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 At the 19th

Mixing it with the elite
When it comes to top-level competition, it definitely pays to pick your partners

I shall shortly be off to Portugal to defend my title. Sorry if that sounds a little conceited, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to write and now is almost certainly the only chance I’ll ever have –unless, of course, I successfully defend my title in Portugal, in which case another opportunity will arise at this time next year. In that extremely unlikely event, I shall show more restraint next time as I’ve now written about defending my title and ought never feel the need to do it again.

Since you may be wondering what miserable title a man who wields his clubs with less authority than Gordon Brown exerts over his cabinet colleagues could possibly have to defend, let me explain. An energetic member of the fourth estate, I am frequently invited to delightful golf destinations. The hope is that I will enjoy the, I mean, fact-finding mission, write nice things about it and before you can say ‘That sounds extremely unethical to me’, thousands of readers are descending on the place.

Nowthat you have a unique insight into howthese things work, let me further explain that whoever organises these, there I go again, I mean ‘familiarisation trips,’ often arranges some sort of light-hearted competition for the visiting journalists. Encumbered with pretentious titles like, ‘The Costa del Sol Press Trophy,’ ‘The Maple Leaf Media Challenge’ or ‘The Kazakhstan Columnists Cup,’ they keep the journos amused. And so when I accepted an invitation 12 months ago to play in the ‘Portugal Nations Cup’, I anticipated a low-key knockabout with amotley assortment ofmedia folk.

The first clue that this event might be something rathermore serious came at Gatwick as I queued to board the flight to Faro. There, dressed elegantly in smart blazers with the English Golf Union crest on their breast pockets, were three athletic looking chaps. I recognised one of them as Ben Evans, a two-time winner of the Faldo World Series. Since I am one of those rare breed of journalists who can’t rest until the truth is uncovered, I asked him what he was doing. When he explained that he was playing in the Portugal Nations Cup, I thought what a coincidence that there should be two competitions with the same name.

Before you condemn me as a complete nincompoop, I should explain in my defence that our GB Airways flight had been delayed for six hours and that, since I had dutifully turned up two hours before the advertised time of departure, I had been wandering aimlessly around for about the same length of time it takes to play 36 holes. Evidently,my usually incisive faculties had been somewhat dulled by what might reasonably be described as ‘terminal tedium’.

Panic began to set in when I arrived at my hotel in Vale do Lobo to discover a copy of the Rules of Golf on my pillow. My God, I thought, they’re taking this a bit seriously. You expect a Gideon’s Bible but not the Rules of Golf. Worse still, alongside the rules was a two-page document entitled ‘Conditions of Competition.’ My reddened eyes alighted on the fifth paragraph headed ‘Format.’

“The competition will be played over three rounds of 18 holes stroke play. The total of the two lowest 18 hole scores of each Team constitutes the team score for the round.” Despite being thoroughly exhausted, I couldn’t sleep. Only when I started on the Rules of Golf did I eventually drop off. My anticipated gentle game with a few fellow hacks hadmorphed into an absolute nightmare. Strokeplay, ugh! How was I going to explain to my fellow England internationals – Ben Evans (plus 4.1), Chris Wood (plus 4.0) and Ben Parker (plus 4.0) – that I am a stableford specialist and that the last time I played strokeplay Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, the Beatles were at number one and beer was one shilling and eleven pence halfpenny a pint?

As you will appreciate, it’s extremely unusual for a journalist to get things wrong. On this occasion, however, I must confess that I did and the truth was that I was only ever going to play with the boys in the curtain raising press-am and not in the event itself. As it happened, thanks almost entirely to my sparkling nett eagle and gutsy nett birdie, we beat the 11 other international teams with an astonishing one-best-score-oneach- hole-to-count total of 15 under and each won a handsome ashtray, which now occupies pride of place in my otherwise empty trophy cabinet. However, it wasn’t of itself sufficient to persuade me to take up smoking.

As the solitary survivor fromlast year’s ‘dreamteam’ to have resisted the temptation to turn pro, only I am eligible to return to the Algarve to defend my ashtray. Having been part of the victorious press-am team, the two Bens probably felt they had achieved everything they had ever wanted to achieve in amateur golf and promptly turned pro. Chris Wood held on for a while but eventually succumbed after finishing a fabulous fifth equal in the Open at Birkdale, an achievement almost as impressive as our triumph in Portugal.

It’s a shame he won’t be seeking another silver medal at Turnberry next July, as it’s not often one gets a chance to defend a title, I find.

November 2008

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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