Thursday, August 12, 2010

Holding the Head High

I kept checking the British Boys website as the round of 64 match play results came in Sam's score failed to come up. I knew his match must be tight.

Finally, he called and told me the disappointing news - he had lost in the 19th hole.

He was not as sharp as in the stroke play, he explained. He found himself two down with two holes left to play. He birdied the 17th and tied it up with a par on the eighteenth. The match moved to the first hole, a par five. His opponent birdied. Sam's second shot narrowly missed the green and plunked into the greenside bunker. He made par.

"Sure I'm disappointed," he admitted. "But I'm proud of what I accomplished."

I agree.


Hot off the presses - Sam is fifth after the two rounds of stroke play at the British Boys. He finally seems to have broken through and achieved his potential. I am in far-off Istanbul traveling for work, but Sam was so excited after his minus one second round that he called me right after he finished. He usually sounds nonchalant even after the most amazing exploits. This time, though, he sounded excited.

The British Boys brings together the best 264 under 18 golfers in Europe. It is the major of the summer season, the equivalent of the British Open for boys. Last year, it was played at the Open Course Royal St. Georges and Sam got in only as a wild card. He had a good run and reached the third round, winning his second round match in 26 holes (or was it 25? I don't quite remember since the suspense was so excruciating).

This year Sam had a habit of starting off well, and then crumbling. In last month's English Boys, he shot a sterling par in the first round, putting him in the top twenty. But in the second round, he played scared and crashed out with a ten over 83, failing to make the cut.

At the British Boys, Sam started out with a sparkling two over par on the super hard Dundonald Links. That was the ninth highest score of the day on that course. The British Boys stroke play is spread out over two courses and he tackled the easier (in relative terms) Kilmarnock layout on the second day. I feared for the worst. Instead, Sam played sterling golf, starting with a birdie on the par five opening hole and finishing one under par.

Onto match play which starts today. I'll be rooting from far-off Turkey.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dealing with Disappointment

Sam bombed out today, shooting 83 and missing the cut. It was a combination of bad luck and bad shooting. He was plus seven after six holes, plugging in a bunker on the second hole and finding two separate bunkers on the sixth.

But I'm really proud of him because he never lost his spirit and he ended with birdie on what was a tough day. He still is smiling and says he wants to go play a links course with me and is looking forward to his next tournament. Two years ago, he would have stopped trying after the sixth hole and he would have been miserable for the rest of the round. It is nice to see him mature through adversity, even though of course it would be even nicer if he continued his hot streak and was contending today for the trophy.

I really have a lot to learn from him. Last night, as I struggled to sleep last night, I kept thinking of how my books never won the equivalent of the English Boys, yet how close I also came to winning the big prize. And, when I reflected, I knew I should be like Sam, to just enjoy playing (or in my case writing) and be proud of what I have achieved. He got into the biggest golf tournament for juniors in Europe and he was more than competitive. I've gotten paid for watching him and others and writing about it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

English Summer

Sam played terrifically today in the first day of the Carris Trophy, shooting even par. The Carris is the English Golf Union's championship for under 18 year old boys and its one of the top junior events in Europe.

It took us almost an entire day to get to this spot in the forgotten wilds of Lincolnshire, almost four hours north of London. Woodhall Spa is devilishly difficult layout, a sort of English version of Pinehurst number 2. The village is built around the golf course and there's not much else to do.

During the first round, Sam handled himself with panache. He missed two fairways on the drives and was penalized with two bogeys. On the last hole, he was trapped behind a tree, and hit a three iron fade 225 yards to 20 feet and drained the putt - for an eagle! If he doesn't blow up tomorrow, he has a good chance of making the cut.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Shooting Dutch

The Dutch International, one of the biggest and best junior golf tournaments in Europe, finished today and I attended the final round of play. Sam easily made the cut, playing well in the first three rounds. He would have liked to be a couple shots further up the scoreboard going into the last day, but he told me over the phone that he was "hitting it better."

I arrived just as he was finishing the third hole. He had birdied the first hole and had a birdie putt on the third. It slipped by, but his solid play continued and he was minus two at the turn. Then disaster struck - self-inflicted. he was just off the green of hole 12 in two, and then took four shots to get the ball in the hole, a double bogey. On the next hole, he pushed his tee shot into a greenside trap, and despite a great sand shot, missed the par putt.

