The golf school of hard knocks
Sometimes golf can be depressing – very depressing. “I’d like to say I’ve seen worse,” says Jeremy Dale, our instructor at Stapleford Park, a country house hotel in Leicestershire, after we play a few chips to a green.
“But I can’t,” he says. “Look at how bad this is,” he says, clearly enjoying himself. “Terrible. Your balls are 12 feet away. This is very bad. We need to talk strategy, guys.”
Do not expect an easy ride at the new Scoring School at Stapleford – that’s not the Jeremy Dale way.
But do expect to learn a lot about how to improve your game… quickly. Jeremy’s lessons are based on a simple principle: “How to play bad golf really well”. His argument goes that we can’t all be Tiger Woods (which sounds rather self-evident), and we are extremely unlikely to drive 300 yards with a perfect Woods swing (even more self-evident). So why, Dale asks, do so many golf lessons focus on perfecting your swing?
Early on, he uses an analogy to make his central point: “I can tell you a million things about eating with a knife and fork. But if you thought about them all, you’d starve. If you want to do it well, don’t think about it. That’s what top athletes do.”
It’s much better to learn the canny tricks of golf, rather than over-analys-ing things, he tells us – which is just fine by me and my golfing pal, Michael. We’ve signed up for the day-long lesson at the pretty and peaceful golf course connected to Stapleford, a splendid 17th-century building where the Prince of Brunei recently held a party attended by the likes of Michael Jackson, Jerry Hall and Don Johnson.
Jackson, says the East European waitress in the breakfast room, stayed in a cottage in the grounds. He did not play golf. Johnson “smoked cigars” and “liked to talk a lot”. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick, the England footballer, was recently married at the hotel. His wife was “really, really beautiful with blonde hair,” the waitress says, “just like a lot of the other wives.” Lionel Richie, Will Smith and Jackie Collins have also stayed. You can learn a lot from East European waitresses in the breakfast room.
There are no celebs on our visit. Just Dale, who – we soon learn – can play golf both left and right-handed. And he quickly puts us straight on the art of chipping and pitching. These “finesse” shots are crucial for keeping your score down – “turning eights into double bogeys”, as he puts it. Apparently a study of pro golfers once found that the longest drivers and best players of long shots using iron clubs were nowhere near the top of the rankings. It is the “short game” kings who make the big bucks.
There are, Jeremy says, an average of 12 “finesse” shots in every round – which can make a big difference to your overall score. Along with putts, these are essential to master.
“I want you to become chip-and-putt b******* from hell,” he says – simplifying his approach.
We are taught to aim for the closest landing points on greens, rather than taking “the aerial route”. This is actually quite simple and really effective. We are advised to measure how far we hit the ball using sand and pitch wedges with short, medium and long swings. By doing so you can be much more accurate.
This, amazingly, also works. As does measuring our putts according to the distance we swing backwards. Another immediate success.
My grip is wrong on my drive. Dale corrects this and says (a little fiercely): “Don’t fight physics,” when I say it feels odd. He then gives us a run-down on the mental side of the game. “Golf,” he says, “is a vicious little cocktail of nastiness. You must learn to switch on and off. You can’t concentrate completely over four hours.”
Michael and I are stunned by the results. We play a few holes later on and are much better than before. We are playing bad golf – but we’re playing badly well. Suddenly, golf isn’t so depressing any more.
Come out swinging
Scoring School (01572 787000, www.staplefordpark.com) costs £147.50 and is held on Sundays (max group size six people). To stay over is £99 on Sunday. A golf round is £25 on Monday.
Jeremy Dale (www.jeremydale.com) is a “trick-shot specialist” and he showed us how to hit the ball 300 yards while kneeling.
Dale told me that I “needed to invest” after he saw my clubs – I bought a set of custom-fit Callaway golf irons (0800 096 4591, www.callawaygolf.com) for £468.
Together, the lessons and clubs have cut eight shots off my average round. Not bad for a weekend’s work.
First published in The Times, September 15 2007
Bad hare day at Ireland’s K Club
I’VE had hairy moments on the golf course before — but none as harey as this.
I’m on the third hole of the K Club golf course, venue for this year’s Ryder Cup showdown between America’s and Europe’s finest golfers next week — the biggest golf event in the British Isles this year. And I’ve just played an atrocious iron shot.
The ball has scuttled off 50m to the right, heading for a bunker. It scoots through the sand and hits what appears to be a rake before popping out and nestling in some grass. Actually not all that bad. But definitely not good.
I go to find my ball. Then I realise something. As I walk over, I see that the “rake” is not a rake. It is, in fact, a hare. The hare is sitting dead still (luckily not “dead”) in the bunker. It looks, to borrow a phrase from P. G. Wodehouse (who loved a game of golf), “if not actually disgruntled . . . far from being gruntled” — and just a little bit dazed.
When I’m a yard or so away, it finally — casting a withering look — hops away. I’ve hit a hare! Do you get any points for that like you do for birdies, eagles and albatrosses in golf, I ask John, my playing partner, who confirms that I definitely had hit the hare.
