Eyes Closed

Thanks to a cancelled last round on the Symetra Tour, I spent most of my Sunday riding the quiet waves of golfing (and football) intrigue – an intoxicatingly intertwined combination of my own and other people’s.

I surprised myself by wanting Aaron Rai to beat Tommy Fleetwood in that playoff, because Fleetwood’s genuine appreciation for the game of golf feels like sitting by the fire with a coffee as the rain lashes down outside. But I watched Rai come undone on the 18th in Ireland the week before, having done so much right, and knew suddenly that winning the Scottish Open would mean more for him than Fleetwood. Not in a financial or prominence way, just to him as a golfer. Maybe that’s ignorant of me to say without knowing either of them at all, but this was one of the thoughts floating isolated in my mind, waiting to be blended with the appropriate understanding.

Then Mel won. And to be honest, I never really expected her not to – with a Sunday lead, with others trying to win for the first time doing their level best to push her, off the back of a missed opportunity two Sundays before. Somebody on Twitter didn’t agree and told her she’d choke, which Mel says she used as fuel. But to me there was just something about that moment that felt like hers; like all those years of talent and tragedy and growth were finally settled together.

And then Sergio won too. With his eyes closed. Which supposedly he’s been doing for years, but it seems was only picked up on this week. Watching him take long enough to make me and every other viewer feel nervous over his 3 footer to win, I wondered if the camera would stay on him long enough to check his eye-status. It did, just, and they closed, and he holed it. The answer he’d given almost exasperatedly earlier in the week was clarified in the smoothness of that transition – “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal”.

Letting all those stories wash over my own reluctantly-building reflections of a 3 day tournament which included 15 birdies but a T-26th finish drew me to this conclusion: golf is about proving things to yourself. The noise and the questions might come from external sources sometimes, but maybe we only notice the ones that mirror our internal doubts. Of course there’s an element of showing off in professional sport; of wanting the world to see how talented you are, to see the things you shouldn’t be capable of but are. But none of us started playing the game to prove something to other people. And I don’t think any of us carry on to do that either. Tiger didn’t keep showing up in majors because he wanted the world to know he could still do it; that he still had it. He wanted to know it himself.

It’s a constant quest for vindication. That what you’re doing, what you’re capable of doing, is good enough. Whether that’s good enough to win on the biggest stage in professional golf or it’s good enough to break 90 in the winter medal, maybe that’s the ultimate understanding. Because golf is the ultimate test in trust. When you’ve seen what you’re capable of, in however tiny or giant of flashes, that’s what guides you. Trusting yourself to find it again, and to be able to find it when it really matters. There might be thousands of pounds on lessons and equipment, and thousands of hours in the gym and holing 5 footers, and thousands of tears and demons when it doesn’t add up, but they all lead to that same question.

When you’re out there in those moments, it’s you against the rest of the field, and it’s you against the golf course. But at the end, really… it’s just you against yourself.

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Thursday Evening Jigsaws

This isn’t a blog about Bryson. Partly because I’m not a journalist, and partly because there isn’t really anything I can write about what I witnessed in him winning the US Open – apart from obviously winning a US Open – that particularly inspires me.

We played the last two weeks on the LET; first in Switzerland and then in France. I’m pretty sure most of us spent 95% of the time we weren’t actually on the golf course in France watching the US Open – we were in bubble life, so there wasn’t much else on offer, but it was also a major championship. As golfers, we’re going to watch.

But like I said, I didn’t find it particularly inspiring. I found it entertaining and engaging, because it was a major: the ebb and flow of players gaining ground and momentum and confidence, and then faltering, and wondering and wandering, and trying with a desperate calm to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together – that’s fascinating, wherever it is and whoever wins it. And to be fair to Bryson, watching somebody succeed in their pursuit of an ultimate goal is inspiring, especially as a professional golfer who dreams similar dreams. But in terms of engaging my mind, stirring something in me to find words for my thoughts on it all – it didn’t do it for me. Neither did the US PGA, to be honest, as compelling as the leaderboard was. Same with the ANA (and the endless need to turn it into the Great Wall of Dinah). I don’t say any of that to criticise golf or those who were successful in each – I enjoyed watching them. It just didn’t make me really think (and I think a lot).

Other people will write about what this all means for the game of golf itself and where it needs to go. What protections need to be given to a sport that is beautiful in its demands of the mental as much as the physical. How to redistribute those demands – not because swinging at great speed and finding somewhere near the middle of the clubface while doing so isn’t a great skill, but because golf is capable of so much more. And it’s the ‘more’ that sucks me in. It’s the ‘more’ that I like thinking about and writing about and getting up in the morning for.