Disaster loomed.

Instead, Sam drilled his next shot on a par three to ten feet and sunk the putt. On the ensuing par five, he had 200 meters to the flag after his tee shot (and a free drop from a rabbit hole - good he asked the referee). His ball headed straight to the flag and looked like it would go in. He ended up with a sterling eagle.

In the final few holes, he had a few more birdie chances, but his ball lipped out. He finished with all pars and a 70, minus two. "I could have been minus five or six," he said walking off. But he could also have been plus five, losing his concentration. Instead, he redoubled his effort and showed true grit. He finished the tournament in a solid 17th place.

Its onto the English Boys, which tees off on Tuesday July 20.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dutch success

Sam is keeping his word. He left on Monday evening for the Netherlands to play the Riverwoods Junior Open. In the first round, he shoots a sterling par to place 14th. He takes advantages of the par fives, birdying one and eagling another. "I could have done better if it hadn't rained so hard over the final four holes," he says. But he sounds excited and happy on the phone. There are three rounds to go.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Not enough

It is not enough. Although he is ranked sixth, the national federation decides to take the boy who is ranked seventh because he is a year younger. Sam is crushed.

This evening, I leave for work to Madrid.

When I arrive, I give him a call and ask how he feels.

“OK, I’m just going to have to get my revenge in the big tournaments this summer,” he says. “I’ll have to prove they made a mistake.

In the coming weeks, Sam will be playing at the Dutch International, the English Boys and the British Boys. We’ll see if he can keep his vow.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Last Chance

Sam rushes from a final exam in history to play in the Belgian National Championship. He knows this is his final opportunity to make the Belgian national team. He is ranked sixth and still has hope – if he plays well.

The first day is mediocre – five over par 77.

Tee time for the second round is early in the morning 8 a.m. We rise at 5:30 a.m. and drive an hour to the course, which is located in eastern Flanders. I will caddy. Sam struggles at the beginning and is four over at the turn. He then gets two birdies on holes 10 and 12. But he falters coming in and finishes four over par at 76.

This is good enough to make the cut, putting him 36th. But it is not sparkling.

On the final day, 36 holes are on the menu. Again, a 5:30 a.m. start is required. Sam is solid on the first round. The putting lesson with Phil Kenyon is paying off. But he is not hitting the ball well and giving himself enough opportunities for birdies on the par five. He finishes the morning at plus four again, a bit disappointed.

In the afternoon, he still is not hitting the ball with authority. But he is sinking putts on almost all holes and he is birdying the par fives. He gets to the turn in even par. He birdies the next par five and on the 16th hole, he almost drives the hole, chipping to within seven feet and sinking the putt. Although he bogies the 18th, he finishes one under par, beating all his direct competitors for the Belgian national team. Altogether, he is a respectable 19th.

He displayed a newfound maturity on the course. Even though he didn’t hit the ball well, he managed the course and scrambled for his best round of the year. “I did everything I could to make the team,” he says on the ride back home.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Putting Trip

Throughout the spring, Sam has sruggled with his putting and his nerves. While he continues to resist seeing a sports psychologist, he is more than willing to visit a putting psychologist.

“The best putting coach in Europe is Phil Kenyon,” his coach tells him.

Sam does some research and finds that Kenyon works out of Southport, England.

“Where’s Southport?,” I ask. It’s near Liverpool, Sam tells me, and we begin to plot how to get there. There are no flights between Brussels and Liverpool. There is a flight to Manchester, but its expensive. We decide to go to Scotland, drive south, and turn it into a golf weekend.

In Southport, we find a fading Victorian summer resort. Phil Kenyon works out of a small office in back of a row house. Could this be Europe’s putting mecca? Yes, it is.

Within a few minutes, Kenyon has analyzed what’s wrong with his putting stroke – and with his mental approach to putting. He checks his eyesight and shows that he is left eye strong, requiring him to stand over the ball at the front of his head. Wielding a sophisticated computer, he shows Sam how his stroke is too left to right and needs to be more straight back and straight though. He also works on his breathing and his “attitude” when he stands over the ball on the green. Sam gets a putter fitted for him and he no longer has any excuses.

