Putt for a 59

It isn’t the kind of thing which happens in amateur golf. Certainly not to me. A putt for 59. But I had that chance. Got it to and past the hole, but sadly not in. The whole thing had an other-worldly feel to it, from start to finish.

To kick off my principle reason for going down to the club was for a meeting. Golf was kind of secondary; always planned to play but the original plan was a meeting with my pal Colin who is going to Captain the County Seniors next year. We were going to talk fixtures, and Order of Merits following an exchange of emails involving us and the County Ops Manager.

That had to wait though. The roll-up was there, the tee time was upon us so folders back in the car, dig the clubs out, enter the midweek stableford and off we go. No warm up, no time on the putting green, half a dozen swishes with 2 clubs in hand, then the balls are being thrown up and I’m in the first group with Colin and Club Captain Brian.

If you want to follow the whole of the round, that follows later if you have the stamina. I shot 30 on both nines, 3 and 6 under respectively. I gave myself a holeable 20 footer for the 59 at the last hole, which missed high side – slightly misread to be honest. Those are the basic facts, but it seems to me there are issues which arise from this which have general application regardless of what you score.

The expectation you might have would be that all the shots went as intended, that every putt was holed and that every decision made was the right one. Frankly, No, No and No.

It wasn’t perfect; some way from in fact as there were a couple of poor shots and a couple of poor decisions. I missed long shots and not always safely. Had a horrid lie at 4 which I turned into a birdie, and having hit into gorse at 10 and taken a penalty drop had to hit the best iron of the day to save par.

The decisions on the tee at 10 and in the fairway at 12 were both wrong, but in both cases were rescued. Whilst I didn’t miss from 10/12 feet and closer there were good looks at birdie at 6, 8, 13 and, obviously, 18 which didn’t fall.

The only conclusion you can draw is that scoring well at golf doesn’t actually require your very best ball striking. Obvious, really, but not often enunciated in a world where everyone is seeking to be better, and better, and better. Which actually isn’t achievable. We all have finite resources of ability although we might not always test the limits of what we can achieve.

There was no question conditions were to my advantage. The heavy rain had made the greens receptive, and for the first half a dozen holes there was minimal wind. Even so, you have to go and play the shots and hole the putts.

The most important thing for me was the mental side. I am an emotional golfer; I get very much into what’s going on. I don’t always deal well with bad karma. Yet for this round I was calm and controlled throughout. I holed excellent putts from 3 to 10 feet on the first four holes, 2 for par, 2 for birdie, which served to get me focussed very strongly on what I was doing. I never got ahead of myself, but played a single shot at a time. That’s a surprise, not something I’m usually very good at.

There was never a moment of thinking “if I could just make birdie here, I could…….” Simply continued to play what was in front of me and only that shot. I may have had a strategy for each hole, but each shot was played and considered in order.

The really interesting thing is there was no anxiety. I never stopped to think about how far under par I was going. When I reached 6-under that was as low as I’d ever gone, but there was no pulling back. I wanted more, but somehow didn’t play shots that could be described as chasing it. I simply tried to hit the best shot I could under the circumstances and, again, just the shot in front of me after deciding the strategy for the forthcoming hole.

Swing rhythm was spot on from the start, but I’m also prepared to bet that the pre-shot routine was almost identical in content and time for every full shot. I wasn’t perpetually in a “zone” because I was chatting and bantering with my playing partners throughout, but the focus was absolutely there for every shot. Surprisingly, for me, external factors did not impinge on what I was doing.

There is no question that I played pretty well. But the reason for the score was that I won the mental game very convincingly on the day, backed up by some key shots at key moments. That mental win is the big takeaway.

And then there’s the round………..

The 1st is always a birdie chance, but equally there’s no shortage of noise and banter as you hit the opening tee shot in this school. Yet rhythm was there from the start. Nice 3-wood left a 60-yard pitch to the back of the green, which is where it had to go. 1st green is a bad night at sea; short of the flag would leave a horror downslope putt for the first of the day with no warm-up. Got it 12-foot past the hole, ideal, little touch of left to right and in it went. Col missed from a couple of foot closer; sign of things to come, bless him.

As an aside; one of the things about playing links golf is the genuine dynamism of the environment. 40 years ago that 1st green was a lot flatter than it is now, but the action of the sea on one side and the river estuary on the other is moving around the spit on which the course sits. Now the 1st has a pronounced dip front left and a big rise from there up to the front right, whilst the back edges have stayed pretty much where they were. Weird to watch happening over a lifetime. We have tees that were levelled in the last 20 years that are now rolling all over the place (for those who know Warren, 3 and 17 in particular).

Hit two irons to the dogleg 2nd followed by an utterly impoverished putt from 30 feet to leave a really nice nerve-settling 3½ footer for par, which dutifully disappeared. Col had hit 5-iron to about 10 foot and nailed it. Brian had an adventure involving a gorse bush and a tree, but still used his shot to get a point. Another under-cooked long putt at the par 3 3rd left a very unappetising 4 foot par putt, but again the putter behaved. 3, 4, 3. Nice start.

Tee shot at 4 was lost a bit right. 4 years ago I’d have been in gorse, but a wildfire destroyed two thirds of what used to be down there. Instead it’s now a mix of sand and ground hugging briar, in a bit of which my ball lay right by the 150-yard marker. Smashed it out to around 8-foot, which was a bonus, and the putt went dead centre.

I missed the 5th, 6th and 7th greens by a total of 11 inches. Nice 2-putt from 30 foot that started 4 inches onto the fringe at 5, had a 20-footer for birdie at 6 from 6 inches on the fringe which had a brief look at the top side on the way past, then spun a wedge back down the false front at 7 to be just off the surface with a pretty straight 20-footer up the slope. That went in, 3-under. Col, meanwhile, has hit it inside 15 foot on all three and made three pars. Not frustrated at all.

The 8th is just a magnificent par 3 that wouldn’t be out of place on any championship course in the country. Just under 200 yards, played with the river at your back towards the dune line. 2-tier pulpit green with a huge pot front left and two smaller ones front right. Oh, and gorse on either side wide. Green is 4 clubs long.

The breeze had started to pick up as we played 7. With the flag in the front third at 8 a solid 6-iron pitched into the green and spun back a few feet to leave a very holeable uphill 15-footer, which stayed high. Col is 35 foot away; never anywhere but in. Inevitably after the last 3 greens. Brian after a blob at 6 is starting a good run of 2-point/3-point holes.

Hit a massive tee shot up 9 to leave only a wedge to the 420-yard hole but misjudged it down the strengthening breeze and went 40 foot past the hole, promptly belted the uphill putt 5 foot past. Brian’s putt for par from a bit further away gave me a great read though. He missed, I didn’t. Out in 3-under 30.

Then the fun started. 10 is just a great but downright hard par 4. Gorse all the way up the left, two deep fairway bunkers up the right. It was playing down breeze, which took the bunkers out of play for me, but brought in the low-lying maram and heather beyond them. The 11th fairway running parallel offers a bailout option, but down breeze I’m going to be through that fairway and back into the heather/maram fun.

Should have throttled back and hit 3-wood, but stayed with driver, got all steery and succeeded in hitting it in a low-lying gorse patch just off the left side. Penalty drop. 175 to go, told myself to hit it close and give yourself a chance. 6-iron to 4 foot, par saved.

Big tee shot at the par 5 11th left me holding 1-iron driving iron for the into wind approach. There was a delay as we stood there and waited for a guy playing the 15th, utterly oblivious of anything else, who suddenly appeared out of the gorse behind the 11th green, walked around it to his ball by the front of the green and simply went on and played. That was a duff with a big divot, so he replaced that, then ambled across the front of the green, swished again with another huge divot resulting and eventually disappeared towards the 15th green. Frankly we were howling. I missed the green just left but a nice up and down gave me the birdie.

