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Bubba Watson's Masters

I confess myself one of the doubters about Bubba Watson taking a second Masters. But when he got into contention, he was so compelling to watch that it was hard not to be wishing him into the winner's enclosure.

He mastered his emotions to speak clearly and concisely at the elegant little ceremony when the previous winner Adam Scott presented the famous Green Jacket. Engaging was the way he compared 2012 with 2014, feeling that he rather “lucked in” the first time but had to work very hard to achieve the second.

Unless a new generation of players learns to hit the ball as long and high and straight as he does off the tee, then there is little to stop him adding one or two more Green Jackets to his collection.

Fascinating to me were the action photos of his golf swing in the Daily Telegraph on the Tuesday after his success. I noted his TWO straight arms well into the backswing giving great width. Then there is the huge lift of his right foot at the top. The moderns tend to stay more flat footed but I remember Jack Nicklaus lifting his heel pretty high so there may be something to it.

The most eccentric part is that he never actually grounds his heel at any stage being on his toe at impact and then, not surprisingly swivelling the foot through the best part of 90 degrees at the finish.

This reminded me of Henry Cotton giving Gary Player, no less, a swing tip to beat the pull hook that beset his driving from time to time. On the practice ground Henry said “ hit a few without grounding your left heel”. The result was a series of dead straight shots flying twenty yards further than usual.

I read somewhere that some of Gary's best golf was played subsequently when he had the feeling, at least, that his left heel was in the air at impact.

All power to you, Bubba. I hope that your body stands up to the inevitable stresses and strains of your fabulous hitting and that you will have the chance to defend the Masters title in April 2015.

Meanwhile there was much made by commentators of the recent spate of successes of left hand golfers. arguing that, under pressure it is safer for them to fade the ball at the key right to left holes like the 10th and the 13th. What they failed to mention was that prior to the new breed of golf balls and the huge headed metal drivers. no left handed fader of the ball was ever going to be long enough. Any right-hander hitting long raking hooks was always at an advantage. It must be said however, that Bubba Watson did not bother with such niceties much of the time, hitting the ball so long and straight that he had no need to.

New Year Resolutions (2001)

opy for Cricketer Magazine from Ted Dexter

New Year's day at Sunningdale Golf Club resounded to the hum of good resolutions. No drink for a month ( with occasional lapses allowed ) was a popular choice. Then there was my own determination to keep the head steadier and more behind the ball in the downswing.

Top of the bill was the ageing scratch player who ordered his usual large tot before a twinge of guilt made him switch to mineral water. Only the night before he had embarked on the most stringent of remedies for recent poor form which involved a stone of weight loss, a two month course of lessons in the art of Seniors golf and a commitment to intensive physiotherapy for a stiff neck. In the cold light of day the immediate future looked a trifle bleak!

I found myself wondering whether cricketers are prone to the same kind of good intentions at this time of year. And, if so, what general lines of self-improvement would be the most useful. Obviously there is the whole fitness issue which is mighty important whatever the level of play, but setting yourself more technical goals is no simple matter.

I suppose it would be possible for a batsman to learn a particular stroke like an on-drive if that shot is not in an existing repertoire. Or a course in letting the ball go outside the off-stump would be a good exercise for anyone. The trouble is that serious work on such skills almost certainly needs a bowling machine for some of the time and a couple of competent bowlers to provide variety thereafter. Not everyone has access to such facilities.

Perhaps the first resolution should be to genuinely earmark rather more time for practice than normal during the rest of the winter, stepping it up a gear once the Spring comes round. When the summer is in full swing, then only the most dedicated have the drive and inclination to add practice time to what may be an already arduous day's play. At the highest level, it was Geoffrey Boycott above anyone else I can think of, who regularly found the extra hour or two in every day to bat against all-comers in the nets whether it was early in the morning or late into the evening.

By comparison the golfer has a far easier task. As a much more repetitive game with a still ball to boot, it is merely a question of defining your problems and then working hard to eliminate them. Hitting hundreds of balls is almost essential to reach a high standard even if the amazing Colin Montgomerie is a current exception.

