It has been two weeks since I played a tournament, the World Cup in Portugal. This is my last event of the year, as always, but it almost felt like the season was over after the World Cup. I took it easy for the two weeks, did a bit of practice, mainly technical, which is never a good thing as it means that I am not thinking about scoring. Instead I am thinking about how I am and should be swinging the club. It is certainly not conducive to playing good golf. I have played 27 holes in practice this week and it has felt awful as I can’t stop thinking about what I was working on for the last two weeks and what I will be working on for the next nine weeks when I take my winter break. While I can get away with it on my long game it is the short game that really feels awkward, as I have to think twice as hard as normal to decide the best shot and how to execute it. It is not how you want to feel when you have to play a tournament but I am hoping that it will all fall into place once the event starts and the adrenalin is flowing. This is an event that I have performed well in over the past few years - I have won it and finished in the top 5 a number of times, but normally I come into this event having played two or three events in a row and feeling competitive. This week I am here after two weeks off but feeling like I have been off for months.
This is a funky course, not what we are used to playing week in and week out on the Tour. There a number of holes where anything can happen; holes that you can as easily make a birdie on as a double bogey. That’s why it makes for good viewing. One of the trickiest things about this course is the extreme elevation changes, as some of the holes have 20 yard changes from the tees to the fairway and then from the fairway to the greens. It is also quite tight on some holes, in particular two of the par 5’s on the back nine, the 11th and the 16th. On the 11th I will probably play a three wood off the tee and then leave myself another three wood for my second as the driving area is quite narrow. On the 16th I nearly always hit a three iron or a 5 wood off the tee. This then leaves me another 5 wood or a 3 wood to a very tight green; it is surrounded by trees with a drain in front of it and to the right. This will be a key hole come Sunday afternoon as it has potential to win or lose you the tournament.
The other key holes will be the 9th, 11th and 18th. The ninth is 424 yard par four with a 25 yard elevation change from the tee to the green, and therefore it is not a driver hole. I usually hit a 3 iron off the tee and leave myself anything from a 6 iron to a 9 iron depending on where the flag is. The real tricky part of this hole is the green which is 45 yards long and so it can be hard to get it close. Clubbing is very important with your second shot.
The 11th hole returns to a par five this year. We played it as a par four last year and I have to say that I am happy that they put it back. It was a really tough par 4! It measures 522 yards but it plays 14 yards uphill as well. For me it will probably be a three wood from the tee as there are two bunkers on the left that are within range and the rough on the right cuts out into the fairway making it a tight drive; it will probably mean that I have to hit another 3 wood to get home though. The green is protected by a bunker in the front and a tree overhanging the right half. This, added to the difficult slopes, make it a tricky birdie.
The 18th as always will be a crucial hole and measures 446 yards. This hole is no give away; infact it is a good finishing hole, as you know that you don’t have anything won until you have holed out as you could end up taking any number on it. The tee shot is tight again and is normally not a driver as it narrows at the driver range and with trees left and right, it is important to hit the fairway. Having hit the fairway you then have anything from a 5 iron to a 9 iron into a tiered and sloping green with water in front of it. There is no real bail out shot here; you really have to take on the shot as there is no easy up and down. This hole will definitely have a good say in who will the tournament come Sunday. It is a hole that you would happily take 4 pars and walk away. Another great feature of this course is the greens - they are very quick when you are above the hole and also they are tricky to chip onto. Invariably the winner here has a very good short game.
I don’t have any expectations this week as I haven’t been playing for the last couple of weeks. As I was explaining earlier, I feel like the season has ended already and I have begun to get into my winter regime of practice. That is never good when you still have to play a tournament. I definitely wouldn’t be backing myself this week; I am hoping that I find something when I get to the first tee and that it will take me through the week. I am making a concerted effort to enjoy the week, not to put myself under pressure to perform and not to worry about how I am swinging the club. If I can do that then I will be o.k. As always it would be nice to get into contention and see how it goes but I don’t honestly see it happening. However, as always I will be trying my best and hopefully it will be good enough. I am paired with Colin Montgomerie for the first round, teeing of at 10.40am L.A. time or 6.40 pm Irish time.
