Total Pageviews

Monday 13 April 2020

Magnolia Lane Memories

This very day a year ago, the date jumping two squares on calendars, owing to 2020’s leap year status, which so often ushers in memories of and anticipation for an Olympic Games summer. Yes, this Sunday, 12 months ago, we were optimistically and excitedly heading off to Augusta National Golf Club, for the final round of the 2019 Masters Tournament.  
In the time it has taken for the Earth’s annual orbit around the sun, I have gone from stalking the world’s finest golfers around the quintessentially iconic sporting sanctuary, to partaking in a family Easter-egg hunt around the garden. Ok, that garden may have a beautiful flowering magnolia in magnificent bloom right now, bringing memory, if not Magnolia Lane into view, but the nearest I’ll come to an Augusta azalea today will be via a Zoom video call with a virtual cyber garden centre.  

Indeed, there are parallels between pandemic-enforced social isolation and a day observing golf at Augusta National (bear with me, here).  With phones prohibited inside the arena, you are denied any opportunity for in-play betting, and consequently you acquiesce to the norms of the situation, embracing the solitude from staking cash on the outcome.  You are forced to enjoy the action for what it is, without any bookmakers’ boost or betting exchange enhancements, and eventually, once you accept the new normal, you realise how peacefully pleasant it can be.  

Punting position on the morning of Sunday 14th 2019 - the thought of Tiger at 6.4 in such a strong position in years gone by would be inconceivable.

So here’s what I recall about Sunday 14th April 2019, aided by a few notes I scribbled on the helpful tee time pamphlets that were dotted about the unique practice range on waist-high dispensers. 

You might remember the weather had been particularly inclement, with early tournament drizzles escalating to storm warning klaxons, Mother Nature temporarily immobilising proceedings as officials glared gloomily into the heaving heavens above.  The meteorological manifestations resulted in Sunday’s play starting earlier than is customary, with action occurring simultaneously on the front and back nine, undoubtedly adding to the drama but undeniably making it extra challenging to follow the unfolding of events from the side of fairway and green alike.  

However, having got to grips with the track on Masters Friday, our incredible holiday punctuated by staccato stages of fly-play-watch-play-watch-fly (via Gander, Canada for an unscheduled overnight stop with the great and the good of pro caddies, due to a tragic and ultimately fatal flight interruption.. but that’s another story), we bounded into Augusta National with confidence.   It helped that I was in a strong position on the markets:

Tiger was back, we were desperate to see him win, and if he was going to be beaten, it would hopefully be by a European (in the shape of then-reigning Open champion Francesco Molinari, who first appeared at this tournament as a caddy for his brother in 2006, or by Mr Loud Trousers himself – no, not John Daly – Ian J Poulter.  Poults, having held the outright lead on a fantastic Friday, was still up in contention alongside Kooch, Koepka, Xander and a few other notable characters a little further back such as DJ, King Louis, Fowler, and Lefty, who had recorded an extraordinary social media prelude to his round with a Twitter video about dropping BOMBS off the tee, and suchlike.

Coffees in hand, my two brothers and I headed straight to the 10th, where we positioned our Masters branded and pantone-colour-matched green camping chairs a few club lengths down from the tee.  Being adjacent to the practice putting green that effectively doubles-up as the Butler Cabin’s front lawn (and therefore the same immaculate stage on which a victorious Woods would later be lauded as champion), in a slightly elevated position alongside patron cabins and with a perfect view of both scoreboard and superstars.  This afforded us an excellent vantage point of players beginning their fourth round on 10, on account of the aforementioned impending thunderstorms, as well as those players eventually coming through the turn to their back nine proper.

So with Tiger’s group of him, Finau and Frankie Molinari not teeing off on the first until 9.20am, and having flown to the course like the proverbial early feathered fiends in search of wiggly 3-woodworms, we hung around 10 in the hope of seeing a few faces, and perhaps even fistbumping a few knuckles. We were not disappointed.  Having already spied scoreboard-steady Scott sublimely swiping spheres from the sand, a shoulder away from shining star Schauffele sharpening his short game as part of their pre-round routines, the practice putting surface permitted a more up-close-and-personal opportunity to ogle one’s idols. 