Sam leaves understanding what was going wrong and he has a path to work on the problems. It was the first time that he was given such a clear explanation of his putting woes.

Beyond putting, Kenyon impressed He spoke clearly. He dissected Sam’s problem and explained how to fix it with concrete solutions. By the end of the lesson, I believe Sam has not just gotten a lesson in putting, but a lesson in how to tackle many tough problems in life. Get good data. Analyze the problem. Work hard – and be optimistic.

In the afternoon, Sam and I discovered that the Southport area is sprinkled with great links golf course after links golf course. Royal Birkdale, home to the British Open, looks magnificent, but costs almost 200 pounds a round. Hesketh, less spectacular, but still terrific, is our budget choice and we are delighted. I play terribly and lose a dozen or more balls.

But the next day, we play a lovely course called Formby Ladies. Formby also has a distinguished men’s course, but the ladies’ one is cheaper and uses the same terrain. I play a lot better, shooting a proud 77.

Sam is two over until the final two holes when he loses his concentration. Playing with Dad is just not a serious pursuit, like competing in a real tournament. His putting is not perfect. He still pushes a ton of balls right of the hole. But he also sees to be gaining in confidence on the greens. “I feel like I know what to work on now,” he says afterward.

The next day, we board the plane in Scotland and spot two Belgian touring pros, Guillaume Wattremez and Pierre Relecom. They were returning from the Challenge Tour event in Macdonald Spey Valley in northern Scotland.

"Where were you?," they asked.

"Seeing a putting coach," Sam responded.

"Oh, Phil Kenyon," Relecom answered, without hesitation. "He's the best. A real guru. He doesn't just teach you about putting. He teaches you about psychology."

So Phil, watch out. You may be getting a call from Relecom.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

First Signs of Success

Sam played this past weekend in the King’s Prize on the Empereur Course. It is one of the “majors” of the Belgian amateur season. He was excellent in his first round.

For the first time this year, I saw smile coming off the course. He had a two over par round and was eighth in the tournament. He didn’t struggle. He hit the ball well. “If I only putted a little better, I would have been well under par,” he said.

The next day, Sam had to play 36 holes. I watched the first nine holes and it was instructive. He hit the ball much better than his playing partners. On the first hole, one boy hit into the water and took a triple bogey seven. The other missed the green with his second shot and took a five. Sam hit two perfect shots – and three putted for a five. On the second hole, he made another three putt. His playing partners kept missing the fairway, but scrambled for pars. By the turn, Sam was four over and his playing partners were two under and par.

Sam shot 77 and 78 to finish 19th.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Parental Pride

I was in Paris the other day dining with a friend who has been reading this blog. She said she found my words “hard” on Sam. I was surprised. The last thing I wanted to be was “hard” on my fantastic, first born son. I am proud of him and thought my words shine with parental pride.

But I also can understand how even the slightest criticism – meant to be realistic or constructive – could be misconstrued. Sam has had a tough start to the golf season. He is putting too much pressure on his young shoulders. But I am more proud of him than ever before.

He just brought home his second semester grades from school. They are his best ever, with an average well over 8 out of 10. (For those Americans used to grade inflation, let me tell you that 8 out of ten at the European School of Brussels is one hellavu score)_

He is so excited about attending university in America and I am beginning to believe the tender loving care exhibited in my dealings with Davidson make it a more appropriate place to build confidence than my arrogant, impersonal alma mater Yale.

And when it comes to golf, Sam is not giving up. He is practicing harder than ever, determined to improve.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Shooting from Scotland

I'm proud of Sam.

He has been struggling on the course, fighting a fade in his shots and a lack of confidence in his shot making. His coach has corrected the swing sickness. When he manages to string together a strong run, however, Sam has failed to finish with panache, missing the cut in his last two big tournaments.

This past week, he traveled with the Belgian national junior team to Scotland to play in the Scottish Youth Championship. Its being played on a British Open qualifying course called Montfieth, a few kilometers from Carnoustie. On the phone, Sam told me it was a "true links."

