Benefits Of Lessons

If you are a regular follower of my pursuit of a single figure handicap, you'll be aware that golf doesn't come naturally and that any small triumph and handicap cut is the result of dedication and sheer hard work, along with some bloody mindedness. I have been having one of those frustrating seasons where I'm doing a lot of things right and have been blighting my competition cards with one or two poor holes.

In recent weeks, the swing has felt out of kilter and full of too many moving parts and I've been struggling at the range and on the course to find a level of consistency. As a result, I booked a lesson at Lavender Park Golf Centre with Andy Piper. I've been seeing him since the winter, usually for a fix when the swing has fallen away and I can't find the repair manual myself. I like his teaching methods and he's kept it simple. We've tinkered with tempo and swing length a little in recent months and that is probably as intense as we've got and is something we'll re-visit in more detail over the winter. For now, it was about getting the swing working again.

Following my previous lesson, we'd worked on takeaway, which had been hands driven and too far inside. In the last few range sessions I've struggled and a big pull has materialised from time to time from nowhere. On the course that's caused a number of issues and big scores and I had no idea what the cause was. I was also missing right with a weak strike. I did say the swing was out of kilter.

Andy watched as I hit a few. As is the norm, I striped the first couple straight and true. Then came a couple of the big pulls and a couple of the ones going right so he got to see the full gamut within the first dozen shots. There was some good news, and some not so good. I'd been working hard all season on posture and he was very happy with where I was. One box ticked. The tempo was better. Not great but better. The pull was easy to diagnose and cure. All I was doing was aiming the left shoulder too far left of target and then simply swinging down that line. A simple change to the address position to get both shoulders square eradicated that. The bad news was that the swing was still too dominated on the take away by the hands getting too quick and coming inside too quickly.

We worked hard on a one piece action, letting the shoulder and the chest initiate the start of the swing. Tempo and the length of swing improved as I got into a flow and worked the club back better and on a correct path. The second part of the fix, to encourage me to strike down, ball then turf (mat) and get the club exiting better was to simple think of hitting a fade and working the club more to the left. I wasn't actually trying to move it right to left, and the flight wasn't moving in the air and it was more a feel rather than "real". To reinforce the feeling he placed an alignment stake about three yards outside the bay and asked me to imagine that was a sapling and I had to fade it around it.

These tweaks were minimal. A slight tweak to the shoulders, a more neutral start and a small change to the path and suddenly I was a different player. Every ball was higher and longer than in recent months. It all felt compact and there were no excessive moving parts and it felt compact and solid. As the lesson ended we talked about a plan for the winter. I still want to work on tempo and the length but when I swing as I had been in the lesson it all falls into place. The other big area I want to look at is the mental side. I am still working hard on New Golf Thinking and have gone back to the Kindle book and read one or two key chapters to remind myself what I need to be doing. However the key are for me is taking range performance onto the course and replicating what I am capable of on the course.

After the lesson I adjourned to a nearby bay to work on the takeaway and bask in the enjoyment of getting the ball to behave as I wanted. I had been hitting a six iron in the lesson and started to play about with longer clubs until I got to the driver. Wow. It was like a different, proper, golfer holding hitting it. Even with range balls I was hitting the back fence at about 220 yards almost on the fly. More importantly, dispersion was gloriously tight.

The biggest down side was Royal Ascot Golf Club was shut last week to accommodate the Red Bull Air Race taking place on the famous race course across the road. The course and facilities were shut to provide a sterile flying area. I was also away and so I haven't been able to work as diligently on the take away in particular as I'd hoped. I had ventured down to the golf club and the practice ground a couple of times after work earlier in the week before the closures took effect. In patches it was good but I came away with a tinge of disappointment. It wasn't as good as I hoped and I'm still struggling with the hands dictating the start and it coming too far inside,

However I feel I'm back on an even keel and with a nod towards my short game to come and an hour of tuition booked soon, I'm in a happy place with the game. We had Captain's Day on Saturday and I hoped it would come together in a strong performance. It's a hugely popular day in the calendar and this year we were raising money for the Berkshire Air Ambulance, a needy and under resourced which provides valuable support in life and death situations and gets the seriously injured to hospital in time to make a world of difference. A great cause.