12th is awkward. A very short par 5 from a slightly elevated tee with a drive between a small pond and a bank of heather and gorse, but also across the line of the dogleg to the right unless you can hit a little fade with driver. Overcook that and you’ll have a poor lie and stance; under cook it and you’re wet. The green can be taken on, and sometimes with not much club. It’s a big target, but there are huge trees and gorse all the way down the right, a single line of trees to the left and a pond front right. The target is huge, but has three distinct levels. Long is dead. Be on the wrong part and putting is really interesting.

Hit a good 3-wood tee shot just short of pond-level, and in the fairway with the ball below my feet plus wind off the river on the left I fancied another faded 3-wood, peeling it off the trees to the front flag. Instead of which I pulled it left of the single line of trees into the heavy set-aside rough. Just as well since it was a poorly considered shot choice. Actually hit a provisional as we didn’t see a bounce. Found the original and hit what I would call a flop, but which was actually a gouge, up and over the trees onto the big slope in the middle of the green. That caught the ball, stopped it going too far and left a 12-footer for birdie, which I made.

13 is another par 3, playing alongside but in the opposite direction to the 8th but 30 yards shorter. Because of the wind it was the same club as at 8. The birdie putt from 20 feet was online and fractionally short of pace.

14 and 15 are short par 4s with no shortage of water, gorse and heather to contend with. For a start the river estuary is the right-hand side of both, and there are ponds by both greens. Wind was helpful though, so I ended up hitting driver at both. 14 wasn’t a great tee shot, in the rough 30-yards short of the green. The pitch which followed was nothing to write home about either, leaving me a double breaking 25-footer over a bank in the green with the last 8 foot downhill. Which went in. Serious bonus I thought. Little did I know what was to come.

My little donkey fade was perfect in the right to left wind at 15,playing around 285, and I hit a good one which I thought had caught the front left of the green. Visibility is a bit obscured from the tee as the hole turns slightly right and there’s gorse along the estuary bank. You can see the flag and a sliver of green, but not much more. As we walked up there was no ball visible on the green. Col was just in front, 30 yards short with his tee shot, no sign of mine.

There’s a hazard just off the left of the green. It’s an old bunker which has been allowed to return to nature as it simply flooded every winter. Now a water hazard, the bottom of it is toad rush and very unappealing. Dry in summer and somewhere between damp and flooded in the winter months. My ball had run across the edge of the green and then toppled down a small slope into the edge of this, but still on the grassy bit rather than the ugly stuff at the bottom. Lucky. I was only 18 or 20 feet from the flag, and although the lie was a bit iffy and I couldn’t ground the club felt I’d give myself an easy birdie try. I didn’t – I holed the damn thing for eagle!

Buzzing, I walked onto the par 3 16th tee genuinely thinking “3 birdies for 58; I can almost shoot my age” and promptly pulled a 6-iron left of the green, short side. It was the only time all day I was uncertain about club choice. I’d had 7 in my hand to start with, then changed up, and when I got to the ball it was also past flag high. Been right first up on the tee.

The lie was good, but it was on a downslope, pitching over a 3 foot high, 6 foot wide hump covered in rough onto a downslope with the green running away from me. 3 weeks ago I would have struggled to get it within 15 feet. This time I knew I was pitching into the wind, and that the greens were receptive after the torrential rain over previous days. But there was a bit of a delay whilst we waited for two groups of university students to exchange greetings on the adjacent 11th fairway.

Bless him, Col was trying to get them to quieten down, knowing how I was doing and that I sometimes have issues with butterflies roaring in an adjacent meadow. Didn’t bother me at all, which is a surprise, and with them happily jabbering in the background I opened the face of my 58 degree wedge and slid it under the ball throwing it up and over the bank onto the green.

I thought I’d made it. It pitched, took one bounce and then dug in and started rolling gently down the green. 2-foot out it looked in, then just took the bit of borrow as it slowed, had a glance over the low-side edge and stopped 2 feet past the hole.

Right then. Need a 3-3 finish. Hit 3 wood at 17, evidently a bit pumped (shock) as I left only 110 to the middle. But the flag was only 6 feet in from the back edge and going over there is dead. I was on a very tight piece of turf, with the wind helping. Low trajectory wedge for the middle yardage, hoping it would take a little skip forward. Got the middle green yardage alright, except it flicked forward and then spun back 20 feet. 17 paces short of the flag.

There’s a lot of movement in the right side of the 17th green, less so on the left where the flag was. A little movement out of the left and slightly uphill. I said to myself “this to keep the 59 alive” and hit the putt. It was going at least 4 foot past, but turned bang on line, hit the middle of the hole and disappeared. That did get a celebration.

The surprise walking to 18 tee was a complete lack of anxiety. The plan was only about how to give myself a chance to make 3. 3-wood to take the OB left and the rough covered dips and hollows in front of the clubhouse out of play, struck exactly where I wanted. Good controlled 8-iron from 145 flying straight at the target – with OB literally 4 feet off the putting surface you can’t be long.

Got a little unfortunate in that the shot pitched into an upslope and stopped very quickly, leaving me 25-foot slightly downhill and, it seemed, left to right. Picked the line I wanted and hit the putt right on it, but it didn’t turn; if anything it went slightly the other way as it reached the hole. Missed on the high side, and it rolled 2 feet past.

Then I was anxious! Never having completed a round bogey free this was the one I needed for that. Glad to report it disappeared without a problem.

Absolutely the round of my life. At the age of exactly 57½ I have reach a plus playing handicap for the first time ever. Which I find completely bizarre.

A Captain’s Win

Last week’s Ryder Cup was a sensational event. And it is the players who hit the shots and hole the putts. Yet for me the event was more the Captain’s win than maybe has been the case for quite a while.

Thomas Bjorn out thought, out strategized and out publicised his opposite number at virtually every turn. All in all it was a phenomenal performance.

It was very clear from the outset that the attention to detail was as spot on as it has been for pretty much every Ryder Cup European Captain since Jacklin and Ballesteros revitalised the event in 1983. For me it just went that little bit further.

The course is the place to start. There seems a lot of crying in spilt milk from some US commentators. Thomas clearly understood where his team’s advantage would lie, and influenced the production of a course that would emphasise that advantage. All the talk of unfair home advantage is just hogwash; would you set up a Ryder Cup on a venue to suit the opposition? We did it enough going year after year to the Belfry, so it certainly isn’t going to happen now. And the Yanks certainly won’t.

His choices of wild cards, despite in one case looking a bit controversial, turned out to be inspired. All made important contributions throughout the week. Clearly Sergio was an inspirational part of the team, going through the record to become the highest point scorer. And who’s to say he’s finished yet? I doubted him and I was utterly wrong; bravo!!!

Pairings were made in consultation with the players themselves. Let’s face it – he got everything right.

But this shouldn’t be a surprise. For how many years has Thomas been a player representative on Tour Committees? Many. He knows everyone, he understands their concerns, what makes them tick, who to motivate and how to do it, with whom to commiserate and again how to do that. All of that was pretty clear in the way the Captain communed with each of his pairings as games came to an end on each of the first two days.

Jim Furyk is one of the finest men in golf and was undoubtedly let down by his team, but decisions were interesting. Mickelson in foursomes is a gift point to Europe. I would be critical of his wildcard choices. There is an argument that he “had” to make those choices, but they were safe and took no regard of the course facing him. Bringing Tiger and Phil was just giving away the advantage. So Tiger had won the Tour Championship; big deal. He can’t drive it worth a damn and wins an average of only 4 Ryder Cup points out of 10. There is not, nor ever has been, any Tiger in Team, or vice versa for that matter.

Bryson is a wonderful golfer, but a streak player whose bolt was shot. Mickelson totally out of form. Finau did brilliantly, showing where Jim should have gone for his other choices. What would he have given for Kisner, Stanley and Xander Schauffle? I know what he’d have got – a much closer match.