In the first round, he shot a competitive 78. "I made some mental mistakes - it could have been much better." While a year ago, he would have called the round disastrous, this time he felt he had a fighting chance to make the cut.

In the second round, he teed off late and the wind was blowing hard against him in the first four holes. He began with a series of catastrophic holes that left him six over par after only four holes. Instead of giving up, though, he fought back, scoring back to back birdies. But on the next par five, he had to wait for a while lost his concentration and missed a short put. He struggled with his putting in the next few holes, but finished with a sparkling eagle on the 18th. It was too little to salvage the tournament - his 79 - left him failing to make the cut.

When Sam last went to Scotland, he easily made the cut in the Scottish Boys tournament. But what is encouraging is his attitude. On the phone, he called the round his "best yet mentally." Despite the horrendous start, he didn't give up. He fought. He broke 80. He sounded proud of himself, and he should be. If he has confidence, the results will follow.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Long Trip

I’m writing these words travelling on a ferry between Dublin and England. My plan was to spend two days in Ireland on work. The volcano ash struck. I was sitting in a Ryanair plane on Thursday ready to return to Brussels when we were suddenly disembarked. I rescheduled for Saturday, but that plane was cancelled.

I couldn’t even get a ferry out yesterday – so I took the train south of the Irish capital to a seaside town of Bray. The weather was perfect, crisp, with sharp blue skies. The train passed along the seaside, with lush vegetation framing rocky beaches. Along the way, I spotted golf course after golf course.

When I debarked, I took a walk along the coast, enjoyed lunch in the sunshine – and then strolled over to the municipal course called the Dargle View Golf CourseThe clubhouse was a ramshackle affair manned by two elderly, unshaved men speaking in a thick Irish accent.

“Play a round?,” I asked.

“Sure,” they answered.

“I don’t have shoes, clubs and balls,” I warned.

“No problem.”

I paid 25 euros, about 35 dollars, and soon enough shoes missing spikes and a bag full of ancient clubs arrived. The driver had a wooden head.

Before the first tee, I chatted with some fellow local duffers. They asked about golf in Belgium. I explained how the game had an elitest image there. No Dargle View public walk on golf courses exist; only private clubs do. But they reminded me that Ireland has been forced to work hard to overcome its own golfing social divide. Not long ago, the game was the stronghold of the Protestant; only recently has it been opened to Irish of all religions.

The course itself was a nine-hole, somewhat ragged affair, shoehorned against the train tracks. But four of the holes had generous views of the sea. On this sunny day, perfect for golf, the stroll was refreshing. I hit some great shots and finished only three over par for nine holes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another Championship

Sam played the last two days of the Junior interclubs. His Sept Fontaines team won the national championship last year with him playing number one. This season, they are odds-in favorite. But in his first match with the team (he missed the first two days of competition at school), Sam won the deciding match, on the 19th hole.

“I played some good shots and some bad ones,” he sad. “Very erratic.”

I am in Ireland for work and follow only from a distance. The next day, the Sept Fontaines team wins the national championship. But Sam lost his two matches and is despondent about his play. In his last match, he was four up with five holes to play. Sept Fontaines already had won the match and he lost his concentration. In the end, he lost by a hole.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tough Rounds

After such a promising start to his season, Sam is struggling.

He crashed out of the French Boys, shooting two rounds in the 80s. In contrast, his two Belgian buddies, Thomas Detry and Thomas Pieters, made it to the finals and semifinals. When Sam returned home, he said he was still happy. “I had a good time,” he said.

The following week, he failed to make the cut in the AFG Grand Prix. He missed by a stroke. I was out chaperoning friends and he played by himself. On the first hole, he said he chipped to a meter – and then three putt. Double bogey. Later in the round, he hit a terrific second shot to a meter from the hole – only to realize that he had hit the wrong ball. He returned to his first shot and hit another terrific shot, taking a two stroke penalty and ending with a bogey. In addition, his putting remained erratic.

After the match, he was crushed. So was I. He had prepared so well for the season. Yet he now admitted that he totally lacked confidence.

Monday, March 22, 2010

An Encouraging Start

Sam returned home at 3:30 a.m. this morning - not too tired. By 7:45 a.m., he was off to school.