Rafa C-B, for example, was wandering towards the warm-up dancefloor without any security or accompanying personnel, and was amenable to an early morning “Hola!” coupled with a grin as cheesy as mature manchego.   Alvaro Ortiz, surrounded by his family, exuded a warmth and compassion immediately palpable to the growing throng of gathered fans who had the pleasure of looking him in the eye and receiving knuckley acknowledgement of their support.  Aphibarnrat “The Arm”, Tyrrell Hatton and Eddie Pep were in jovial, relaxed spirits and seemingly enjoying the occasion.  Kevin Na gave us a beautifully executed backhand low-five, the casual familiarity of such an exchange starkly juxtaposed against the behemoth we were about to behold.

We caught our first glimpse of him at 8am.  You know when you’re on an “experience getaway” and you rise before sunrise to go birdwatching, or perhaps to board a large 4x4 vehicle to scope out the savannah on a South African safari. That moment you see the one beast, that solitary member of “the big 5” or whatever. That’s how you feel when you see Tiger Woods in the flesh from close quarters. Can you imagine touching the fingertips of his left hand as he saunters off the 18th green as Masters champion once again? I can ;) oops.. spoiler alert!

TW was practicing putts alongside players imminently commencing their final round. He still had over an hour to go before he began his. There were no Stilton smiles, family friendliness or unconventional hand gestures from Tiger.  The fiery focus and unadulterated concentration was difficult to see, worn as it was, behind an emotionless demeanour that would have made Robocop look like an effervescent entertainer.  He knew what he had to do: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law. Oh shit, that’s Robocop again. Tiger had to play safe, play smart and play like the Major champion he knew he still was.  Robocop was at least half-human. Tiger had to be superhuman once more.

After watching a few groups tee off from 10, including Rory, Kevin Kisner, whose local club in Aiken, South Carolina – Palmetto, incidentally one of the oldest clubs in the USA – we had the pleasure of hacking our way around the day before; and former champions Patrick Reed (2018), Bernhard Langer (1985 & 1993) and Zach Johnson (2007), we moseyed across to the 1st tee and awaited the arrival of Sunday’s headline acts.  We did feel somewhat disrespectful towards Trevor Immelman (2008), especially since he was the last man, Immel or otherwise, to emerge victorious over a Tiger Woods-shaped runner-up in since Tiger last won here in 2005, but needs must.

Was great to play with Beef again, this time at Palmetto Golf Club

Over on the walkway towards 1, cosily pushed up as close as we could get to the security rope separating us from them, we had some discernible bomb-dropping banter with Phil as he exploded onto the main stage. Poulter had his earphones firmly situated within the concha of his ear (I still wonder what he was listening to) as he strode purposefully to work alongside multiple major champ and delightful specimen Brooks Koepka, and erstwhile US Open winner Webb Simpson.  Again, we were awed by each player’s precise pre-shot procedure and subsequent strike, something that every golf fan will always appreciate in person.

And then Tiger initiated his endeavour.

We followed the headline trio of Woods, F-Mol and Finau from the 1st tee to the 3rd green, witnessing a huge roar on 3 as TW birdied the par-4 to go 1-under for the day. Huddled behind a colossal crowd on the towering tee of the par-3 4th, however, Tiger’s iron shot went awry and he immediately gave back a shot.  He also bogeyed the 5th – Magnolia – a hole that had undergone controversial redesign, rendering it one of the toughest of the round, with bunkers Woods himself described as “umplayable”.

We wandered back down between 3 and 2, to the 2nd green, where Rory, who we had seen starting the day on the 10th hole at 7.52am, had an eagle putt but ended up with a birdie. Right about now we were simultaneously able to satisfy our urges to see the big names, while sacrificing the occasional approach shot. It was categorically harder work for us as spectators than it was for many of the players at this stage, and our hearts were pounding as much from the excitement as from the inclines of the undulations required to get into prime observational positions.

Alongside the 2nd green, the 8.58am chasing pack of Xander Schauffele, DJ and Justin Harding were finishing up, while the next trio waited on the fairway, well below the green. Occasionally your brain would ask questions of your eyes, as the difference in height from one point of the course to another would be so severe, you would think mountain rescue might be called to assist.  They certainly wouldn’t have any issues locating their targets: with Webb Simpson in bright yellow and Poulter in characteristically cheeky check trousers, the penultimate troupe were particularly distinctive, even from 180 yards. IJP’s iron shot landed and settled close enough to the hole that the ensuing birdie putt was a formality. Poults had started well. 

