Interview with Michael Smith
03 Oct 2016 at 14:34 | Published by: PatPenguin | Views: 2043 | News search
Smith Showing His Passion During 2014 WAGM (Photo by Bjorn Dinau)
Editor's Note: We collaborated with Steve Lovell to interview Michael Smith of the BMGA given his amazing success both this year and over his career. The following is the result. It's a bit lengthy but we think you'll agree it's well worth the read. » British Open 2016 Article
In the world of British Minigolf, since 2011, one name has dominated to such an extent that whatever he does in the game, no one is surprised anymore. As way of a demonstration, Michael Smith overturned a six shot deficit at the halfway stage of the British Open with numbers that left others scratching their heads. With his major wins now into double figures, there was no better time to catch up with Michael Smith and find out what drives him on.
Firstly, congratulations on winning the 2016 British Open in Hastings. That day two average of 26.6 was mindblowing, most minigolfers would be delighted was a 26, let alone average it.
Thank you very much, to be honest, I had ruled myself out of winning after day one being six shots behind. I was looking to improve my performance and see what total I could get. Day two was probably my best minigolf ever on a single day.
So, Michael, before you got into minigolf, did you show any kind of sporting prowess elsewhere?
No. I was OK at tennis and OK at football, quite enjoyed both of them but nothing special. The major sport I have done was golf and played that for about a decade. I got down to a handicap of 11 at my best.
Do you follow any sports outside of minigolf and if so, what's your favourite?
I follow a few sports, tennis, golf, snooker but football is the main one, I watch a lot of that (in the background during the interview, Michael was watching Real Madrid against Villareal).
Your first event, the National Open at Star City, Birmingham, in 2010, you finished 22nd. After the first event, what about the day said, Ďyes, this is for meí?
The sport itself, really. Having played golf, my favourite part of the game was putting so I had a good idea before Star City that I would love minigolf and within five minutes of the competition, I would say I was completely hooked. I loved the challenge, the angles, the different balls, the mental and tactical aspects. I liked that it required a good technique without being too physically demanding.
When we first met, you were a freelance writer. Now you study criminology in Leicester. Do you continue to write pieces? Where do you hope your degree will lead?
I still do a bit but not as much as I used to. Iíve not had as much time as I wanted to write fiction. I do a lot of writing for Midlands Minigolf Club and work on the rankings sub-committee so it doesnít leave much time. I like to combine genres, Iíve got two series of books that I am going to finish at some point. One is a fantasy coming of age series and the other a political romance trilogy. It is still my ambition to become a published novelist. With the degree, I hope to go into something research based or into the civil service.
Youíve been the British number one since 2011. Do you see a time where you might not be number one all the time you are still competing?
Absolutely, I have a number of rivals who are technically excellent and extremely motivated who, to quote Alex Ferguson, want to knock me off my perch. People try and find different ways to beat me and it will be inevitable that at some point, I will have a dip in form. There are four or five people that are capable right now of being number one and I genuinely expect to lose it at some point.
Take us through a normal Michael Smith preparation for a tournament such as the British Open.
I am very strict and rigid about my training sessions which I break into three parts. Part one will last about two hours, spending five to ten minutes on each hole to see if the ball choice, tee position and line either still works or if itís a newer course, to try out a couple of different things. Part two will be an abbreviated version of part one where Iíll hit three or four shots of the same shot at each hole. After that, Iíll play some practice rounds and try and match the intensity of a tournament. Depending on where the course is and how important the tournament is to me, that will determine the number of training sessions I will have.
You donít seem to have any notes to hand during a tournament, like maps of potential second putts. Do you commit everything to memory?
I have a course note book for every course and that will include putt maps, not as detailed as some others, but it will include the putts I will get most often. I rarely look at them because of the 45 second rule to take the shot, by the time I get the book out of my pocket, turn the pages, look at it, I find it difficult to keep to that time limit. If I have enough practice time, I can commit things to memory.
Your putter, you won it quite early on in your career. Have you ever been tempted to change it?
I won it in Bristol for the top novice prize in my second tournament. Certainly not, I get a lot of banter about my putter from fellow pros, saying it looks cheap, horrible, tatty. Iíve been very lucky that not only do I like the putter but it feels comfortable. There is no way on earth that I am going to change it. I have this fear that like Stephen Hendry, when he lost his snooker cue, he was never the same player again. Iím never planning on changing it.
Letís look at the Pirate Course in Hastings, where this yearís British Open has been played. You seem to have an Indian sign over the course. You have never been beaten around it by any of your fellow countrymen, your worst score is a 33 and your best is a 24, which is also a joint British record. Why do you think this is?
I have a good record there but I wouldnít necessarily agree with that. All my victories on that course have been by tiny margins. I would say that all courses in Britain, you need a good control of pace on and the Pirate course needs to have perfect pace. With the differing wind conditions, the speed of the course changes. I think one of my biggest strengths is my control of the pace of the shot. My ball selection there is good too so a combination of those two things is why I play consistently well there.
You announced your retirement after the British Championships in 2015. [You have] since won 14 out of 16 events, coming second in the other two. What persuaded you to carry on for the time being?