You know what does inspire me? The grind.

Maybe I speak as a professional golfer and a competitor here as opposed to a fan, but this captures me far more than the final round at Winged Foot on Sunday. It’s the reason I will forever have so much time for Jordan Spieth, and perhaps the quality he has that brought him his majors, as much as any technical ability. It’s the reason there was so much goodwill towards Matteo Manessaro winning an Alps Tour event at the weekend.

It’s living for the climb, for that chink of light in the un-answering darkness, for the adrenaline of it quite simply clicking again.

For the shared, unspoken discontent between players getting kicked off the range on a Thursday evening, all looking for answers to different questions in each divot and each video and each tweak of the alignment stick on the ground.

For mutual acknowledgement of mutual demons and the willingness to shatter comfort zones in an effort to deal with them; that last resort of admitting vulnerability.

For quiet top tens after a year of quieter battles that indicate a path, for the first time, back to the start; when once upon a time it was only that; the start.

For frustrating top 20s that highlight a better level of bad golf, along with the realisation that that matters. For making cuts on the number when downhill 4 footers make themselves a staple, and the fairways narrow in tandem with a two way miss.

Sometimes, for being brave enough to let go. To avoid hours on the range, without guilt.

For having the grit to just keep going, to find a way through, after your expectations have been carved open with the sharp blade of reality.

For finding moments in outward average-ness that pave the way to better. That bedrock the dream for another day, another time. And seeing that in everyone around you.

Tournament golf… I missed watching you. But I missed competing in you more.

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The Art of Thought

For ten minutes last night, I watched the Sky Sports coverage of the PGA Tour in complete bewilderment. Bryson took a drop from a hazard (debates for another day) and his ball nestled down in some pretty serious rough. Someone, I think Nick Faldo, laid out the path to the green that we (and Bryson) couldn’t see – 240 yards to carry the water through a window in the trees that was no more than a canvas of cloudy questions. But Bryson, I’m guessing, heard only the number. Once, twice, three times it was only a number. A number that he knew he could carry, no matter the lie or the angle or the difficulty or the consequence, because he is now the Bryson DeChambeau whose biggest asset is his power. I don’t question that he was capable of it. But to see someone, a professional golfer near the top of professional golf’s peak, so resoundingly ignore every other facet of a shot just made my head spin. Three times he hit the exact same shot, and three times he thought he’d hit it OB. Before he knew the third one was ok, he asked his caddie to pass him the wedge as it was time to lay up. TIME TO LAY UP. AFTER THREE SHOTS (he thought) OUT OF BOUNDS.

The ensuing rules pantomime got more attention than the lack of decision making that got him there. But I think Jack Nicklaus attempted to justify Bryson’s lack of logic in a similar way – that he possibly has to learn the kind of golfer he is again. He’s created an advantage (which is obviously impressive in the commitment it’s taken) that overpowers more than just golf courses; it overpowers other elements of the golfer he was and the skills he has undoubtedly had to get to the top of the game. Not just his need to hit good wedge shots or any kind of long iron, but his need to weigh things up, to strategise, to accept and limit damage, to remember there is more than this shot and this hole within this round. His need to think about more than the most direct route to the hole. The skills that have become devalued are ironically the same skills that make Jordan Spieth the most fascinating golfer on the planet to watch and listen to, and yet have also perhaps been part of his struggles. Whatever skill it is in golf, whoever you are, the thing that makes you strong can also be your weakness. Bryson and Spieth show that in the most literal and figurative senses.

I occasionally wonder why it is that I’m so addicted to golf. Sometimes the triviality of it hits me; the absurdity of letting your self-worth hinge on how quickly you can get a little white ball from point A to point B. Some people might get drawn in initially for the brawn, the dominance, the testosterone fuelled exhilaration that comes from launching a drive into the stratosphere. And it shouldn’t ever be argued that that isn’t a skill. But that’s not what makes people stay. That’s not why people long for, or play in, or watch major championships. That’s not why the entire golf world is pining for the Open Championship that should have been at Royal St. George’s this week. All of us who have been lucky enough to have been dragged into golf’s bewitching complexity, we know that it’s exactly that. The complexity, and the desperate search for the peaceful moments of simplicity within it. The questions that it asks, and the occasional answers that we find.
On what might seem like an odd tangent, I think it’s part of the reason I’m enjoying the Rose Ladies Series so much (not yet an #ad). Most of the courses we’ve been on have been world class venues with world class designs. A strange twist that’s come from modern equipment, technical improvements and increased physical understanding is that generally speaking, female professional golfers hit the ball distances a lot of good golf courses were designed to be played with. And that brings those questions to light in the most exposing of ways. I love the challenge of finding that balance – between being aggressive enough to challenge in a one day event but intelligent enough to know when a course architect is trying to suck you in and destroy the good work you’ve spent hours building.