I am still a huge advocate of getting regular lessons. The cynical out there will say it has made precious difference to my game and that my handicap has been on a plateau between 10 and 12 for the last few years and I still show precious little sign of cracking on towards my utopia of a single figure handicap. In simple terms they'd be correct if you take the handicap as the sole measuring tool. However in terms of progress towards a swing that is more than capable of seeing my goal fulfilled, it is getting better and better.

Captain's Day arrived. I hadn't been on the course for a fortnight. Practice had shown some forward momentum but as any golfer knows, there's a world of difference between playing on the course, one ball, once chance and hitting a number of balls off a nice flat mat. Warm up went well and I meandered my way to the fifth hole in time for the 8.00am shotgun start.

Things started well enough with an opening par, offset with a bogey on my fourth hole (the 8th). I wasn't hitting it perfectly, but riding my luck as my thinned tee shot at my seventh (11th) showed as it rolled up to within ten feet of the hole. I didn't make birdie but it was a stress free par.

I was compiling a score. I wasn't pretty but it was functional. As we came to my 15th (the 1st) if I could make a couple of pars, net birdie, I could get close to forty points. I missed the green but chipped well to three feet but failed to make the putt. I repeated the feat on the next, coming up short of the green in regulation but chipping to two feet but again missing a par putt. I finally converted an up and down for par at the penultimate hole. A closing par wasn't pretty. I hit a horrid three wood off the tee which was off the toe and scuttled away down the third fairway. I hit a solid recovery with an eight iron and two putted. In the end, I came in with a respectable thirty eight points. Not enough to trouble the prize table or pick up any money from the usual roll up group but a couple under handicap. The biggest shame was the event wasn't a qualifier and so there's no cut to come.

I played again today. Again warm up was good and I was hitting it well. My opening tee shot wasn't good but I chipped close and should have made par but was happy to settle for a net par and move on. I drained a monster putt for birdie at the second. Things started to go awry from the sixth where I hit a horrid snap hook. I did the same at the next but worked hard to recover for a net par. I then made horrible double bogey at the eighth and a lot of my early hard work had been undone.

I was steady at the start of the back nine, gave all the ground back with another snap hook off the tee at the thirteenth. These hooks had come with irons or my three hybrid and the driver finally joined in at the fourteenth. I put my third into a lateral hazard, dropped under penalty, and pitched to twelve feet and holed out for a double bogey (single point as I get a shot). By then the rain was falling heavily. Welcome to the British summer. I made a mess of the fifteenth but then hit a good drive down sixteenth and followed it with a hybrid to the edge of the green some fifteen feet away. I had put the Ping Cadence Anser back in the bag and it rolled another birdie putt. I made another putt from ten feet at the seventeenth to save par. My closing tee shot was another snap hook but I found a way to make a bogey at this par five thanks to a good fairway wood and a seven iron to the heart of the green from 142 yards in torrential rain after initially chipping the tee shot back out from heavy wet rough.

Again, it added up to a level handicap thirty six points and I am conscious that the two birdies (four points each) masked a lot of poor holes. I seemed to lose my tempo completely on the back nine today. It was in and out yesterday and today and so the work I've been doing isn't there yet. It is better than it was though.

The season is beginning to build towards a climax. It is a bank holiday next weekend and it's the Longhurst Cup, a medal event, where you play two rounds but can choose which two of the three days of the long weekend to compete. It is a major at Royal Ascot and an event I won way back in 2000. The following week, it is the Masters, an invite only event, thirty six holes of medal on the one day. It is only open to competition winners over the last twelve months and I'm in courtesy of my win in the June stableford.

