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Also published on the Golf Monthly website

I used to be something of a puritan with regards golf equipment. A few years ago I would have contested that everybody should still play blades and persimmon-headed woods. I would have scoffed at the idea of a hybrid, rolled my eyes at perimeter-weighted irons and retched at the prospect of a mallet putter.

But as my golf has deteriorated recently, I’ve increasingly turned to technology for a helping hand. I now have a hybrid club in the bag instead of a 2-iron, I use fairway woods and I can’t believe I ever got by with a driver head smaller than 440cc.

Technology makes the game more enjoyable for the average player and this can only be seen as a good thing. The sport is hard enough, so it makes sense to take advantage of advances in design and performance.

But, there’s a difference between using equipment that makes the game easier and using equipment that changes the game. That to me is what the long putter has been doing since it first appeared some 30 years ago. By anchoring the club under the chin, on the chest or in the stomach, you’re fundamentally altering the golfing technique. Moving away from a stroke that’s governed by the hands on the club.

So I was glad to hear the R&A and USGA announce a proposed rule change to prevent the anchoring of a club: A change that would effectively nullify the long putter.

I’m not all that good on the greens and I do suffer with nerves on short putts. But I’ve never considered going to the long wand because, in my mind, it’s not golf. I’ve always thought I’d rather be incompetent at golf than passable at another activity masquerading as golf.

The authorities let the issue of anchoring slide for a long time because it wasn’t really that much of an issue. A few older players and Sam Torrance moved to the long stick to counteract the yips and many were able to extend their careers as a result. But, recently, there’s been a rapid increase in the number of top players, and younger players, opting to use the anchoring method because they feel it gives them more consistent results.

Keegan Bradley became the first man to win a Major using a long putter at the 2011 USPGA. He was followed by Webb Simpson at this year’s US Open then Ernie Els at the Open. The South African snuck in to take the title as Adam Scott (also using a long putter) faltered.

There are golf programmes in the States that have been encouraging youngsters to adopt the long putter and 14-year-old Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang used one to win the Asian Amateur Championship and earn a spot at the 2013 US Masters. Such evidence of a significant rise in the numbers of talented golfers choosing to use a long putter has been sufficient to motivate the R&A and USGA to take action. It may have taken a little too long to happen, but at least it now has.

The best golfers will be able to adapt to the proposed rule change – Keegan Bradley used a regular putter until college and Webb Simpson has already been practising with one. Both Ernie and Adam Scott have been fantastic putters in the past with the short stick. Dealing with nerves is a great part of the game and it’s something that those at the very top level should be able to do. It’s also something that those at an amateur level should, at least, try to do.

Of course, players who have always used a short putter will welcome the proposed change and those who use a long putter will not. But, fundamentally it comes down to what’s best for the sport. We have to believe that the custodians of our game (the R&A and USGA) are best placed to make these decisions and I trust their judgement. When steps were taken to limit the coefficient of restitution on driver faces or the shape and size of grooves on irons, the governing bodies were acting in the sport’s best interests. The same goes for the proposed change to the anchoring rule.

It makes sense that technological and technical concepts in golf have to be monitored and, at times, checked. If they weren’t, we’d all be using drivers with faces delivering such a powerful “trampoline-effect” that they spring the ball 400 yards down the fairway, we’d have range finders that calculate the wind and slope and tell us what club to hit, we’d have clubs with grooves so sharp they could stop the ball dead on a wooden floor, and we’d be wielding long putters anchored to the body that eliminate the potential for yips on short putts. It might still be fun, but would it still be golf?

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Last night I made the journey to Aberdeen to see the new Bond film. It was a stressful trip for a few reasons.

Firstly I was gatecrashing a girls’ night out. Jessie (wife) had organised the evening a little while ago with a couple of her friends from antenatal days. When she told me on Monday evening, I reacted in a typically childish way.

“Oh right, ok then.” I said with more than a hint of disappointment in my voice.

“What’s wrong? Am I not allowed to go and have a nice time with my friends?”

“No, no, of course you are,” I continued sadly. “It’s just that I… I really wanted to see it too. It would have been nice to go together.”

If you prick me, do I not bleed?

“Well, why don’t you come too? We could get your mum to babysit.”

Victory. But, considering it a little further I began to wonder if, for the sake of winning a very minor marital battle, I’d sacrificed too much. Could I really sit at the end of a row while the girls simpered over Daniel Craig and still properly enjoy the explosions and fighting?

