Golf: ah, that beautiful game……….or cruel mistress, depending on where you are in your relationship with said game. It’s been described as humbling, irritating, spiritual, character-building, glorious, nerve-shredding and addictive. And last Saturday the golfing gods turned and smiled down on Richard Bland, a 48-year old Englishman who had never quite made it all the way to the top spot on the podium at a European Tour event despite 477 goes at it. His 478th go was different. Life-affirming and life-enhancing, he emerged from a play-off the winner of the 2021 Betfred British Masters at The Belfry.It’s all worth it now – the multiple returns to Qualifying School and the humble acceptance of dropping down to the Challenge Tour on several occasions (the last time as recently as 2018) to endeavour to secure playing rights again on the main tour. Two decades of seeing friends and colleagues have their moment in the sun would test any person’s resolve and inner belief and between raw, emotional gulps Bland explained it as follows:-
“I don’t quit,” he said. “Even if I’m having a bad day. You might be frustrated by it but you never throw the towel in because you never know in this game what’s round the corner.
“I always knew I could do it. Some of my friends out here have won. You think if they can win, surely I can do it. I’ve left it a little late, but better late than never.”
I’ve never met Richard Bland but I watched his three-footer for the win through the cross-hatching of my fingers over my eyes, which were blurry with emotion. It was sport at its best and the usually totally impartial Sky Sports golf team were taut with nerves and exhausted with the emotion of watching their pal achieve his lifelong dream. You could hear their voices wobble, both for Richard and for their colleague, Tim Barter, who has coached Bland for the last twenty years and been with him every step of the way. The winning interview was tough to negotiate for both Bland and Barter but how lovely to escape sanitised, sterile telly and really see behind the curtain for a change.It was inspiring stuff. Even Freddie Couples, self-confessed couch potato, was moved to pick up his phone and take to twitter.
Just goes to show it’s not always the biggest tournaments that provide the most memorable moments.
I will, however, be hoping for a big, and memorable, moment at this week’s PGA, the men’s second major of the year, which is being played over the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. There’s a stellar field with only Matthew Wolff from the top 100 in the world absent and the players will need all the tools and skills at their disposal to take on this brute of a creation by Pete and Alice Dye. A mere 124 yards short of 8000 yards it will obviously favour those who can give the ball a good skelp and with that in mind I have three Europeans I’m looking forward to keeping tabs on. We all know tipping players is fruitless – and more often than not the kiss of death – but it’s still fun, so here goes.
World No 3 Jon Rahm is searching for his first major victory and I have a feeling this could well be it. He has the guile to go with his power and since the turn of the year he has quietly recorded seven top tens without ever quite taking centre stage. Definitely one to watch and potentially Europe’s best chance of bagging the Wanamaker Trophy.
Next, keep a beady eye on Bob MacIntyre, the talented left-hander from Oban. He has the game through the bag to match anyone but this course will test his strategy to the limit. It’s not always the right play to choose to be aggressive and if he can rein in that tendency, he’s got a great chance. Whatever happens he will learn from it and go away better than when he arrived.And anyone who knows me knows that hope always springs eternal within my heart for Rory McIlroy, winner by a whopping eight shots the last time the PGA was played here in 2012. A tidy win at Quail Hollow 12 days ago will boost his confidence in his new left-to-right approach to the game but I suspect it’s not yet bedded down well enough to cope at major level. But, hey, this is Rory and part of the fun of watching him is anything can happen and we may just get treated to a masterclass.
There are so many interesting storylines to look out for – can Jordan Spieth become only the sixth player to achieve the career Grand Slam? Can Bryson DeChambeau find the fairways with his 400-yard boomers in the difficult Atlantic breezes? Will the fact that the USGA are for the first time in a major allowing the players to use rangefinders to measure their yardages really help speed up play?
Lots of questions and only one I can answer with certainty. Rangefinders to speed up play? Not in a million years.