Thursday, April 30, 2009

National Champions

After a nine hour drive home, Sam is playing in the under 18 Belgian Interclubs with his club team called Sept Fontaines. He is standing on the far left here with his teammates. I am working and have no time to accompany him. The team coach calls the shots.

The competition takes place over four days. Sam is the number one player for his team. After a first day of stroke play, he tees off against the third highest rated under 18 (and fellow competitor at the French Boys) Julien Richelle. Sam falls six down after ten holes before storming back with three consecutive birdies. But it is not enough. The Sept Fontaines team wins anyhow.

In the next round, Sam faces the single highest rated under 18 Belgian golfer Pierre Alexi Rolland, who not only made the cut at the French Boys, but almost made the cut at a European tour event. “He didn’t make a single mistake,” Sam says after falling four and three.

But his team wins yet again and finds itself in the finals. This time, Sam plays well and crushes his opponent five and three. Sept Fontaines is the Belgian national champion.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Flying By Yourself

It’s one of the hardest moments for a parent – letting go of your children and letting them fly by themselves. Sam went with the Belgian national team to compete at the French Boys International. He hesitated. He doesn’t know many of them and wondered whether he could measure up. I wondered about letting him travel by himself, and face the pressure of an international tournament, and the pressure of being alone.

The results were mixed. After playing with Belgium’s best, Sam felt he could measure up to them and felt more accepted as an equal by them. But he also felt outgunned in this tournament open only the best 120 under 18 players in Europe held at a tough course just outside of Toulouse.

The first day opened bright and sunny. Scores were low. At around 12:30, the win started blowing. By the time Sam teed off, he said the gusts were almost knocking him off his feet. He found it difficult to control his balls. Even so, he said he played well, until the 17th hole, when he hit what he thought was a good shot, only to see it bounce on the top of the green and over a near cliff out of bounds. He ended up taking a triple bogey and a disastrous 83.

The next day, the wind again was blowing and it was raining. He struggled with an 81.

Only two of the seven Belgians made the cut. Many of the others also struggled and shot in the 80s.

“It was a good learning experience,” Sam said afterward. “Certainly not a success, but not a total failure, either.

For a worried Dad, it also represents a mixed result. Sam learned travelling and playing with his peers than with his parents. But he still struggled to believe that he can compete against the best.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Witnessing A 65

I am beginning to think the golf has become too serious. The game should be fun. It should not be the setting for family disputes.

Once he cools down, Sam talks through his disappointment with his first round. He has made the cut but is in the group with the highest scores to tee off on the second day of the competition. Along with him is the playing professional Guillaume Watremez who had shot an 81 in the first round.

Sam tees off at 9 a.m. Since I have to take him to the course, we make a deal: I will try to caddy him one more time. Before he shoots, he will explain the shot he wants to hit and then I will agree. We go over the plan for the round. This time, he will not drive with a two iron on the short par four eighth hole. This time, he says he must redouble his effort after a bogey and refuse to “bleed” for several holes. His teacher tells him it is OK to show anger after a poor shot – but for five seconds. After getting it out of his system, he needs to move on.

Sam and I have agreed on a plan: before each shot, he will tell me what he envisages and I will agree or disagree. Once we are in unison, he will execute. The system works for seven holes. Then on the diabolic eight, he slices his drive right. We agree on the line for his pitching wedge. But it goes left into a greenside bunker and he blames me for the choice of direction. He ends up bogeying the hole.

As we walk to the next hole, we agree on the need to stop the “bleeding” and play a conservative, par hole. He attempts to comply with these instructions, but misses a two feet par putt. By now he is steaming and refusing to speak to me. I back off and leave him alone. He bogeys yet another hole.

But then he pulls himself back from the brink and sinks a five foot par putt on the next hole. On the back nine’s first par five, he makes a nice birdie. His drives are now landing straight. On the next par five, he finds himself next to the green after only two beautiful shots. He proceeds to chip in for an eagle.

Suddenly a smile emerges on his face. He is only two over par. He plays the final holes in one over par, but hitting the ball well. He leaves the course satisfied with a three over par 75, acknowledging that if he hadn’t lost his temper in the middle of the round he could of – indeed should have – been under par for the day.

Guillaume Watramez, the pro in his playing group, arrived just before the 9 a.m. tee off time. He looked half asleep as he snap hooked his drive on the first hole and took a bogey. But then he began to wake up and followed with three birdies in the next four holes. After eight holes, he is four under par.

“How could you shoot 81 yesterday?,” I asked.

“I came back at 4 a.m. from Portugal,” he says. “I should have scratched, but had already paid the entrance fee and thought, what the hell.”

Watremez continues hitting laser like irons at each flag and sinking every putt within 10 feet. He finishes with a seven-under-par 65. Sam watches him with amazement. Afterward, Watremez tells him he has to learn “to accept bad shots and move on.” Sam nods in agreement. He has learned a lot in this round and feels that he has a chance in the upcoming French Boys International.

His dad will not be taking him to that tournament. The Belgian National Federation has offered to accompany him. I am delighted. Caddying for him was not a recipe for success.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Caddying For a Son

Sam allowed me this weekend to caddy for him.

In most junior golf tournaments, parents are not allowed to carry their children’s bag or offer them advice on the course. Indeed, at most junior tournaments, even those here in Belgium, no caddies are allowed. Tournament organizers fear that parents would put too much pressure on the players. If some children have caddies and some do not, its unfair. If parents caddy, the danger of emotions exploding on the course rise to an unacceptable level.

But this weekend’s tournament is a men’s professional event: the Belgian PGA. The country’s touring pros, many on the minor league European Alps tour, are participating, playing for money. The country’s best amateurs, juniors and adults, are also playing. Anybody, including parents, are allowed to caddy.

After Sam’s disastrous collapse the week before, he realizes that somebody giving him advice, could help calm his stress and help him avoid making strategic and tactical blunders. But he is skeptical that this person could be his father. “You’ll just get me pissed off,” he warns. Even so, he is ready to attempt the experiment.

This weekend’s tournament is taking place north of Brussels on a flat Flemish course called Kampenhout. It is a new course, 20 years ago, carved from an aristocratic estate (complete with a classic country palace) and open farmland. The course has few true dangerous zones and rewards good play with good scores.

For the first round, I want to avoid overloading Sam with too much advice. After a straightforward par, I watch in silence on the second hole as he prepares to hit a sand shot over a bunker toward a flag instead of blasting out to the safe far side of the green. His shot flies over the green and he needs two shots to get back to the green before taking a double bogey.

After this catastrophe, he settles down and pars the next five holes. On the eighth hole, a short par four, he decides o drive with a two iron while his playing partners drive. He smashes the ball, only to end up plugged in a fairway bunker. His partners mishit their drivers but still end up with short shots to the green.

“Its not fair,” he complains.

He ends up with another double bogey, cursing his fate rather than realizing he has chosen the wrong club. Suddenly his concentration evaporates and he bogeys the next five holes in a row, recovering only with a birdie on the 14th and settling down to par the remaining holes and finishing with a disappointing 80.

As his play deteriorates, he closes in on himself and refuses to communicate with his father “caddy.”

“You just make it worse, Dad,” he says. “I really don’t want you to caddy for me.”