Sunday, July 26, 2009


What a wonderful week in the birthplace of golf.

Ok, it rained much of the first two days. Ok, the food was mediocre. But the Ladybank Golf Course, site of the Scottish Boys tournament proved a provocative potion of elegant holes meandering through a gentle forest and framed by wild heather.

Sam was lucky and played his first round in the early morning sunshine. He shot a more than respectable 75. His buddy Dewi played in the afternoon braving a storm and struggled, ending up failing to make the cut. Sam improved the next day to a 73 and looked well positioned to challenge for the honors in the final day of 36 holes.

Instead, Sam stumbled. I went to play myself with Dewi at a local links course and left him to his own. When we returned, we saw the bad news – an 81, putting him out of contention. This included a triple bogey on the 18th. “I lost my concentration a bit,” he admitted afterward. In the fourth round, he fought back shooting a 74. But it was too late and he finished a disappointing 30th.

We took the time to visit Scottish universities. Sam fell in love with St. Andrews. The “Old Course” shined under a brilliant sunshine. I always knew the golf facilities were superb. What surprised me was how until recently the university offered few opportunities to talented golfers to pursue their passion. Golf was considered a mere hobby and top-ranked amateurs not encouraged to enroll. This is now changing – there’s a neat training facility and promising golfers are offered scholarships to play in elite amateur tournaments.

The University itself is impressive, more historic and more cosmopolitan than I could ever have imagined. A Chinese student gave us a tour. The campus is filled with medieval and modern buildings. Since I am beginning to fear that Sam is not quite good enough a golfer to be recruited in the United States, this looks like a good option. He loves the campus. Plus, its good academically in the subject he wants to study – geography. Best of all, the tuition is free for European Union citizens. Yes, get that – free!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Open

We’ve just arrived in Scotland. I took Sam and a golfer-friend of his Dewi.

On arrival at Prestwick Airport, we headed straight to the British Open. It was the final day of the competition. The two boys, still 16, received free entries.

“Wow – this is enormous,” Dewi kept repeating as he watched star after star pass. Both boys judged the Turnberry links “mythical.” They focused on watching their heroes, first a 16-year old Italian Matteo Manassero, who had played with Sam at the French Boys tournament earlier in the spring . The mere presence of one of their own age group excited them – and so did Manassero's play. The young Italian finished 13th.

The next object of focus for the youngsters was Lee Westwood, the talented English golfer who always sees to fail to quite live up to his abilities. We watched as Westwood drove into the deep rough at hole 10, and stood next to him as he slashed the ball out left of the green. It was sunny but not hot, but Westwood seemed nervous and looked to be sweating. Sure enough, he imploded on the coming holes.

As with the rest of the world, we next turned to Tom Watson, the 59-year old miracle man. He played the smartest golf of the day. While Westwood and the others struck straight at the flag on the par three 16th, only to find their ball roll off the green into a bunker, Watson rolled his ball up close to the pin. He then proceeded to make a magnificent birdie on the 17th.

Everyone knows what happened next . As we watched behind the 18th tee, Watson addressed his ball and said, 'here we go,' smashing a perfect drive. Unfortunately, everyone knows what happened next - Watson's disastrous bogey on the 18th and playoff loss. Even the two boys were moved by the tragic denouement. But the real reason for their trip to Scotland was to play in the Scottish Boys at Ladybank near St. Andrews. Their first practice round was scheduled for early the next morning.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Sam spent the past week in Luxembourg with friends competing in the Luxembourg International. Lilliputan Luxembourg may not hold the most prestigious golf tournament in the world, but it is an “international” with a strong field from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. In previous “internationals,” Sam never has made the cut. His goal is to break that barrier.

Tournament organizers have shaved the greens and the course contains multiple out of bounds areas. Most of Sam’s friends bomb out in the first round, shooting well over 80. But Sam keeps his concentration and shoots an excellent three over par. The next day is less good, nine over, but still sufficient to make the cut.

I drive to Luxembourg on the Friday night after work. Most of Sam's friends have returned home. I caddy again for him. The course, carved out of hilly farmland, is as treacherous as Sam warned. The first hole is a dogleg par four, with a steep descent of a second shot to the green. The flag is tucked behind a trap. Instead of playing it safe, Sam goes at the flag and leaves himself with a short birdie putt, which he makes. He birdies the next par five. On another hole, he chips in. By the 12th hole, he is four under.