He finished eighth in the Dinard Grand Prix, only a single shot out of the top five and an honorable showing for the first tournament of the year. In the second round, he was one under par going into the 16th hole, where he double-bogeyed. He also double bogeyed the 17th, hitting a ball out of bounds on a short par three. He finished with a three over par 71.

For the two rounds, he shot seven over and all seven over came on these two holes. If he had held his concentration, he could have finished easily in the top five. His friend Cedric van Wassenove shot a second round 65. "He never gets nervous," said an admiring Sam.

But there were many positives. He hit the ball "terrifically." His putting improved in the second round. "My stroke is good, but the fast greens scared me." The weather was springlike perfect in the second round and he should now be able to practice regularly after the long winter.

"It was an encouraging start," he concluded.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Season Opening

Sam is away this weekend in Brittany with the Belgian national team at the opening tournament of the season. It's in Dinard, at one of the oldest courses in Europe, a links masterpiece that opened in 1887 that touts itself boasting "gorses and brooms, moors and dunes, cliffs and strands." Over the phone, Sam tells me it is gorgeous, just "gorgeous - one of the best I have ever played." This is quite an endorsement from a 17 year old who has competed at British Open courses such as Royal St. Georges.

The event is a two round Grand Prix, open to all ages. Some 70 top-ranked golfers are competing. The first day is blustery and rainy. On the internet, I see Sam has shot a 72 - four over par. The highest score is even par. Going into the final found, Sam finds himself in 10th place and within striking distance of the lead.

On the phone, he sounds satisfied. "I hit the ball terrifically," he reports, making 16 greens out of 18 in regulation. But he says he took 36 putts. "The greens were soooo fast and I had the yips." Into the 16th hole, he was only 1 over par and then he four putted from 15 feet. "I said to myself, 'be cautious and don't hit it hard,' but the ball just kept on rolling past the hole."

As he said goodbye, he said he was off to the practice green to work on the putting.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Singing for Spring

It’s been a long, cold winter and I’ve neglected golf and this blog. The Belgian national golf team held its winter training in the snow. Sam actually loved it. He finds the coach encouraging and supportive and was able to bond with the other teammates. The Belgians have decided to adopt the Swedish approach by forming a permanent team and training together at regular intervals.

Over the winter, Sam has concentrated his energies on physical training , his short game and his putting. We managed to play nine holes over the past weekend and he hit the ball poorly – yet managed to finish two under. He chipped close to every pin and sunk every putt less than five feet. Last year, these areas of his game held him back from breaking through into the top levels.

Sam is still waiting for responses from universities. What a nerve wracking process. But the Belgian team leaves this Thursday for its first tournament of the year. The venue is Dinard in France. It starts tomorrow. The sun is breaking out as I write these words and hopefully spring and golf are on the way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Teenage Stars

Sam comes down for breakfast excited.

“Dad, you remember that Korean kid who impressed so much at the U.S. Junior when you were writing the book?”

“Yes, why.”

He just won a European tour event and received an invitation to play in the British Open. Indeed, South Korean Noh Seung-yul, pictured above, became the second-youngest winner in the history of golf's European Tour after edging out KJ Choi by one shot in the Maybank Malaysian Open.

Forget financial crisis. Forget Tiger Woods’s sex scandal. Teenagers still are shooting for the greens and achieving surprising success.

Noh, now 18 years old was the kabuki faced teenager who swept the stroke play at the U.S. Junior in my book, and who looked set to sweep the entire tournament before inexplicably doffing a chip and allowing a 14-year old from Texas to beat him.

He’s not the only precocious winner. Sam has just been accepted to play in the prestigious French Boys championship next month.

“It’s a great field – all the top Germanys, Spaniard and Italians will be there,” he tells me.

“What about Matteo Manassero?,” I ask, referring the 16-year old Italian teenage amateur who played with Tom Watson at last year’s British Open and finished 13th. Manassero had played at the British Boys at Royal St. Georges where both he and Sam were eliminated in the same round.

“Oh, no, Manassero is playing that week in the Masters,” Sam tells me with a smile. “Afterward he is turning pro.”