As for the US team as a whole, I stand absolutely astonished at the performance and attitude of a group of professional athletes. Virtually none of them came across to play the tournament held on the same darn course earlier in the year. Kudos to Justin Thomas for coming and playing, doing so very well. Probably no coincidence he was the US top points scorer last week. And remember, the course was even harder for the French Open.

Beyond that it’s pretty clear to me they believed their own press releases. They seemed to feel they could just turn up as if it were just another week, play the same kind of tactic-less golf that serves them so well on the majority of Tour courses and everything would be fine. Now that up to a point I can understand.

What I can’t understand is the total inability of some of the allegedly best players in the world to adapt their strategy to what they found before them. Which since this was essentially an American style course heavily redolent of the Penal form of design is remarkable. Pete Dye would love it.

But I have a theory. Top level golf has become hugely statistically orientated. Through analysis and the application of Strokes Gained processes the guys are brain washed into what they need to do. And Strokes Gained says hit the thing as far as you can; massive driving distance is the biggest indicator of offering good scoring opportunity. Strokes Gained says the best putter of the best (longest) strikers wins.

But if you can’t hit the planet you have to rethink. The US Team couldn’t. So they lost.

And now the fallout. The Koepka/DJ contre temps which no one saw. Demonising Patrick Reed. Pathetic really.

It will be interesting to see what they learn. I suspect very little. You can guarantee the fairways at Whistling Straights are currently being widened to 80 yards with inch high rough up either side, and spectator ropes as close as possible so even that gets trodden down.

Shame really. But that is the way elite golf is currently going. It was a joy to watch an event where traditional qualities of good thinking, quality ball positioning and proper nerve and concentration were the priority. Sad we’ll have to wait four years for something similar.

Handicapping doesn’t work

To err is human; to really fuck-up you need a computer.

I’ve been involved in golf administration as a volunteer and professional for almost 40 years now. I was first on a golf club main committee at 19, which was absolute lunacy. But be fair who were the greater lunatics? Me, for allowing myself to be talked into it or those who voted for me expecting that someone with so little life experience would have anything cogent to offer!

I was initially involved with handicapping in the early 80s, before the current system came in at the start of 1984. My first experience of the Council of National Golf Unions Unified Handicapping System was in its first iteration, helping my late father do manual handicap records during his brief career as a Club Secretary (he hated it). It rapidly became clear that the complexity of the scheme, even then, meant it would be difficult to run without systems back-up, and so the run to the modern position began. Systems back-up introduced systems companies to the mix, which meant money. Big money.

Handicapping was once upon a time quite simple. It was still flawed, but understandable. Let’s leave aside those of 5 and below for the moment. For everyone else if you played a shot or 2 below your handicap you went down 1; 3 shots below, down 2; 4 shots below down 3 and so on. If you didn’t match the number, no change. At the end of the year there was a handicap review, and any appropriate adjustments could be made.

Everyone can see the flaw there. Completely dependent on the understanding of the players involved and the skill with which the review was done. Room for personal agendas, to maintain artificially high handicaps for key players involved in club teams. You can imagine the things that were said. And of course it happened, but not a lot and for me not surprisingly since our game actually is built on traditional values of fairness and rectitude.

However, because there were instances (mostly of incompetence) where handicaps for clubs were clearly neither right nor properly administered we had to have a one size fits all system. I’m sure you’ve all noticed how effective regulation of any industry has been in protecting end-users from incompetence or outright illegality.

Now here’s where the first error was made. The UK scheme was predicated on a mistake. That all golfers play competitive golf. Which is, of course, complete bollocks. The vast majority of golfers the world over would be what are now defined as “social” golfers who go out and bash it round with the same set of pals week in, week out. They actually don’t need a handicap for competitions. In fact, most of these little groups tend to ignore what’s on the notice board and come up with handicaps for their own uses. At my last club there’s a guy off 16 who plays off 3 in his roll up, they’re so fed up with giving him money.

But you know what? The Scheme actually worked. Kinda. The guys playing competitively were getting regular amendments to their handicap, whilst the majority who didn’t just knurdled along in the same old way, unaffected by the whole thing.

It would be naïve to pretend there weren’t still problems. Every area of the country had its team of bandits, roaming the ever-increasing number of open team events playing off false handicaps never tested in individual competitions. So what did golf do? Did the industry turn around and say “you lot are a bunch of fecking cheats and you can stick your entry fee cheque where the sun doesn’t shine”?

Nope. We’re all too nice and golfers play fair, right? The authorities decided they had to act. CONGU now had money, big money, of its own from the licensing charges it was able to make of the systems companies. There was muscle now, and no need to actually consult with the day to day practitioners about how to proceed. So they didn’t and we acquired the disaster of the active/inactive handicap.

To combat handicap massaging everyone now had to put in a minimum of 3 cards under competition conditions to confirm their handicap. Do that and you were “active”; if you didn’t you were “inactive”. And to really embarrass everyone any person without those 3 scores had a little “i” next to their name on the handicap list.

I don’t know how many golfers were lost from club membership because of that sodding little “i”. Whilst it was operative I was having between 10 and 15 conversations at each annual renewal with people who were leaving because “if my handicaps invalid what’s the point”; because that’s how it was interpreted. Talk about kicking yourself in the balls.

And just to put the cherry on the cake, at the same time in came Supplementary Scores, which could stand for handicap purposes in place of playing in a competition. So the very handicap cheats we were trying to suppress could now, up to 10 times a year, announce “I’m doing a Supplementary today” go out with their pals, shoot a net 78 and GO UP MORE. Here you go you cheating fecker, have another shot.

Both these ideas remain in place, albeit with active/inactive toned down to competitive/social.

No one can understand how the Competition Scratch Score for a given event is calculated because of the complexity of the calculations. 9-hole qualifiers leave people cold for the same reason, although that is a genuinely great idea. The Scheme handbook is becoming bigger and bigger – rules, appendices, decisions. It’s all a mess.

I was listening to a radio interview with the CEO of Iron Man, the ultra triathlon events where folk swim, cycle and run for what seems like days. He was talking about the massive upturn in interest, sponsors and competitors both professional and, most importantly, amateur – guys and girls wanting to get up and train at 4am every day. Why do they do it he asked, rhetorically – because it’s bloody hard, that’s why.

Which really struck me. Because there is a sport glorying in how tough it is, and as a consequence succeeding. Whilst in contrast golf is ignoring the challenge and trying to make everything easier and easier, from equipment all the way to handicapping. And the sport is in decline, quite possibly also as a consequence. Coincidence?

Handicapping should be a mechanism to reward those who challenge themselves to be better, whilst in fact through higher maxima and ever-increasing levels of handicap allowances in all forms of golf it actually rewards those who retain as high a handicap as they can. Which when handicaps have become a representation of average performance rather than best performance is a recipe for disaster.

So where now? We await with bated breath (not) the full details of a new World Handicapping System. A not very tacit acknowledgement that handicapping in the UK has utterly failed. At one level the idea of a globally portable handicap subject to the same criteria in every handicapping authority area sounds like a good idea. In reality exactly how many golfers from Buenos Aires, Baltimore or Berlin do you have turning up in the Open Mixed Foursomes? Quite.

And are the day to day, hands-on practitioners involved in the creation of the new system? Well, there was a tweet the other day from Mark Broadie, the excellent golf statistician, saying he was off to a handicapping meeting at USGA Golf House. I questioned how many club administrators were going to be there; no reply. I think because the answer would be the same as always. None.

For over 20 years I have been a fierce and very public critic of the handicapping system. In all that time the only contact from CONGU was a letter of refutation (unsuccessful) from a member of the Council, writing in a strictly personal capacity, trying to rubbish points I made when I first questioned the active/inactive concept in an industry publication. You would have thought that at some point in the last 2 decades there would have been a call – “right you noisy, know-all pillock – tells us what you would do so we can laugh at you for a change”

Oh yes, the 5 and belows. Back in the day (pre-84) we had to return scores to the County authority. To retain our handicap it had to be matched 3 times in 9 or 4 times in 12. Similarly to be reduced. In other words, x scores in y rounds.

