I’ve been weary all week and wondering why and then I realised it didn’t need a medic to work it out: the most brilliant St Patrick’s weekend had taken its toll. I was recuperating from a wine-tasting triumph at Worth Brothers, based in an ancient wine cellar and one of my top Visit Lichfield attractions; then there was Ireland’s Grand Slam triumph at Twickenham, a masterclass of precision, passion and skill, a team that made sure they secured the prize they craved and deserved; Spurs also beat Swansea to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup and now play bro-in-law Brian’s Man Utd; Rory made a jaw-dropping late charge to win at Bay Hill and earn an Arnie cardie; no wonder we broke out the birthday Bolly.
Exercise is the perfect antidote to a weekend like that but there was no golf on Monday because of snow and a seriously frozen course, so the final (yes, the final, my partner has dragged us to the final) of the Winter Foursomes had to be re-arranged. There was no golf on Tuesday because the course was still frozen and some of the paths were dangerously slippery – a few years ago one intrepid soul was persuaded out by his mates and ended up breaking several ribs, so caution is now the name of the game.
We had to console ourselves with the ladies’ captain’s afternoon tea, bring and buy and flower-arranging demo. It all looked so easy, as anything done by an expert does, then I got home, looked at my flowers and realised that, as so often, I still have a lot to learn. Good thing I come from a long-lived line. But, no, I have not added flower arranging to the list of things I’m doing that I can’t do. Everyone has their limits. And it’s beginners’ bridge this morning.
It was also a good weekend for Inbee (pesky predictive text turned that into Inbox!) Park, the Olympic champion, who is turning herself into one of the golfing greats. She blitzed the opposition – in the nicest, most sedate way possible – at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Arizona and won by five shots. The seemingly indestructible Dame Laura Davies shared second place with Ariya Jutanugarn, of Thailand and Marina Alex, of the United States.
Inbee has now moved back into the top ten on the Rolex Women’s World Rankings but she wasn’t too bothered, saying that she hadn’t really paid too much attention since she’d won her gold medal. She’s been No 1 and says that now she’s concentrating on “just playing some good golf, that just brings little rankings up anyway”. What a refreshing way to look at things. She’s competitive, of course but she’s done the No 1 thing, she defied a fair amount of Korean criticism to compete at the Olympics in Rio (she’d been injured) and she exudes an air of calm and control, whatever she may be feeling. Essentially, now, she plays for the love of the game and the competition.
DLD (Dame Laura Davies) is also a one-off, a talented, free-spirited, stubborn phenom who marches to the beat of her own drum. That second place was her best LPGA finish since – wait for it – 2007. I’m pretty sure I read that right – Laura is 54 after all and has been around for a long time. “Maybe now people will stop asking me when I’m going to retire,” she said. She puts her longevity down, in part, to limiting her time beating balls on the practice ground; a range rat she was not and she has never been a gym rat either but she’s kept herself fit and strong by being active and doing what she loves and is more than good at.
Ariya J played with the Englishwoman in the last round in Phoenix and the young Thai, who won the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Woburn a couple of years ago, was genuinely chuffed: “It’s like my dream come true,” she said. “I love how she plays. She’s like my idol and I had so much fun. I didn’t really concentrate on my score at all. I just had so much fun and it was a pleasure to play with her.”
Karrie Webb, a Queenslander from Australia is another legend, albeit only 43 and the USGA (United States Golf Association) has given her an exemption into this year’s US Women’s Open at Shoal Creek. That means the Aussie’ll be playing in her 23rd consecutive Open, a testament to her excellence and longevity. She last won the championship in 2001, successfully defending the title she’d won the year before. That wasn’t the world’s best bit of scheduling, in fact it’s a candidate for one of the worst, given that it was the same week as the Millennium Open at St Andrews. If ever a woman was badly served, it was Webb that week. She might not have noticed as she added another major to her consummate resume but the eyes of the golfing world were not on The Merit Club in Illinois in July 2000. Somebody called Tiger Woods won at St Andrews. I still seethe at the crassness of that clash.