The moral of this yarn is simple. Your narrator had been struggling and couldn't find a fix. A simple lesson and I am back enjoying the golf again, and in swathes playing some good and consistent golf again. There are still issues as my hooks today show but I feel I've not really put too much work into the game over the last week as the club was closed and practice was protracted. I have a full week of practice scheduled this week to work hard on the take away and tempo. The session last week showed me what I can achieve and that with the benefit of lessons and a regular look at the fundamentals, the swing is moving on, baby step by baby step and I am building something that will work more often, get my scores and handicap down and get me to single figures. If that could start next week it would be nice.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

2015 Club Championship

I'm not sure about you but for me the pinnacle of the golfing season has to be the annual club championship. At Royal Ascot Golf Club, we have a prize for both the best gross and net scores. Realistically I  don't have a prayer of winning the gross prize and it's all about the net for me. The competition is organised in handicap order with the lowest handicaps setting off first on the Saturday morning and there is then the small matter of surviving the halfway cut which sees the top sixty and ties back for a second round on the Sunday. This time it's in score order so the best scores are out last.

The first round was played in dry conditions, although a tricky breeze ensured that scoring wouldn't be too easy. The green staff at the club had done a fantastic job of getting the course ready and in my opinion, the greens haven't been any better in the ten years we've been playing on our new course.

Practice had been curtailed by a distinct lack of form and I was struggling with a bad back which was hampering my turn (

I started off in steady fashion and by the third hole I was in a comfortable place, level with my handicap and hitting it reasonably well. And then I imploded. A snap hook off the tee at the fourth meant chipping away from the out of bounds fence which was the catalyst to a double bogey. No matter, the fifth is a par five I can reach in regulation. A good chance to make a solid par and steady the ship. I found the fairway and placed my second into position A+. A simple nine iron from 118 yards with all of the green in front of me. I pulled it left into a bunker. If you follow my adventures you'll know I had a bunker lesson not so long ago and have worked hard on improving my technique. It was a simple escape. The green staff had freshly raked every bunker and I should have made no more than a bogey. I caught it thin. No sand at all and the ball sailed merrily miles over the green, out of bounds. A triple to follow the double.

The golfing gods have a way of sensing weakness and playing with it. The sixth is a par three and I missed the green right into another bunker. Were they mocking me? The ball was under the lip to compound matters. This time I splashed it out to seven feet and converted for par. I made a solid net par and then came to the shortest hole on the course. It's only 139 yards and I missed it short and right. I should have just pitched on, two putted and moved on. However it was sitting nicely and I thought I could slide a wedge under it and land if softly. Instead I knifed it over the other side of the green, duffed another chip and walked off with yet another triple bogey. I walked off the ninth with a bogey and out in 47, or +12 gross and all my stroke allowance used already. The back nine would be tough.

It started off badly with another double bogey. A welcome par followed and I made five at the hardest hole on the course the SI 1, twelfth. A chip and a putt par at the thirteenth and suddenly I was looking like a golfer. It was going terribly well until the sixteenth. I hit a wild drive right of the fairway and then played a great recovery under the trees to leave 129 yards and a simple eight iron. My hard work was undone with a pulled approach into knee high rough, left of target. In fact, I was lucky to find it and luckier still to get it out. Yet another triple bogey. I limped in with a bogey at seventeen and net par down the last but it all added up to a horrid gross 91 (net 79). Surely not good enough to make the cut?

2015 Club Championship Round 1 Statistics

In fact I made it.....just. I was third group out on the Sunday. On the plus side I'd continued my run of successive cuts and this was the fourth consecutive time I'd pegged it up in round two. Conditions in the first round had been warm, but with a pesky wind. On day two, they were nothing short of horrendous. It poured down with rain. It had been raining heavily overnight and the course was saturated in places with several bunkers already filling with water.

I don't like playing in waterproofs but having worked hard on a slower, more compact swing, I felt confident that the hard work on the range might have stood me in good stead. A net par and a fairway found at the second. The first round had been blighted by too many rash decisions, poor execution and bad thinking. From the middle of the fairway at the second and a mid iron for position, I was expecting to have a simple pitch in. Instead I blocked it right and was lucky to avoid out of bounds. I had to pitch out sideways and an early double bogey to blight a card.