I’ve found my motivation in the frustration, unravelling on the last few holes when it’s heightened by knowing you ticked the boxes before that. When you’ve pulled off the shots that have been offered with a tantalising beckon, taken your medicine when the inevitable mistake led you to a bunker that forced full focus on a different skill set to stay in the game. Equally, the frustration that comes from not seeing the question that is asked. Forgetting the slope to the right of the pin that a pure 4 iron catches and eventually costs you a double. Protecting yourself from the trouble, failing to recognise the severity of the trouble on the other side. When you don’t answer the questions, you’re pissed off. When you don’t see the questions, you’re pissed off. But that’s exactly what golf has to offer; that’s exactly what makes it the maddeningly beautiful sport that it is; exactly what keeps us coming back week in, week out. I don’t think it’s possible for golf to ever lose that identity. But maybe it needs some more protecting, however that may be. More than protecting someone’s brand, that’s for sure.

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In Our Shoes

I originally posted this on Twitter (meg_maclaren) on 20/5/20. Not because I have all the answers or reasons or solutions, just because I felt it needed to be said:

Please please bear with me, because I’m more tired than anyone of the supply and demand argument when it comes to gender equality in golf.
This isn’t a woke millennial take on having every possible demographic equally represented at the highest level. I can’t speak for others and how they feel or are valued, I don’t have that experience. But I have experience of how it can feel to be a female in this world. That’s the point that keeps getting missed.
Ultimately, it’s just about respect. That’s all.

If I told you the number one player in the world broke a nearly 20 year old record held by Tiger Woods when she went 114 consecutive holes without a bogey, would you be impressed?

If I told you a rookie had a win, more top 10s and more runner up finishes than Robert McIntyre last year, would you be able to name her?

If I told you someone gained their first professional victory in 119 attempts, would you be inspired?

If I told you the 2019 leading PGA Tour player in GIR averaged 73.06%… and 27 LPGA players averaged higher than that, what would you say? Would you tell me the courses are shorter so it’s irrelevant? Would you tell me they probably falsified their data, as one male tour pro insinuated the last time I tweeted about GIR stats?

Have you ever thought about how opportunity creates opportunity, or how success breeds success, or how talent pushes talent? How many elite female golfers do we miss out on because they can’t see their worth? Can’t see a role model in the magazine they pick up, because out of almost 200 pictures in a leading publication there isn’t one of a woman? Can’t see a role model on the first five pages of the golf section on a national news site because it appears women’s tours don’t exist?

Time after time, through complete silence, we’re told that our abilities and achievements as golfers simply don’t matter to the average golf fan. That they are less important, because they weren’t achieved by a man. Can you begin to understand how that feels?
And if we dare to point that out, we are told that the interest just isn’t there. That we don’t engage, don’t entertain, aren’t worthy of your time in the way that men are. Why? Because our skills aren’t as great? Really?
Men’s sport dominates primarily because in the beginning and ever since, people with power (…men) chose to invest in it.

Yet as fans of golf, like me, you’re probably impressed by the achievements listed above. The individuals concerned would command your respect, if you knew about them. If you’ve got this far in my post you probably already do.
I know times are changing- I’m lucky to be in an era where we can even discuss this. And I f***ing love getting to do what I do for a living… but it’s 2020 and just look at some of the comments.

I’m not demanding you become a fan of women’s golf. Each to their own, genuinely. But everyone needs to recognise that our choice to be a fan is shaped by the way the world works. Not necessarily by us.

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Counterbalance

“A weight that balances another weight”.

Professional golf, or maybe just golf itself, is a never-ending tightrope walk. And that’s when you’re doing well. One foot in front of the other, eyes forward, head straight. Nothing but high draws and baby fades and walk-in 15 footers. Spinning plates while you go. When you’re struggling, it’s the same tightrope. Only now you’re clinging on by the fingertips of one hand, and the cuts seem to miss themselves and there’s no middle of the clubface on your long irons and your putter is controlled by someone else’s hands and you’re dangling over the abyss that holds only the voices in your own head.
Going from one to the other is both the easiest and the hardest process in the world.