Which is exactly where we’re going with the new scheme. 45 years later.

What goes around comes around.



Hogan was the GOAT

The Carnoustie Open was really enlivened by Tiger’s performance. There’s little question that his Saturday and early part of the Sunday round play brought the event to life for many. The TV ratings information confirms that an event with a contending Tiger will attract more attention than one without. Even now.

Now I will willingly concede I am no Tiger fan. I respect his tremendous ability and spectacular record, but I don’t warm to him as an individual. For me people have to be more than just good at a sport; there has to be personality and engagement with the fan base. Tiger has never really shown either, certainly not during his pomp. A fist pump and a scream when something good happens isn’t personality. Thus for me whilst there was always admiration there has never been enthusiasm.

And for all the evidence of the “new” Tiger we still had film from Carnoustie of the great one brushing off the attentions of a group of kids. Contrast that with Patrick Reed, who this week took time with a bunch of youngsters as he walked off at the end of his 3rd round of the European Open. Patrick gets it, Tiger does not.

Of course with the predilection of the American media (and increasingly the British media too) for “disease of the week” the sight of a contending Tiger at Carnoustie created endless comparisons with Ben Hogan. I’ll be honest, that got my blood up.

Where are the similarities between these two contenders for the title of best ever? Both dominated their eras. Both had little to do with the media and their contemporaries, maintaining a distance. Both came back from serious injury. But where I part company with those who get so excited about the Tiger comeback is that I cannot forget that everything that has happened to Tiger is totally self-inflicted. What happened with Hogan was a desperate accident.

Driving home a bus came out of the fog and hit the Hogan car. Hogan only survived because his first instinct was to dive across the front of the car seats in front of his wife Valerie to try and save her. Had he stayed where he was the engine block would have gone straight through his upper torso.

Could you see Tiger doing that for Elin? Whether you can or not, having read Haney’s book you have to conclude that if even half of what is in there is anything approaching accurate, Woods has/had a screw loose. You might be able to accept the constant tinkering with what Butch Harmon made an obviously supreme golf swing (which I can’t) but the utter stupidity of the Navy SEAL shit and the constant weights work, the lack of anything approaching a normal social environment leading to all the women; you can only conclude he has had to reap that which he sowed. Was defeating Rocco Mediate in the US Open playoff remarkable? Of course it was, but ask why he was in that state in the first place.

Hogan’s accident injuries were life threatening and definitely career threatening. His ability to walk was affected for the rest of his life, indeed for a time there was a genuine question of whether he would ever play again, never mind contend in professional tournaments and win Major Championships.

Which is, of course, precisely what he did. After that dreadful accident in 1949 he returned to tournament play after only 11 months. In his first tournament back he lost in a play-off to Sam Snead for the Los Angeles Open. His Major Championship record after the accident, starting with the 1950s Masters which was the first he played is T4, Win, Win, Win, T7, 3rd, Win, Win, Win, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, 2nd. I would suggest that’s pretty good, and hasn’t been nor was ever likely to be matched by ET Woods Esq.

Please don’t tell me the quality wasn’t there in the 50s. Hogan was dealing with some of the greatest players ever. Snead, Nelson, Thomson, Locke plus the massed ranks of the US Tour. And those guys were a deal tougher than the modern mob; they had to win to eat, not finish 20th and make thousands.

Now I am a child of the Nicklaus era. I’m pretty sure I can remember the Doug Sanders putt in 1970, although I’ve seen it so many times on film I’m not sure if I watched it live. I definitely remember the “Duel in the Sun”; not just the amazing 3 Jack carved out of 18 at Turnberry but also the distinctly fat 2nd shot to the 71st hole which really cost him. I remember the battle with Simon Owen at St Andrews, the amazing fight with Isao Aoki at Baltusrol in 1980 and, of course, the greatest win of them all.

No one who saw it will forget the 1986 Masters. Jack with that god-awful putter playing a magnificent back nine, Seve dumping it in the water on 15, Norman stuffing it into the gallery at 18. Just an amazing evening of TV. But with all of that he still doesn’t rank as the best for me.

Obviously I never saw Hogan play. Yet everything I have ever read or seen about him tells me he is the G.O.A.T. There is the record and the way it was acquired. There is the back story, the hard scrabble background following his father’s suicide. The endless fight for success, made all the more poignant by the early fame of his caddie-yard pal Byron Nelson. The breakthrough, followed by that road accident and everything that came after it. There is the creation of one of the finest club manufacturers of the 20th Century, and the publication of what is still one of the tuition bibles, the “5 Lessons”.

There are always those who contend that this or that player is the best there ever was, but it is always a personal opinion. Tiger understandably dominates this debate for anyone born after about 1985. But the truth for me is that every era had its dominant player. Thus we have already discussed Woods, Nicklaus and Hogan. For the 1920s there were two, the greatest amateur in Bobby Jones, and indisputably one of the 5 greatest ever professionals in Walter Hagen, a man who single-handedly created the role of a tournament playing professional golfer. Until Walter everyone else had club jobs.

And before that you have Harry Vardon, one of the Great Triumvirate with Taylor and Braid. Vardon not only won 6 Opens, his US Open record will never be surpassed. Played three, won one, tied and lost the playoff in the next (and in doing so started a golf revolution in the States), then came second in his final appearance in 1920 having been almost crippled by a bout of tuberculosis. Not to mention giving us the overlapping grip, still named after him.

Whether it’s the passing of time, or just a general boredom with the pampered superstars of the present, but I find the achievements of those with a tougher start in life far more worthy of respect. So for me Hogan is the greatest of all time, closely followed by Nicklaus for his Majors record.

Now there’s a debate………

Old Boy on Tour

Since we jumped in the car and drove to Southport after the Exeter Chiefs’ win in the Premiership semi-final on Saturday 19th May we were on an extended tour of the country playing golf. Between then and Sunday 8th July I played: –

3 National Championships

County Senior Championships

2 Senior Channel League matches + the Southern Counties Foursomes qualifier over 36 holes

A County Senior Order of Merit tournament

4 County inter-club trophy matches, 2 scratch and 2 handicap

National Final of a Club Secretary’s event

2 club knockout matches

A club medal, and a society day

I’ve missed a Channel League game for Devon (whilst away at the Scottish Seniors) and my Club Championships (mentally shot away and too damn tired to play)

It has been bloody good fun. I’ve played 7 courses I’ve previously never been to, including three in the UK top 100. I’ve had a mixture of results between great and ghastly, though this isn’t about playing outcomes. I do know I’m knackered, mind. No, this is much more about the things I have learnt; I’ve had an insight into what it must be like to do this for a living, and have come out of the experience with huge respect for the way the guys deal with everything you face when you travel and play seriously.

If you aspire to play good level Senior golf in this country you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fixture list is ridiculous. Three of the Home Country’s National Championships take place in a 4-week period in June. If you want to play all four there is a 2-week gap between the Irish in mid-May and the English in the first week of June. I played only those in June.

A couple of things came out of the whole experience. The first one is there is a limit to how much really intense golf anyone can actually play without taking proper breaks for recovery.

The physical task of bashing a golf ball around a golf course isn’t truly that demanding, even at my advanced age. Most anyone can amble round 4 or 5 miles in 3 or 4 hours. The challenge isn’t physical. It is mostly mental.

There are all sorts of clichés one could trot out at this point, but the simple truth is you have to stay alert. You have to be alert to what’s going on around you in terms of the weather, in terms of changing course conditions and in terms of how you are actually performing; how you are striking the ball will determine the decisions you are going to make. And you have to stay alert to make the right decisions.

The week away at the English (which followed an inter-club match) we played 5 days straight at the Coxmoor and Sherwood Forest clubs, 2 in practice and 3 in tournament play. I hung around the top 10 first two tournament days before dropping back slightly on day 3 (T16). Course set-up was demanding, with the course starting to run fast and enough big rough to be an issue. A really nervous, anxious start was what caused the problems on day 3, but I stuck with the task and produced an OK finish. It was a calm, collected and focussed week, playing without the “A” game on show.

