Archive

Monthly Archives: September 2012

Also published on the Golf Monthly website

What a week this is for North East golf. Not only did I produce a semi respectable round of 76 in the Alliance meeting at Aboyne, but also our very own Paul Lawrie is competing in his second Ryder Cup over in Chicago.

Ok, so let’s start with Paul. After winning the Open Championship of 1999, Lawrie qualified to play in the infamous Ryder Cup at Brookline, Massachusetts. The event is best remembered for the US team’s over-exuberant celebrations en-route to a one point victory. Often forgotten is the fact Paul Lawrie took 3.5 points from 5 to finish joint top points scorer. It was a fantastic debut performance and one that confirmed his ability to mix it with the very top players in the game.

Paul has returned to his best form over the last couple of seasons and, with two victories this year as well as six further top-10 finishes, he thoroughly deserves his spot on Jose Maria Olazabal’s team.

Paul started his professional career as a teenager, working as an assistant to Doug Smart at Banchory Golf Club. I was just a wee nipper at the time but I can still remember counting out my pennies to buy “Mars bars” from Paul in the pro shop. It didn’t happen that often mind you, as Paul spent almost all of his time down on the practice ground. Doug had spotted potential in his young assistant and was very generous to allow him as much time as he needed to work on his game.

After the course at Banchory was re-designed in the mid-90s, that practice ground became the 14th hole. Latterly, it was aptly named “Paul Lawrie.”

What I remember of Paul from all those years ago is how nice he was to me and the other kids. There are plenty of assistant pros around the country who aren’t so tolerant of the juniors who pester them day in, day out.

On the eve of the last Open at Carnoustie in 2007, Paul wasn’t playing so well. He was under pressure from the press as they challenged him with underachieving in his career. I asked him if he felt this way. I remember his answer clearly.

“If you’d told me when I was working as an assistant professional at Banchory that I’d be an Open Champion, joint top points scorer in the Ryder Cup and multiple European Tour winner, I don’t think I would have viewed that as an underachievement!” He said it with a smile and a glint in his eye, and we both chuckled.

Well nobody is accusing him of underachieving this year and I just hope he goes on to perform as well as we know he can at Medinah. Come on Paul and come on Europe!

Apologies for this rather parochial look at the greatest event in world golf, but we Aberdonians can be a little insular. When the Titanic sank in 1912 with the loss of 1,500 people, the Press and Journal newspaper carried the headline – “Aberdeen man lost at sea.” It actually didn’t, but let’s not the facts get in the way of a good story.

Oh, and my 76 at Aboyne: a definite underachievement. I played reasonably but frittered away too many shots. The winning total was 68 – Kris Nicol of Fraserburgh and John Nicolson from Auchmill.

Advertisements

I sat down this morning and began to consider what encapsulates the boys’ golf trip? What is it that makes it the most anticipated and beloved yearly event of golfers across the country?

As I pondered, an email pinged up on my screen. It read, “Stu, what fake handicap are you going to be playing off this year?” This direct question – basically suggesting Stewart is a cheating bandit – came from another of my golfing pals Martin in relation to this year’s annual “Tuesday Championship,” (so named as the group started playing golf together on a Tuesday.)

This insult-infused query pretty much summed it up for me. Sometimes barbed insults can be the finest form of flattery. Only people who truly like one another can throw such disparaging remarks around knowing that, no matter how slanderous it gets, it will be taken in good humour. The boys’ golf trip is, predominantly, meant to be a laugh.

Having said this, even though the question was clearly meant as a joke, the communication also displayed the underlying current of competition central to a golf trip of this nature. Both men involved in the exchange are (I think) immensely looking forward to the holiday, to spending time with friends, to having too much to drink and to getting away from work for a few days. But they also both want to win. They’re keen and competitive golfers and lofting our prestigious Tuesday Championship trophy is a rite of passage for those in my golfing circle. I’m yet to do it, I should add.