“No you don’t!” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “In all my years of golf, I can safely say I’ve never seen that before!” In the run-up to the last Ryder Cup in the British Isles, I played the Brabazon course at The Belfry, the West Midlands venue, in 2002. I didn’t play very well then either (though I didn’t hit any hares). The Belfry’s hotel, part of the De Vere chain, proved to be a bit of a let down: tiny rooms, run-of-the-mill restaurant, noisy, laddish bar and a Ritzy-style nightclub. Yes, it was fun — but it certainly wasn’t classy.
The K Club in Co Kildare, however, is a whole different ball game. The club, which opened in 1991 with 69 rooms, is upmarket in the “look at me, aren’t we doing well” sense of the word — and doesn’t care who knows it.
The seemingly endless number of BMWs, Mercs and Porsches, plus the helicopter pad close to the ninth hole (we have to pause while a helicopter lifts off), are the first signs of conspicuous consumption. Then comes the main building, a grand yellow country house on a hill overlooking 220ha (550 acres) of gardens, parkland and the River Liffey.
The front door is guarded by two large, black, stone cats. Inside are oriental carpets, plush pink sofas, portraits of elegant women wearing hats and pearls, and bronze sculptures of racehorses. I overhear an attendant asking some newcomers — who have just dropped in by helicopter — if they would like a drink: “Champagne, sirs?” They wave a hand in the affirmative.
There is a definite, and quite splendid, “lord of the manor” feel about the K Club. My room knocks for six the place I slept in at the Belfry: giant bed, thick aquamarine carpet, big mirrored wardrobe, fancy bathrobe with the hotel crest, which says “Fortuna Favente” — by favour and fortune (not for the hare on the third hole) — on the pocket.
The evening before our round we dine at the Byerley Turk restaurant. I have the seared king scallops with onion ice-cream (yes, really, and very nice it is, too), followed by the delightful fillet of Irish beef with seared foie gras and périgueux sauce, and the “little igloo of meringue filled with vanilla ice-cream and griottine cherries” (highly recommended) — all washed down with a bottle of red and a glass of Jameson whiskey (after all, we are in Ireland).
Like one of the helicopters parked outside, the price of the meal, with drinks, spiralled — to £100 a head. And it could have been worse: one wine on the list was £5,200.
Before dining, we chatted to Michael Davern, the general manager. “Oh, yes, Tiger Woods stays a lot,” he told us nonchalantly. “He goes trout fishing in the Liffey.” Other golfers to visit include the Americans Mark O’Meara and Jack Nicklaus.
“We’ve also had Sean Connery, Michael Douglas and Paul Hogan,” says Davern, who used to work at Sandy Lane in Barbados, another favourite of the famous and super-rich.
But here comes the crunch. Rooms at the K Club in the summer come to about £360, with a round of golf, a meal at the less fancy clubhouse restaurant (not Byerley Turk) and breakfast included. A similar deal at The Belfry is £239.
Never mind. The whole point of the club seems to be to live it up a bit. So we do — though that doesn’t necessarily help your golf.
- G. Wodehouse once said: “Golf, like measles, should be caught young.” Well, I did catch it young, but that doesn’t seem to have helped. Yet between hitting the hare, pausing for the helicopters to pass, scaring the fish in the Liffey and spending an awful lot of time in bunkers, I occasionally hit a straight one . . . and remember why I kept on playing the game after starting it young.
The K Club has a lovely course. It’s tough. But it’s meant to be. Even the hares have a hard time.
Details: K Club (00 353 1 601 7200, www.kclub.ie), De Vere Belfry (0870 6063606, www.devere.co.uk), Ryder Cup (www.rydercup.com) September 22-24.
NEED TO KNOW
Where to stay: K Club (00 353 1 601 7200, www.kclub.ie) has special two-night half-board golf packages, including two rounds of golf from £675, this summer. De Vere Belfry (0870 6063606, www.devere.co.uk); Ryder Cup (www.rydercup.com), Sept 22-24.
TEE TIME: LEADING GOLF OPERATORS
Golf Breaks (0800 2797988, www.golfbreaks. com) offers good deals on golf trips in the UK and on the Continent.
Longshot Golf (0808 1565927, www.longshotgolf.co.uk) — for Europe, South Africa, US, Mauritius and Thailand.
French Golf Holidays (01277 824100, www.frenchgolfholidays.com) offers more than 180 courses in France.
Longmere Golf (020-3253 0126, www.longmeregolf.com) — Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, Florida and the Canaries.
La Manga (0800 0932792, www.lamangaspain.co.uk) — three courses and top coaches at a resort in southern Spain.
Great Golf Holidays (01637 859965, www.greatgolfholidays.com) offers trips in the UK, Europe and South Africa.
GOING GREEN: IRELAND’S BEST COURSES
Sheraton Fota Island (00 353 21 453 3649, www.sheraton.com/cork) is a new golf hotel in Co Cork with a grill restaurant and cosy 19th-hole bar. The course was designed by the Irish golfer Christy O’Connor. B&B with a round of golf from £157.
