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 At the 19th

A horrible seven-year twitch
Surely deserving to be hailed as the Dale Hill equivalent of Bernhard Langer, our author continues to battle against the most dreaded golf disease of all

Because I hadn’t yet taken up the game, I know that I wasn’t on a golf course when I heard the news that John F. Kennedy had been shot. I was probably helping an old woman with her shopping, giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a hedgehog that failed to make it across the North Circular Road, or distributing my toys among the less fortunate children in our neighbourhood, but I can’t be sure.

On a more positive note, I do know precisely where I was when I first yipped a putt. The 5th hole on the Old Course at Dale Hill is a monster par-four that stretches to very nearly 400 yards. So, unless there is a gale whistling across the Channel and up the A21, it is effectively out of range in two for those of us too old to remember where they were when Kennedy was shot.

My 5-iron third shot scuttled down the fairway and limped exhausted on to the front edge of the green, thus leaving me with a 25-foot uphill putt for a well-deserved par. Since I had already amassed five solid stableford points over the previous four holes, I felt confident that I was heading towards another very respectable total in the mid 20s. However, three points here, I figured, would put me right back in the mix. A solid if unspectacular putter, I would normally reckon to hole perhaps as many as one in ten such putts. I drew the putter head slowly back before lunging in an ugly and involuntary fashion at the ball, which flew (yes, flew!) off to the right leaving me, coincidentally, with another 25-foot putt, but this time for bogey.

Thinking that I had done it deliberately just to amuse, one of my two playing partners laughed louder than was decent. The other looked incredulous before muttering unsympathetically, “It’s still you.” Bravely displaying the sort of character that has made me such a feared force in the world of indifferent golf, I pluckily took only three more putts to register an emphatic blob.

My equilibrium and normally cheery disposition were strained further when something very similar happened at the 8th. And again at the 10th, 13th, 15th, 16th and, just to finish off a memorably miserable day, the 18th. Only those who have suffered the same ghastly fate can truly understand the awfulness of it all. A normally cheery and garrulous bloke, I was in shock as we sat on the balcony and sipped our beers. All efforts to raise my spirits were utterly futile as I was terminally inconsolable.

Although a complete agnostic when it comes to astrology, I wondered if my problem that day might have been as a result of a misalignment, from a Sagittarian perspective, of Pluto and Uranus. And so I gave it a week before teeing it up again. Everything was going fine up until I reached the first green. As I stood over my 12-foot putt, I knew for certain that it was going to end in tears rather than in the cup. The ball again shot off to the right. My partner, who had driven not once, but twice, into the back garden of a detached house on the right-hand side of the first, groaned the sort of groan you groan when you want to indicate displeasure. We lost the hole and the match 5&4. Worse than that was the absolute dread I felt when standing over a putt and the acute embarrassment everyone else felt at having to witness the road accident that was my putting.

If I was ever going to enjoy golf again and, even more important, stop every hacker and his dog giving me advice on how to putt, something had to be done. Mark Wood, the pro at Dale Hill, steeled himself sufficiently to watch me and explained that I was rather open at address, aiming left and striking the ball with an open blade. What was, and still is, mystifying is how incredibly difficult it is to put right something that you know to be wrong. In short it was more a psychological than a physical problem.

In an effort to ‘start again’, I experimented with all manner of weird and innovative techniques that I hoped would break the spell. So desperate was I to find a cure that I even tried putting left-handed. Watching Chis DiMarco at the 2005 US Masters inspired me to try the claw grip. If it had helped him rise into the world’s top-10 and to eighth in the putting stats, then even if it only did half as much for me and eased me back into the top-50 at Dale Hill, I would be satisfied. By splitting the hands and reducing the influence of an overly active right hand, it helped enormously. Although I continued to consistently miss putts, at least I was no longer yipping them alarmingly.

The whole nightmare began almost seven years ago to the day and although, through sheer strength of character, guts and determination, I have come through the worst of it, I’m not the awesome force I once was on a golf course. However, a tall thin package arrived this morning that might just finally end my enforced spell in the golfing wilderness. I tried a belly putter three weeks ago on a practice green and set up a personal record in the modern era by holing three consecutive four-foot putts. Is it the answer? Watch this space.

June 2009

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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