It was hard work even by the third to keep the grips dry, the glove dry and concentration levels high. Coming to the fourth I was determined to avenge the mistake of the previous day. I hit a great drive. Normally I'd hit a high shot with my gap or sand wedge, to the right of the green and let it feed down to the middle of the putting surface. So why did I off a bare, wet lie did I decide to play an eighty yard chip and run. I made five. It should have been par. I did par the next two and so was trundling along. In fact I was out in gross 42 (+7) and so was close to my handicap despite the horrific conditions which showed no sign of abating.

A chip and putt par at the tenth and all was going well. I went into sand on the right of the eleventh. Another poor escape barely got out of the bunker and a chip and three putt brought my world crashing back down. I started to struggle and another double soon arrived at the fourteenth and a another at the penultimate hole. I signed off with yet another at the last hole.

In the end I limped back in a miserable 48 shots for a total of 90 gross (net 78). It was a shot better than my first round despite the conditions. I went through five towels and seven gloves during the round and had worked diligently to keep everything dry.

2015 Club Championship Round 2 Statistics

My efforts were only good for 43rd place overall out of 60 who made the cut. Very disappointing as were the two 0.1 handicap increases which sees it languishing at 12.1. I really hoped I had a chance of a good showing and I'm struggling to pinpoint exactly why my good form has been so fleeting.

I've spoken about these poor shots before and I was hoping they were becoming a thing of the past. I haven't practiced well and the niggle in the back has hampered progress. The silly thing is I went out in the week after the club championships when the back allowed and was hitting it well. Back to that old issue of taking it out on the course. It certainly isn't a case of over working it, although I have neglected the short game again.

The calendar is going quiet for a few weeks. I'm playing in a club match against Caversham Heath at home (Royal Ascot Golf Club). We have a commanding lead after the away match and we should close it out and take the trophy we compete for. The following week we're closed as the Red Bull Air Race is coming to town and we give part of the golf course over for their air gates. It is good business for the club and we are grateful for their income ( During the weekend the course and the club are shut as they need to protect a "sterile" area as the planes fly over.

From there we crank it up for Captains Day, another staple part of the calendar, followed by a big competition, the Longhurst Cup over the bank holiday. It is one of the Royal Ascot "majors" and I won it back in 2000. After that we have "The Masters" a thirty six hole medal event over one day. It's invite only and open only to competition winners over the past twelve months. I'm in courtesy of my June stableford win. Plenty then to work hard for. I am still confident of getting to single figures. Maybe not in 2015 but eventually. I know the game is in there. I just need to stop the car crash holes.

I have been working with Andy Piper at Lavender Golf Centre in Ascot on and off since the start of the year, usually on an intermittent basis when I feel old faults are creeping back in, as well as freshening up the short game. We've talked about a winter programme and evaluating my 2015 season, seeing where the damage is being done. He wants some detailed statistics on how I play each hole to see where the bad shots come from. We'll look at technique again and try and be disciplined in my mental approach and take the work I've done with New Golf Thinking forward and playing with confidence in my swing and a mind devoid of thoughts.

In the end the net prize was won with a 73, 68, the latter being a great effort in wet conditions although the rain had eased as the leaders went out. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. The gross prize was one with 76, 72 again the +2 score being admirable in the damp and under pressure.

Your narrator is laid up again with a sore back. I tried to play the monthly medal on Sunday and lasted one hole and two shots down the par five second before I had a searing pain down my back, through my buttock and down my leg. It took me fifteen minutes to shuffle back to the sanctuary of the clubhouse. I've been working hard at keeping it warm and loose and have several physiotherapy sessions booked so hoping it'll be right by midweek and in time for some short game work.

Not what I wanted then but I'm pleased how well I dug in in the second round even when the back nine started getting away from me. It would have been easy to blame the rain, stopped working to keep the kit dry and just blasting away. I tried on every shot. I am still in a stronger place than the start of the season and the swing and set up tweaks are helping. A winter with Andy, some strong focus on the scoring zone from 100 yards and in between now and the Winter and hopefully I'll rediscover the form that saw me do so well earlier in the year. Rest assured I'm still working towards the magic land of a single figure handicap and will get there. I'm still hoping it'll be in 2015 but if not I'm back in 2016 even more determined. Until then I'll keep you posted on how my progress is coming along.