The tightrope walk, the balancing act, also comes in the form of continuous improvement. The search is what drives all of us to some degree. A search that every one of us pursues knowing it has no end game, despite our endless efforts.
Despite our range hours and our blisters, despite our spike-marked putting greens and our left-side high bodies and our white pockets of otherwise tanned skin that unite us.
Despite our Monday course scouting and our Tuesday swing searching and our Wednesday pro-am exasperations that are far more at our own lack of Monday and Tuesday answers than our partners’ lack of ability. A search that has no end game, even when we shoot 64, because it includes a double on 16, or when we shoot 60, because we pulled the putt for a 59, or when we birdie our last five holes in a row, because how did it take 13 holes to remember?

A search that has no end game, even when we create our own circumstances. A search that still has no end game when we don’t. Despite our book-reading and our consecutive ten-foot mat putts and our eight yard garden flop shots and our Amazon net ordering and our sweat-inducing Pelaton sessions (other indoor bikes are available).

The search and the tightrope have their own ebbs and flows, regardless of the circumstances we create. But now there’s more than just the voices in our head in the abyss. It’s a global reality, a tightrope we’re all on, that has nothing to do with golf.

Golf means nothing in this crisis. But what do you do when the thing that defines your life means nothing? When the thing that defines your life has no significance at all? What do you do, how do you feel? When the waves of motivation hit and then another yellow bar of updated deaths scrolls across the bottom of your tv? What do you do, how do you feel? When you get excited, then disappointed, then excited again by Trackman numbers in your back garden, at the same time as a grandmother is next door wishing her grandson a happy birthday through the patio doors? What do you do, how do you feel? When every email notification that comes through scares you in case it’s another tournament cancellation, and then you hear the news of someone else on the frontline dying, and you think about the friend of a friend who’s the same age in the same job?

It’s not just golfers, or sportspeople, whose lives are now a complicated web of emotions and processes. It’s everyone’s. Somehow, that unites us all – maybe for the first time ever there’s a crossover, an overlapping of all the separate universes we exist in. Let’s hold on to each other while we’re there.
Counterbalance.

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Undefined

It was unintentionally pointed out to me a while ago that I’m quite good at posing questions without giving definitive answers.
It’s probably the reason why I wouldn’t be great at writing a regular column for anyone – or writing for anyone else full-stop – and the reason why most of my blogs are both longer and shorter than I ever intend them to be. I am acutely aware of the concentration span of most people, myself included – opening an article or blog often results in its closure when you scroll through a few sentences and see the little grey bar on the right hand side getting smaller and smaller as you attempt to find the place where the words stop. It’s funny in an existentially worrying way that the only thing we usually have to get back to is digesting 120 character, three second snippets of other people’s lives.

And yet, when I start writing, I am simultaneously aware that there is no end to what I could say. Writing for me seems to be a constant unravelling of the threads in my mind, and like headphone wires or Christmas tree lights, there seems to be no beginning or end. Only a confused mess in the middle that you pull on with ever increasing aggression until something gives. Or tightens.

I find it hard to define what it is that I even write about. Golf, obviously, is the backbone, and the chaotic juxtaposition of its addictiveness is what creates the confused mess that needs untangling so regularly. I often worry that my writing makes it look like golf is a burden to me. It is and it isn’t. That’s its beauty, and its appeal. That what I’m missing already.

I love practice and I love the process, and like I suspect a lot of professional golfers right now, there are elements of this enforced off-season I know will be of benefit. That can be addictive, if you approach it properly. But it isn’t the beauty. It’s going through that process with (only occasionally wavering) conviction, laying the foundations of excellence until your feet can’t feel anything but the solidity of confidence, and then barely being able to break par in your next few tournaments. It’s enduring a four week stretch that feels like an entire career trying desperately to fit the pieces together, wondering if you’re destined to be good but not great, wondering if your weaknesses are always going to define you, and then winning. It’s recognising what “the zone” is – after the fact – when everything is crystal clear, when every yardage is perfect and every read blindingly obvious, and spending months trying to get there again. Only to find it once you give up searching.
It’s addictive, and beautiful, in trying to make sense of things that just don’t.

And for me, without competitive golf to provide that backbone, I don’t find myself with things to write. I have ideas for long-term projects, and maybe I’ll do my best to share pieces of that, as now more than ever people need things to occupy themselves – whether it be three second snippets or reruns of golfing greats or glimpses of the everyday lives of current superstars. I want to write, I want to give people something. But there is no tangled mess to unravel.

