I’ll never forget where I was when I first yipped a putt. It was the fifth hole on my local course, it is a monster par four that stretches to very nearly 400 yards. So, unless there is a gale whistling up from the English Channel, it is effectively out of range in two for those of us too old to remember where they were when Kennedy was shot.
My five iron third scuttled down the fairway and limped exhausted onto the front edge of the green, thus leaving me with a 25-foot uphill putt for a well-deserved par. Since I had already amassed five solid Stableford points over the previous four holes, I felt confident that I was heading towards another very respectable total in the mid 20s. However, three points here, I figured, would put me right back in the mix. A solid if unspectacular putter, I would normally reckon to hole perhaps as many as one in ten such putts. I drew the putter head slowly back before lunging in an ugly and involuntary fashion at the ball, which flew (yes, flew!) off to the right leaving me, coincidentally, with another 25-foot putt, but this time for bogey.
Thinking that I had done it deliberately just to amuse, one of my two playing partners laughed louder than was decent. The other looked incredulous before muttering unsympathetically the worst three words in golf, “you’re still out.” Bravely displaying the sort of character that has made me such a feared force in the world of indifferent golf, I pluckily took only three more putts to register an emphatic blob.
My equilibrium and normally cheery disposition were strained further when something very similar happened at the eighth. And again at the 10th, 13th, 15th, 16th and, just to finish off a memorably miserable day, the 18th. Only those who have suffered the same ghastly fate can truly understand the awfulness of it all. A normally garrulous bloke, I was in shock as we sat on the balcony and sipped our beers. All efforts to raise my spirits were utterly futile as I was terminally inconsolable.
Although a complete agnostic when it comes to astrology, I wondered if my problem that day might have been as a result of a misalignment, from a Sagittarian perspective, of Pluto and Uranus. And so I gave it a week before teeing it up again. Everything was going fine up until I reached the first green. As I stood over my 12-foot putt, I knew for certain that it was going to end in tears rather than in the cup. The ball again shot off to the right. My partner, who had driven not once, but twice, into the back garden of a detached house on the right-hand side of the first, groaned the sort of groan you groan when you want to indicate displeasure. We lost the hole and the match five and four. Worse than that was the absolute dread I felt when standing over a putt and the acute embarrassment everyone else felt at having to witness the road accident that was my putting.
If I was ever going to enjoy golf again and, even more important, stop every hacker and his dog giving me advice on how to putt, something had to be done. My pro steeled himself sufficiently to watch me and explained that I was rather open at address, aiming left and striking the ball with an open blade. What was, and still is, mystifying is how incredibly difficult it is to put right something you know to be wrong. In short, it was more a psychological than a physical problem. Having always regarded myself as pretty resilient, I now had to accept a mental frailty that rendered me incapable of performing the comparatively simply task of rolling a ball into a hole.
In an effort to “start again,” I experimented with all manner of weird and innovative techniques that I hoped would break the spell. So desperate was I to find a cure that I even tried putting left handed. Watching Chis DiMarco at the 2005 US Masters inspired me to try the claw grip. If it had helped him rise into the world’s top ten and to eighth in the putting stats, then even if it only did half as much for me and eased me back into the top 50 at my club, I would be satisfied. By splitting the hands and reducing the influence of an overly active right hand, it helped a little. Although I continue to consistently miss putts, at least I no longer yip them alarmingly.
The whole nightmare began almost 12 years ago to the day and although, through sheer strength of character, guts and determination, I have come through the worst of it, I’m not the awesome force I once was on a golf course.
I hope Ernie Ernie’s “Nightmare at Augusta” hasn’t done any lasting damage but I do rather fear for his future. Perhaps a few glasses 2013 Proprietor’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Ernie Els Wines will help the evening find pleasure.