Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Stunning Victory

Sam surprised me – he teed off in the first round on the famed Royal St. Georges course showing no signs of nerves. He parred the first few holes, while his opponent - an English lad named Jake Canning - struggled. Sam's Belgian friend, Thomas Detry, helped by caddying him for the first ten holes. Detry calmed his nerves and explained the course. By the time he left on the tenth hole, Sam was three holes up and cruising. Sam finished off on the fourteenth hole, winning four and two. "I'm hitting the ball well," Sam said afterward.

The next day, Sam confronted a more accomplished English opponent named Joseph Harper, who introduced himself as a future pro. The two teed off at 11:33 a.m. By the ninth hole, Sam was three shots down. But he persevered, bringing the match even by the 15th. On the 16th, a par three, Sam hit first and struck a perfect tee shot to within ten feet. His opponent put his ball even closer to the flag. Sam missed his birdie putt. Harper nailed his and went a stroke up. But on the next hole - a narrow, monstrous long par four, Joseph pushed his drive into the fescue, while Sam parred to tie. On the 18th, both boys bogeyed and the match went into a sudden death playoff, starting on hole one.

Sam should have won on the first extra hole. He missed a short three footer for birdie and looked ready to crumble under the pressure. One poor shot, one poor hole and the match would be over. Instead, both boys picked up their level of play and parred hole after hole - until the par five seventh. Sam split the fairway with his drive and whacked a three wood to the green. His eagle putt came close to the green. His opponent, meanwhile, struggled and reached the green only in four shots. Before Sam needed to putt for his birdie, he conceded the match and walked off, close to tears. Sam seemed too stunned to celebrate. It was 5 p.m.. The five and a half hour long, 25 hole victory was a tournament record. I have to admit that I never thought my son would show such character. The match proved so exciting that even his younger sister Julia and younger brother Ben watched almost the entire way.

Unfortunately, Sam only had a half hour to recuperate before his third round match. His opponent Nick Newbold had a full three hours to prepare. Throughout the year, Sam had difficulty holding up through two full rounds a day. Now he was being asked to play two and a half rounds in the space of eight hours. Newbold started off quick and birdied four of the first seven holes, to go five up at the turn. Sam's shoulders slumped. He was out of the match. As the sun set over the sea and Sam crumbled, the two youngsters were the final two players out on the course.

The denouement was unfortunate. Even if Sam could have played his third round on the next day, Newbold was a formidable opponent who might have beaten him. But it was never a true match. Still, Sam came away with a smile. I never had thought Sam would be a great match player - he's too nice. When he played tennis, he hated the idea of combat on the courts. Yet maybe he is tougher than I imagined. He had made it to the third round of the most prestigious boy's golf tournament in Europe. He had played a British Open course in the shadow of Tiger Woods - and tamed the venerable links.

Monday, August 10, 2009

British Boys

After being given a painkiller and antibiotics, I recovered quickly. I even played a round with Sam on the weekend at our local course. On Saturday as we were finishing, I received a call from the Royal & Ancient: Sam had received a spot in the British Boys, the most prestigious junior golf tournament in Europe. If he wanted to play, he had to be Monday evening across the English Channel at the famed Royal St. Georges golf course.

I had made a mistake when putting in Sam's initial application to play. I marked his handicap at 1.7 and believed that he could lower it later, if he played well. Since he did play well, his handicap fell to 0.6. But the Royal & Ancient, unlike other golf federations, does not allow any change after the initial application. So Sam was put as umber 29 on the waiting list and figured he had no chance to get in.

Now we had only two days to prepare. Sam spent much of the time watching YouTube clips of Tiger Woods and others playing the British Open at Royal St. Georges in 2003. As he saw Tiger and the other famous pros struggle to save pars on the monster links course, he became more and more excited.

I had a doctor's appointment scheduled for noon on Monday so we could only leave in the afternoon. The doctor was reassuring - surgery would cure me, he insisted, and there was no danger to travel - so the entire family took off only about 2 p.m. Three hours later, the five of us were standing on the top of magnificent dunes overlooking the English Channel. The setting resembled a wild moonscape, with mounds rising and falling in seeming random order.

Tournament organizers forbid a practice round, so we could only walk the course. The British Boys is a match play event. The winner must take nine straight matches. Europe's best golfers all were assembled, including the entire strong French and Italian national teams. We run into the Italian Matteo Manassero, the 16-year old who finished 13th in the British Open at Turnberry, in the pro shop where he is buying a chocolate bar. Earlier in the day, he had easily won his opening match against Belgian Julien Richelle.

Sam's first round encounter is scheduled for the following morning. Without a practice round and intimidated, I fear he has little chance to succeed.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Competing Against the Pros

It is called the Alps Tour and it is the European equivalent of the U.S.'s Nationwide Tour, a competitive but minor professional tour. The Alps Tour actually does not just play in the mountains and this week it came to Belgium, specifically to a course just north of Antwerp called

Sam had to play a qualifier to get into the main draw. He shot an excellent 73, tying for the second highest qualifying score.

In the main tournament, Sam was paired with two touring pros, an Austrian and a Belgian. The Austrian had earned less than 10,000 euros for the entire year. When the group reached the fifth hole, Sam was discouraged to hear the pros complain about how tired the were. "They didn't seem to be having fun," he said afterward.

The upside of this dispiriting revelation was how it convinced Sam that studies, not golf, should come first.

Another factor complicated Sam's play: my own illness. I drove him to play in the first round. I felt fine when we left Brussels. But by the time we reached the course in Antwerp, only a 45 minute drive away, I felt a terrible pain in my side. I had to be taken away in an ambulance to a nearby hospital. I thought I had kidney stones. But it turned out to be a tumor in my right kidney. When Sam came to see me after his round, we didn't talk much about golf.

Not surprisingly, he didn't make the cut.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

National Junior Championship

This week, Sam competed in the Belgian national championship for juniors for the first time. Before, he was unable to compete because he did not have Belgian citizenship. So he had something to prove. Plus, the championship was played on one of his favorite courses in Belgium, Royal Hainaut, a classic designed and built in the 1930s by the famed golf architect Tom Simpson. The tournament was played over four days - and the sun was strong and welcoming.

Even so, the week did not work out as planned. Sam played regularly, shooting 75, 76, 74 and 75. He finished eighth. “I hit the ball well, but just could not putt,” he complained afterward, after the final round in which he counted half a dozen missed birdie putts. On the positive side, he only scored only a few bogeys and one double or triple bogey during the entire week.

Next up is qualifying for a real pro tournament.