All of us right now, are living life without definition. It’s necessary, and in the grand scheme of things not the biggest hardship in an effort to protect those who need to be protected. We’re not being forced to go to war, as our great-grandparents were. But that doesn’t make it easy. It doesn’t make anyone’s mental struggles any less relevant or real than anyone else’s. The societal effect of all of this is going to be bigger than we can perhaps imagine, which governments cannot and are not ignoring. But the mental, day-to-day effects… it’s not just a case of getting outside to exercise. It’s having individual definition. We have a collective definition – a critically important one – to look after each other, to protect each other. But removing your structure for an undefined period of time… it’s already hard. And it’s going to get harder.

Like most blogs I write, I’m ending this not entirely sure what I’m writing about. But that in itself is symbolic of what’s happening. None of us are really sure what’s going on, what we really have to do, what its impact will be and when it will end. But we just have to keep going anyway. Try to keep doing the little things you usually do, even if it’s in novel ways. And maybe, once this is all over, we can all appreciate what our normal is. What our definition is. Because nothing is a given… not even tangled headphones.

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The Things We Don’t Talk About

…Don’t worry. This isn’t a blog about periods.

But what I said half-jokingly in my tweet (you won’t regret reading the replies) – which isn’t really a joke – I’ve pulled out of two pro-ams from feeling like that and could see no way out of withdrawing from this tournament – which represented a chance I’ll probably never have again to join a ridiculously illustrious group of players – apart from sleeping for as long as I could (one hour before my 1.15 tee time) — it is something that needs some illuminating, if not by me. And really, if the words ‘period pains’ are “too much information” for you…. Where are the females in your life?!

But the broader issue it ignited for me is one that golf in particular seems to specialise in. Sweeping under the carpet anything that isn’t “PC”… or off-white, as Koepka might say, with an arched eyebrow of contempt that seems to be as much for himself at excelling at a sport that his alter-ego probably never considered a sport.
It’s not ok.
It lessens what golf is. It lessens the stories it provides, it lessens the humans that provide those stories and it lessens the ability of those humans to be role models. To be real.

I read Iain Carter’s blog for BBC Sport on Patrick Reed (here) and he nails golf’s contradicting inability to deal with such a character. Reed is a classy golfer with an inarguable resume putting him amongst the world’s best. That ability is celebrated by those providing him the platform to demonstrate it. Reed is also, depending on your interpretation or willingness to reach logical conclusions, a cheat. That is neither celebrated (well actually… “perfect gentleman”) nor condemned by those providing that same platform.
Dustin Johnson failed three drugs tests, two for cocaine, (as well as some other pretty unacceptable behaviour) but all we heard was of a “leave of absence” to deal with his personal life. Compare that to Rio Ferdinand missing (not failing) a drugs test and having his entire career threatened as the FA sought to make an example of him. Then there’s the incessant fan-girling over the PGA Tour from its broadcasters at the expense of real analysts with real knowledge of the game, and of the actual viewer experience. Of anything resembling criticism. There’s also Saudi, which I won’t go into, but it’s there.

The irony of it all is that if it’s about money (whether I or you agree with it or not), it’s about entertainment. And what’s entertainment without drama? Without gossip? Without indiscretions and weaknesses and vulnerabilities? We watch for the awe, yes; we play for the unachievably intoxicating mastery of technical and psychological perfection – but maybe above all we watch and we play for understanding. The understanding of the dynamic in not wanting either Reed or Dechambeau to win but knowing it had to be one of them, the understanding of Rory breaking down on the course and off it at Portrush, the lack of understanding as we wonder whether the Jordan Spieth we watched getting a yardage from the fringes of the driving range of — was a figment of our collective imagination. The understanding of Tiger that we never thought was possible.

And yet, still golf does not like to talk about its demons.

Is it for shame of weakness? Is it for competitive edge? Is it for image protection? Is it simply not for public consumption? Maybe.

But both the studios and the twitter crowd – professional golfers included in each – will engage in debates about swing tendencies and 976 different methods of returning the clubface to square at impact, and argue about rolling the ball back and bifurcation and the merits of thick rough versus contoured greens, and whether the need for public golf courses outweighs the need for an exclusive world tour (anyone thought about the novelty of inviting women to that by the way? Tell me who went the longest without making a bogey in 2019), and whether playing aggressive golf is actually committing to conservative targets rather than going at every pin, and whether one PGA Tour win equates to five European Tour wins (it doesn’t) and whether Bernhard Langer, while relentlessly competitive, still anchors his putter (that might fall into the former category, on second thought). Even, remarkably – say it quietly – whether female golfers deserve a little more respect.

But we still hang back on talking about the things that make professional golfers people.