The other issue was that: I really hate the cinema. In fact, the last time I’d been into town to the flicks had been to see Casino Royale in 2006.

I struggle with all the people, the cramped seats, the over-priced sweeties, the smell of popcorn, too many people having an obviously good time, people coughing on me, people getting up to got to the loo every three minutes, the rustling of chocolate wrappers, oh yes, and all the people.

Still, I got through it and the film was highly entertaining, as you would expect. The girls didn’t seem to mind me tagging along (although they probably had to tone-down their conversation about Daniel Craig’s torso in the car on the way home,) and I left thinking it had been good to see Bond on the big screen again.

The film did lift my mood, but there was a problem. Earlier in the day I had endured yet another NR in the Winter Alliance. My Alliance season has been utterly dismal so far. I’ve NR’d more times than I’ve posted a score and I’m becoming thoroughly demoralised with my game.

As I sat through the thrilling scenes of violence, seduction, death and destruction, I couldn’t stop thinking about my golf. In the opening sequence of Skyfall, (I’m not spoiling it because I’d already seen it in a trailer,) Bond chases a baddie, both on motorbikes, over the rooftops of Istanbul. At one point, they’re flying down opposite buildings along metre wide strips. It looked incredibly perilous and unsteady: just like my game.

Yes, my rounds of golf at the moment are similar to Bond’s crazy ridge-ride: They’re completely on a knife-edge and one bad movement can lead to complete disaster and destruction.

Even when I’m seemingly playing well I’m actually clinging on precariously, like a climber to the North Face of the Eiger. To the untrained eye, I might be making pars and even the occasional birdie, but internally I’m living in fear, fully aware that total collapse is possible on each and every shot.

It’s with the driver that most of my rounds have gone west in the Alliance this year. I’ll manage to keep prodding it down into reasonably playable spots for 10 or 12 holes, but it won’t be going straight and I won’t be sure if it’s heading left or right.

Then the self-doubt will get to me properly and I’ll lash one wildly into the gorse or out-of-bounds. That one bad shot is all it takes. I’ll be totally unravelled after it, and all shreds of self-confidence will be gone. I’ll then spray a few more into the thick rough or trees, onto the beach or into housing estates before I admit the game is up and ask my playing partner to write those two horrible letters on my scorecard.

It doesn’t help that my playing partner in the last three Alliances, the man who writes those letters, has been Tartan Tour No. 1 Greig Hutcheon. Compared to my three NR’s, he’s fired: four-under, six-under and another four-under. He’s 14-under-par for those rounds and I reckon, if I’d kept playing rather than waving the white flag, I’d be, roughly, 60 shots worse.

To be honest, I’ve been living a vicarious golfing life in the Alliance over the last month. Back at Banchory GC on Wednesday evenings, people now don’t even bother to ask how I got on. Frankly, there’s no point. So I just relay how good Greig was and enjoy his success second-hand.

But, just like Bond, I believe in resurrection and I’m confident I can haul myself back from the abyss. I’m going to play a few holes this afternoon and try to salvage what’s left from the wreckage.

Maybe I need to go and watch some feel-good, rom-com at the cinema so I can relate my golf game to something warm, fuzzy and cuddly. I’ll see what the girls are doing next week.

Also published on the Golf Monthly website

I have sore legs and a sore throat this morning. My children asked me over breakfast just what on earth had been going on in the sitting room last night. They’d been too afraid to come in and see, as they’d thought I was obviously, “very cross.”

I was cross at a couple of moments (like when Kaymer raced his first putt on 18,) but mainly just incredibly excited. That must have been one of the most thrilling sporting events of all time. This year has been awesome for British sports fans, and it just keeps going.
There hasn’t been a huge amount in the news to cheer the public in 2012: continued economic struggles, an ailing and, at times, totally incompetent government, an untrustworthy press, a growing rift with the Muslim world, all topped off with miserable weather.

I know sport doesn’t do much, if anything, to right these fundamental wrongs, but it does make us feel better. It gives us a lift, a psychological boost that can, and surely does, make us more positive and productive.

After watching Europe’s phenomenal comeback at Medinah last night I felt energised, I couldn’t sleep with excitement and today I want to do things. I want to write about their historic achievement, I want to play golf, I want to start planning that book I always talk about, I want to go for a run, paint the outside of the house, get a golf lesson. Yes, it’s made me feel good.

