West Mon is a course where the wind blows hard – always. It is rough, ragged and the fairways are sheep-lined. Contrary to folklore it doesn’t rain every weekend – it occasionally snows. It’s a traditional valley’s course. It’s harsh, unforgiving and proud of it. There are a few of these courses still left in the South East ex-mining valleys – clubs where a fifty something can have the nickname ‘young un’. Clubs where the official booking time is a week in advance, yet at 1 minute past 7 (official booking time) all times from 7 to 10 have been allocated to ‘the vets’. Not ‘the veterinarians’, but ‘the vets’, ‘the veterans’ – a group so powerful and frightening the Cardiff Mafia ‘the Tafia’ have never even dreamed of trying to open negotiations.
To the untrained eye the course looks like someone just went out one day with 18 brightly coloured flags and placed them around the mountain at random intervals. This isn’t entirely true.
The course was designed over a century ago by a remarkable Scottish professional golfer, Ben Sayers. Born in Leith, Scotland Ben had been an acrobat in his earlier life and took up golf aged 16. He was only 5 feet 3 inches and his life was taken up with his sport. He had every job you could imagine concerned with the sport. He was a golf ball maker, golf club maker, caddy, course architect, professional, and coach to royalty. He was second in the Open twice and unlucky not to win.
In 1906 he designed the West Mon course. The terrain must have been familiar to him brought up on the links courses of Scotland. West Mon has the feel of a traditional Scottish links course, without references to the sea. It’s windswept, sparse on vegetation and generally left to nature to manage. The only thing missing from a links course is the sea. The sea is a long way from the top of Mynydd Carn-y-Cefn.
The course is littered with sheep. Tough sheep. Sheep that own the course. Word in the clubhouse is that one November afternoon on the par 5 eleventh hole a hooked drive found the rear end of a grazing sheep. The force of the stroke would have stunned a fairly bulky human being and killed many small cows. The sheep stopped grazing. He turned around and stared at the perpetrator with a patronising look, “Is that the best you’ve got “, turned back around continued ruminating.
It’s known for being ‘natural’. There aren’t too many modern day ‘features’ to ‘spice up’ the course – no ‘risk or reward’ holes, ‘signature holes’.
The course is tough. The weather is tough. The ground is tough. The people were tough. What Ben Sayers achieved in 1905 was to carve eighteen unique golf holes out of a hostile environment. They have hardly changed since the course opened. He did a decent job of it, although I suspect it didn’t cost the 500 million dollars it will take to develop the Royal India Ocean Club in the Maldives.
In 1954 the legendary Henry Longhurst wrote a short article called ‘The Perversity of Putting’ which described his life as a frustrated putter. In essence, he told the universal golfing story of when he was putting well the rest of his game went to pot and when he putted badly the rest of his game went extremely well. A situation I guess many of us are not only familiar with on a daily basis, but come to accept as part of golf.
But why should this be? Is putting so weird and unearthly that success in it influences another aspect of your game? Have you only a finite amount of luck and if you spend it on one aspect of your game, inevitably the other areas of your game will suffer? Well – yes and yes. There is a long list of trite, but basically true, sayings that comment on some of the psychology and mysticism of “the game within a game” –
“Half of golf is fun; the other half is putting.”
“Hitting a golf ball and putting have nothing in common. They’re two different games.”
“A “gimme” can best be defined as an agreement between two golfers, neither of whom can putt very well.”
“The prime requisite for putting? An abounding confidence in one’s ability.”
“The ball doesn’t care how positive you are thinking when you hit it with a putter moving and aimed in the wrong direction.”
Putting truly is as weird and unearthly as all those sayings would have us believe. It is so, so different from any other aspect of golf. Other golf shots have to be accurate enough. They need be good enough. Getting the drive ‘on the fairway’ corresponds to ‘hit the ball accurately to within about 30 feet’. Getting your approach shot ‘on the green’ translates to ‘hitting a target the size of a medium sized swimming pool’.