Talking about the things that are less to do with the glossy efficiency of elite level performance and everything to do with the flawed human tendencies that make the fan able to appreciate the person who makes the golfer. The thing I’ll never understand about it, is that one makes the other. There is no golfer without the person. So why deny that? Why drown it in meaningless platitudes or suffocating silence?

Why don’t we talk about the genuine effect of the human element on performance? Of having food posioning, or sleeping terribly, or having a fight with a loved one? Or stupid things that trigger a change of mood, a change of mindset? I locked myself out of my Airbnb in Adelaide after going back to practice on the Thursday evening of the Australian Open, and didn’t get dinner till 9.30. Two weeks later, I swung on my balance discs in my Airbnb in Dubbo, just before going to bed on the Saturday evening of the NSW Open, and clean smashed a glass lampshade, sending pieces of it absolutely everywhere.
Golf impulses combined with a lack of awareness that create 1%s you might not be able to get back.

It’s like when you get to a certain level of performance, you’re not allowed to have ‘normal weaknesses’ anymore.

And being vulnerable is not a weakness.
“To grow up is to accept vulnerability”.

We don’t talk about the doubt that rookie professionals feel – not how they really feel. Not how shooting 80 when they’re in the last few groups on the weekend makes them question if they’ve really got what it takes. Not how they can go from feeling so full one day to so empty the next. Not how you can be back in the exact same place a couple of years later, with an entirely different set of circumstances but the exactly the same set of doubts.

We don’t talk about how practice weeks makes you long for tournaments so you can prove to yourself that you’re on the right path, and how tournaments make you long for practice weeks so you can remind yourself progress doesn’t always show up immediately in the results.

We don’t talk about the spiralling black hole of failure and fear that inevitably precedes form.

We don’t talk about what the yips really are, or how it makes you feel. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that myself just yet, but god knows enough professional golfers experience it during their careers. “Focal dystonia”. Whether it stems from technical flaws I don’t know, but telling people it’s all “in their head” or simply a mental barrier they need to work through isn’t going to help them.
Scientifically, physiologically, when you do too much repetition of one movement, individual neurons in the area can lose their specificity and sensitivity, causing involuntary movements. Or as I tried to describe it to the people around me, “it feels like something between what my brain knows and what my hand does is broken”. And that’s fucking terrifying if you don’t know what’s happening. You know when you get cramp in the middle of the night, and you can feel it coming but you can’t do anything about it? You know the moment your muscle twitches in a certain way, you’re going to experience unpreventable agony, and all you can do is lie there and wait for it to happen? And endure it? It’s a bit like that. Except it can undermine everything you believe about yourself.

And the only reason we don’t know what’s happening is because we don’t talk about it.

We don’t talk about any of it, and yet we sit and smile and share videos of players getting emotional after wins or performances that change things. Because we understand.

The inexplicable, inescapable reality of professional sport and the humans who engage in it. We should really talk a little more about it.

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“It’s Just a Man and His Dog Watching”

At some point in the last year, I made a new photo album on my phone. Probably not one of my better decisions and I’m still not sure why I haven’t deleted it, but it was to put all the screenshots of social media backlash I’ve had or seen in response to gender equality statements I (or my friends) have made.

It’s not a particularly pleasant place.

I keep it there in part for an unnecessary motivation; to prove one day to people who will have an argument against women’s sport forever that they are wrong. To prove that it is not and has never been “simple economics”, because “literally nobody watches women’s golf and nobody cares” (see also: “nobody wants to watch it and it’s shite love”), because women are “not marketable” (even though “some of these golfing ladies are fit”) or because I want to “play the entitlement card”, or believe women have “an absolute right to equal prize money”.

I keep it there to remind myself how far there still is to go; for however much progress women’s sport, and golf, is making, a wealth of informed journalists and a healthier tournament schedule are from enough to change perceptions of comparable athletes across the gender divide. Golf is a strange sport because it tries to keep up with the modern world while both reinforcing and refusing to accept its existence in its own self. Golf is not a game for the masses, and I think it is a mistake if it tries to make itself so. It is too demanding, too time-consuming, too frustrating, too technical. As a professional, too emotionally draining.

But trying to change any of those things lessens its beauty. In an age where golf is questioning its identity, wondering how and who should protect it while money tries to come in from dangerous places, its beauty remains prevalent if you keep from drowning in social media dissent. And its beauty can be utilised to address some of its deficiencies. Its beauty can be utilised to make people fall in love with it, both more deeply and for the first time. Its beauty can be utilised to educate the casually sexist commenters on a world beyond their misinformed notions of athleticism and talent and skill, without saying a word.