Because of the cricketers difficulties in defining specific problems plus often inadequate practice facilities, I am going to suggest a couple of more general points to consider where some hard concentration in an armchair may be worth many actual hours of hands on activity.

We all know that the best batsmen appear to have more time to play the ball and that the best bowlers have plenty of rhythm, but when did you last hear of cricketers working exclusively on those two key factors. Brian Statham worked at nothing other than his rhythm, for a short time before each day's play and then again the moment he had the new ball in his hand.

When lucky enough to be captaining this wonderful bowler, he would give me bulletins on whether it was feeling right or not quite right or whatever. Unlike some who would be fretting about lack of swing or spin or bounce, all results of their efforts rather than the root cause. It may be that a few home sessions with eyes shut imagining your best bowling action in perfect rhythm would prove more productive than repetitive slogging in the indoor nets.

To find extra time as a batsman may be a little harder, but time spent in studying the problem objectively will not go amiss. It is mostly a matter of believing that there is extra time available and being prepared to take a leap of faith when the actual equations of feet per second and hundredths of seconds tend to disprove any such notion.

One of the most commonly asked questions by young batsmen is how on earth it is possible to play the fastest bowlers when at 90 miles per hour there is only a quarter of a second to actually play the stroke after an even shorter slice of reaction time. It seems impossible until you put it another way. If you say that you have 35 hundredths of a second to play the ball it seems just that bit longer.

There are two essentials in finding extra time. One is to wait for the ball to come to you rather than rushing around trying to get to it. And the other is to have a pre-determined reaction to the kind of ball you most expect. Some of the greatest players may have played each individual ball strictly on merit but for the rest of us, a certain amount of pre-planning is essential.
So shut your eyes and imagine the ball leaving the bowler's hand while you, the batsman, are still simply relaxed and ready. Take that leap of faith which is to believe in your natural reactions and that there will be time enough for them to put you in good position to play the ball when it arrives. If Gary Sobers can stand stock still against Dennis Lillee until the ball is nearly half way down the pitch, then it must be possible for most of us to play the majority of bowlers with time to spare.

Golf for Starters

I have just spent a half-hour at the Villeneuve-Loubet Golf “driving range” – a weekly pleasure but a necessary one to keep the golfing muscles flexible.
There were perhaps 30 other like-minded souls of all ages and sexes trying to find that elusive sweet contact between club and ball. Sad to say there was not a single one who had a hope in hell of ever breaking a hundred on a proper golf course.
The methods were as varied as they were bizarre and common sense suggests that they must be entirely happy with their plight – or why would they continue to throw good money after bad trying to reach a goal which is so obviously beyond them? I often think that a word or a suggestion here or there might perform a kindness but I immediately realise the futility. These folks are already beyond help if they continue to just turn up and hit balls.
The politically correct answer is for them to sign up for some lessons with a trained professional but I see these well meaning men hard at work from week to week with no discernible resulting improvement in their pupils.
So either we take the view that golf is impossibly difficult, end of story: or we make a couple of lateral shifts in our thinking and provide people with a facility which could conceivably lead them to a better golfing future.
The first requirement is to have as much acreage of putting/chipping greens as there is for longer shots. Then people can start the game in a logical way i.e. by holing a few putts from six inches to get the idea of a precise and controlled strike on the back of the ball: no expensive professional guidance needed, especially if these primitive beginnings are made with a blade putter i.e. resembling, however slightly, the shape of an “iron” which will be their next club on the list.The length of putts can be slowly extended to the edge of this “starter” area and even beyond.
Sooner or later it may become obvious that long putts through thickening fairway grass are hard to repeat accurately and an aerial route to the smoother green is a common sense option.
So they substitute the straight faced “putter” for a club with a little more loft – though again, they may benefit from still thinking of the shot as a long putt. Moving further back there will come a time and a reason for more loft and carry so the “short” irons will come into play. Hopefully our guinea pigs will still remain intent on a crisp controlled strike on the back of the ball to achieve their objective. During this phase there is a case for these beginners starting to hit half shots with their feet touching – again it is a self-teaching method with no swing gurus needed.
Ideally they would then move on to a pitch and putt course of however many holes can be fitted into the space available – but six holes with varying challenges should be sufficient.
Eventually there will come a time when a full whack at the ball becomes necessary but the ground work will have been done. Each individual will have found his or her best way of getting the club square on the back of the ball – a dream that is miles distant for my “driving range” companions, flailing away in increasing desperation as the ball steadfastly refuses to obey their ill defined objectives.