Putting is not like that. Well, not real putting. i.e. putting from a distance where you can see if there’s anything in the hole whilst standing over your ball. I regard long and medium putts as ‘golf shots’ just like drives, approach shots or pitches. Like bunker shots long putts aren’t really expected to go in the hole and if they do then it’s great, a bit of a fluke, and should be shown on the highlight reel on tv.
Putts you are expected to make are what would be called real putting. It is the one part of the game that needs to be totally accurate. If a plane leaves Los Angeles bound for Cardiff but is just two degrees off course it lands in Anglesey. If your aim is two degrees out on a real putt – you miss – which is possibly even more serious than being in Anglesey, and far more embarrassing. If your aim is a few degrees out on a drive – so what – you’re still on the fairway, or even further out of bounds – it’s practically irrelevant.
So, rule number one for real putting is ‘hit the ball exactly where you are aiming it’. This is very, very difficult. It involves better eye-hand coordination than an open-heart surgeon, the nerve of a nerveless trained assassin, the temperament of the Dalai Lama and the touch of a brilliantly dexterous, concert pianist.
Even then you’re not even halfway there. This isn’t the hard part. To get the ball into the hole involves ‘hitting the ball exactly where you are aiming it’ plus knowing exactly where you should be aiming in the first place. It assumes you have calculated the direction and the speed of the putt. This is based on many, many, many variables – the length of the grass, the wind (strength and direction), the direction the grass grows in, the slope of the green, the moisture level, the air temperature and pressure, the characteristics of your golf ball, the precise gravitational pull of the tides, the earth and the moon. If you’re one percent short on your flight from Los Angeles to Cardiff and you end up in Cork, Ireland. Which is nice, some would argue – nicer. If you’re one percent short with a putt you miss. Which is a total binary fail. You don’t get half marks in golf.
As demonstrated – real putting is tricky. It’s an awful lot trickier than flying that aeroplane to Wales I would imagine. It’s so difficult I feel it verges on the impossible. Like the bumblebee that pseudoscientifically can’t fly, so pseudologically it is impossible for anyone to hole a putt. But the bumblebee does fly, and people, apparently, do hole putts. So, I hear you ask – “How do you account for that?”
“Luck” is my one-word answer. Luck is the defining characteristic of the successful bumblebee and the brilliant putter. It is a known fact that bumblebees are incredibly lucky animals. A Welsh piece of folklore says that it is very lucky if bumblebees set up home in or near your house. They bless it with prosperity – that is true. It is well known that finding a bumblebee on a ship is good luck. There were no bumblebees recorded on the Titanic – point proven. So, it’s no surprise bumblebees can fly. They are incredibly lucky insects.
In a similar vein I think that the best way to improve you putting is to focus more on being luckier. Gary Player once remarked that the more he practiced the luckier he got. For me, I reckon the luckier you are the less you need to practice. That should be motivation for every golfer out there.
Henry Longhurst said, “They say ‘practice makes perfect’. Of course, it doesn’t. For the vast majority of golfers, it merely consolidates imperfection.”
I believe golfers can influence their luck. You know it too. It’s one of the great secrets all humans know, but we have to pretend it can’t luck doesn’t exist and therefore cannot be influenced. Yet all our behaviours demonstrate the opposite. We wish opponents a grudging ‘good luck’. Why would we even say that if we didn’t believe it existed? Or ‘bad luck’ if they miss a putt. Let’s look at even more scientific evidence with five arguments to prove it;
Argument 1: 3.5 billion people, or more, can’t be wrong, can they?
Half the population of the world believe in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui which promotes good luck. A number of large Western Organisations are willing to invest a great deal of money respecting their beliefs;
The Disney Corporation shifted the angle of the front gate of Hong Kong’s Disneyland by twelve degrees to align the park for maximum prosperity.