I am coming away from last week with mixed feelings. Firstly it is a feeling of what could have been and also one of relief as the year is now over and my winter break can begin in earnest. I came to the event with very low expectations as I was playing badly and so finishing third was a good achievement. I certainly would have taken it at the start of the week. I was playing badly going into the event so had limited expectations as to how I would perform. As it turns out I managed to score reasonably well in the first three rounds and got myself into contention. At the start of the week I decided that I would not get caught up in how I played or how I was hitting the ball. I knew that I was going to hit bad shots and there was no way out of it, I would just have to accept them and get on with it. It was hard to stick to this regime but I did my best - the first three rounds produced scores of 68, 70 and 65 to leave me on 13 under and one shot behind the leader Darren Clarke. Even though it looked like I was playing well, because I managed to get myself into contention I was really struggling and was fighting a hook all week. It was a fair achievement to get into the position that I did considering how I felt hitting the ball. However, I did manage to get myself into the shake up on Sunday as I had hoped. As I always say in my previews: this is what I was trying to do, get myself in the shake up come Sunday and then see what happens.
I was one shot behind going out on Sunday morning; Darren Clarke was 14 under and I was tied with Michael Campbell on 13 under. My aim for the day was to continue with focusing on my target and try not to think about the fact that I was in contention to win the event. I started fine, making a par on the first after I missing a short putt for a birdie. I birdied the 2nd after getting up and down from the greenside bunker and also birdied the next par 5, the 5th when I missed the green right in two shots, then played a poor chip but managed to hole a 25 footer up a tier to go to 15 under par for the tournament. This was a real momentum booster as the putt made up for a bad chip.I was still 15 under playing the 7th. I hit a five wood off the tee so as to stay short of the rock in the middle of the fairway (I had hit a driver straight into it on Thursday) which left me with 142 yards to the pin. I hit a nine iron and nearly holed it for a two, but had to settle for a birdie and 16 under for the tournament. At this stage I was flying along but I hadn’t looked at any leader boards as I didn’t want to know where I stood. I knew that I was thereabouts at least.
The eighth was playing 212 yards to the pin and 8 yards downhill. I decided on a five iron and I was trying to fade it in but I hit it left with a draw and it ended up in the bushes left of the green. I had to take a penalty drop and took three to get down, finishing the hole with a double bogey 5. After this I struggled the whole way in - I bogeyed the 10th and then birdied the 11th. The 12th hole, the par 3, was playing a 6 iron as the pin was back left. I missed the green long left leaving myself no chip. It took me three more to get down again and so I was back to 14 under par. I failed to birdie the 13th, missing from 5 feet for birdie. After pars on the 14th and 15th I was still 14 under and trailing the leader, Luke Donald now, by 2 shots. I knew that I had to try and make something happen on the last three holes. On 16 I hit a five wood off the tee and then a 3 wood for my second, this ran just over the back of the green leaving me with a short chip for and eagle. I hit what I thought was a good chip and I was sure it was in, but it just sat on the lip for a tap in birdie. I hit it close on 17 with a 9 iron but again missed the putt, which meant that the tournament was now out of my reach unless I could eagle the last which was unlikely. I pushed my drive down the last and it finished in the right rough, from here I hit a 5 iron for my second but it came up short in the water. I couldn’t believe it as I was sure that it was coming down in the middle of the green. I dropped short of the water and from there it took me three to get down. Another double bogey, a round of 73 for the day and a four round total of 12 under par. I finished 4 shots behind the eventual winner, Luke Donald, who shot a fine 64 in the last round to win.
I was disappointed when I finished as I knew that I had my chances to win the tournament and especially disappointed with the way I finished. However as I thought about it, I knew that I had in fact over achieved for the week as I was really playing badly. I was always afraid of hitting it left. It would have been a fantastic way to finish the year of by winning but it wasn’t to be. It was still a good performance and I can take a lot of positives away from the week. The main thing now is that I am finished for the year. I have 9 weeks off now and I am really looking forward to them. I will spend the time getting myself ready for next season; I have some really good things to work on and I am looking forward to getting stuck into them. I will take a break from the clubs for a couple of weeks and then I will get back to work but for now it is holiday and relaxation time.
I hope you all have a great Christmas and a happy new year full of golfing rewards! Thanks for calling each week to my site to see how I'm doing, it's much appreciated! Talk to you all soon in 2006!