Tiger’s approach shot surpassed this and he too birdied the 7th. I  noted at the time that he got to within 2ft, but then crossed it out and wrote 6ins.  I saw on TV later that this shot was credited with turning his fortunes around. Molinari carded his first bogey since Thursday and slipped to -12 while Woods closed the gap on his opponent, climbing back to -11.  

We grabbed a ridiculously reasonably-priced beer from the concessions tent – I can confirm that carrying three plastic cups around Augusta’s slippery slopes was bloody tricky.  The ground was knocking on the door of being described as boggy in places, and while even “boggy” Augusta would put most Royal Horticultural Society sites to shame, I was glad to have learnt my footwear lesson from Friday, ditching porous plimsolls in favour of spiked golf shoes.  It shouldn’t really have surprised me how many fans were dressed in full golf attire, from Titleist-titivated tip to Footjoy-festooned toe, but it was still weird to witness. Not quite on par with lycra bib shorts half way up a Tour de France mountain climb, but mildly disconcerting nonetheless.

We rapidly returned to our vacant seats on 10.  I say ‘rapidly’; spectators are actually banned from and reprimanded for running at Augusta. So if you wish to get somewhere pronto, you must adopt a quickstep walking technique that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python’s gait analysis lab.   Despite a now swollen throng of spectators at the 10th, we could ease back into our pre-positioned chairs with the minimum of fuss and were able to catch our breath from racewalking just in time to see Poulter, Koepka and Simpson turn onto the back 9.   Then, with the echoing reverberation of appreciation following him onto the tee, Tiger Woods entered the arena for the culmination of over a decade’s top-level retribution.

Brother Tom, blue cap, leaning so far over he nearly fell into the teeing off area. Brother Luke, grey cap, stands open-mouthed in awe just in front. God knows where I was at this point.

Following their shots, we regular-walk down the left side of 10, chatting cheerily with a friendly female volunteer (many of those working at The Masters are regular fans who apply to help out for the week, their pride and delight at being able to do so is infectious) who explained that the luxurious patrons’ cabins lining the path are used to accommodate players’ family and friends throughout the tournament.  

Crossing over the 10th fairway, akin to traversing a deep valley, as the players are shooting uphill to that most elevated green, from which the course’s slopes are dramatically accentuated,  we continued down the hill to Amen Corner.  Hiking gear wouldn’t have been unreasonable in these circumstances.  Tiger and TF both dropped a shot here on 10, while Molinari, still holding it together in the pursuit of that coveted Green Jacket made par.  

We arrived again, at Amen.  Once you reach the 11th green, the view of 12, Golden Bell, immediately recognisable as one of the most famous par 3s on the planet, is breathtakingly spectacular.  A familiar sight from TV you can’t quite fathom exists before your own two eyes.  At just 155 yards, with an extra-energised grandstand behind the tee sensing a Tiger triumph, and enclosed like an amphitheatre, it did not let us down for thrilling sporting tragedy. Having bogeyed 11, Poulter plummeted into the water of Raes Creek on 12, eventually carding a double bogey. Koepka did the same.  The place was packed and it was stickily humid.  Tiger parred 11, as did Molinari.

All was silent on 12 as Molinari teed off only to see his shot fall short of the putting surface,  following Poults and Brooks into the devastating drink and, credit to my brother Tom for this one, suddenly it was more lifejacket than Green Jacket.  Finau drank from the creek also.  Tiger stepped up and steered a short iron shot to the left side of the green. The place went berserk.  Somewhere back in the clubhouse, a fine Italian tailor left the building, dejected, as the blazer was adjusted from European cut to an athletic American fit

We watched them clean up on 12, Woods two-putting for par, gaining the same number of shots on Molinari, from the right side of the par five 13, Azalea, before revisiting the grandstand where we had enjoyed such a fabulous perspective on Friday.  Here, Molinari valiantly managed to regroup and record his second birdie of the day.  Woods was in with a tangible eagle opportunity, but also birdied.  Events unfolded quickly and the scoreboard totally transformed before us:
-       First, Cantlay took the outright lead on -12 thru 15
-       Then, Koepka bounced straight back with eagle on 13 to -11 
-       At this point, Rahm reappeared near the head of proceedings on -10, having been nowhere on the board all day 
-       Bubba bounced up to -9
-       Poulter trickled off the scoreboard and would eventually finish T12 