Dooks (66 976 8205, www.dooks.com) is set among the dunes of Dingle Bay in Co Kerry and is one of the oldest golf links in Ireland; golf was first played here in 1889. Stunningly beautiful. Rounds cost £48. The nearest hotels are in Killarney. See www.killarneytown.com.
Ceann Sibéal (66 915 6255, www.dinglelinks.com) is the most westerly golf course in Ireland, in Dingle. It is set in picturesque countryside with sweeping views of the Atlantic. Rounds cost £27. Hotel options are available from its website.
Ballyliffin (74 937 6119, www.ballyliffingolfclub.com) in Inishowen, Co Donegal, is the most northerly golf course in Ireland, again with terrific ocean views. The club dates from the 1940s and the course was recently renovated by Nick Faldo. Rounds are from £24. Hotel suggestions on the website.
Doonbeg (65 905 5600, www.doonbeggolfclub.com) opened a new lodge with stylish rooms, a spa and a “fine dining” restaurant in May, Co Clare. The golf course, which opened in 2002, was designed by Greg Norman. Rooms cost from £144, rounds from £127.
First published in The Times, September 16 2006
Ace tips for a smashing time
The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Florida
“Bollettieri: the toughest playground in the world,” says the clubhouse sign . . . and it’s not wrong.
The Nick Bollettieri academy in Bradenton, on Florida’s west coast, is not for wimps. Some of the world’s best juniors are training near us, fizzing balls about with incredible speed (Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova were all discovered here).
The juniors are full-timers. We’re here for the five-day adult course, which gives you a taste of the Bollettieri way — and that way is, in a word, intense. But it’s also brilliant for quickly improving your game, as long you don’t mind being yelled at, nicely, now and again. “Come on: NO SISSY SHOTS!” shouts Desmond, our coach. “I want full swings. Do that again and you’ll give me ten!” (He means press-ups).
We’re told we’re not getting into position properly and trying to hit too many outright winners. We’re taught a basic approach: if a shot coming towards you is defensively hit, be “offensive” towards it. If a shot is offensive, be defensive. And if a shot is “neutral”, then make the return neutral.
Drills, on good grey-clay courts, run from 8am to 5pm. It’s exhausting — but we get noticeably better.
Bollettieri, 74 and still coaching, drops by. “Not bad guys, not bad,” he says with a grin, wearing his trademark Oakley shades — not such a tough guy after all.
The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, Florida
AFTER a week with Bollettieri, the Colony was like a holiday — no boot-camp atmosphere here, but great coaching.
The resort is on a pretty beach, with reasonable rates, a laid-back atmosphere, good courts, friendly coaches and a “guaranteed match” promise. This means that every guest is guaranteed the opportunity of playing someone else of a similar standard. It’s very sociable.
Sammy Aviles, the head coach, and Joanne Moore, a former English junior champion, encourage me to take a lighter racket grip and to step forward to attack returns. Useful stuff and a good choice for intermediates.
Details: 001 941 383 6464, www.colonybeachresort.com, from £105 a night. Lessons £35 an hour.
Boca Raton Resort, Florida
THIS is the posh tennis option — a swanky five-star hotel, with a couple of dozen courts and excellent coaching.
Larry Gottfried, the head tennis pro, was John McEnroe’s doubles partner when they were 16, and was then ranked above the future Wimbledon champion. He gives it to me straight: “You’re the kind of guy everyone loves to play, coz they have a great game and beat you 6-4, 6-4.”
I need to work on my consistency and “mental toughness”. We spend an hour together and click. Gottfried is the best coach I come across for teaching competitiveness.
Details: 001 561 447 3000, www.bocaresort.com. Three-day courses £105. Lessons £40 an hour. Rooms from £165.
Vale do Lobo, Portugal
NUNO Palma is one of the dozen strong team of instructors at Vale do Lobo, in the Algarve — a good choice for family breaks. He has unusual teaching methods — but they work. “Mr Tom!” he exclaims. “Take little steps. Little, little, like a Chinaman!” He shuffles across the court looking a bit like Mañuel in Fawlty Towers.
We’re on one of the four green “carpet” courts, in a picturesque pine-tree valley. “Your forehand is fine,” says Palma, “but you are just touching the ball on your backhand. Push through the ball like you are attacking a dog!” In an hour, he’s given my game an MOT. No long-winded instruction; just common sense tips and lots of humour.
Details: Vale do Lobo (00 351 289 353333, www.vdl.pt), seven-night packages are from £375, with accommodation and ten hours’ coaching.
La Manga, Spain
THIS is a first-rate academy offering individual lessons and group classes, with training options of ten or 15 hours a week.
Miguel Dios, once ranked 1,000th in the world, gives me a tough hour-long initiation into playing high-bouncing top-spin shots on one of the resort’s 20 red-clay courts. It is exhausting, but he conveys the importance of getting a good length on returns, or losing.
Fraser Wright, the director of coaching, instructs me on how to use my legs more as the power base of my shots. He also gives great tips on volleys — “punch through the shot and get your head closer to the ball!” It’s a laid-back resort — another good family choice.
Details: 00 34 968 331234, www.lamangahyatt.com. Five nights and 15 hours of lessons from £431pp.
First published in The Times, June 11 2005