Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Nostalgia Factory (ii)

Sausages and Golf

I dunno. Easter for me usually means a fast approaching birthday; the hope of getting Easter eggs from someone and watching four days of unbridled golfing genius from one of the most picturesque (and controversial) golf courses in the world.

The Masters for many years was consistently the most exciting of golf tournaments and the fact this major is held at the same place every year, you get a sense of familiarity that comes along with other sporting traditions like the Grand National, the Boat Race and Wembley cup finals. Depending on when Easter falls, you would get various views of this world famous acreage; in full glorious bloom or looking like spring hadn't quite arrived in Augusta, Georgia. Whatever the weather there, I could quite happily sit and listen to the dulcet tones of the incorrigible fascist Peter Alliss wax lyrically when all the cameras are looking at is miles of sky all weekend.

But the last couple of years have been different. For people who don't understand golf, or think it is a good walk spoiled, you won't understand this, but the two most important days of any golf tournament are usually the first and last - the two in the middle are also interesting, but they lack the sudden impact of a game that isn't really action packed. In the UK, at our own world famous tournament, day 3 is called Moving Day; an attempt, perhaps, at attracting a bigger audience than the 3rd day of a tournament deserves? But generally, for me, the Masters is about rediscovery and tension. The first visit back to an old friend in a year and whether or not someone I want to win (normally not a Yank) can steal that famous green jacket.

So, two years ago, the BBC lost the rights to show the first two days live; this sporting jewel had lost half of its coverage to Sky Sports and frankly, I'd rather cut my penis off than purchase anything that has Murdock's grubby paws on. Therefore I was left with watching streamed coverage on the Internet, which was either interrupted by spam ads or the signal being blocked. I had to download a certain software to be able to watch it and while I checked to see if the iLivid software was safe, I also didn't see any real need to have it to be able to watch the stream. Since downloading it, my Google Chrome has gone tits up; none of my bookmarks appear to be working and while I've checked the PC thoroughly and ran all kinds of checks on it, it appears that I have to manually go back and ensure that my browsing experience is the same as it was at 9:00pm yesterday.

But that's an aside; the thing was, I just couldn't get into the groove. Watching a picture that looks suspiciously like the same quality as 1980s video tape recordings, you have less chance of spotting the ball, even on the greens, than you have of finding Wally. Sky's commentary team all seem to think they're Americans and hyperbole is the watchword, whereas at the BBC, it's all very gentlemanly, gentile and sophisticated - even with comedy Ken Brown darting around the course like a lanky Gollum in pursuit of his precious. Last year I gave up and just watched the Sunday night climax on BBC2, but my only exposure was reading 36 hour old reports in the Guardian, so I just didn't get the same tension and enthusiasm. This year, I feel that Sky has once again completely ruined one of my TV traditions. I expect I'll watch the final day, but whether its on the computer or in the lounge - pissing the wife off, no doubt - I don't know...

I have very few friends who are as keen on golf as I am. One of them now lives in Texas and our days of watching the Masters round his place surrounded by beer and drugs have long gone. My other golfing buddies were actually actual golfing buddies; I used to play the game and admit that it was one of the few sports that I felt totally comfortable with, even if I was absolutely shit at it.

I started to play golf with my mate Mitch when I was about 13. We'd go down to the old pitch and putt course on Abington Park, hack our way round 9 holes and then hang around until it was time to go home. While Mitch discovered other pastimes (but did eventually return to playing), I tried to play golf at least once a week - inspired by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino, I never had aspirations to be professional; just good enough to feel satisfied with my performance. You see that is the real bug in amateur golf; most novices know they'll never be any good, but it's not about beating others, it's about beating yourself. Shooting a better round than last time; playing a better shot out of the rough or a bunker, or just trying to be better than you were - which, is really why any of us play any form of competitive sport. A casual runner will argue that they run to keep fit, but many run the same course and keep an eye on their times - I wouldn't be at all surprised if runners or anyone undertaking any sporting activity at some point pictures themselves in the final of that sport's world championship. There isn't a golfer I know who doesn't put themselves in the position of 'this putt to win the Open'.

While I was actually pretty good at snooker and possibly could have gone onto some bigger things had I practised more than I did when I was young; golf was the game that I really wanted to be good at; but it was also about getting better on my own rather than seeking guidance. I didn't want to be told how to play, I wanted to work it out myself and change the way I played accordingly. This philosophy, I discovered, is possibly why I have had only half a dozen rounds of golf in the last 18 years.