We rushed (in a controlled fashion, of course) to the side of the water at the par 3 16th, where we had been poorly advised of a decent view on the slope.  Granted, we were able to take in the 15th green, the whole of 16 and still make out what was going on over on the 17th tee, and a kind, tall gentleman let us in front of him, but we sat in awe appreciating the amazing atmosphere, rather than the unobstructed outlook.  Previously circulating rumours of a Justin Thomas ace here, were confirmed, and a chap breaching communication rules with a rogue Apple Watch gave us the heads up that Molinari had again found water on his way to the 15thgreen, thanks to an overhanging pine cone, recording a double bogey 7 and slipping to -10.

Inevitability peeked above the parapet at this point, coaxed out by jubilant scenes as Tiger’s birdie here saw him take the lead out on his own.  DJ birdied 17 and returned with the clubhouse lead of -12 looking extremely competitive.   The scoreboard was a tight as the narrowest fairways and as congested as the crowd, all of whom had congregated around this deep portion of the course.  

Every one of us had to compromise now and make decisive spectating trade-offs as we jockeyed for best position, weighing up whether it was superior to get to a green or continue tracking the final group.  Heads moved from left to right, tip-toes engaged and relaxed in order to locate a view-finding gap between heads in front.  We opted for a position to the left of the 17th tee, looking back across the Koepka group, who were awaiting their penultimate drive, towards Tiger, who had the honour on the 16th, Redbud, not more than 200 yards away, the official length of the final par 3 being 170yds.

We saw his ball land on 16, high and to the right, and roll back slowly towards the cup.   He was so close to a hole-in-one and the crowd gave it some welly, barely controlling their excitement. Keen to get on with things, Brooks Koepka didn’t wait for the raucous applause and hollering to abate, no – he stepped up and cut the 17th fairway in half with a powerful drive while the cheers echoed around him.  Pandemonium, I tell ya!

It became clear that the officials had played a blinder with the rescheduling of tee times as matters concluded; the muggy humidity grew around us and it was apparent that the storm was nearing.  Yet, -14 through 16 holes, Woods was as cold as liquid nitrogen, pulling out the driver on 17 and making par as his trademark black trousers rippled in the rising winds.  

As we attempted to gain ground up ahead on the final hole, Holly, we soon accepted the impossibility of the task of getting close to the green, and instead surrendered position here in favour of a place not just amongst the eventual guard of honour for Tiger’s victory, but our little place in history.  We heard, rather than saw, him finish things off with room to spare, and although his concluding bogey rewarded him with a one-shot win on card, this jubilant conquest was nothing short of a sporting landslide.  

Those striking celebratory images of Tiger with his young family are forever etched in the annals of golfing history, like so many of his earlier career accomplishments.  He paraded and postured, whooped and shrieked in a sensational spectacle of emotion – the Robocop armour well and truly cast aside – and as he held his hands out to receive the adulation, the tip of my right middle finger made contact with his outstretched paw.  Choosing that spot, rather than a futile attempt to get greenside on 18, I sacrificed the slim chance of a sight of victory, for the unmistakable touch of it.  A moment I will never forget. 

It’s certainly true that we are all missing the Masters this April, but it does indeed give us a few additional months to further savour this 'allure', this remarkable return to the pinnacle of golfing greatness, the flavours of a magical moment as succulent as the spices on Tiger’s quarantine-style champion’s menu fajitas.  Who knows, maybe he can follow it up again in November - I wouldn't bet against it!

Friday 19 April 2019

Mastering Augusta - Days 1 and 2

I may be writing this with noise-cancelling headphones reducing jet engine din to merely a faint whir, but I can still hear the spine-tingling roars from the 18thgreen.  We didn’t get to see Tiger Woods’s final bogey putt, for the throng of people gathered there in anticipation blocked our immediate view, but we did get a glimpse into his soul.  As we stood in a golfing guard of honour, surrounded by men, women and children from all over the sport-watching world, who had descended on Augusta National this humid, intense Sunday morning, Tiger bounded up towards us, accompanied by his children, his destination The Butler Cabin, exuding pure joy.  His victorious face displayed relief, self-belief and a genuine smile of gleaming teeth.  

He had done it, we were there to witness it, and, having held it together over the weekend, he let it all out for the first time.  Fist bumping fans and high-fiving the outstretched hands in a display of raw emotion, his hand touched mine.  I felt the fingers of the 2019 Masters champion.

