Hello everyone and welcome to my first tour diary of the year. I’m hoping to build on the success of last year and get that first ‘professional tournament win’ for the JFGA in 2014. My first port of call on my ‘new year 15,600 mile coaching odyssey’ was Durban for the Volvo Champions event with Michael Hoey who qualified with his win in the Russian Masters last August. I’d been to Durban twice before, once competing farther down the coast in the resort of San Lameer with the Irish World Student Games Team and more recently in 2002 at nearby Royal Durban GC with an Irish team sent by the GUI. So nostalgia was one reason I decided to add this event to my schedule before the customary Middle East trip later in January, another had something to do with 35 degree temperatures and sun. It was an easy decision!
Upon arriving on Monday morning in Durban after three flights I headed straight to the wonderful old links of Durban Country Club to meet up with Michael and Gerry, his caddie. They had both got in the previous day and looked a lot fresher than I felt. But after a quick shower and a lavish coating of factor 30 it was off in the relatively ‘cool’ temperatures of the afternoon. By ‘cool’ I mean 90 degrees Fahrenheit. As the temperatures were expected to be up around 95 all week when the guys would be competing, the practice days would have to be used wisely to get the most productive work done with the least amount of exposure to the sun. A different challenge than say, the Dunhill in Scotland! So Monday’s first look was just getting used to the thick rough, lines from the tee and the early formulation of a game plan as Durban CC is a strategic course where driver is used sparingly.
Luckily I was staying close by to where the players were in Umhlanga Rocks, so that meant I could either hitch a ride down to the course each day with one of the courtesy car drivers I befriended or simply follow the brand new Volvo courtesy car in front. Either way, I wanted to make sure I knew where I was going as Durban is no place to get lost with a ‘tin can’ hire car, a sunburn and a map! Tuesday again saw soaring temperatures and limited practice. Michael was joined by Jamie Donaldson and Peter Uihlein for a few of the holes. Jamie especially was an interesting guy to talk with as he has gone through the highs and lows of pro golf, and currently sits inside the world’s top 30. One comment he did make was that when he turned pro the first lesson he had to learn was ‘purely and simply how to score better’. Again, evidence of the emphasis that pro golf puts on what your score, not how stylish it looks. Peter was also a friendly guy and a strong ball striker. He’s another product of the US college system but one who has gone out of his way to educate himself in golfing terms by playing around the world.
After a good lunch in the luxurious player’s lounge, Michael and I headed out to brave the midday sun and check on what we had been developing technically over the Xmas period back at home. Along with Justin in Dubai, we have had the same themes run through our work since last summer – getting the foundations in place early in the swing, setting the club better on the way back with a more stable pivot and ultimately a quieter transition. Michael has been happy with how we have all worked together as a team and he has certainly seen enough good evidence to tell him that his ‘A’ game isn’t far away.
So we did a really productive short burst of monitored practice with lots of smooth swings and different trajectories, as well as Michael hitting a lot of the shots he would need on course during the week. We also stopped to do some chipping and bunker play as we made our way back to the clubhouse where we used an 8 iron to challenge one another to hit high & soft dropping trap shots. Luckily Tony Johnstone, the legendary Zimbabwean ex tour player (now TV pundit and part time coach) was there to give his seal of approval as to what we were doing. There’s always a method in the JFGA madness.
Tuesday finished with some putting practice and an early dinner back at the players’ hotel (The Oyster Box) with Michael and Simon Thornton, another Irish ‘champion’ in 2013. Two really down to earth guys and both good craic. Wednesday took on a similar look only in a ‘pro am’ format as is customary at most European Tour events. The positive point is that the players get a final look at the course in semi tournament conditions, but sometimes it can take most of the day. On this occasion however, the ‘ams’ were all decent players and most importantly were also good company. So it was relatively light hearted as we all ambled round and enjoyed the weather. Michael and I again finished off the day with just a brief technical check, just answering any of this questions and let him feel as well prepared as possible for Thursday’s opening round. Before we headed for home however, player and caddy went through some final course management decisions, depending on different winds, pin positions and tee placements. Professionalism in the shade!
Normally I would be heading back to Northern Ireland at this point, but as The HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship was the week after and I was 6000 miles from home, it made more sense to stay on in Durban and help anyway I could during the rest of the week. So for the following few days I watched Michael compete, studied some of the other players on the range, did some farther work with Michael in the evenings on request, played a little golf and even filled in for Gerry as caddy during the final nine holes on Sunday. All in that order. Carrying the bag really gave me a good appreciation of what the caddies do in that kind of heat, because not only is it ridiculously warm with an extra bib on but the bag is laden with H2O and the players are always trying to play as quick as they can with all the fines now in modern pro golf. Hats off to Gerry and his fellow bagmen brethren, you deserve your %s!
Looking back I really enjoyed the week. The heat, the course and meeting new people – especially conversations with Olazabal and Donaldson made it a good experience. Anyone who watched Mike down there could tell that his good was very good, there were just a few mis timed swings and decisions that needed to be ironed out. So there was much to be positive about as the European Tour ‘circus’ boarded the Emirates Airbus for the UAE on Sunday night. I was looking forward to the Middle East swing!
Check out my next Tour Diary from Abu Dhabi,
Thanks for reading,