It was Toby who really took to golf with me in a big way. Toby, who I actually have nothing to do with any more, fell in love even deeper than I was with the game and during our early twenties, we would play as often as we could - initially on Abington Park, but usually on horrid days when no one else was playing or in the evenings when we didn't have to pay. We soon grew bored with just playing the pitch and putt, so we sat down one day, drew a plan of the course and then turned it into a 9-hole 36 par golf course. I won't go into details, but essentially, we would use the 9 tees and the 9 greens and mix them up; 7 par 4s, 1 par 5 and a solitary par 3 - the 9th hole, because it was almost impossible to incorporate it into the other 8 holes - too many trees in the way.

Then Delapre Golf Course opened (well, it had been open for a while, but we started to get restless and wanted to spend some money on a proper course). We spent a year playing the two 9 hole par three courses - once on LSD - and eventually we were joined our mate Andy, who had also rediscovered his love of the game. Delapre was expanding and it opened the Hardingstone 9; a 32 par mini course, which was considerably more difficult than it looked because it was built on a reverse camber, which meant that left handers found it much easier to play and there are considerably less left-handed golfers than right. Andy, Toby and I were joined by Andy's mate Charlie and our four ball Saturdays began.

In reality, all four of us were shit; but we improved and depending on the day none of us were much better than any of the others. We competed against each other every Saturday and we'd all win our fair share of four balls. I started to play an extra round a fortnight at Wellingborough's exclusive private course, with my mate Adrian (now in Austin) and he started to try and improve my game; this resulted in my game falling apart. He also warned me that my swing was putting an enormous strain on parts of my body that good golfers don't use - this was something to haunt me. While Adrian and I toiled away at improving my game; my weekly Saturday game continued apace; we no longer took drugs when we played and Toby had become an advert for Pringle. He became obsessed with the game, spending every free moment at the driving range and he should have improved to the standard where he should have beat us every week; but you see, that's the thing about golf, what you think and what you do are poles apart.

In terms of ability and the overall scores - we kept count - there was little between Toby and I and even less between Andy and Charlie; in fact, in his quiet and unassuming way Charlie began to become the most consistent player among us; which meant that even if he shot 45s every week on the Hardingstone 9, he'd win at least one game a month.

Now, you might be wondering why the word 'sausages' is in the title. Well, during the early days of playing golf with Toby, I was also working for him, in a chuck wagon on Moulton Park, serving sausage and bacon sandwiches from 6.30 in the morning until mid afternoon. I got paid fuck all, but it was better than nothing - this was around 1987. One cold morning, I, being the head chef, was getting the breakfast run together, bent over to get some sausages out of the cool box and did my back in. It as an odd one, because I felt this horrendous twinge, yelped, rubbed the area of my back where the pain had come from and got back on with what I was doing. As the morning went on, the pain increased and my mobility disappeared. During lulls in business, the two of us would often grab a golf club from out of the boot of my car and practice golf swings on the embankment next to our van; that day I didn't even try and Toby sensing that I'd done myself an injury eventually let me go early. By the next morning I could barely move. I was racked in pain and needed to see a doctor.

Now, years later and being something of an expert in back pain, I could probably hazard a guess and say that I think I might have trapped a nerve. I didn't slip a disc because I know what that's like; but whatever I did might have had some major impact on my future health. My doctor at the time seemed to think that I'd torn a muscle, but three weeks later and still in a lot of pain, I got referred to a specialist, who I can honestly say told me nothing except that I wasn't disabled - which, at 25, I didn't think I was anyway. There's a bit more to this story but frankly it's not that important to this thread.

I recovered, but it took 6 weeks in total and by the time I went back to the chuck wagon the writing was on the wall for it and me. Despite this employment setback, Toby and I continued with our golf and this timeline catches up with Charlie and Andy around 1994...

I find it hard to believe that I did so much on a Saturday when I was young. There seemed to be more time to do things and spending three hours at the golf course every Saturday afternoon didn't eat into it. My game started to show signs of improvement; my short game was pretty good, my long game was also getting there, but the two rarely arrived on the same Saturday. My putting was erratic and I was averaging about 42 around the Hardingstone course - that's technically 10 over par, but we always played the course longer than it was to make it a proper 32 par rather than the weedy 32 it was supposed to be. If I was handicapped, I would probably have played off 18.

Then one Saturday my life changed.

