As I cruised past Stansted Airport on the M11 at 6.45am yesterday morning, and the dark sky slowly turned a milky blue from the East, punctuated by just a few baby pink wispy clouds, the 4.30 alarm call was forgotten and everything was right with the world.
I was on my way to Walton Heath Golf Club to watch some of the best players in action during day 3 of the British Masters, hosted by Justin Rose. This was an indulgent treat, a lone trip to see some of my heroes on a traditional English golf course with clear blue skies and a keen breeze to test their shotmaking. So much to see, soak in and learn. Perfect.
It was just before 8am when my incident free 160 mile journey reached its conclusion. Directed past the VIP car-parks near to the clubhouse, my lack of a 4 x 4 vehicle was tested by the ramshackle, rutted farmers fields that formed the temporary public car-parks.
Making a mental note of the W4 zone (past experience tells me that wandering around a car-park blindly searching for your vehicle at the end of the day is not the look I wanted), I bounded like a Spring lamb through security, ticket checks, over the M25 footbridge, along a lane, through a field and to the spectator village, which a map quickly told me was near the 12th hole at the far end of the course to the clubhouse. Not ideal, but at least I now know a good route to sneak on Walton Heath without paying.
The previous days play had been brought to a pre-mature end by darkness and so there were still a few groups to finish their second round before the third round draw could be made. After the obligatory coffee and bacon roll therefore, there was nothing for it but to walk from the spectator outpost to the closing holes to watch the final groups finish.
This was about a mile and I arrived just in time to watch one golf shot at the 18th green.
The course was lovely but empty.
There were rumours of a 10.30am start for the third round, but given there were no booths selling draw sheets near the 1st/18th, I had no idea. A trek back to the spectator village it was! Plenty of time to look at overpriced polo shirts in the merchandise tent.
After a quick snooze in front of the big screen, suddenly action! The draw sheet arrived – a 2-tee start to make up time. WHERE TO GO? Golfers everywhere and in no particular order!
My main goal for the day was to follow the newly crowned Golfer of the Year for a few holes and so it was that I made my way to the (blissfully near-by) 10th tee to watch the pugnacious Italian start his round.
My long wait to watch some golf was soon forgotten. 10th hole – two crisp iron shots from tee and fairway followed by a short putt. Birdie. 11th hole – Driver (Fairway), iron to Par 5, chip and putt. Birdie. 12th hole repeat. Birdie. 3-Under through 3 holes. BOOM!
My overall impression of Molinari’s game was one of efficiency. A swing with no wasted movement. Body language calm and assured. Any mistakes to the safe side of the fairway or green and any approaches to leave an uphill putt. This Gent is a finely tuned golfing machine who should be studied in golf academies worldwide.
Alas the smell of the burger van ended my march with Francesco. It seems the Italian could not cope without me (or more likely was totally knackered from his recent Ryder Cup exploits) as a string of bogies towards the end of his round led to a fall from contention.
Eddie’s Got Balls
Another target of mine for the day was to watch how the leaders coped with the pressure – in their demeanour, pre-shot routine, course management and swing.
With Englishman Eddie Pepperell ahead by 3, this provided the ideal opportunity. Pepperell is talented but this would be the biggest win of his career. How do I know that he has balls? Whilst waiting to play his tee shot on the driveable Par 4 7th hole, leading the tournament, and in full view of the Sky Sports cameras and a large gallery, he proceeded to drop his trousers and take a pee beside a nearby tree. The largest cheer of the day followed a successful outcome!
In all seriousness, Pepperell looked comfortable in the lead and despite being outgunned from the tee by paying partners Matt Wallace & Jordan Smith never looked flustered. When he was in trouble he recovered with skill and calmness.
I get the feeling that it will take an epic performance from a competitor to prevent him from clinching the title.
The Charge of the Englishmen
One of the things that struck me was the large number of English players in contention and looking impressive. In addition to Pepperell, there was Matt Wallace, Jordan Smith, Sam Horsfield, James Morrison, Beef Johnston, Steven Brown and Tom Lewis as well as established names like Fitzpatrick and Rose in the thick of the action.
The well-funded pathway at the top of the amateur game in England, where the most talented players have access to top-level competition throughout the world and also world-class training and practice facilities is bearing fruit as players come into the professional game prepared and ready to succeed.
The European Tour is getting most things right
Although I have detailed some logistical issues earlier in the blog, it has to be said that overall the European Tour seems to be getting a lot of things right.
The choice of Walton Heath was a good one. It is great to see the top players battling a century old heathland layout and failing to bring it to its knees. Although most players were very selective in hitting their Drivers, the option was usually there if they wanted to be aggressive and all of their shot-making skills were tested by the gusty wind and around the greens. Having said that, it was a tricky course for spectators, with viewing often restricted to one side of the tee or fairway, which made following a single group difficult.
The off-course facilities for spectators however, were good, with plenty of things for the kids (who had free entry) to see and do.
These guys are good
Overall, I enjoyed my day immensely. I tried to get behind the line of ball flight whenever possible and was impressed by the variety of ball shapes and trajectories on show. A small number of the players stuck to a single shape and never changed, but most varied their ball flight, both in terms of shape and trajectory, according to the wind direction and design of the hole. The windy conditions and narrow fairways led to a large number of ‘stinger’ style tee shots, mainly with a modern 2-iron but also with fairway woods.
I was struck by how calm and focused the players were and how nothing seemed rushed. Compared to when amateurs play, the environment is claustrophobic, with sponsor signs, crowds and caddies creating a lack of space, particularly around the tee. Concentration on the task at hand, an obvious requirement, is made more difficult in these circumstances and I would guess that the absence of negative emotions in the key moments is a characteristic shared by all of these players.
Lots to learn. I am off to the Driving Range.