Spot the really happy, bald guy in this photo.  No, not the one holding the trophy wearing the Rolex, the one in the background wearing Masters merchandise with the yellow Garmin.

Everyone knows what happened, and how it happened. This is my take on making it happen, how we mastered Augusta, managed the course from a spectating perspective, and lost our green jacket V-plates.

Rewind a year or so.  My two younger brothers and I begin preparatory and preliminary talks to plan a boys' weekend for my youngest brother, Luke's, 30th birthday.  Vegas was proposed and soon dismissed.  It had been done before for stag parties and work jollies, and while it's a hedonistic and iconic destination to be chalked off any self-destructive bon viveur's bucket-list, we decided we wanted a more memorable moment to treasure rather than a reenactment of previous recreational retreats.  

It was decided: we would head to Augusta, Georgia, for the first major golf event of the 2019 calendar, the Masters Tournament.  From a betting point of view, I love this event. The small field, course form and generous terms on offer make it a punters' paradise and I waded in with the following wagers:

We booked our entire trip with Pete Warsop at Tailormade Golf Travel, and from the early emails all the way through to the hospitality and hosting, we were very well looked after by him and his team.  Tournament tickets, rounds of golf at two superb local courses, accommodation and transportation were taken care of, meaning we could ease into life as Augusta National Golf Club patrons for an unforgettable weekend up there with the best of my life.   

After landing in Atlanta on the Wednesday of the par-3 tournament, picking up an Escalade, and driving a couple of hours east to a very pleasant holiday home situated just a few minutes' drive from Magnolia Lane, we spent the Thursday morning playing The Reserve Club at Woodside.  This is a stunning residential plantation in the beautifully quaint town of Aiken, South Carolina, where we were met by a friendly "Hey y'all" as we dropped our golf bags with the buggy attendants before being served with a delicious all-American breakfast prior to our 9.06am tee time.

Five hours and not many more Stableford points later, having been treated to regular refreshments by friendly young ladies traversing the cart-paths in refrigerated vehicles, we were back on the clubhouse terrace tucking into an enormous lunch catching up on the day's action from the other first round of golf happening 40 minutes down the road that day.  Assessing the leaderboard later that evening,  Matsuyama had started badly, Rahm fairly strongly.  Woods had a solid 70 and Rory was slow out of the stalls on +1.

We got an early night ahead of our first day trackside at the Augusta National. The blue skies were being threatened: there was a storm on the way...

Nice of Andrew "Beef" Johnston to pose with us on a wonderful day at Woodside

On Friday, the weather (and weather warnings) added to the drama.  A gloomy gown of grey adorned the dawn sky.  Deluges of warm rain at the start of the day, and near the end, punctuated an otherwise hot and occasionally beautifully sunny occasion, so Augusta’s flora was lush, the fairways lively and the footpaths slippery in places, with enormous slopes, famous undulations that are perceptible on television but only fully appreciated in the flesh.  The course was packed with characters.

Characters – pros on the practice range and the putting green, experienced supporters in the specators’ stands, where we stopped for a few minutes before heading towards the course proper.  We took an immediate shine to Neil, from Liverpool, who has lived in Melbourne for the past 10 years but clearly hadn't forgotten his time living in the drizzly UK.   We stood under his Masters-merch umbrella and bantered with him for about half hour as Aphibarnrat, Vijay Singh and Matt Fitzpatrick effortlessly pinged some shots around. This guy Neil, plays off scratch, was in the USA for two weeks. He played a couple of courses around the south east states, watched days 1 and 2 of the Masters, and was then jetting off to Vegas for the weekend to play the Tiger v Phil course, Shadow Creek, as well as Wolf Creek before heading home. He had the good sense to bring his wife and two childen with him at the beginning of his holiday, and parted company with them only after a credit-earning family fun time witnessing the wonderful world of Walt Disney.  He was the first of many affable aficionados with whom we had the delight of discussing the action unfolding before us.  

Now, we had some first day decisions to make – do we sit down on a Masters branded deckchair, given to us by the tour company, just one of many items of memorabilia and merchandise that has made its way home with us, or wander around the track trying to keep up with events.  We went with wandering.  You can, however, just plonk yourself on other people’s pre-positioned deckchairs, so long as they’re free, and until their owners come back to politely kick you out (in a friendly, respectful, Augusta National kinda way).