We arrived at the course a little after 1:00pm; it was a sunny but cool May day; a light breeze and probably ideal conditions for the likes of us. We sorted out the playing order and I was first off; I walked to the first tee, placed my ball, took my 5 metal club out and loosened up. I can remember this round of golf like I can remember my mother's face...

The Hardingstone 9
Hole 1: Is a par three; if you were playing this hole halfway through a round then it would probably pose no real threat. It's 160 yards straight up hill and once you'd warmed up you could make the green with a 4 or 5 iron, but as it was the first, we realised that we needed to go down into the bag and look for something with more distance. It was a better hole to be above than below. I cracked my drive right and it settled on the fairway about 20 yards right of the pin. My playing companions all teed off. I played a poor second shot and left my ball 30 feet short of the flag and just off the putting surface. I putted up to the hole, popped it in and was satisfied with a bogey. Score +1
Hole 2: A monstrous par 5 even by a standard 18 hole course, it also dog legs right and have that reverse camber I told you about; so it didn't matter where you hit it, if it hit the fairway, it rolled down to the bottom of the hill and you were left with another driver's length shot. If you went too far right, you'd end up on the 3rd's fairway and be faced with a bank of hawthorn and bramble in front of you; it was a far more risky shot and we'd all lost balls on numerous occasions when we'd hooked up there. I teed off first because we'd all got 4s at the 1st. I cracked it right down the middle and got appreciative noises from my companions; but it went left and nestled on the edge of one of the sand traps. When I got to the ball, I realised I had to stand in the bunker to play it; the ball would be at least 2 foot above my feet! Even professionals would find this a tough shot. I took my 5 metal out, hit the ball low and swerving up the hill. It travelled about 100 yards and left me at least 90 to go. I got on the green in four, two putted and walked off with another bogey. Score +2
Hole 3: is another par 3 and probably the easiest hole on the course if you hit the ball straight. If it fades to the right, you lose it down the hill that the 2nd cuts through, but anywhere else you tend to be okay. I took an 8 iron, hit the ball high and straight and it landed about 4 inches from the hole. We all stood and thought I was going to get that elusive hole-in-one. I tapped in for a birdie. Score +1
Hole 4: Technically another par three, but at 210 yards, you just have to bring the tee back 30 yards and you have a par 4 and that's what we did. I drove it down the middle, followed it up with a wonderful chip to land the ball on the edge of the green about ten foot from the hole. My putt bounced looked far too fast, hit the flag and fell into the hole. I had recorded my first ever back-to-back birdies. Score: par
Hole 5: The toughest, but shortest par 3 on the course. it measures at about 70 yards and is down hill. If you hit it long you lose your ball; hit it right and you lose your ball. Hit it left and you will probably lose your ball with your second shot if you catch it too clean. Leave it short and you at least have a chance of getting on the green, but it's 70 yards, you struggle to leave it short unless you fluff your shot. I was still teeing off first and I hit my sand iron high and straight. It bounced on the edge of the green, shot forward and stopped 2 feet from the hole. My companions were suddenly becoming as impressed with my round as I was and this is where our little group was special. We all wanted to beat each other, but if one of us was having the round of their lives, then the others supported him like he was in the lead on the final round of the Open. I birdied my third hole in a row and was pumped up. Score: -1
Hole 6: If you play this as a right hand dog leg going up one hill and down another it's almost 500 yards and is again technically a par 5 for a novice; however, if you cut across the 7th green and flirt with the pond, you can turn it into a very doable par 4. However, we were sticklers for precision and put in our own out of bounds rule. I sliced my drive really badly and it was heading to the out of bounds line, but hit a sapling on the ridge, which we classed as the OOB line and fell like a stone, landing on the correct side of the slope. We all looked at each other; I'd been given a reprieve - had I had to play again, it would be my third shot and my great round would have been blown to shreds. But the shot was hard; it was amongst weeds, close to the sapling it had hit (which is probably now a 50 foot tree). I hit it well, but knew it was going to fall short. I was 30 yards short of the green with an uphill shot in front of me. I took my trusty pitching wedge, hit the ball sweetly and it rolled up and sat about six inches from the hole. I tapped in and got my 4th birdie on the trot! Score -2
Hole 7: A bitch of a hole because the pond sits between you and the green. Hit is short and lose your ball, hit it long and you sail over the back and face a 40 feet drop down to the no man's land between the 1st and 9th. It's really just an 8 or 9 iron shot, because you are playing downhill, but if you don't hit the ball clean you are stuffed. I was hitting the ball really well; dropped it onto back fringe - cutting another break - and two putted for a par. Score -2
Hole 8: The life changing hole. Andy, Toby and Charlie were all having reasonable rounds, buoyed by my own spectacular round, which smacked the face of my usual form. I'd teed off first at every hole and the 8th was no different. It was the longest par 3, uphill and nearly 200 yards. It was the second hardest hole on the course and posed all kinds of hazards if you didn't hit the ball well. I took my 5 metal, got myself comfortable and hit my shot. It was as clean as a whistle. It sailed up and forward, bounced ten feet short of the green, skipped up and rolled forward, stopping less than a foot from the pin. I turned to Toby, we all cheered and I hi-fived him...