Its beauty can be utilised in showcases like the Vic Open.

At 13th Beach in Barwon Heads, Australia, stand behind the 7th green – or perhaps in the middle of it – and watch as men and women alike, capable of 350 yard drives and 10 shot margins of victory, of Solheim Cup brilliance and major wins, stand on the tee 105 yards away and wonder how the hell they are going to find the green.

Watch and admire players piece together seven 65s and a 63 in the first round alone – five from men, three from women – in entirely different ways. Watch a brother and sister, separated by just one tee time, go into a final round of a tournament, both with genuine chances of winning. Enjoy not having to be confronted by conditions that saw the final group in round 3 for each the men’s draw and the women’s draw collectively play in 22 over par.

On a course like this, every possible skill is being tested to the extreme. It will not be the player that hits it the furthest who wins, although it may play a part. Power is an essential skill in golf, and it is becoming more so with each year that passes. But it remains far from the only skill required to be successful. Watching players hit drives 350 yards plus is not the only element of enjoyment in watching golf. If it was, there would only be money in long drive contests.
Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan drew crowds and sponsors and fans to the game for a multitude of reasons, not least being they were two of the greatest golfers to ever play the game. As did, and as were, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. Not because any of them hit the ball 350 yards.

People come to watch golf. People pay to watch golf. To watch skill and theatre, athleticism and passion, imagination and patience, weaving through the unpredictable predictability of the rise and fall of each character; each actor; each golfer. Each woman, each man.

My ‘argument’ for so long has not been that women simply deserve equal pay as golfers, the end. My argument is simply that in a supply and demand marketplace, if the supplies were given equal treatment, the demand would be much closer together than some people are willing to accept. Equal treatment is where all the questions lie, where all those with stakes in this game must look at themselves and ask if they can do better. Ask themselves what they would say when their daughter asks why playing golf may not be a viable career path when her brother didn’t have to wonder. Ask why it is ok to report on a male losing in the final of a tournament but not a woman winning in the final of the corresponding tournament on the same course at the same time. Ask why it is ok to have 190 pictures of golfers in a magazine and not one of them be of a woman. Ask if you’re really ok with why the winner of a men’s tournament receives a cheque 57 times the amount of the female winner of the corresponding tournament (yes, 57).

Or don’t ask. Don’t ask yourself if you really think that is what we are worth.
Just watch.
Watch a tournament that has already figured out how the world could really work. Should really work.

Find a way to watch the final round of the Vic Open, and pay attention to where the crowds of people are.
That’s why it’s offering equal prize money. Not because the sponsors or organisers feel some moral pressure to have it so.
It’s because the demand says it should be so.

The man and his dog will be there watching. But it won’t just be them.

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“The Space that Separates”: Between the In-Between

Being a professional golfer at this time of year is weird.
I’ve been trying for a month to try and put it into words but it just won’t work. The symbolism of that is almost exactly my point, but I still don’t really know what I’m trying to say. That’s the whole problem with this time of year.

It’s the time of year you crave at regular intervals from February to November.

It’s the time of year that looks like a golden stretch of hallowed ground, a shining light that your outstretched fingertips can almost touch when you wake up trying to make the cut in your last tournament of the year, the fumes of exhaustion an unpleasant cocktail of anti-malaria tablets, 48 hours of nutritional intake consisting of a solitary chocolate ice cream, a lingering bug that could be from a day ago or could be from multiple trips to countries across the globe that your stomach just doesn’t seem to want on the schedule. Blended with the emotional baggage of another year of playing golf for a living, that I could spend the rest of my life trying to find the words to do justice to without ever coming close. (Disclaimer: I wouldn’t change a second of it.)
It’s the time of year that looks and smells like a bar to an in-denial alcoholic, the anticipation of the glass being raised to your lips while you’re walking back to the tee to try not to hit your third tee shot in a row out of bounds, point blank refusing to look up from the ground or to acknowledge the desperately kind “good shot” that trails your ball finally finding the fairway. For five.
It’s the time of year that looks like an endlessly soft bed with an endless supply of coffee with endless football to watch when you’re a little bit drunk in a pub in Woburn, trying to let alcohol provide the reason and rationality to fight down the firing squad of questions your brain is providing as answers for a derailing few weeks that needed to matter most.

There, in those moments, when you’re still doing the thing you love for a living but the only thing dragging you through is professional pride, the thought of this time of year is oxygen.

And then you get here, to this time of year, and you feel like you can’t breathe properly.