None of my band of golfing brothers will ever win the Open Championship, (at least it’s highly unlikely.) For most of us, the Tuesday Championship trophy is our Claret Jug.

The start of our, and any, golf trip begins with the planning – an exercise almost as, some would say more, enjoyable than the event itself. Months in advance, the email goes out from the most proactive group member (Martin) suggesting possible dates and venues. There follows days/weeks of toing and froing.

“It’s my daughter’s first birthday that Thursday…” “Don’t worry, she’ll have plenty more.”

“I don’t want to go to Edinburgh again…” “Oh come on, what are the chances of bumping into her?”

The internet makes it so easy to get involved in the planning – to check out the courses, the hotels, the potential curry houses and nightclubs. Poring over websites to find the perfect itinerary for your excursion can make even the most boring day in the office bearable.

Trips that are venturing beyond our fair shores will need even more intricate preparation: looking at flight times, costing, possible weather in that area at that time, stability of current government etc.

But once everyone has voiced their concerns, re-organised their family calendar and checked their passport status, it can all be booked up and the real anticipation can start in earnest.

This is when the pre-match banter begins to flow. This will generally revolve around angry handicap negotiations as mentioned above, but could also entail: the format of the tournament, the dubious drop taken in round three by last year’s winner, the betting, the questionable drinking ability of various party members, risible current form and more. These discussions will start off intermittently but will build to a crescendo in the days preceding departure.

On the eve of the annual golfing pilgrimage, the feeling of anticipation is supremely intense. As I grow older and more cynical there’s an ever-decreasing number of things in life I become excited about, but golf trips never fail to engender in me a sense of child-like exhilaration. I might even clean my clubs.

Prior to the event there’s that amazing possibility that this could be “the year.” Why does extensive past experience never diminish the optimism?

Most boys’ trips I’ve been on follow the same pattern in terms of golfing performance. The first round is played to a reasonable standard relative to respective handicaps. Then, as tiredness and hangovers increase, gross scores rise proportionately.

My experience is of a glorious “honeymoon period” at the outset of a trip. At some point during the first round when you’ve turned in 19 Stableford points, you take the chance to look round at the fine surroundings and share a few kind words of friendship with your playing partners. At this stage you could not be happier, the golf is respectable, you feel great and you know you’re just at the beginning.

This high is fantastic but it has a downside because it will inevitably continue in the bar after the round is completed. By the time you’ve celebrated your 35 points for 10 hours, prospects for the following day’s golf look less rosy.

The morning after the first night of a boys’ golf trip tends to be a low point for me. In fact, I’ve just had a horrible flashback of shoving the components of a fry-up gingerly around a plate while contemplating 36-holes over an Open qualifying course near Dundee, off the back tees in the rain.

Golf and hangovers just don’t go well together. I can remember on a particularly boozy trip a few years ago, feeling unusually horrendous around one of England’s finest inland courses. I’d racked up an impressive six Stableford points through seven holes and was questioning my very existence. I doubted whether anybody had ever enjoyed a round of golf less. But then, when I was at my lowest ebb, I passed the group behind approaching the 7th green.

“I hope you’re doing better than me,” I ventured untruthfully.

“Unlikely,” said my pal, “I’ve only scored three points.”

If anyone was watching my stride they might have just detected a little spring.

And that’s the thing. Despite all the camaraderie and banter, the main objective of most people going on a boys’ golf trip is to put in a decent showing on course. Even if winning the event is out of reach there’ll always be something to play for. It might be winning that particular round, beating another of the struggling golfers whom you’ve a side wager with or just making a birdie or two.

The trips I go on, and most others I’m aware of from various clubhouse conversations, feature an inordinate amount of complicated and diverse betting. There’s money up for grabs by making birdies and eagles, sand saves, ferrets (holing from off the green,) nearest the pin, longest drive, the list goes on. Basically you’re either going to end the trip with a very heavy or very light wallet.