The entrance to the original MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas was inside the mouth of Leo the lion, MGM’s mascot. However, many
Chinese gamblers avoided the casino or entered the casino through the back entrance to avoid the bad luck they believed they would have entering the mouth of the lion. in 1998 the entrance was changed.
Argument 2: Animals can’t be wrong, can they?
Animals shouldn’t believe in luck, should they? In an experiment carried out by B.F. Skinner he proved that animals, in this case pigeons, like golfers, are superstitious at heart and will carry out a set of rituals, or superstitions in order to give themselves the best chance of success. Skinner set up an experiment which meant the pigeon had to peck the correct button from a number of options, to get some food. The pigeons quickly established this and learnt which button to peck. Skinner then changed the system and rewarded the pigeons randomly whichever button they pressed. The pigeons responded by behaving in an unusual way – They developed their own mannerisms; twisting their necks, flapping their wings, pecking close to the buttons in a consistent manner in a bid to reproduce the luck they had previously had achieved by gaining food.
Argument 3: Psychologists can’t be wrong, can they?
An experiment was carried out with people who described themselves as “lucky” and another set who didn’t describe themselves as lucky. A test was given to these two groups of people. Both groups were given newspapers with hidden messages. They were asked to complete a task and during that task they could come across clues and hidden messages giving them instructions on how to win $100. People from the “lucky” group did far better than the other group. The psychologists conducting this experiment concluded that feeling lucky can help you.
It gives you positive vibes and a more optimistic viewpoint. Feeling lucky makes you more likely to see the good side and influence your behaviour.
Argument 4: Psychologists can’t be wrong, can they (part 2)? People can control their luck. Or, more accurately, people behave as if they can control their luck. Ellen Langer, psychologist, describes this as the ‘illusion of control.’ This illusion of control was illustrated in an experiment she carried out based on a lottery. The lottery is an acknowledged game of pure chance with each ticket having as much chance of winning as any other, obviously. One group of people were given lottery tickets with images of famous sportspeople on them. Another group were able to select which lottery ticket sportsperson they choose. Each ticket cost $1. When scientists attempted to buy tickets from these groups, based on the excuse that there were no more lottery tickets left, they found that the people who had been given random tickets negotiated the sale of their tickets for on average, $1.96. Whilst the people in the group who had selected their own tickets sold them for an average of $8.67. Therefore, the second group, who had chosen their own tickets, behaved as though they had more control of their luck than the first group who’s chances of winning was predetermined.
Argument 5: Sports stars can’t be wrong, can they?
Paul Azinger, golfer, always marks the position of his golf ball on the green with a US penny that features Abraham Lincoln. Not only that but he lines the penny up to ensure Lincoln is looking at the hole. Wade Boggs, baseball star, liked to eat chicken before a game at 5.17pm precisely. He then went and hit exactly 150 balls in batting practice. Serena Williams blamed her failure to win the 2007 French Open on herself: “I didn’t tie my laces right and I didn’t bounce the ball five times and I didn’t bring my shower sandals to the court with me.” Ernie Els believes each golf ball only has one birdie in it and will change it after he’s extracted that birdie. Christina Kim refuses to step on the line where the fairway meets the green as she is convinced it will bring her bad luck.
The ‘Illusion of control’ is a great way of summarising the attempt to control your fate. On the one, rational, level it seems absurd. How can changing your golf ball for an identical one possibly affect your chances of winning? However, one of the most important aspects of putting, or any competitive activity really, is feeling comfortable about it and getting yourself in the best frame of mind. If this means wearing red on the last day of a competition like Tiger Woods, or pink like Paula Creamer, so what. You’ve got to do what feels right for you. Therefore, it follows that you can influence your putting ability by dressing in pink.
‘Putting is a Form of Self Torture’ is a Universal Truth and a book available on Amazon.
Arnold Palmer golfing in Wales (well, the best example I could find)
I have 2 characteristics I am addicted to keen to combine. These are the reading of biographies and stories of the great golfers and Welsh golf courses. For some strange reason I find it fascinating to discover reports, photos of great players visiting our tiny country.