Because all those moments during the year when you crave some time, some peace, a chance to step back and see the big picture… you get here and you don’t know what the big picture is. You don’t know how it connects, and you thought this was the time when it was supposed to connect. In reality, it’s the in-between moments when it connects. When it makes sense… even if the moments themselves don’t.
The moments when you’re waiting in an immigration queue wondering whether to reflect on the tournament just gone or anticipate the one coming, the moments when you’re lying in a dark hotel room watching a Premier League game from six time zones away howling at a VAR call as you await an afternoon tee time, the moments when you walk past the slightly red-faced, slightly overweight, slightly upper class British tourists in Marbella to find a quiet rock overlooking a beautiful blue sea for an hour or so. The moments when you’re sitting in an airport in the middle of the night with around 100 occupants, 95 of which are other professional golfers and 4 of which are monkeys, casually juxtaposing with an unfinished roof and a shop selling Pringles and Dairy Milk.

Those in-between moments are the ones where you join up some of the dots. They’re the moments that create most of my blogs. The reason I’ve been struggling to write this one is because it’s a moment that’s in between the in-between moments, and I don’t know how to make sense of that. I don’t know how it connects.

But as someone much wiser than me told me recently, that’s when you keep going, one piece at a time. Connecting one more dot to another. Connecting the space that separates. Even if it’s only to get from one in-between to another in-between. Finding the precipice where you can breathe. Finding the precipice where you can succeed.

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Check….

Do you ever scroll through Twitter and wonder why the hell you waste your time on it? In a world where time seems to run away from us, we actively choose to use up some of that time reading inflammatory news bites and ignorant vitriol disguised as opinion; words and views united only by their intention to anger.

(I blame Brexit more than I blame Twitter.)

We’re lucky in our precious golf bubble that even our most divisive issues are relatively unimportant when it comes to the bigger picture (and I say that as someone whose world is golf). But it does intrigue and slightly depress me that the issues that truly seem to ignite people’s passions, even in our golf bubble, are those that also unearth the most conservative contempt.

Denis Pugh seems to have a knack for finding those issues. Slow play always does it. Equality does too, but only really when it can be condensed by the ones who like to condense it into ‘economics 101’. And I think we can now add calling out other players/knowing the rules to that list. Maybe that’s the problem; none of these issues are clearly defined, and a space that calls for short-form quick-fire commentary doesn’t lend itself to prolonged or reasoned debate. (It is Trump’s preferred communication method, after all…) But it can be difficult to understand or comprehend the personal nature of some responses. I think when you’re used to sharing enough of yourself on your social media to give what you think is a general sense of your character, the backlash can feel like an attack on that (and sometimes it very much is), which can be shocking, and upsetting – even when you know the ignorance is unjustified and meaningless. None of us are immune.

The ability or substance required for any one issue to ignite and engage is beside the point. The point can get so lost it makes you wonder why it’s worth igniting in the first place. But that brings me here. Maybe it was the entire (naive) purpose of social media from the very beginning… its ability to connect.

I might be way too long winded about it sometimes (exhibit A) but I like sharing some of what the ebb and flow of being a professional golfer looks like, because it’s undoubtedly one of the loneliest sports on the planet. But we’re somehow together in that loneliness too.

It’s the shared experience that connects us all, that makes us all care. It isn’t rules justifications, it isn’t slow play, it isn’t the distance debate, it isn’t the gender pay gap.

It’s the complexities and intricacies of each of us versus the sport. It’s why we, as a golf world, cared about Brendon Todd winning the Bermuda Championship. It’s why we cared that Haley Moore got her LPGA card. It’s why we cared when Steven Brown did more than just secure his European Tour card in Portugal. It’s why I write, and why I put it out there for people to see.

Whatever level of golf you play or understand or coach or watch, you get it. You get how one day you can have a confidence that can make you fly, and the next day you can be in a black hole of anguish that makes you question everything.

It’s why I can nearly win a tournament one week despite feeling more comfortable with a 5 iron than a wedge, and then average under 10ft with my wedges the next week and still make more 6s than 4s on par 5s. Why I can be astounded at playing with a girl with a swing speed of over 100mph and still hit rescues in tight while she flies greens with short irons. Why that same girl can hit her first tee shot straight into the water the next day and still end up shooting 64.

It’s why I can get the putting yips in a 144 hole tournament that determines an entire year, and yet still believe in winning a European Order of Merit mere weeks later. Without looking for sympathy or back-slapping or advice or criticism. Just to share, and just to connect. To be together in our loneliness. Because let’s be honest, when we strip back all the controversies and ignorance and things that need to change and things that drive us to despair… we’re damn lucky to love this game.

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