However, those few who finish the week in credit won’t be smiling for long because, when the mudslinging starts for next year’s tournament, they will be the principal targets.

Also published on the Golf Monthly website

Last night was the second instalment of “Road to Glory” on Sky Atlantic. It’s a five part series charting the British cycling team’s success in 2012 under the meticulous leadership of Dave Brailsford.

It’s extremely interesting and entertaining, made even more captivating with hindsight of the unbelievable achievements of British riders through this year.

It could be said it was a bit of a punt to begin making this documentary at the start of 2012. What if the team had performed horribly? I suppose they could have still made it dramatic and called it “Road to nowhere,” or “Avenue of failure.” But, being realistic, anyone with a modicum of knowledge on cycling, or sport for that matter, could see Team Sky and the British Olympic Cycling squad were well on course for a monumental season.

If I had any doubt before, I’m now totally convinced that Bradley Wiggins is sports personality of the year. Sorry to Rory, Andy, Mo and Jess, but the man with the sideburns takes it.

I watched Brad win the Tour de France and I was aware he’d performed well in the classic races leading up to the event. I hadn’t realised he’d done quite so spectacularly. He won the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné: the only man to win all three in the same season. He’s now the only man to win all three and the Tour de France. He’s the only man to ever win the Tour and an Olympic gold in the same year.

He is also an actual personality. He’s got a sense of humour and strong opinions, he smokes the odd fag, he’s reluctantly brilliant and he battles inner demons like the rest of us. Go Wiggo.

Brailsford and his team have left no stone unturned in their quest for victory. He talks of an “aggregation of marginal gains;” looking for improvements in every element of preparation, performance, equipment, tactics and technique. Everything considered, from the bedding the team sleeps in every night, to the oil used to lubricate the bike chains.

Each of these minor tweaks is relatively insignificant in isolation, but when added together, they make the difference and help the British riders stay ahead of the competition.

One of the things I found most interesting was the work done by the team psychiatrist, yes psychiatrist rather than psychologist. He focuses on the fight between the rational and the emotional sides of the brain. He refers to the emotional part as the “inner chimp.” The British cyclists are encouraged to try and overcome the inner chimp, the voice that tells them to stop when their body hurts beyond belief.

Trying to learn from “Road to Glory,” I, naturally, considered the programme in relation to my golf game… what could I do? I suppose I could aggregate marginal gains – tweak my equipment, eat the right muesli bars, practice my putting until my stroke is a metronome. But, it was the thought of the “inner chimp” that struck me most.

The emotional part of my brain is definitely dominant on the golf course. I tend to walk off after a medal round feeling emotionally drained. If that inner chimp, he is a complete chimp by the way, continues to override my rational brain then I’m never going to improve, no matter what other marginal gains I make.

I’ve read Bob Rotella and other sports psychology books and I totally agree with everything they say in terms of positive thinking, maintaining a routine, seeing the shot etc.. But I reckon that I, and many other golfers, suffer from psychiatric problems on the course rather than psychological ones.

I can walk on to the 1st tee with huge self-belief and a clear plan. But, when those negative (or emotional) voices begin to talk to me, all the best-laid plans go out of the window. That’s surely a psychiatric issue.

Wiggins talks about having to battle the emotional part of his brain. He has to have a proper barney with it and put it back in its box before he goes out to compete.

That’s what I’m going to focus on next time I’m on the course. The rational side of my brain is going to beat the emotional side. The rational side knows I have the ability to hit golf shots, to perform to my full potential. The emotional part of the brain tries to drag me down, questions me, questions my shot selection, club selection, clothing selection and general life selections.

The rational brain produces a strategy, the emotional side produces doubt. The key to success is to turn the emotional side off for a few hours. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it, but I can only try. I’m going to look a little strange standing outside the pro-shop having a Gollum-style conversation with myself, but if it knocks 0.1 off my handicap then who cares.