By the time I went to the Scottish 10 days later I was, mentally, toast. I played 5 times again during that intervening week, with another inter-club knockout match, two club knockouts, a County Order of Merit event and I ran a small society bash on the Sunday. Only in one of these did I play especially well, and in none of them did I have the concentration necessary to produce the results I wanted. By the time I’d driven to Ayrshire I had nothing to give, and performed accordingly, missing the cut by a country mile. Which was obviously disappointing, not least bearing in mind I loved the golf course, Irvine Bogside. What I’d needed between the two tournaments was a quiet week with the odd game and an opportunity to practice. Not what I had.

Poor decisions started as early as the 2nd hole, and continued throughout the first 10 holes I played, which required 50 hits; and that was achieved with an outstanding up and down from 60 yards for a double on 10 and parring the two hardest holes on the entire course, 1 and 9! The rest? Least said, soonest mended.

The one thing the dreadful performance in Scotland allowed was a weekend off, although we had 36-holes of inter-counties foursomes at Exeter on the Monday before travelling to Wales, again very poor fixture arrangement. Pennard is a magnificent golf course, but the conditions were nightmarish as the course trended from yellow to completely bleached white as the sun did its thing.

But there was a least something in there; I dropped half the shots of the entire week in the first 8 holes, but found enough sheer bloody-mindedness to hang in, make the cut and end up 20th. I knew I didn’t have much left though, and so it proved.

Back to inter-club on the Sunday and I played a wrong ball in a losing game. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before, certainly not for 25 years. Then a county match, where again I couldn’t sustain focus. My club pal in the county side was our hero in against Wiltshire, scoring 2 birdies in the last two holes to level his own game and win the match for Devon, but I saw the price he paid for that the following night, when playing together we lost in another inter-club match and he had a very untypical patch of play in the middle of the round. He was mentally tired. There is always only so much gas in the tank.

I was coming out the other side though, and had to for County Champs, but it was still a struggle. Should have had a 3-shot lead after 18, but made poor decisions on that last hole and took double. Threw in a treble in the afternoon 9-hole dash but then played the last 6 in 1-under; found a bit of git in me to fight back with and win.

Since then the volume and intensity of golf and of competition has dropped. The recent scores show it; 69, 66, 72 and 69. My ability to concentrate and to play well has significantly improved as there is more downtime between each competitive round. And therein lies the key. I’ve got to learn that there have to be breaks between what I try to do, pauses for reflection, pauses, even, for practice for maintenance and repair of a method being tested in intense circumstances.

One other thing I’ve learnt a lot about is travel and accommodation, especially the latter. For the three big weeks away we had two pretty OK hotels, which coincided with the two better weeks, and one absolute dive which undoubtedly contributed to the poor week. I was already done tournament-wise by the time I went back for the second night there, but having to listen to the couple in an adjoining room having a loud “conversation” – the type where the bed squeaks – then deal with a security light shining into my room every 45 seconds as something loose in the wind continually set the sensor off; well, it was like trying to sleep in a lighthouse.

The lesson is to make sure where I’m staying enhances the experience, not detracts. You have to be comfortable in order to be rested and ready to play, especially when you can face some very early start times on one or another day of a Championship. Off street car parking, good and easy access to the tournament venue, good food choices. All play a part.

The respect I have for the professionals who do this all the time now knows no bounds. I’m doing all this for fun, and I’ve found it wearing. The guys who do this as a living, crossing continents and time zones, different food, water and languages. Different beds and people. Different grass. It takes real strength of mind and good people around you to make that survivable. And all I’m doing is driving the motorway network!

A bad day at the office

Saturday 16th June was not a good day at the office for the USGA. The Phil Mickelson debacle, boorish, boozed up fans and, of course, the golf course. No, not a good day at all.

Mickelson is fascinating. With the greatest of respect to the undoubtedly most estimable Mr Bodenhamer, 6 or 7 running steps and a flick to the leg side do not constitute an inadvertent strike on a moving ball. There is no sentient being in any adjacent universe, never mind this one, that believes the USGA stance.

And Phil himself – I know what I done, I know what it means, I know the penalty and I’ve thought about doing it before. Astonishing. I mean, have the sense to say it was a “moment of madness, I didn’t know what I was up to Guvnor”. To tell anyone who’ll listen that you did it intentionally. Crazed

Very, very sadly everyone knows that had this been Mickey DeMorat, Tyler Duncan or (God forbid) one of the Europeans, a disqualification under Rule 1.2 would have been served on the miscreant. But Phil Mickelson? On his birthday? In New York? The chances of the USGA finding a DQ notice for Phil would be right up with their chances of finding unicorn poo.

What really concerns me here, however, is the strain this places on the integrity of the other players in this field, and in the game generally. I don’t actually believe golfers would stoop to these kind of shenanigans; we have too much respect for the traditions of the game. But nonetheless the door is open now. If the USGA don’t disqualify for conduct unbecoming, then you get in a similar situation just do the same thing. ‘cos you can make the 2 shots up later. Precedent established.

What is it with all the microphones? If you don’t want us to hear players swear then don’t stick a mic up their bum. If you are going to put mics everywhere then don’t keep apologising for their language. They are human beings under huge stress. We get it. So DJ on the putting green and Poults in the 18th fairway – fair play to you guys, you said exactly what the rest of us would have said.

Wasn’t it good to see Phoenix come to town. At the US Open too. OK, look, I love all that jazz around the 16th down there. ONCE a year it is great fun and the players clearly love it. However, another disadvantage of microphones everywhere is we TV viewers get to hear the abuse being hurled, especially at non-Americans. You could clearly identify where the on-course hospitality was sited.

What was ugly and unnecessary were the “USA” chants directed at Ian Poulter, the Ryder Cup references and cheering each time something went awry for him, equally for Stenson and Rose. Kudos to Brooks Koepka for having nowt to do with it. Sure, the crowd enjoyed seeing everyone struggle, but it was much more abusive towards the foreigners. Brookline-esq, one might say. A proper look for the international viewer of the impact of Trump-led America on its attitude to the rest of the world – we know this isn’t true of Americans with a balanced view (there are other countries), but it was a fascinating glimpse of his heartland voter.

So, the golf course. Let me say right up front I don’t believe the USGA wanted this to happen. Absolutely the reverse; 2004 hangs around their necks like a noose. You look at the set-up on TV. Big wide fairways. Yes, very heavy rough, but if a top Pro misses a fairway 40 yards wide then there should be a penalty. I’m not a top Pro and if I missed a target that big I’d expect to be in the shit. Where I play I’d actually be off the golf course on a number of holes.

The problems are around the green end of affairs. Shinnecock greens are raised above the surrounding fairways. That is a design style you see on courses built when the ball was run into the target. They were built when green speeds were significantly lower than is the modern norm. The modern professional player rarely has to deal with anything like it.

So there are course management issues. Pros play a point to point through the air game. “Its 165 front, pin is 18 on; ball will roll out 4 yards after pitching, so carry it 179” and the guys are good enough to do that. Shinnecock in the wind is not a point to point golf course. It’s all about feel and improvisation, and most don’t have it. Not because they’re not great players, it’s because they don’t need to have it. So for the 179 shot on a hard running course in the wind they pull out a 7-iron and whack it up in the air; I, after 40 years of playing seaside golf, take out a 4-iron, hit it 20 feet in the air and run it in the last 40 yards – but I don’t play for pay and am willing to risk the bounce which I understand is part of the game. Pros see that bounce as “unfair”.

There is a more insidious trend here, however, one which speaks directly to the future of our game both as a spectator sport and as a recreation.

This is not the first time this has happened in a Major this year.