At the time, I was 90% sure I was going to be retiring at the end of the season. Firstly, the stress of the last few years has got bigger and bigger as time has gone on as my rivals have got closer. I wasnít enjoying the sport as much as I had when I first started and although I love the sport, I have to protect my mental health and I thought I was going to have to make that sacrifice. Secondly, going into that tournament, I was convinced I was going to lose my number one ranking to Adam Kelly at the end of the year. If I had lost to Adam by one shot at the World Crazy Golf Championships, then he would have got it. Winning the WCGC meant I protected the ranking and gave me a new lease of life. It took some of the pressure away and was the key factor for me to keep going. I take things tournament by tournament now, which I think gives me a little more freedom.
You have retired from overseas tournaments. And yet, in Kosovo, a large number of the competitors asked where you were. Are you aware of the impact you have made at not just British level but at international level?
Iíve never said I have retired. What Iíve said is bearing in mind how long they take and the cost (British players receive no state funding), it does make it unlikely that I will ever play abroad again. I would not rule it out completely, Iíll take that decision on a year by year basis. Iím not aware of the impact that I have had. I am phenomenally grateful for anyone who asks after me, I find that flattering. My focus is on playing, I love playing, competing, so Iím not aware of the impact that I may have had.
Have you ever considered going to America to play in one of their large events since they tend to be similar to the UK style of minigolf?
Right now, my focus is on the British game but it is something that I wouldnít rule out. If I did, it would be something I would do very seriously. As much as I love the WCGC, I would definitely describe myself as a minigolfer, not a crazy golfer, so I prefer playing in events with more than one ball. I would try and learn from people like Olivia Prokopova, who has played a lot of one ball tournaments beforehand and goes out a couple of weeks early. I would need to have those amount of preparations to give the tournament my very best shot.
Your parents, Chris and Brenda, also play on the tour. What does having your mum and dad around do for you while you are in a tournament?
It might sound a bit strange but it generally doesnít make much difference either way. They play a lot now but havenít always done so. It doesnít make any difference to my preparation as to whether they are there or not.
What is there left for you to achieve in minigolf, youíre a ten-time major winner and have won forty three events, three times more than anyone else?
I have one inner goal and one outer goal. The inner goal is to try and set a personal best average on each course. I am very competitive and I like going up against other players, but equally, there is a part of me doing this for myself. I like to challenge myself based on what Iíve done before to see if it is possible to get better. With the outer goal, when I realised I was becoming good at minigolf, I foolishly set myself the goal of overtaking Tim Davies as Britainís greatest ever minigolfer. If I knew at the time all the effort and energy that would take, I wouldnít have set it. Through good or bad, I am committed to seeing that through. There is one record I am after. Tim finished seven different years ranked number one, I currently only have five. I would love to at least get to 6 and then try and level it.
Why do you think you have been at the top of the game in Great Britain for so long? You have some challengers but what gives you that edge over them?
I think the truth is Iím just more consistent than my rivals. I wouldnít say Iím better but with the challenge of MOS minigolf, I feel that I adapt well to the variety of courses faster. Itís not how good you are on your best courses but how bad you are on your worst courses.
Do you every think playing at such a high level takes the "fun" out of minigolf? Many times people on the very competitive side see courses as just angles and breaks, missing the creativity or "coolness" of course. Do you feel that happens to you and if so, do you like it that way?
Good question. I completely agree with that. I have read a lot of sports autobiographies over the years and although a great number donít spell it out, it is clear that they both love their sport but also hate their sport. I wouldnít go that far, I really love minigolf but I do agree, a lot of the fun goes out of it. Minigolf is a hugely enjoyable sport, you donít need to be fit to play but you need a good technique to get close to mastering. In my first year, I was genuinely playing for fun and discovering these courses for the first time.
Pick the three best people you have played minigolf against to play in a fourball.
Great question. Iíve decided to pick three players from three different nations. Filiph Svensson of Sweden, who has been the world number one and I was lucky enough to play three rounds with him at the 2013 World Championships in Sweden. Martin Stoeckle of Germany, he is the undoubted master of the Pirate Course and it has been a privilege to watch him take it apart. Adam Kelly from Great Britain, heís very consistent and won three majors in the UK and is by far and away our best player on European surfaces. Heís pushed me so hard over the past number of years and I respect him a huge amount. Heís a great player and he definitely deserves to be in that fourball.
What would you say to anyone wanting to get into minigolf? After all, the general consensus of opinion with the public is that not too many people are aware this actually happens.
Bring a positive attitude with you and just try and enjoy it. So often, I have been in groups with novice players, who are nice people, but you can tell they are shaking and nervous holding the putter. Unless you are naturally gifted, you wonít finish particularly high up in your first event so thereís no point getting stressed about it. Go and enjoy it and if you do, get some experience and you will be amazed how quickly you can improve if youíve got the right attitude.
What are your hopes in the future for yourself in minigolf and also minigolf itself?
Personally, Iím after that Tim Davies record. In Great Britain, I am looking for the sport to grow under a democratic body that works for all. If thereís any rich people out there that can offer sponsorship and funding or media that can cover what we do, I truly believe we can really go places. In general, Iíd like more MOS courses to be built alongside the other European surfaces. The big championships are always played on surfaces that we just donít have here and I would really love MOS to be on that rota. I would also love minigolf to become an Olympic sport, I know the WMF are aiming for this and is working very hard to achieve this goal and I wish them all the best with that.