Disaster has to strike. Out of bounds lurk on each hole and sure enough Sam drives on the 13th into the woods. But he recovers with his second ball and limits the fallout to a double bogey. Although he bogies the next hole, he birdies a par five. Despite a lip out on the 17th hole for a bogey, he storms back with a terrific nine iron over water and just misses the birdie putt on the 18th.

He finishes with 72, one under par and one of the best rounds of the entire field. He ends up 19th in the tournament, the third highest Belgian - and receives a dose of confidence going into next week's Dutch International, one of the five most important junior tournaments of the year in Europe.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Choosing a College

The family has begun to disperse. My 10-year old Julia with my father has flown to America to go to camp there. I just put my wife and 8-year old Benjamin onto a plane for Finland, where he is attending camp.

We then travelled to the UK. Sam went to see Wimbledon. While he couldn’t get a ticket for central court, he did manage to buy one for the grounds and he saw under 18s compete in the junior event. This impressed Sam. Before picking up golf, he loved tennis and showed real talent. He just disliked the “boxing” aspect of the sport and felt too much pressure to pummel his opponent. So he turned to golf. At Wimbledon, he was amazed to see kids his own age smash forehands and backhands. He was also surprised to see one of his old Belgian adversaries, Arthur de Greef, competing. “Impressive,” he said afterward. Later in the week, he picked up a racquet for the first time in several years and enjoyed rallying with me.

The main reason for the trip across the English Channel was to show Oxford and Cambridge to Sam. His college hunt is intensifying. He must choose between staying in Europe, probably in England or Scotland, or going to the United States.

It’s a tough choice. He would prefer the U.S.. But as a founding member of the Yale Club of Belgium, I know that not a single applicant from here has gotten into Yale in the past decade. The SATs represent a Mount Everest for European-schooled children not used to taking multiple choice tests. Sam struggled on the English part. Plus, is his golf good enough? For Yale, certainly. But for a top golf school like Duke? That’s not so sure. And finally, American schools cost $50,000 a year.

In contrast, European universities are close to free (Scottish universities charge no tuition). If Sam cannot attend a top-flight American institution, this might be a better choice. Oxford and Cambridge both hold open days at the beginning of July. Both put on impressive shows. At a UK university, students apply in one specific course. Sam still is not sure what he wants to specialize in, so he’s looking at a generalist course in geography, which embraces everything from environmental science and geology to the way to design housing projects in order to reduce crime. Sam was fascinated to hear geography professors describe their course.

We met with the Oxford Golf captain, an impressive, articulate young man who spoke with enthusiasm about the club’s adventures playing the best courses in the UK, including all the British Open course. But Sam was not convinced. The captain played only to a four handicap and practiced only once a week. With the heavy course load at Oxford, he didn’t have more time for the sport. “This is social golf,” Sam said afterward.

In a couple of weeks time, we will travel to Scotland and look at St. Andrews and Edinburgh. Both offer excellent courses in geography. Sam hopes the golf will be more serious.

Friday, July 3, 2009

National Championship

Three days after the King’s Prize, Sam competed in the Belgian national championship. This is the single biggest Belgian tournament of the year, the Belgian equivalent of the U.S. Amateur that brings together all the country’s best amateurs of all ages. It was played on a challenging, hilly course near the Waterloo battlefield called Empereur after Napoleon. These days, Waterloo is a rich suburb of Brussels surrounded by rich farmland. The anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat to Wellington just had taken place.

Sam started will playing the first round in one over par. The second round, he improved to one under par, finishing with two beautiful birdies. The third and final day again was 36 holes. Sam left at 6 a.m. and the day rose bright and hot. My dad ad I rejoined him after the morning 18 holes– he looked exhausted, but happy, having shot one over par and leaving him fourth before the final round.

During lunch, he asked me to caddy. “I’m so tired,” he acknowledged. If he asked me to help, I knew he was genuinely fatigued.

Even so, he shot off like a rocket, birdying the first hole. On the third, a par three, his ball nestled next to the hole, threatening to fall for his first ever hole in one. He dropped a long putt on the fourth, and on the fifth struck a pure shot from a fairway bunker to within five feet, only to see his putt lip out.

Then the rocket began to lose altitude. A sloppy drive on the ninth hotel led to a double bogey. And then true disaster – a ball out of bounds on the 12th, a second drive into a fairway bunker and a disastrous quadruple bogey. He straggled in with a six over par 78 – and finished 11th. For a 16 year old, who started playing serious golf only three years ago, that was an accomplishment. Sam left the course with a smile.