Now, what I'd like to tell you is I strode up the 8th, tapped in to go -3, got to the 9th, which is a long, downhill, par 4, hit my long drive hard and straight, landing on the green (because we'd done that before), where I putt to go -4 and record a score of 28; which, if you include the handicap I should have had would have been a net -13 or a round of 15! However, the hi-five was the thing that did it.

We were all so pumped up; the guys were hooting, I was totally made up and I could afford a shit last hole and still be about 6 shots better than my best ever round. As our open hands met in mid air, I felt something go. That's the best way of describing it; something just went. It was quite possibly the most painful experience of my life at that point in my life and now, many years later, I realised what I'd actually done. I'd slipped a disc. I might only have been 32, but having done it twice in the last 2 years, I recognise that gnawing incendiary old friend.

The term crippling pain is a bit of a cliché, but that is the only way I could describe it. I was in agony and my compadres realised this. I was almost in tears from the pain and unlike some things this wasn't going away; if anything it was getting worse, especially if I tried to move. My legs had turned to jelly and I wasn't sure I could support my own weight, let alone walk. Suddenly the greatest round of my life had been forgotten. We slowly made our way up to the green; my mates trying to gee me up and keep me positive; but I already realised that I'd done something spectacularly bad.

The pain was so excruciating I couldn't even putt. It was impossible for me to even address the ball and I had to reluctantly withdraw from the game. The guys tried to get me to play the 9th, offering me a gimme for the putt I couldn't take on the 8th; but I couldn't physically grip my driver. I was using one of my irons as a walking stick.

The doctor reckoned I'd probably caused my sciatic nerve to get trapped, he probably didn't think I was old enough to have a slipped disc. This pain was something altogether different from the pain I had at the chuck wagon. I got sent to physio and it took a couple of months to get better. The guys continued playing every Saturday without me, but keeping the spot open for when I came back; but I was scared to start playing again and my back still didn't feel right as summer turned into autumn. I never said I wasn't going to play again, but they replaced me with a mate of Charlie's and later, when I felt I could go and play golf again, they weren't prepared to let me rejoin the group; so my only real golfing outlet was barred to me. I could play on my own, but that wasn't really why I played golf, not any more.

When it was clear that I was not welcome back in the four ball I helped set up, I tried to get my own group together, but the guys I got to come along were not really into golf as a weekly recreation sport and after one round we didn't do it again. This coupled with my reluctance to actually open up and hit a ball, because I was scared I might do my back again, meant that I just stopped playing. It would be 8 years before I got the clubs out again and ironically my last 3 rounds of golf were with the person I had my first round with - Mitch.

The brain is still there (in me). I knew what shots to make, I just didn't make them and the 18 holes we had on the main Delapre course resulted in me shooting two 100+ rounds and an 80, which should have heralded a rediscovery of my golfing prowess and enthusiasm, but the winter came and it's been something like 6 years since that happened and I've fucked my back up twice since then, had a shoulder operation and was recommended to consider not playing golf again by my last physiotherapist, despite having barely played at all since my first back incident.

It's probably the one thing I really get pissed off about - not being able to play golf again. When I last saw Adrian, he suggested that I just find a safe swing; try not to skin the ball and just play to my physical capabilities; but golf was also a way to vent - a metaphoric punchbag - and I'd have a lapse of concentration and end up in A&E.

So, my golf is now limited to one and a half tournaments a year - half of the Masters and all of the British Open (which I won't have to take a holiday to see this year, I believe it falls at the start of my summer break). I'm an event spectator and soon I won't even be that, because I'm just not subscribing to any channel - I'm not that desperate to see things the government no longer believes we have no right to watch without paying for it.

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