Saturday: I had been thinking about this weekend for the last fortnight, ever since my last round collapse in Nottingham. I slept terribly for five days after, all the time just thinking about how my mind took over the rest of my body. In between times, I had reached out to social media land in the hope someone had the answer. A number of people had suggested pills but thatís not how I want to deal with anxiety. There has got to be more. I set up a meeting via Skype with a friend who has in the past given me great advice so when they offered to help, I agreed. Albeit, a bit reluctantly at first but after an hour or so of getting my head unlocked, I had words that I could relate to in front of my eyes.
Fast forward to 5.27 am and Iím awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the 7 am alarm to go off. I wake up and listen to music. In a flash, Iíve packed the car and Iím on my way to Sidcup for the Kent Open. The drive down is wet but is a fine mist by the time I reach the course. Iím the first there so I get down to practice and clearing some of the holes of water. The Kent Open is one of only two event we play which is just one ball only, a bright red heavy orb, beloved by some, chastised by others, known as the tomato by me. I like it, the ball holds the line well. Iím determined to putt alone to get in a routine without distraction. For the first few hours, this is easy.
Early afternoon and itís part one of the weekender, the Kent Invitational Trophy. Itís two rounds using the four different balls to have featured in the Open. There is a variety in the weights so it is good for learning the line, rather than the pace. Iím grouped with my vice-captain Derek Bentall and Adrian Amey, of the CEMGC. We all get on well so itís more of a social catch up. Adrian is off later to see a George Michael tribute act. ďWhat era of George are you hoping for, the Choose Life or the toilet sessions?Ē, I asked. By all accounts, he had a great night. On the course, Adrian scored one of the rarest aces on the tour, the cave hole. By the end of the round, Derek had won the guest invitational, Adrian had played one of the best nine holes Iíve seen this year and me, well, I got a few shots under my belt an although my scores werenít the best, it wasnít important today. It was just about picking up the putter again.
I join my club colleagues Ed, Bob and Derek for a couple of practice rounds as the daylight fades. Before I know it, Iíve been on the course for eight hours. ďI just donít get bored of thisĒ, I declare. This is a great sign. I could easily have not played today but when you fall off the bicycle, you have to get back on it. Derek has sorted the hotel out, the new Premier Inn around a ten minute walk up the road. This proves to be an excellent choice. The room is spacious and modern, well within budget too. We plan a walk into town looking for somewhere to eat and settle on the restaurant in the hotel. We chat our day over and talk about charity events we have done in the past. The charity didnít end there as when I asked for the bill, they forgot to add our drinks in. We paid, I left a tip and departed hastily. By now, Ed and Bob had joined us and we ambled to The Beehive pub near the station. It feels very much like a typical London pub. Large, slightly dirty, noisy, leggings and fake leather. I break out the BMGA Top Trumps pack that I last played on a flight back from Dublin. Itís the game that never ends.
It had been a long day and I was beat, so we headed back. My thoughts had turned towards the Kent Open. I kept telling myself, I am calm and I am in control. Relax. The routine had started.
Sunday: Iím up long before Iím supposed to be. The bed is comfortable, far superior to the Ibis in Newport, but I still struggle with sleep. One day, Iíll crack that too. Weíre out of the hotel in plenty of time for the short walk to the course. I had told Derek parts of my new routine in the pub. ďTell me if you want to practice aloneĒ, he said. ďItís OK, mate. I might see something Iíve missedĒ, I reply. One of the new parts of practice for me is not to score a round, just sharpen up the line and length. Sidcup is a tough place to buy an ace but such an easy arena to fall out of contention. If you can stay clean, you have a chance.
Itís busy today, forty-two people are braving the cold, which is a record for a one-day event in Britain. Would have been more if Ted hadnít missed his train. After the comedy of group photo, where Marionís camera decided to have a mind of its own and become trigger happy, the start holes are announced. Iíll be on the 16th with Will Donnelly and Ollie Greenhead. Iím nearly ten years older than the two of them, combined. Here we go. Time to put into place everything I have told myself to do. Part one is getting settled, Iím further away from the ball, with the bias towards the balls of my feet. Itís a minor change but necessary. If I feel that anxiety is even close, step away, take a breath, close my eyes and reset. The club and ball are my friend.