Think back to Georgia in April. Because we all subconsciously understand that Augusta has daft, stupid green complexes set up at daft, stupid speeds everyone accepted the carnage in the early round there as just normal. But the truth of it is we only got a playable, watchable tournament after it absolutely pissed down with rain and softened the course up. Without that rain what we saw Saturday afternoon at Shinnecock would have been our TV viewing in April.

I know this is the same old song, but stop – if a driver goes 300 yards and an 8-iron 160, then the 460-yard par 4 which used to be demanding is now a drive and flick hole. That is the length you find a lot of tournament venue par 4s play, or 20 yards either side of it. Put an 8-iron in the hands of a tournament professional and the ball will rain down from 160 yards in a 15-foot diameter circle and stop on a sixpence. How are you going to protect your golf course from being torn to shreds, assuming, as it seems most tournament directors do, that par should have some significance as a marker of achievement.

The answer is pretty obvious; you prevent the ball from stopping on a sixpence. That is achieved in two ways. Greens with the constitution of concrete and the toughest hole locations you can find.

When the weather intervenes and all that goes too far you get Saturday 16th June at Shinnecock.

If that 460-yard par 4 was still a drive and 4 or 5-iron you don’t need concrete greens and 12 on the stimp. Then you don’t get stupidities like Shinnecock, or for that matter Augusta.  It just needs the ball to go 10% less far. The longer players still have their advantage, but the good little ’un retains their chance by being better with the irons. We’re losing that. Fast.

We all know what to do to get our game back. It’s having the will. We have to get past out-dated concepts like playing the same gear and playing the same courses. We have to accept that bifurcation already exists between the elite game and the recreational game. Accept it and embrace it. Look at the sports that have already done so. And learn

Or what you saw on Saturday June 16th – Mickelson, fan abuse and ridiculous shot outcomes – will become the stock in trade of Championship golf.

Time for the Royal and Ancient to step up. Carnoustie or Carnasty; your choice

Play Golf Live Longer

As we get ever more involved with the elite playing of the game, whether that be the Professional or Amateur game, or with the various issues that surround our game within the club environment, it is easy to forget what we’re out there to do. We normal, regular golfers are supposed to go out to have fun, and to do so in some just fantastic surroundings.

I’ve seen a tweet today from the European Tour’s Performance Institute (ETPI) that reminds me it’s really quite a bit more than how well or badly I’ve played. I’ve already fired that tweet into my social media bits, but it struck me that tweet was talking about an element of golf we don’t ever seem to talk about.

Golf has absolute massive health benefits. Those aren’t just physical benefits either. There can be significant mental health benefits too. For all the time and effort put into trying to bring more and more people into the game, the one thing no one ever talks about is that the damn game is really, really good for you.

It’s a game you can start to play at any time, even when all the other sports have given you up. It ticks boxes for the competitor, the socialite or just someone who wants to have a walk in beautiful places a couple of times a week in company with some buddies and have a good giggle doing it. At the same time you’re engaging in some pretty serious aerobic exercise. What could be better.

Let’s start with something pretty basic, and probably the best reason for anyone to play the game. Golfers live longer. That’s right, you can delay your appointment with the Grim Reaper by going out and getting in a few holes every week.

How does that work? Simple really. What does golf ask you to do? It asks you to take a 4 or 5 mile countryside walk, across a range of terrain, and to do so generally in the company of 2, 3 or 4 pals. When you hit a golf ball you are asked to make use of every major muscle group in your body. You spend 3 to 4 hours in fresh air, even if you’re playing a course in an urban environment.

Provided you’re walking the course (not using a buggy) you’re going to get in between 11,000 and 17,000 steps. The ETPI report that walking a golf course causes an individual to expend 4.8 METs, which are Metabolic Equivalent of Tasks. A MET measurement compares the level of energy expended in comparison to how much energy you use in a resting position. So walking a round of golf expends almost 5 times as much energy as sitting on the couch. That has its impact in the volume of calories expended. 1200 calories burnt in playing 18 holes. That seems quite a lot to me.

Interestingly even using a buggy there are health benefits, although inevitably not as many. Still 6000 steps, still almost 4 times better than sitting on the couch and you’ll still burn 600 calories.

And no numpty who can’t drive their monster 4×4 is going to knock you over. So much safer than cycling. I see folk my age attempting to run. They’re clearly having no fun at all, and may only be ensuring they make a good looking corpse, when they fall over with a heart attack. A friend of mine, with a physique not in as robust condition as mine, decided when he retired early at 56 last year that he would run to get fit. All he got was f….; well, another word beginning with f. He had to stop, because his body simply couldn’t take the pounding. And he now looks a whole heap better for the walking instead of the running.

Golf has hugely positive impacts on disease reduction too, with ETPI reporting between 20% and 40% reductions of the incidence of hip fractures, stroke, colonic or breast cancer, diabetes, depression and dementia amongst those who play golf compared to those who don’t.

And that last part on depression and dementia speaks for me to the issue of improving mental health. I can’t help thinking when I look at other forms of aerobic fitness work they are a bit solitary. OK, you can be in a gym and in company on an exercise bike or treadmill, but I’m not convinced about the levels of interaction. Strikes me folk are working so hard on the exercise bit they don’t have a lot of energy left for the interaction bit. Play golf, and you’ll have to interact. It still seems to be about the most personally interactive sporting activity you can play outside.

Because this is the bit we don’t talk about enough. Playing a game of golf gives you the opportunity to wander through often wonderful places, always a haven for wildlife and especially so in urban locations, and to spend your time in the company of a number of probably like-minded people with whom you can talk, banter or put the world to rights. It is, basically, good for the soul and the self, in a way that no other sport, game or pastime truly can be.

It is true that golfers and the golf club are becoming demographically older. But, in this instance, this is not a bad thing. That more and more of the retired population are playing the game is good for them, their health and their life expectancy. Even more it is good for them as people, as they develop a support network, a group of friends and acquaintances, who look out for them, spend time with them, are there to help when things go wrong, there to celebrate when things go well.

Many times in my career in the game I have seen someone lose a life-partner but be able to cope and to move on thanks to their friends in golf. I’ve seen that support network support and overcome during periods of illness. I’ve seen people given months to live survive years because of their involvement in playing the game and with their friends who still play the game, even when perhaps they no longer can.

Golf is the best game there is because you can play it for all of your life. And it is the best game there is because it will make your life longer and keep you healthier whilst you live it.

We need to say that more.


At an intellectual level I can understand a world handicapping system. On a practical level I can’t understand why vast amounts of money and time are being expended in its creation. Let’s face it; you don’t have many Brazilians, Rumanians or Egyptians lining up to play in your 3-Man Team Open.

I can see it is a potential issue at the top level, where handicap validity is a key element of getting into top events when a handicap ballot applies. When the bloke from Bahrain enters the Amateur off +1.8 you need to know it is a genuine number that the guy can play too. I get that. But why the bloody hell do the rest of us have to get sucked into your megalomania?

To the rest of us, the other 99% of the golf world who aren’t elite players, does having a handicap you can play off in Lima, London or Los Angeles actually matter? Pretty obviously no.

Handicaps are a vexed issue. You can’t spend over 15 years in club management and fail to recognise this. You can’t step into any golf clubhouse in the world and fail to appreciate this. The conversations always seem to revolve around someone’s score, the validity of their handicap, “he’s never 15”, the introduction of maximums of 54 etc., etc.

In the UK we’ve been operating under the auspices of the CONGU Scheme since 1984. I’m sure students of Orwell will find something significant in that date. Being so old I can recall prior to this date we ran, effectively, two systems, depending on your handicap. 6 and above the club ran it; 5 and below you recorded it but the County authority administered it, confirming details with the club. It was simple.

At club level if you beat your handicap by 1 or 2 strokes you went down a shot; by 3 then down 2, by 4 then down 3 and so on. And that’s where you stayed until the annual review. If you’d done nothing else, or there was a poor year, back up you went. Now that could be harsh, but the compensation was in the match play allowances (and in my memory we played more social matches then). Higher handicaps got fewer shots, which actually was an incentive to improve. All the stroke play was to the established Standard Scratch Score, with no performance or weather variables – the SSS was the number. And if you didn’t play to your handicap there was no immediate change.

