Every January for the past seven years I’ve travelled to the Middle East. Many people think this is because of the sunshine and 24-degree temperature when I arrive. And they aren’t totally incorrect. But it is also to get to know the courses in one of the key long-haul golf destinations in the world, as well as interview some European Tour players – whether about their favourite courses for inclusion in Top 100 supplements, or for bespoke interviews with them – while I am there.
This week requires a special set of skills. You need to leave your ego, and frankly most of your pride, at the entry to range. You need to be totally OK with the fact you are a desperate, desperate individual – one who is hanging on 200 words from a player who only moments earlier you had to identify by looking at the name on the front of his tour bag.
You have to have nerve and you have to have bottle. You know they don’t want to speak to you, but you ask them anyway. You have to accept you are a total nuisance (even though I never ever interrupt them actually hitting shots), and somehow enjoy the thrill of the chase.
So you need to basically lose any social skills and self-awareness to make it a success.
You also have to be as devious as you are astute. But most of all, be lucky. There is a knack to being in the right place at the right time – just look at how often the American golf writer Alan Shipnuck is in the background of a key incident – but fortune plays a big part too.
The timing is in my favour with the Dubai Desert Classic and Abu Dhabi Championship though; they attract good fields and are early-year events when the players won’t be fatigued from too much media work. Well, that’s the theory anyway.
But of course it doesn’t always work out like that.
Brace yourself for a cringeworthy look through a window into how the most soul-destroying week in golf unfolds…
1. Textbook execution
Very, very, very rare. Arranged either through an agent or an equipment manufacturer, this sees a date and time arranged to spend X minutes with a player at a pre-determined location.
I estimate I’ve spoken to more than 90 players in the last seven years in the Middle East and probably only three have gone like this.
Thank you to Thorbjorn Olesen, Ross Fisher and Lucas Bjerregaard.
2. The chance encounter
This is when your path luckily crosses with a player between practice ground and putting green or car park and players’ lounge. So they are on their own, and, crucially, not braced for contact.
It takes a hard heart to totally dismiss the “quick two minutes” (obviously I mean four really, maybe six if I’m honest) I’m politely asking for.
It has happened though, most painfully when one of my heroes – double major champion, Ryder Cup icon – dismissed me. He seemed to have a heavy cold though, so we won’t dwell on it.
It can often be successful though, like this January.
Ernest Theodore Els, I thank you sincerely.
3. The running interview
I don’t mind this one actually, even though it is tantamount to harassment.
A player will be leaving the range and I’ll ask for the classic “two minutes”. It then goes something (exactly) like this:
I’m just going to meet someone at the putting green actually.
Well I’ll ask you as we walk then – is that OK?
Yeah I suppose so.
He sighs, despite being the World No. 157 and a man who would not be recognised if he walked down the street in anywhere else other than his home town.
It usually works out OK, to be fair, even though my presence seems to make them break into a canter rather than walk at normal pace.
And so far they’ve always stopped to finish their answer before strolling onto the putting green to start gossiping with Robert Rock.
Sometimes after they’ve stopped by the hilariously well-marshalled entrance to the green, I’ll even sneak another question in, always with the precursor “One last one…”, so they know this truly horrific (four-minute) ordeal is nearly over if they just give me 25 words on their favourite modern course in their homeland.
Miguel Angel Jimenez, thanks for getting there in the end.
4. Heard it all before
I’ll approach a player, he’ll say he’s “busy today” but “try tomorrow as I will have time after the Pro-Am”.
It’s never going to happen is it? We all know how this story ends.
Like last year in Abu Dhabi, when I asked Tommy Fleetwood for a few minutes. He’d spoken to me the three previous years in the gulf and was always great.
And now he was a bigger name it would be even better material.
Except, now he’s a bigger name, he was happy to snub me.
No Tommy! Why have you changed!? You are one of the good guys. Well, you were.
But I’m going to try tomorrow anyway because, well, I want you to assess the numerous links courses in your native Southport. And do a quick ‘fun’ interview if that goes well.
And guess what? He only bloody did it. Fifteen minutes he gave me.
Well done Tommy.
5. Playing (very) hard to get
A day, time and venue is arranged through official channels. But something tells you it won’t happen as planned. So you basically stalk the player for the preceding hour so you know where they are at the designated time and thus you are able to remind them we’ve got a date.
Usually, they’ll be leaning on their putter on the practice green gossiping with ‘Rocky’ when they should be talking to me about the architectural merit of the strong par 4s that get Saunton (East) in Devon off to such a great start.
Unlike the range, I can’t get on the putting green – so I’ve got to somehow lean over the pointy picket fence and ask their caddie, via a weird sort of quiet shout, what the hell is going on (which translates as being more polite than I was to that policeman when I was in trouble as a terrified seven-year-old).
They will then categorically shrug, and say they think “my man” – and they do use that phrase – is going back to the hotel after hitting some more putts/gossiping.
Any self-respecting human would roll their eyes, head off to find someone else to try to interview, and grass up “his man” to their equipment company for being an unreliable and thoughtless shit. They’d hate that. Too much money involved.
Except I obviously won’t. I’m so desperate that I’ll wait for as long as it takes until he leaves the green and I can properly corner him and ask what the hell is going on – as in be even more polite.
He will feign forgetfulness and mention something to do with Pete Cowen/the tour truck and say he’s “around tomorrow”.
I’ll think to myself, ‘But you couldn’t keep today’s official appointment, what chance is there of it working on the hoof tomorrow?!’
And then by some miracle you see him tomorrow and he only bloody well does it.
Chris Wood, thanks for keeping your word.
Our travel editor’s woes continue on the next page, where Ian Poulter, Bryson DeChambeau and Paul Casey are in his sights…
Could the golf ball be rolled back for everyone?