And talking of seething, there are a lot of people out there, if my reading of Twitter is correct, furious that Juli Inkster, US Solheim Cup captain, commentator, icon, legend, still player, is out there without a sponsor. Nothing on her bag, on her shirt, no names nowhere. Some mistake, surely? Don’t they know that we older women have influence and money to burn???
There’s a good deal of chat going around the golfing world at the moment as to how golf can fight its corner in attracting and keeping new players in the face of stiff competition from a plethora of seemingly more exciting and more sexy sports and pastimes.At grass roots level it is fairly obvious that we in the UK and Ireland can do better at providing an environment appealing to women, children and families, an idea embraced by the Scandinavians for the last three decades. Too many clubs have been slow to buy into this concept with the result that it is frequently an uphill battle combating dwindling numbers and interest. With this in mind, I applaud the simplification of the rules, the next version of which comes bounding into play in January 2019. Taking a couple of penalty shots and dropping the ball near the out-of-bounds fence over which your ball has just sailed is common sense and has been in practice in friendly golf for years. It is simpler and beats trudging back to the tee and taking a penalty of stroke and distance – and, with a bit of luck, it should keep play moving. Rules that are easier to understand and implement are obviously one way forward, though this OB rule won’t be used at professional or elite level.
I’m pretty much in favour of most things that make the game easier and therefore more enjoyable for the club golfer. I most definitely would NOT have banned the anchoring stroke in putting for the club player, who, to a greater or lesser degree, is challenged in terms of skill level anyway. Many of the players you see with the broomhandles have suffered from the yips and the long putter has kept them playing the game and enjoying it. Of course, the long putter itself is not actually banned but you cannot have your hand touching your body, a near impossible task in winter golf when swathed in several layers. This is an easy game not to play – let’s not give anyone any encouragement in that direction.
For the same reasons I would not want to see the club player losing significant distance in their long games because of mooted restrictions on the distance the ball can travel. It is a great joy to swing one of the frying-pan-head sized drivers and belt the ball a decent distance even when the bus pass is tucked into your hip pocket alongside your scorecard and specs with which to read them both.
The sharp eyed among you will have noted that I make all of the above points with reference to the club player. I am, however, in favour of different conditions being imposed on those who play the game for a living. I am a fan of bifurcation (a fancy word to describe having two sets of rules, one for pros and one for amateurs.) The guardians of our game have oft stated they are completely against bifurcation, citing one of the beauties and unique selling points of golf being that anyone can play any of the great courses that host major championships with the same balls and clubs available to the world’s best. That is a claim that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. We already have bifurcation. Higher end equipment played by the tour pros is not available to the public from retailers. And the aforementioned new option of dropping after hitting it OB is only available to the club golfer. What is wrong with acknowledging that the pros play a completely different game and on occasion should (as they indeed do) play different rules?
Let’s talk about the professional game now. It’s our shop window and has the power to attract or repel people into or away from our sport. The modern game played by supreme male and female athletes has been described by many as a “bomb and gouge” game, i.e. go and smash the ball as far as you can, often leaving only a wedge or short iron to the green. It’s so much more one dimensional than twenty years ago. But let’s not blame the pros for the lack of guile and shotmaking in the modern game. They and their skills have developed in response to the equipment and course set-ups they play week in week out where the premium is on length and not necessarily accuracy. This has led to courses getting longer and longer, rounds taking longer and longer and costs of maintaining courses soaring to stratospheric heights. With drives now reaching, and on occasion surpassing, 400 yards it is time to restrict the distance the ball goes. That way the great courses of the world do not become obsolete and the diminishing skills of strategy and shotmaking can be reintroduced through judicious course set-up.