We watched a load of groups tee off on 1, then followed the European trio of Molinari, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Tyrrell Hatton round for a bit, until the fairway of 3, where we waited halfway towards the hole, at the side by the pines, and saw tee shots and approaches from the next few groups

Phil Mickelson went into the rough here. We were less than a club's length away from him as he played out. I was trembling! Leaning all over my brother to get a better view but desperately trying to avoid placing my entire body weight upon him, for fear that we might fall across the flimsy rope that separates patrons from players.  This proved to be a delicate balance over the course of the day, and even more so on the Sunday as one tries to trade off a perfect view of a shot with the compromise of being accused of groping ones fellow golfing ganderer.  No phones are allowed inside the grounds, so there are no selfies or photo opportunities and I must say the whole experience is better for it.  You soak it all up so much more fully without any technology to tempt you into tapping away at a screen. 

Then we headed to the 240 yard par-3 fourth and cheered on a few pin-peppering shots from there.  The tee is high above the green, so you get an incredible view from up there.

It was around 11am, so we grabbed a cheap but charming pimento cheese sandwich – the prices of food and drink at Augusta are ridiculously good value, seemingly unchanged at around $2 for everything since the days of Jack Nicklaus (who, I forgot to mention earlier, is the course designer of the Reserve Club at Woodside). The concessions hall is run with the precision as a laser range-finder but with as much variety as Ian Poulter's dressing room, so you can be in and out within minutes but yet keep yourself satisfied for hours.

From 5, we jumped to Azalea (13), to hit a grandstand, where you can see tee boxes, greens and fairways all from one elevated position. You can look down and see the Hogan bridge from there so this was our first glimpse of Amen Corner.  This is where we saw the aforementioned and sartorially-elegant Poulter take the outright lead after his 2ndshot got plugged against the steep greenside bank of Rae’s Creek.  He was pumped. Not Ryder Cup-pumped but certainly buoyed by his early place at the head of the leaderboard, so we followed him down 14, cheering him on with other Brits (although a lot of yanks were surprisingly rooting for him too), before positioning ourselves in the roaring sunshine next to the devilishly tough pin on the par 3 16th.  We sat in (someone else’s ) deckchairs there for about an hour, watching all the superstars come through. By this point, it was only about 1430, so we knew the likes of Woods, McIlroy, Rahm, Fleetwood etc had only just commenced their rounds back on the first tee.  

So we went over to 7 to await their anticipated arrival,  standing in awe as golfing giants appeared before us as mortal competitors, focused on one of the most highly coveted prizes in sport, emotion already etched on their face.  The guard comes down at Augusta and you see what these guys are made of.

Then behind the green on 10, where from an almost vertigo-inducing height, you can fully appreciate the huge hill down which they have to drive on this hole. The highest peak to the lowest divot of 10 is 116ft, roughly the same height as the Statue of Liberty, and the tournament torch was really beginning to flame.  From here, you are also right next to the tee box on 15, so you can just stand still, turn your head and see Freddie Couples teeing off there, while Xander Schauffele was finishing off his putt on the 10th green.      This was a great spot highlighted by our official Augusta yardage book (one of many bits of merch picked up for a mere $8). 

Eddie Pepperell stood on 15 with driver and ball, but no caddy.  This bemused us at the time, but made more sense when we bumped into said caddy in a bar on Sunday night.  In the subsequent grouping, Henrik Stenson interacted with the crowd, cool as a chilled Kronleins Crocodile, partnered by legendary caddie Fannie Sunesson, who we would also bump into later in the trip, but more of that later.

Literature lifeline in the absence of phonelines.  This document, helpfully distributed around Augusta National, and with a course map on reverse, was vital to charting events as they developed

Finally on Friday, and as the humidity hugged us closer, we went to Amen Corner.  This was as iconic and visually impressive in real ife as you would imagine. The patrons are not permitted to go down onto the 12thgreen so this is the only bit of the track where the public leave the players to finish their iron shots in relative isolation.  Tiger birdied 11 and the place went berserk.  Then he chipped to within a few feet on 12 and the noise was as though a billion balloons burst, as the dial on the barometer nudged ever closer to thunderclaps.  As his partner, Haotong Li approached his ball to tee off, a breath away from his backswing, the weather warning klaxon rang around the course.  