Playing to your handicap had meaning then. Getting 40 points in a better ball stableford from ¾ allowance would mean you and your pal would probably win. These days you’ll be 20th.

For the Category 1 guys of 5 and under, to retain or reduce your handicap you had to play to it/beat it 3 times in 9 scores, or 4 times in 12, again to an unmoving SSS number. Fail in that and up a shot you’d go. Try that as a member at a huge, windy, seaside links. Being a scratch golfer really meant something. I have neither the time, energy nor mathematical knowledge, but reworking some top amateur player’s performances to those criteria might produce a surprise or two. I have a suspicion the odd +1 or +2 modern guy would be revealed to truly be a 2-handicapper. I know I would be at least 3 on the old system, and am currently 1.

And this system had none of the greatest stupidity of the current approach. If you just wanted to go bash it round with your mates, you just went right ahead. Nobody was looking over your shoulder suggesting you were a second-class citizen because you didn’t play competitions, or telling you your handicap wasn’t worth it unless you’d put in three cards each year – because make no mistake; that is how those forced to put in said cards these days feel about it.

The introduction of the active/inactive handicap concept (now softened to competitive/social) cost every club membership. That condescending little “i” on the handicap list led to endless “what’s the point if my handicap’s invalid” (member’s interpretation) conversations. People left because of it. I suspect UK clubs lost thousands of members. Lunacy.

Since 1984 we have experienced manifold tweaks and changes. No buffer zone, to two shots for all to multiple buffer zones. 0.2 increases for a fail back to 0.1 – yes, that’s right. In the first year of the system everyone got a shot back to start the year, there was no buffer zone at all and a 0.2 increase if you missed your handicap. And you wonder why there have been continuing problems with dodgy handicaps and increasing winning scores.

And I continually ask the same question. To what end? What have we achieved by trying to squeeze everyone into an inappropriate, one size fits all system? Discord, distrust, disbelief and disinterest.

Most golfers don’t understand how their handicaps work, which is no surprise. I know how CSS is worked out, but most golfers can’t fathom why it doesn’t go up on a day when virtually no one beats their handicap. Logic tells them low score is the criterion that matters. Actually logic tells me that too. In any event, leaving the club after a competition and having ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how your handicap will be affected until someone runs a computer programme is just daft.

Whatever we need at the moment, which above all is greater simplicity, I can almost guarantee it won’t be what we’ll get. There is now way too much money and standing involved. The old system you could run yourself on a spreadsheet; now clubs have to pay a provider hundreds, if not thousands of pounds a year to provide the necessary software.

Every course in England and Wales and a fair number in Scotland and Northern Ireland, will have to be re-rated as in the UK we switch to Slope Rating, a scheme I note is trademarked to the USGA; few bob there then, eh chaps?

Hope you’re all looking forward to explaining (Handicap Index/2) x (Slope Rating/113) when someone asks you what they’re paying off today. Simplicity?

Learn the lessons is, I guess, what I’m saying. The “full” system we have now really only needs to apply to Category 1, maybe at an extreme stretch for local league purposes, Category 2 (up to 12 handicap). For the rest of golfing humanity, which is the overwhelming majority hitting the small white ball, it is a complete irrelevance. Strange as it may seem to the golfing authorities, the clubs in fact are entirely competent to administer their members’ handicaps. Let them do it.

Was there ever a bigger slap in the face of UK clubs than the introduction of a National system, a more effective way of saying “you know what, we actually don’t trust you guys to do this right”. Not that I can think of. Then again, those sending the message all started in the clubs, and it’s not always the cream which rises to the top.

And here comes a shock to those who know me. I believe if the “full” scheme is misguidedly to apply to all golfers then the one we need is actually the USGA one. I know, every individual score returned, competitive and social, pace of play yadda, yadda, yadda. But let’s face it. If we want a handicap scheme that is a genuine reflection of a given player’s current performance how else is it going to be achieved?

There is little doubt in my mind that the introduction of a WHS is entirely concerned with the top end of the playing of the game, and more particularly the standing of some of its administrators – “look what I’VE done” – than the genuine needs of our game worldwide. Do you really think this is going to up participation numbers? Quite. So when your national affiliation dues rise have no doubt about why.

Frustration in Beautiful Places

Golf is a funny game. Or they called it golf because all the other four letter words had been taken. Make your choice on how you feel. I know it’s a frustrating exercise at times.

I’m not going to bore you with my self-flagellation. At a logical level I understand that a bunch of rounds playing to 3 is, cosmically speaking, not poor golf. When you’re supposed to be scratch or 1 it drives you insane. A 3-putt here, some bad karma there and 6 out of 8 rounds 1 shot outside the buffer zone results.

Of course you also convince yourself that all the karma is bad. There is good luck in there too, but one simply can’t see it for the bloody hindering bad breaks and lip out putts and poor kicks and stupid pin positions and noisy groups on the next fairway and……….


The thing about it is the places I’ve been fortunate enough to go to over the first month or so of the competitive season. Burnham, Parkstone, St Enodoc all feature in my diary, as well as Saunton, East Devon, Churston, Dainton, Tavistock and Torquay within my home county.

Burnham is always a favourite. It was brutal the two days we were there (nothing new in that) but it is a fantastic track. More work going on, with a reshaping of the 6th green, which is looking fabulous. When I was there in October last year there was also a new 6th tee, which I was pleased wasn’t being used for the Wests. We didn’t know about it in October, and would never have found it but for some guys on the other course asking us what we were doing on the old tee; the group ahead had not been so fortunate. They had assumed the tee blocks were missing, stuck some tees into the deck and hit from there. Thank goodness it was a stableford!

Parkstone was a revelation. I hadn’t been there for 5 or 6 years. The tree management programme was just muted then. Seeing the transformation was remarkable. The heathland flavour of the course is properly apparent, vistas across the course have been opened up, even views away to Poole Harbour now.

The thing which really struck me was the changes in the bunkering. Superb work to change the number and siting of fairway bunkers has greatly enhanced the look and feel, but it was around the green complexes that things were really different. Looking at my old course planner I reckon more than 15 greenside bunkers have gone, and been replaced with run-off areas. They look better, are easier to maintain and also arguably tougher for the expert player to negotiate whilst taking away the fear of the bunker shot in the tyro. Brilliant. Can’t help feeling someone from there’s been to Dornoch recently.

Mind you it can kick your butt. Sat on the patio at the end of day 1 with partners Richard (who eventually won) and Les it was a bit quiet. Then Les, a wonderful, slightly curmudgeonly Scot intoned “I really want to break something”. In view of the disasters we’d both had I fully understood the sentiment.

St Enodoc is just one of those places. You know you’re in for something special as you drive up the entry lane from the estuary. Folded fairways, fast running greens, the hardest par 4 in the world (10, and because it’s really a par 5) and, of course, the famous church towards Daymer Bay and all the Betjeman connections. Padstow over the river, seen from the 9th and 16th tees. Heaven.

The third venue for a 36-hole event for me was Churston, on the western side of Torbay between Paignton and Brixham. Always enjoyed playing there, and this year was no exception. It is a cliff-top parkland layout protected by the sea breezes and the severity of its greens. You have to plan carefully, and position the ball well if you’re not to face some horrendous putting. I failed in this a couple of times, especially towards the end on the 2nd day; was never going to win as my pal Paul was too good, but I should have been runner-up but for said ham-fistedness.

Some fun one-dayers too. East Devon is just a gem of a heathland course on the cliff tops outside Budleigh Salterton. It was my first competitive round of the year after a very long winter and I was predictably appalling. However, the golf course is always great fun to play. Like Churston you have to position the ball well; there are some really severe greens especially in the early running. One of the finest courses in the south west for me.