Furnish the manufacturing companies with specifications for a tournament ball and allow them to come up with their own conforming model which must be played in all professional tournaments – and, I would suggest, perhaps also in amateur championships and International matches. I don’t forsee any difficulty for elite amateur players – it ‘d be similar to when both the 1.62 inch ball and the 1.68 inch balls were in use and we amateurs switched to the larger one for everything because that was what was required at the elite level.
Leave the club players to enjoy and benefit from technology and introduce a tournament-conforming ball for the pros and elite amateurs. Is it really so difficult?
This week I was going to write about the new rules, which will be introduced in January 2019 and the new handicapping system, due to come into operation in 2020 but things have been a bit fraught in this household this week and rules and handicapping have never been my forte, requiring as they do a level of concentration and forensic attention to detail that stretch my capabilities beyond their meagre limits.
Like a lot of games golf is intrinsically simple: you tee the ball up, then pursue it across country and hit it (without teeing it up again) until it disappears into the hole, whereupon you add up how many times you hit the ball (or tried to hit it) and that’s your total for the hole. Then you do the same again, and again, for 18 holes. Some people might ask why? What’s the point of all that? But if you get the point, if it appeals, that’s you, hooked – not always a golfing outcome to be wished for – and on your way to being sucked into the maelstrom of handicaps, rules and even, heaven help us, dress codes.
There’s also lots of fun, competition and banter with friends, being out in the fresh air and able to play a game that has universal appeal and an injury toll that may involve backs, knees, wrists, elbows and shoulders but is unlikely to include concussion – unless you’re unlucky enough to be hit by a ball or a club.
Michelle Wie and Tiger Woods, two of the most hyped golfers in history, one of whom has more than lived up to his billing, are flying high at the moment, revelling in being fit and fighting again after myriad injury woes. What’s wonderful to see is the joy they have in competing and performing at the highest level, revelling in showing off their talent for a game that has held them in its thrall since they were kids.
Love of the game, whatever it is, is the key to success because, let’s face it, sport will break your heart if you let it; to keep coming back, time after time, defeat after defeat, injury after injury, you have to love it. However good you are, however many trophies you’ve won, however many leagues you are ahead of your opponent, the moment you think that all you have to do to win is to turn up, you’re toast.
Ireland won’t be thinking like that at Twickenham tomorrow, when all they have to do to win the Grand Slam (and Triple Crown) is beat England on their home turf, a wounded England at that, hitting the buffers for the first time under Eddie Jones, the bullish Australian and staring down the barrel of three consecutive defeats. Ireland don’t have a great record at Twickers – few visiting teams do – but gone are the days when Ulsterman Cecil Pedlow, a ridiculously talented all-round sportsman, could turn to Tony O’Reilly, of Heinz fame, as they were lacing up their boots before running out onto the pitch and say, “You realise O’Reilly, this is the 13th consecutive defeat we’ve shared together.”
That’s one of my favourite sporting stories – anathema in today’s professional era of positive thinking – and, no, I haven’t trawled through the record books to check that it’s accurate but it probably is. It was a wee bit before my rugby conscious time, though I was at Ravenhill when Ulster drew 5-all with the All Blacks in January 1954. Well, Mum was there and I arrived in June and she thought that that experience and her dreaming that they’d christened me Wembley Stadium accounted for my being such a sports nut!
Ireland are probably better than England at the moment but they’ll only win tomorrow if they turn up and give short shrift to the weight of history (and home advantage). They can’t ignore the fact that they’ve only won the Grand Slam, that magical, elusive beast, twice: in 1948 and then in 2009, in Cardiff. Maureen and I were there and Wales had a kick to win the match in the last minute but, right on target, it fell short and those of us in green went gratefully doolally.
Just because it’s St Patrick’s Day doesn’t mean Ireland are destined to win and there’ll be no disgrace in playing their best and losing but there’s nothing more gutting than a BBU (brave but unavailing), especially one that the players will remember years from now as the Slam that might have been. Might as well win then. It’s much more fun!
Finally, on a joyous note, congratulations to Angela and Sergio on the arrival of Azalea Adele Garcia, who puts sport in its proper perspective.