How playing with a pro is golf's biggest reality check
When I’m at a particular needy and low ebb I might tell the story of how I once, in 1992, got on a course where, after three years, you would qualify as a golf professional. At the end of it all you would have a ‘degree’ to go alongside it in something or other.
The basic requirements were to have a handicap of six and some A levels, both of which boxes I could tick.
I got the last place on the course of 30 young thrusters and, thankfully, turned it down. No doubt my golf would have improved – I could even chip back then – but I knew what was going on inside my head whenever I played a round of golf. I had seen enough of other players at my club and at local clubs in the area to know full well that, in comparison, I was a shambles next to them.
I say all this, firstly to show off, but also to hopefully try and demonstrate what the pro who plays the game for a living does and what probably you and definitely I do in the faint hope of playing alright.
Last week I played a round with a colleague, Michael Helyard, at the magnificent West Lancashire to show him round a course that he had never played and one that he would be playing the following day on the 1836 Tour.
And, within two minutes of meeting up, the similarities of two people playing the same sport on the same course in the same pairing ended.
What Michael the pro does: Mike – I’ve decided I know him well enough to call him that now – has been on the property for 45 minutes already and can be found hitting balls on the practice ground. He is now onto his second basket. With half an hour until our tee time he returns to his car to eat a bowl of what looks like some sort of oversized pasta that he has prepared, all in good time for our midday start.
What Mark does: I am trying to eat fewer sausages these days so had a couple of poached eggs before dropping some small people at their nursery. But that was at 7.30am and, being starving on the way over, I dropped my guard and got a foot-long Subway – turkey and bacon, if you’re interested – so I’m now sitting in the car park trying to force-feed this into my grill before limiting my preparations to four bunker shots, a 40-foot putt, and a couple of Ibuprofen for the four-hour onslaught of back pain.
What Michael the pro does: Mike weighs 82 kilograms which if, like me, you don’t deal in kilograms is just under 13 stone. He is 25 years of age, visits the gym and practises six days a week and on a warm, calm day he carries it 280 yards.
What Mark does: I am now 47, overweight, a two-hour car journey is almost enough to put me in traction, I go to the range and struggle to get through 50 balls once a week and yet I know I’ll still look at what club he’s hitting as some sort of gauge for my own shot.
What Michael the pro does: The precursor to every shot is the same, the same number of practice swings, the same motion carried out the same distance behind the ball whatever the shot. This is all done with purpose and is like the build-up to something special. Even the swish of the driver excites me in the practice swing, the ball sits perfectly on the tee and an occasion is ready to happen.
What Mark does: Depending where we are on Project Iburofen I generally limit my pre-shot routine to a one-armed waft over a distance of approximately 18 inches. In my head I tell myself that this magic move encourages freedom and some low-level intent, in truth it is just a way of filling the time between unsheathing the head cover and putting club behind ball.
What Michael the pro does: Hits 3-wood past my driver and fashions a three-quarter 8-iron to four feet. And knocks it in. This is all done with a minimum of fuss and no talking through the shots he’s just hit. Just plain, simple brilliance.
What Mark does: Tweak my hamstring after my opening driver salvo, now a regular occurrence on any 1st tee, and thin a 7-iron to 20 feet. Given I am playing with a pro I feign displeasure but the reality is that my mind is focusing 80 per cent on the possibility of an early pipe, 10 per cent on not over-swinging and 10 per cent feeling like I have never picked up a golf club before in my life.
What Michael the pro does: Adapts two strategies off the tee depending on the conditions and for how he is playing. Notes are made in the course planner and a shaded area is drawn to show the ideal approach. Run-outs and tee positions are jotted down.
What Mark does: Laser the lone bunker, take the driver out despite that single blot of sand being the perfect home to a drive and stare blankly at where the Big Miss is.
What Michael the pro does: Keep referring back to the cover of his course planner where the word TARGET! is written in big, bold lettering. Mike isn’t a big visualiser of shots but he has very specific targets, small specks in the distance to help try and pinpoint the line where he wants his ball to finish.
What Mark does: Keep referring back to the scorecard, to obsess about where I may next get a shot, which remains blank from start to finish but has four numbers that I try and memorise in case of any disaster. These are the code to the locker room which also doubles up as the exit gate. I only visualise problems so generally pick the worst-case scenario and attempt to shape one away from there.
What Michael the pro does: At intermittent periods strange coloured shakes – the drink, not the physical condition – appear along with a two-litre bottle of water. There are also small snacks that, given the fact we are some distance apart after our tee shots, I can’t make out what is being consumed.
What Mark does: Despite the fact that I will be walking almost 14,000 steps (I’ve got an app) and am out there in 3˚Celsius for four hours I thought I’d be good and not eat anything. I drink water but the only other thing to enter my system is more Ibuprofen. I could try and stretch in between shots or during the two hours that I’m standing around doing nothing but, instead, I choose to make small talk about my thoughts on who’s going to win the Masters.
Attacking the pin
What Michael the pro does: With the wind gently gusting off the right he hits a driver that uses whatever wind there is to leave himself a shot 245 yards to the pin. He then holds off a 3-wood into the same wind that lands 15 feet short and very nearly goes in. At moments like this it hits home that, while we are playing the same course at the same time with similar equipment and the same ball, we are of course poles apart.
What Mark does: It doesn’t matter what I do.
What Michael the pro does: And job’s a good’un, thanks. Warm’s down, rolls a few putts and decompresses mentally and physically. Some nuts are taken on board.
What Mark does: Forgets the gate code.