There have been may instances, of course, of golfing Legends to Wales – Tiger Woods at Royal Porthcawl for the Walker Cup in 1995. Walter Hagen playing at exhibition match on the same course in 1933.
Having read about Arnold Palmer’s upcoming book – ‘A Life Well Played’ – I decided to focus my research on a true golfing hero and find if Mr Palmer had ever played in Wales. I looked and looked. Unfortunately, I could find no record of this but I will keep looking. He must have done mustn’t he?
The closest I could find was a visit by Arnold to Celtic Manor in May 2009 where he was the guest at the KPMG sixth annual Golf Business Forum.
It was interested to note that the address made by AP was quite prophetic for the time –
As a seven-time Ryder Cup veteran and former captain, Mr Palmer commented on the Ryder Cup coming to Wales in 2010. He said: “The Celtic Manor Resort will be a wonderful venue for the Ryder Cup. Conditions will make it very interesting for the players and the spectators. The American team better start thinking about the conditions they are likely to face in Wales as they will have to work very hard to win.”
He also prophesied – “I am very much in favour of golf becoming an Olympic sport. I don’t think we can comprehend what it would mean to the game. From any angle, what it will bring to business, and the wider public interest it will create, it is almost mind-boggling what the impact would be.” Which has, of course, come true recently.
I would doubt that this little trip to Wales will make his book but I am hoping that there may be an opportunity one day to see the great man and his remarkable swing, or even more remarkable to encounter his fiercely competitive, but sporting, character. Now, if someone out there can find some evidence that he has played here at some time in the past. That would be interesting and would go on my list alongside Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen.
Who knows there may even be a story in Arnold’s new book ……….
- Those nice people at Macmillan are offering a free sleeve of custom Callaway golf balls to anyone who pre-orders a copy of Mr. Palmer’s book online (the link to this offer is here: http://us.macmillan.com/static/smp/arnold-palmer/).
The 1904 Olympics at St Louis hosted a bizarre golf tournament that was, unsurprisingly, the last time it was held until this year.
It was very, very strange state of affairs. There was a team competition and an individual competition – both only open to men.
For the team competition 6 teams of 10 entered. Unfortunately, only 2 turned up. A makeshift team of 10 was put together at the last minute and there was a contest of 3 teams. Team USA was first. Team USA was second and Team USA was also third.
The individual event however involved international competition for the USA in the form of Canada. The Canadians had 3 representatives. The USA had 74. Soon the Canadians had only one – George Lyon. George took on the USA and a legend was born. George won. The USA did well in the other medal places however and took the silver and 2 bronzes. There was no women’s competition
There was a women’s competition at the previous Olympics. However, it was such a similar disaster you would be inclined to believe it was organised by the same people – it wasn’t. It was held in France alongside the men’s event. The men’s event was a 36-hole competition – the women were allowed 9 whole holes. The winner was Margaret Abbott with a score of 47. Her mother came seventh, with a score of 65. Margaret never knew she had won a gold medal throughout the rest of her lfe.
Most of the competitors for the women’s and the men’s competitions simply never realised they were competing at the Olympic games. They somehow believed it was just another tournament. These particular Olympic Games were spread out over 6 months and with limited internet access they had no idea that (in someone’s head at least) all the competitions were joined up.
Ignoring the lessons of the past 2 competitions, in 1908 the London Olympic Games committee decided that they would hold a golf tournament. However, the organising committee (English) and the Royal and Ancient (Scottish) first ignored each other, then argued with each other to such a degree that they received practically no entries.
No one told George however who sailed from Canada to England to defend his title.
He was offered a symbolic golf medal but George – man that he was, ‘sport is a gentlemanly affair, and I will only accept an award having won it through proper competition.
My new book of golf essays – ‘Putting is a Game of Self-Torture’ is available now on Amazon.