It was 5.10pm and we were told that was it for the day.

Everyone was reasonably perturbed and confused by the siren, but people started to evacuate.  Looking up at the sky, whilst overcast and with air pressure reflecting the sporting action, our initial (perhaps optimistically British) thoughts were: "it looks fine, please crack on", so we just hung around with other concerned characters, while Tiger, a solitary figure, proceeded with purpose down across the bridge to mark his ball and get an advance read on his putt. He stayed on the green for a good few minutes and we watched him until he slipped away through some flowery bushes into what musy be some kind of secret exit.  It was all rather surreal and there wasn't yet a drop of rain, let alone local evidence of thunder or lightning.  The marshals informed us that any stormy conditions within a radius of 10 miles is sufficient cause to suspend play.

Loads of people left at this point, but many stayed.  We had been told that it is fairly normal for people to leave the course mid-afternoon, retreating to the comfort of their homes or hostelries and take advantage of the more complete coverage afforded by television broadcast.  We stuck it out.

Then we had all the drama of play being suspended, then recommenced; on or off… and then on. This was a real rush!  I still can’t quite believe Tiger came back out and missed not only this birdie putt, but so many more birdie opportunities on the back 9 on Friday. He may have simply had too much time to mull this particular putt over whie there was a break in play, and then perhaps the momentum was lost somewhat.  The atmosphere, however, was absolutely palpable and inescapable for those of us who remained in situ throughout this meteorologically-induced interval.

Tiger obviously did claw back another two shots from there on day two, and we saw his birdie on 15 as we moved back round there from Amen, staying sluighly ahead of his group, cheering on him and Rahmbo.

Despite understandable and justifiable concerns that watching golf live from the course is less comprehensive than TV coverage,  you could totally tell what was going on the whole time. The scoreboards were brilliant and the staff, fellow patrons and even occasionally competitors helped you understand what was going on.  Most of the time, Tiger was as tunnel-vision, job-first focused as Robocop, striding towards targets with single-minded steadfastness.  But by now, he was really smiling. It was amazing to see! This first glimpse behind the competitive mask suggested more than just being pleased to be being competitive, if that makes sense. He was glad to be there, but he seemed to be allowing himself to occasionally check-in and appreciate that he was also in with a real shout of major glory for the first time in over a decade.

We certainly felt we played the action-witnessing strategy almost perfectly, without missing out on the more subtle experiences of just “being in the moment” and drinking it all in, and it meant we had a good template mapped out ahead of our return here on the Sunday, where it was to get even more dramatic as two incredible ball strikers, Ryder Cup rivals and most importantly remaining key players on my betting slip would go hammer and tongs at the head of the leaderboard.  Things were just coming to the boil!

Two boyish faces of joy, and a jolly Grizzly Adams, mulling over the events of Friday at Augusta National

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - Day 2 - Humanity and Humility amongst Racing Royalty

‘There’s more to life than Cheltenham’

Following a sublime, supreme ride aboard Vautour in a sublime Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, that was one of the first things Ruby Walsh said to Alice Plunkett when summing up his 39th career Cheltenham Festival victory this afternoon.

Ruby was referring to the fact that while he was celebrating, Jason Maguire was suffering, having been airlifted to hospital following a fall at Stratford yesterday.   

I’m not going to say that other sports do not have moments of heartfelt humility like the one displayed by this living legend live on television today, but you’d have to have a strong argument to convince me that horse racing isn’t quite peculiar in its combination of competition, compassion, cruelty and class.   

Adversaries get changed into tribal colours in a shared weighing room, more than just a dressing room.  They are paraded in front of punters who pray that their performances reward them with pounds and pennies. These jockeys work for various owners and employees, trainers and tacticians, often switching allegiance as regularly as they switch animal: one man’s rejected ride is another man’s Champion Hurdler.   Walsh and Maguire line up against each other on a regular basis, but in racing, rivals also stand together.

They slug it out; but after battle, immediately shake hands.  Tempers may flare, the spirit of the contest gets the better of its protagonists from time to time, but these guys are participating in a professional pastime in which it’s not unusual for animals or humans to end up hospitalised.

As my granddad said to me at the weekend: it’s the only sport where the players are followed around by an ambulance.