Saunton West is, well, awesome now. It was always a fun, sporty track to play, but the works done in the winter of 2016 have made it a worthy sister to the famed East course. New tees and new bunkering make it a great challenge from the back tees, whilst the members who play it from the yellows will see virtually no change. With one exception. The 12th has been changed from a tedious, short pick-up par 5 into a proper strategic test. New bunkers threaten the tee shot on (from the back) a much lengthened hole, and the realigned ditch across the fairway asks serious questions with the wind against, or after a misplaced tee shot. A superb upgrade.

Dainton Park are celebrating their 25th anniversary. It looks a whole lot more mature than that. The plantings around the many existing mature trees have grown to the point where you now can’t always tell the old from the new. There’s good use of water in the early holes too. Several stretches of genuinely demanding golf and some fun par 3s. Plus, for me, one of the warmest welcomes I ever get at the many clubs I’m fortunate to go to. These troops really make me feel at home.

Tavistock is moorland, 1000 feet up on the fringes of the real Dartmoor you get wonderful views of the tors, of Buckland Church and away to the west to Cornwall and the sea. The golf is pretty good too, with a course that has had to change because a road runs through it. Some strong holes through the middle and a demanding finish; 16 has always been a favourite hole.

Which brings me finally to my haunt as secretary for the 2 years to January, Torquay. The welcome I had from the guys this week just gone was really touching. What impressed me was the work that has gone on. In the clubhouse a long-planned but not driven refurbishment has taken place to superb effect. On the course the changes we had planned alongside James Edwards of Edwards Design International are coming to fruition.

Necessitated by the number of golf balls leaving the 18th into the adjacent houses a re-routing has been effected. The old 8th hole has been split and turned into a short and potentially tough risk/reward par 4, with a wonderful looking par 3 to follow. I have to say that par 3 element looked good in November in freezing cold and windy conditions with no leaves on the trees. Now it looks wonderful. 18 has become a par 3 with some significant re-landscaping, and will be in play for the first time this coming week, whilst a new short-game academy area is under construction. The current 17th will become a practice ground and teaching facility. The club’s facilities are significantly enhanced by all this work, which is great for their reputation and standing going forward.

I’m looking forward to my weekend ahead as I head to the north-west to play at Hesketh and Formby with a bunch of other Golf Club managers. Bacchanalia, I suspect.

Always changing the pitch

I’ve been watching a lot of the Indian Premier League. Not getting a lot of choice as Mrs A loves it; I prefer the longer forms of the game. But it’s got my attention because of a parallel with our game of golf.

The truly impressive thing about the IPL is the batting skills (the bowling stinks!). So many new shots; scoops over the keeper and slips for 6, Yorker length deliveries being smashed square of the wicket on either side and, of course, the power hitting over Extra Cover and through the leg side. These guys are better than ever.

What strikes me is that the authorities have recognised these developments in skill and power, but also developments in bat technology, and have moved to control that technology by regulating. So the Chinniswamy in Bengaluru, Eden Gardens in Kolkata remain the iconic venues they have always been, and smaller venues like Jaipur and Pune still play a part in the competition. Strangely, the pavilion at Lords has not yet had to move back into St John’s Wood Road.

I suspect you see where I’m going with this, but for some there really is a need to belabour the point. So……….

The Centre Courts at Wimbledon, Melbourne Park and Roland Garros are all still the same size. Because, and again, tennis recognised that the power game was damaging to their long term development and sought to regulate, by slowing the ball down.

Baseball parks are also all the same size still, because the best players in the world, the Pros, aren’t allowed to use anything other than wooden bats. Power still rewarded, but talent and ability can also shine. And you don’t have to rebuild several dozen ball parks.

Every sport has adapted its rules and regulation in some way to progress. Soccer has different rules covering the tackle from years ago. Rugby Union and Rugby League have both changed their approach to the ruck, maul and tackle and their safety in reaction to the greater physicality evident in both games. Though my impression of the 13-man game from the matches I’ve seen this season is they are a little more laissez-faire than Union in the policing of what constitutes a dangerous tackle.

In Formula 1 just this week the authorities have announced new rules on aerodynamics aimed at changing the world’s most expensive time trial back to more actual racing.

Which brings us to golf and our stand-out position. We seem to have taken the view that the core of our game, its traditions, its classic venues and its core challenges matter nothing in the face of the advance of technology. So we ignore the greatness evident in our best courses. We bow to the advance of technology rather than regulate as do every other sport. The desire of the equipment manufacturers to sell us this month’s new widget has become the defining force in golf.

We allow our courses to become bigger and bigger, longer and longer, all at a time when land and, especially, water are becoming scarcer and more expensive resources. Many of our greatest venues will never see the best in the world again because they do not have the land necessary to expand in reaction to increasing ball flight distances. And if they do have the money – well, Augusta have bought a road and a parcel of additional land to push 13 back. It is getting ridiculous.

We make the game a marathon, put it beyond the pocket of many ordinary people and then sit back and struggle to understand why facilities keep on closing.

The best male players in the world now hit the ball so damn far that the vast majority of great courses are no longer a match for them. Only those facilities with pots of money and pots of land can keep up, and do so by making themselves a cartoon version of what they once were, spending thousands putting in sets of tees the members and ordinary golfers NEVER play from. The idea that amateur golfers can go and play the same courses as the Professionals is a condemned-to-history nonsense. Try the Old Course for example; it’ll never happen there ever again because the Professional’s tees for the Open on the Old Course are now on the Eden and New courses. And the teaching facility.

Meanwhile week in, week out we watch the Pros knock it round another former farm or TPC course indistinguishable from the one they played last week. Oh, the water’s in a different spot? Sorry, missed that. Yet read any golf magazine and see the reviews of the many truly wonderful courses we have. And the Pros play on cabbage patches – ask them how they feel about it, especially the ones who transitioned from top level amateur golf.

Courses are increasingly set up massively long and massively hard. It takes hours for ordinary golfers to play them, and in truth many of them can’t get it round in decent numbers. Their enthusiasm for the game is lost, and pretty quickly so are they. The costs of maintaining additional tracts of prepared turf and roughs are astronomical, and who pays it? You and me of course, the very same ordinary golfers whose numbers are reducing. We pay through increased membership dues and visitor green fees. Or perhaps you could argue we don’t, since participation in golf is falling.

I just love hearing “pundits” talk about just moving that green, or that tee, or do something with your bunkering etc., etc. Apparently it really is all you need to do to deal with advancing technology. A new USGA spec green is going to cost you at least £40,000; a tee £10k and more if it’s for a par 3 and needs more playing area. Get an external contractor to build, shape and complete a bunker is going to be a few thousand; see how that sum builds up if you have a par 4 with a number of fairway bunkers which all need shifting. Yes, you can do that bunker work with your internal staff, but then they’re also trying to do the normal preparation work. So it will take longer to complete.

If you’re going to do work to a golf course then do it for the right reason. Do it to improve the experience, to enhance the challenge, for safety or to restore whatever it was made the course good/great/memorable to begin with. There are so many wonderful examples of that around the world. I’m heading to one such for the next 3 days.

It should never be necessary just because a few golfers hit the ball further. That’s just the game being blackmailed. And sadly there are just as many examples of that around the world too.

Any game where the equipment selling tail is wagging the administrator/playing dog is in trouble. Serious trouble. That is where we now live.

The overwhelming point in the foregoing is that Baseball, of all things, has shown us the way. All the things we want, control of costs, watching Pros play the best courses, restoration of challenge and fun in the game of golf, all of it, can be achieved by making formal something which already exists. Bifurcation lives, now. Introducing proper legislated equipment limitations for the Professional and Elite Amateur tournament games would impact less than 2% of the world’s golfers without touching everyone else at all.

It is time all this codswallop about playing the same courses and kit was consigned to the bin where it belongs. Doesn’t happen and hasn’t for years. If we don’t bring in a new era of control we’re sawing on the fiddle while Rome burns.