I make steady progress throughout, with a run of twos, not getting into trouble. Will is going well at two under, I get my first one at the fifth. On two occasions, I have to hit the reset button. I just want to be sure rather than taking the shot. I get through the trouble spots well and pick up a bonus of the 15th, my last hole, for a 34. Iíve done well. What happens next probably surprises many people. Part two is to distance myself from everyone and re-check my notes, visualising my shots. Avoid conversation about what has gone before and If someone does try to ask, just reply Ďyep, ok thanksí. To everything. Just before round two gets under way, we observe the silence to remember the war dead. Many of us are wearing poppies. I have my first glance at the leaderboard to find Iím joint second behind Adrian.
Round two and Iím sticking to the plan. Calm and relaxed. My first test comes at the 12th, when I miss a short putt. For the next five minutes, I have a wobble. I underhit the shot up the hill at the 14th and clip the rock the hole after. With a genuine miss at the 18th, Iíve undone the good work of the first stanza. However, other than the five minutes, Iíve recovered back to a happy spot and the stroke comes back. I nail the second and end with a 39. Ollie belies his youth with an absolutely mature round of 38. Will has a few slips along the way and I can see heís pained. I hate seeing a minigolfer struggle, it is no fun to watch, so I will always try and find a word of encouragement if I can.
With the round over, I charge inside for food. Iíve had my eyes on the fish finger sandwich meal and it doesnít disappoint. Ed and Bob join me as well as former club mate, Andy, who spills Bobís cup of tea across the table. Andy pays for another. Itís good to sit down with these guys. Theyíre all fully aware of my issues and we donít speak about the tournament. Anything other the minigolf, chat wise, is fine. Slowly, I open up. Andy says he has a book he can lend me about sports psychology, after heís done with it. Itís a great gesture. Right now, the company is good and Iím in a happy spot.
As weíre eating, the final round gets underway. I head up to the hut. Itís at times like these with such a large field that you can really appreciate the organisation that goes into running an event. I offer to announce the groups onto the tee, which Sean is grateful for. This ensures that I have something else to concentrate on for the next half an hour, rather than hanging around trying to avoid everyone. Inevitably, my time to shine arrives. Iím four off the lead in a tie for seventh with Adrian and Dave Donnelly. As the course is drying out, I try for the rebound shot on the first. Result! Iíve made the fast start. Dave matches me. Then I make the third and I am right back in this. Dave matches me. He would go on to make two more by the seventh.
Iím feeling reasonably good at this moment, stepping away just the once. The putter feels like a pendulum and I can feel a small bit of confidence creeping back into my game. After the cave, which I have been brilliant at all day, I bag the ninth and tenth. Four under for the round. This is where part three comes into play. Maintaining composure. Iím known for being one of the more emotive players on the circuit so trying to reign in my inner child is difficult. A friend of mine, Duncan, has come down to give me some support at exactly the right time. We talk briefly between holes about karaoke and football. Before I know it, Iím on the countdown to the end of the event. With the volcano out of the way and safely negotiated for another year, the slalom on the last is taken in two and I have tied my best on the course of a 32. Delighted. Right now, as Iíve played my last shot, all I want to do is talk about my rounds but only in a positive light, even finding solace in the speed of my recovery in round two. Duncan buys me a cup of tea. Ten minutes later, everyone has finished. Iíve jumped up to the bronze medal position.
The Kent Open this year was never going to about the result for me but how I arrived at it. Was I satisfied with how I played? 95% of the time, yes. Was I satisfied with the outcome? 100%, yes. The award ceremony was a fun way to round things off and I was very proud to be standing next to Adam and Sean with our prizes. The contrast between today and a fortnight before was huge. Today, I will be going home without the emotional anchor that I have hauled along behind me for a number of tournaments this year. I have much to do still, this is not an overnight process. The first step though felt like sand between my toes. To the friend who took the time to show me another way, I owe you.