Our Conor was fatally injured in his fall at the third flight in the 3.20 today.   Just a year ago, we watched open-mouthed as he destroyed the field in the 2013 Triumph Hurdle on Gold Cup Friday.  I stood next to his trainer’s son, champion flat jockey Richard Hughes, who has achieved so much in the game himself, and he was buzzing like a bee in the winners’ enclosure, having witnessed a warrior at work like the rest of us.  This year, Our Conor’s owner has been pledging all the prize money his big white-faced horse has been collecting.  As Sam Twiston-Davies says in this RP blog, you’d have thought he would have got a bit of luck.

Read to the end of that piece, by the way.  STD refers to Aidan Coleman and Nick Scholfield as his friends, not as fierce foes.  What a tapestry this is.  Later in the week, Sam will be on board Big Buck’s, lining up against his pals for another boss, a boss who also just happens to be battling it out for a different title with his own father!

Ruby continued in a similar vein his interview earlier on, referring to his mate Tony McCoy, whose son was in the Portland Hospital having an operation earlier in the week:

‘You can make too much of all of that [the pressure]… this morning was a cold and timely reminder when you look at Jason Maguire that there’s a lot more to life than riding winners at Cheltenham… AP showed me a picture in the weighing room before the race of Archie and you think to yourself Jesus, thank god my kids are alright at home.

You can make too much of Cheltenham – it’s a big week, but there’s more to life than Cheltenham’

So it puts all of today’s gambling events into perspective really.  Which is lucky, as it wasn't a day to tell the grandkids about from a betting standpoint!  I did have a 25/1 placer with David Pipe’s The Package returning some decent profit in the first handicap of the festival.  Pipe had already got on to the trainer-of-the-week score sheet, though, with a surprise 33/1 head-bobbing victory by Western Warhorse against Champagne Fever in the Grade 1 Arkle Chase, denying Ruby Walsh his first Cheltenham festival chase success since Kauto Star’s 2009 Gold Cup.  

Losses were incurred towards the end of the card as I noted a Pricewise selection, Festive Affair, who was advised at 16/1, drifting out to around 30/1 before the off.  Remembering a similar situation last year, I followed the price out with increasing stakes, hoping Affair might mimic the Flaxon Flare.  But sadly, it didn't!

Ruby did reach the big festival 4-0 in the four o’ clock, however, and as predicted held aloft two sets of three fingers in victory, each digit denoting a demolition job by wonder-mare Quevega, whose name everyone seems to pronounce differently to Ruby himself!

Looking at tomorrow’s card, I was struck by the amount of silks bearing the colours not just of McManus and Ricci, but of Andrea & Graham Wylie too, who are represented by no fewer than five in the final two races, neither of which feature on channel four, but the finale of which they triumphed in last year, with this year’s favourite Irish hope of the week, Briar Hill.  Phew!

And this is what I mean.  Ruby Walsh rode Briar Hill for the Wylies last year at a ridiculous price of 25/1 in the Champion Bumper, and partners Shaneshill tomorrow with the same owner/trainer combination and a price of 8.4 on Betfair right now.  He was adorned with the same browny-beige colours when on board Tidal Bay in an heroic Lexus Chase last Christmas for his old boss Paul Nicholls, who will be trying to win the Fred Winter tomorrow with another two Wylie horses against, yes you’ve guessed it – Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins on yet another Wylie one! 

The merry-go-round of racing is a wonderfully rich and diverse spectacle of owners, trainers, jockeys, pundits, punters, writers, bookies, braggers and blaggers.  At its heart, however, is a unique humanity that you simply don’t find anywhere else in sport.

Wednesday’s Selections: 
**Multiples of Ruby’s rides in Ricci and Wylie colours**

Red Sherlock for Pipe, and course & distance winner Creepy at a huge price in first time headgear.

Smad Place for Alan King, and Paul Nicholls to get off the mark for the week with either Sam Winner or Just a Par.

Coral Cup:
Far West to put the fall at Newbury last month well behind him, and the other Axom horse in the race, Edgardo Sol, who is partnered by claiming jockey Harry Derham (3)

Champion Chase:
Some offers for Sire de Grugy at 4/1 are very tempting, and it would be a fantastic story for the Moore family, who are real gems in racing’s glistening crown.  I am going to give Wishfull Thinking another spin too.

Fred Winter / Champion Bumper:
Double on Ivan Grozny and Shaneshill for the aforementioned Wylie/Walsh/Willie axis.