The tournament was fantastic from start to finish with superb golf played by both sides. Let’s not forget how brilliantly the likes of Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner played over the first two days. They were inspired, and there was little the Europeans could do to stem the tide.

Then, on the final day, Europe came alive. Drawing on the emotional words of their captain and thoughts of his great friend Seve, they saw light at the end of the tunnel and began haring towards it.

To watch the commitment and passion of these guys was great. The Ryder Cup is their Waterloo, their General Election and they put heart and soul into securing victory. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?

I was also impressed with the generous spirit of the losing team and the captain in particular. He must have been so incredibly disappointed, but he was eloquent in his thanks, praise for his team and congratulations to the winning side. He displayed the sort of sportsmanship that golf is famed for and we should all strive to emulate.

Let’s hope Gleneagles 2014 can go even some of the way to matching Medinah.

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.

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.

Also published on the Golf Monthly website

This is a brief moan about one element of the CONGU handicapping system – the calculation of “home” and “away” CSS scores in Open competitions.

If you’re not aware of it, this is how it works:

In an Open competition, when there are 20 or more home players and 20 or more away players competing, then separate competition standard scratch scores (CSS) will be calculated for both home and away players.

On the surface, this might not seem wholly unreasonable – the home players should know the course a little better, and all that. But, the discrepancies you often see at Open events between the two CSS scores calculated, leads me to think the system is too harsh on the home players.

At last week’s Banchory Open, the conditions were quite difficult – the ground was soft, the wind was swirling and the pins were in some tricky positions. SSS at Banchory is 68 and, in both the morning and afternoon, home players’ CSS was 68. OK, but the CSS for visitors was 71 and then 70. Three shots and then two shots difference? Surely that’s too much.

Now, let me explain how I think this happens and why it’s unfair.

Firstly, how is CSS calculated? This is done by establishing the composition of the field (in terms of handicap categories) and then looking at the percentage of the field that returns a nett score of SSS + 2 shots, or better. The higher the percentage of players who have managed that score, the lower the CSS will be (worked out on a sliding scale.)

Now, in the Open at Banchory the number of home players was just over 30 out of a field of almost 100. Of those 30 players, most competing were on reasonable form – they were unlikely to pay money to enter a competition around their home course unless they felt they had a chance of winning something.

So, it was always likely there would be some decent scores within that small field (for CSS calculation purposes) of 30. And there were. A few guys from Banchory posted excellent scores in both rounds. Now, take those, say, five players as a percentage of the 30 – you’re talking one sixth returning good numbers. This is a high percentage in CSS terms and, so, the CSS calculated was low as a result.

From the remaining 70 visiting golfers, there was nothing like this percentage posting good scores, although there were a number of good performances by away players (it should be pointed out that a number of the “away” players from neighbouring clubs have played Banchory as often as some of the members.) But it’s the percentage that counts, so ‘away’ CSS was high.

At every Open there’s likely to be a small number of local players on good form who will skew the CSS for the relatively small number of home players competing. You could have five home players with blinding scores and 25 with something in the 100s and CSS would still be low. As I said, it’s all about the percentages.

It also doesn’t seem fair that the good scores of the home players have no effect on the CSS for the visiting players, so it stays high. In my opinion, this makes home CSS too low and away CSS too high.

Everybody competing in an Open competition faces the same challenges and the same conditions. The CSS calculation should take every performance into consideration. In this case it would have been 100 scores rather than 30. The good home scores would have had an impact but they would have been factored against 100 returns rather than 30 and so a more reasonable total CSS of, perhaps, 69 would have been calculated for all involved. That would be level par by the way…. Oh yes, that’s what that number at the bottom of the scorecard is.

As a brief note, our secretary agreed with me when I raised an eyebrow at the results board when looking at the massively differing CSS scores. As a comfort, she pointed to the possibility of it working in the opposite direction: That if the home players all had a shocker, their CSS could be higher. This made me feel a little better as I thought it could, theoretically, happen. But actually it can’t. I’ve just checked and seen this clause on CONGU:

2.3 If the CSS calculated for ‘Home’ players is higher than that calculated for ‘Away’ players the CSS calculation should default to a single CSS calculation

Yet again it’s one rule for them and.. so on and so on…