Closing in on single figures

A good round has been coming for a while. You can sense it. You start to see the course in front of you. When you line up an approach shot, you think about the best place to put it on the green. You’re thinking ahead because your ball striking is good enough to allow you to. It’s like entering a zone where everything becomes automatic. Two weeks ago I hit a nett 74 in the monthly medal, knowing that my putting had prevented me from going much lower. In the past, I’d have been so annoyed I’d have walked off the course with the look of a man who never wants to play the game again. I’d have let a roar out of me in the car afterwards and then cursed myself for getting so upset. Now I can see past my emotions. If you can play to your handicap and still leave shots out on the course then it should be a cause for optimism. Experience has taught me that the difference between a good round and a very good round is your putter. And some days the putts don’t drop. That’s fine, I’m not playing the game for a living, even if I’ve been acting as if my life depended on it. It’s not easy to get away from that train of thought and one bad shot can cause a relapse but you develop mechanisms to counter it. It begins by accepting, before the round starts, that there will be bad shots. Then it becomes easier to cope when they happen. The only way to recover from a bad shot is to get the ball back in play as quickly as possible, whether that’s putting it back in the fairway or getting it close to the green. Learning to make better decisions on the course can only come with experience. And the more I analyse my game, the more I realise that rather than getting hung up on the missed opportunities in a round, it’s the unnecessary mistakes that are really costly. Whenever I’ve scored well it’s because I’ve kept the double bogeys off the card, the number of pars and bogeys never fluctuates a whole lot. And when you think back on the doubles, they’re usually the result of poor decision making and trying to make amends for a bad shot. Last weekend was a prime example. Struggling off the tee the whole way through the front nine, my putting was keeping me going (15 points after nine was about five more than I deserved) when I finally got a drive off the centre of the club face on the 10th. Only in my efforts to get a better smack on the ball, I pushed it right into the heavy rough. On the Monty in Carton House, you can’t take any ball as being safe unless you can see it from the teebox. With a provisional on the tee and a truly pissed off golfer standing over it, I topped the ball into the rough about 50 yards in front of me. Losing my composure cost me a decent chance at making a bogey. By the time I’d got my provisional back into play, I was faced with an up and down from 120 yards to prevent a scratch. And by then I was already cursing the course for hiding my ball in the rough. It didn’t help that one of my player partners kept finding his wayward drives. On the 14th I scratched again despite putting for a birdie from the edge of the green. The earlier scratch was still playing on my mind and I was out to make amends – another classic case of ‘how not to make a birdie.’ I raced my first putt past and as I stood over a lengthy par putt, a wasp hovered over my ball. If I was thinking clearly I’d have stepped away from the putt but instead I rushed it. The ball raced past the cup again and I missed the return for bogey. It was a shambles but not because of bad shots. I’d made three bad decisions. I did no worse than a bogey from there to the finish and came in with three more pars. 29 points was no more than I deserved for getting so wound up in the middle of the round. One of my playing partners, who came in with 36 points off 6, summed it up neatly afterwards: “You have to plot your way around this course and you have to keep your composure.” It’s easy to say that when you’ve covered the back nine in level par of course but in order to play like that, you have to learn what it is to keep your composure. Wednesday couldn’t come fast enough. A beautiful day and back to the O’Meara, my favourite course. The game was there, I just had to let it out while keeping the head. My first challenge came on the first. Right off the tee and into the rough, I found the front bunker when it should have been the last place I ended up. With little sand and most of it wet, there was the potential for problems with the flag at the back of the green. Instead I focused on getting the ball out of the bunker and giving myself at least at putt for a par. That was the only way to make sure double bogey didn’t come into play. As it transpired if the putt had been a little bit harder, I would have saved par but a bogey for two points was no disaster. A fairway and a green on the second got me back on track. A birdie was a bonus but then I stood on the third tee, feeling uncomfortable. On a good day with the driver, I’ll carry the bunkers that are 217 yards away off the white tee. The safe play is left but that brings the trees into play. A well-hit three wood could run into the bunkers anyway. Two hybrids would leave not much more than 100 yards to the green. I promised myself that if I didn’t feel comfortable on the tee, I’d put the driver away. But I was feeling flush from the birdie even though I didn’t feel right standing over the ball. I stuck it in the bunker on the right, mad with myself for doing so. Luckily I had a good lie and two shots to recover. When I walked off with a par, I felt like I’d come through a big challenge. From there the course just opened up to me. Two pars, and a narrow miss for a birdie on five, followed before I sunk another putt to go one under after six holes. My mind was getting in on me now and it was harder to shut it out. All the possibilities were running through it – a level par round, 47 points, a single-figure handicap – and I just had to laugh at how much my mind could wander. Of course, golf being the game that it is, I bogeyed the 7th, a short par three when my par putt lipped out. Another bogey followed on eight to put me one over, dashing dreams I had no business thinking about in the first place. Two pars followed on 9 and 10 as my putter kept warm but it went cold on 11 when I went bold-headed for a birdie and paid a price with my first three putt of the day. Again I felt like another challenge was being put down in front of me. With no shots on the next two holes, two short par-fours, it would have been an opportune time for the course to take a bite at me. My shots became a little more tentative and instead of hitting the middle of the green with a 9-iron and a pitching wedge, I pushed one short and right, the other short and left. The chip shots weren’t difficult but my mind wasn’t making matters easy. It kept pushing me to think of the problems, of the potential bad outcomes. I left both shots within a couple of feet of the hole and yet I felt like my hands were beginning to shake when I stood over the putts. It was ridiculous. All I kept trying to do was go through the same putting routine and count 1-2 (1 back and 2 through) on the stroke to stop my mind interfering. It was like that from there to the finish. On the 14th, I had three feet for par; on the 15th I had four feet to rescue a point after putting my third shot in the water. On 16 I had a tap-in for par, on 17 the same. On 18 I had five feet for a bogey. I remember coming up to the 17th tee wondering what would happen if I make a complete mess of the final two holes – I was only five over par at that stage which meant I could scratch the last two holes and still finish with 37 points. The better my round got and the longer it went on, the dafter the notions in my head became. The only solution was to try and let them wash over me. It felt like my body and my mind were two different people and I was trying to stop them from tearing each other apart. If that sounds silly then so be it. The greatest challenge in trying to get better at this game has not been improving my shots but trying to get my mind to shut the f**k up. Now I’m down to 10 and closing in on 9, it might be time to put some ear-plugs in.

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