My personal objective as each year passes is to score lower than my age (currently 76) which I achieved on the 22nd of January 2012, finishing par,birdie, par, par. for 75 at Cannes Mougins off the yellow tees. This included no less than 35 putts!! No wonder I am 10 handicap. Only very occasionally, as on this one occasion, can good striking make up for such ineptitude near the hole. When playing off scratch, I used to count the putts assiduously and they seldom went above 30. I don't YIP them all but as Henry Longhurst once said "once you've had'em, you've got em".

Just for the record I managed a 76 just after my 77th birthday in May. And then, wonder of wonders a PAR 71 came along in October, first time out at Monte Carlo GC, also known as Mont Agel. My usually weak chipping worked like a charm and every putt under 6 feet holed. Inexplicable (more like 91 next time out) unless it was down to a very tasty vin rose at lunch before going to the first tee. I must try it again some time.

The "New" Wentworth

I was glad to hear one or two critical opinions about the changes made to the West Course at Wentworth. I have played it once, courtesy of the Wentworth directors. For their generosity, I remain grateful. But I found some of the changes distressing: not because they made some of the holes much more difficult but because the essential nature and look of the course had been hacked about in such an ugly way.
Most of the controversy has surrounded the eighteenth, but, oddly enough, I have no grouse with it at all. There were two eagles made by brave souls late in the fourth round: on the other hand Westwood and Donald took the safety first route. All well and good. There seemed to be plenty of drama for the punters in the hospitality areas. It seemed fine to me.
Ian Poulter disliked the new greens and bunkering at the 9th and 12th and Paul Casey too. To those I would add the 16th. It was such an innocent looking short par four with just the one fairway bunker on the left but it was a classic risk and reward hole. Feeling good you might reach for the driver – just a touch nervous and maybe a three iron. It certainly took it's toll and there were not all that many birdies as I remember. By putting in more fairway bunkers, the driver is no longer an option with everyone hitting rescue clubs or five woods for position. Then you turn the corner and are faced with a raised green, only half the flag stick showing and nasty looking bunkers glaring at you. The approach shot cannot be played by eye so the visitor has to check all sorts of yardage information to have a hope of a decent result. The pros have all that info to hand but it is not golf the way it was meant to be.
I wonder too at the problems of upkeep with all the new bunkering and the reshaping of the putting surfaces. I remember last year, the owner Richard Caring saying that he wanted to ensure that the course retained it's reputation as the finest inland course in the British Isles. Mr Sepp Blatter said “Crisis – what Crisis?” I say “Reputation – what Reputation?”. No course can bear such a claim if it is not kept to the very highest standards, at least most of the time. When I played soon after last years PGA, the greens were pretty ropey and at the short tenth, my ball was plugged on the downslope of the right hand bunker. That is not the stuff of any “best” course. And I do not recollect the Wentworth Course ever heading any of the various top hundred lists which appear from time to time in magazines.
I understand that a visitor will pay a green fee well in excess of three hundred pounds – quite a hit for the chap who tells his mates that he will pop in the shop and pay for all four. It must take hours and hours for even a reasonable handicap golfer to get round. Is it all worth it just to ensure that a winning score in a Championship is three or four shots more per round?
The only course I have played where increased difficulty has been achieved whilst retaining the charm of the original (SottoGrande New) lay out is Valderrama. This is done by the relatively simple expedient of having small, slopey greens – so that when you get out of position, it is the devil of a job to keep the damage down to a single shot. For the sake of the original architecture of Wentworth, I hope that somehow it matures and starts to look again a little more like it's former self.

Seve Ballesteros

Some thoughts at the death of Seve Ballesteros.

I never actually played with the great Seve. I was lucky enough to play a good deal with Gary Player. I had a round with Nick Faldo. I played in pro-ams with Lee Trevino and Sandy Lyle. Back in the dim and distant past, I played with Ryder Cuppers Eric Brown, Dai Rees and others of that generation. Bad luck, really, to miss out on the inimitable genius of the swashbuckling Spaniard from Pedrena.
But I loved to watch him and followed him all the way round in one of the match play events in the Autumn at Wentworth. Gone were the days of wild hitting and miraculous recoveries. This was the mature champion who hit the ball long and straight as well as tidying up with high quality chips and putts.
It was closely fought with Seve one up playing the par five 17th. His Japanese opponent Aoki, always so immaculate in tailor made trousers, missed the fairway right. Then he mishit to the right again. Seve was on the edge of the green for two, closing in for the kill. But he was robbed by a chip in and then a long putt against him at the eighteenth.
Come the following year, I happened to see the Ladbrokes odds in the Sporting Life. Twelve to one Ballesteros was on offer which was irresistible. I withdrew £500 in cash from the bank and called in at the Ladbrokes branch in Acton. I asked for £400 at 12 to 1 and £100 a place. “Just a minute , Sir” was the answer as the manager checked with HQ. “You can have £200 at 10 to 1 and no place bet” was the sneaky response. So I stomped off in high dudgeon without a bet of any kind.
Come the competition itself and plans were well advanced to go on holiday to France with Mrs Dexter but as the day of departure drew near it was apparent that Seve was going very well. Obviously I had mixed feelings, half of me wanting him to lose, the other half wanting him to win to prove my judgement right. But how on earth could I find a TV in France with the coverage?
My devious streak came up trumps with the idea of a romantic week end in Jersey as a stopover on the way. Which is how I came to watch him at his majestic best, winning the Final comfortably while I silently suffered the pangs of the frustrated gambler without a sniff of the £5000 pounds that might have been.
It was in practise for the next matchplay that there was further evidence of his superb control in that period of his career. One of the Sunningdale assistants had popped over to Wentworth and was lucky enough to catch Seve setting out on his own. He was given a courteous nod of assent when he asked if he might tag along as a lone spectator. Nothing was said for 16 holes until Seve called the young man over on the 17th tee.
“This tee shot is unfair” he said “ I show you”. He hit three drives: the first straight down the middle: the second tight to the out of bounds on the left and then the third with a lovely long draw into the left half of the fairway – all nominated beforehand. They walked down to find all three balls within a few feet of each other, but all in the right hand rough. “You see. It is not fair”. End of golf lesson!
One of my favourite golfing books is titled “The Masters of Golf” by Dick Altman and Ken Bowden. It is right up my street because every golf swing of the champions from Vardon through to Ballesteros is described at length and in meticulous detail. Incidentally, I once asked Henry Cotton who was the best ball striker he had seen in his long life and close acquaintance with so many of the great players. “Harry Vardon” he said without hesitation. But that is bye the bye.
The eulogy on Seve is 16 pages long as opposed to 12 on Tom Watson and only 10 on Sam Snead. Surprisingly perhaps, in view of Seve's reputation for wild shots, his swing mechanics are described as the nearest to perfection of all these great champions.
“A truly superb grip”: “Retaining perfect balance and stability”: The striking part of the action is about as good as there ever has been”: “Truly, this is a one-in-a-million golf swing and a golf swing for the ages”.
This all begs the question i.e. why did all this excellence not last him longer into the mid and late forties? He had back troubles but he is not the first golfer to endure that particular misery. I am sure that Freddie Couples could tell us all about that and yet he is back now hitting it straight and true.
Perhaps the intensity of his determination to compete simply burned out his nervous system. Or were the insidious effects of the brain tumour which killed him affecting his whole being long before the problem was diagnosed?
None of that matters now. What we will all remember is his spirit and personality which lit up the world golfing scene for so long.