Friday: I’ve been immensely jealous that while I have been working hard in the fields of East Anglia as the post-harvest effort, a number of people have been down in Hastings learning the Pirate Course for the British Open. At least it rained on the Wednesday for them although the picture for the weekend was looking unseasonable warm and calm. I had no pre-conceived ideas about how I would perform as I had only one round there since the British Championships in May 2018. On top of organising as well, I thought a top ten finish would be good at a push.
I was already stirring in bed at 2.50am and staring at the ceiling by 4.10am. I got in the car and headed for the coast. I arrived around 7.30am and was greeted by Paul and Tim who helped unload my car of all the gear. All I kept thinking about was seeing my friends again from around the world, the field for this was incredible. Bengtsson, Seljelid, Vlcek, Hein, Cunha, Smith, Ahlander, Bisesi, Provaznik, Rutherford, Rehfeld, Reed, Homer. All of whom were capable of winning this. My major contribution to the training was discovering a fresh line on the sixth after the usual shot let me down. “Here, Gunnar. Look at this,” I said to the reigning WAGM champion. “Hmmm, I like it,” he replied. Gunnar proceeded to make it a couple of times and from there, a new line was born. I’ve never had a shot named after me before, like those kids in Deep Impact when they get the asteroid named after them.
Early afternoon saw the Players Championships, with the format of strokeplay in round one, the top eight qualifying for a matchplay semi-final and a strokeplay final. With nearly twenty for the international event, it nearly matched the British contingent. I started off with a 31, steady but unspectacular to set up a knockout against Martin Greenhead. We had previous in this event with an epic battle in Margate. Martin had raced into a four-hole lead before I won five in a row. I then lost at the last. This time was less dramatic with Martin taking an early lead. He made shots when he needed to and my round was summed up at the third last hole when my ace bound shot hit the back of the cup and bounced to a place that I had never ended up in. I was out again.
I eventually left the course around 6pm with Ed to check into Chez Millifont, the only place in town that could match our cash outflow. After food, it was a trip up the Queens Road to try out a couple of new pubs we had been told about. One great, one not so. From there, we moved onto our new favourite from after the World Crazies called 1200 Postcards and were joined by a number of others. We had to wait up as Pauli had been walking in from a couple of miles away. Cracking fun. We left Will in a kebab shop somewhere and then headed for the room. The early start hadn’t yet caught up with me and I’m not a youngster anymore.
Saturday: For once, I was up with the alarm. That’s a pretty good sign. A shower for a freshen up, a trip to Jempson’s for a sausage roll and to set up the tournament before a knocking a few shots around, what could be simpler. Except it wasn’t. I had around two hours, of which only twenty minutes was spent on the course. I couldn’t get the internet link to work for Bangolf, which was proving an almighty frustration. When I did get to practice, all I could think about was this issue. If something doesn’t work, then I’ve not happy. It bugs me. Practice was over. The sun was beating down, the conditions were calm, mid September in Hastings was unusually glorious.
I was the second group so no time to mill about. My partner for the day was Vaclav Svarc from the Czech Republic, who has become a great friend over the years. Even if I shot badly, I knew the company would be great at least. From the outset, I was tense and couldn’t judge the pace. Although I made some aces, I was dropping far too many shots on the Pirate course. “This is not the Steve I know,” said Vaclav, as I walked off the 15th following another piece of carelessness. He was right. I recovered to a 35, which is borderline disastrous. Thoughts of just playing to be a part of the event rather than being the challenger did enter my mind. Did I honestly believe I could haul back the deficit I had given myself to a field that good? At that moment, not particularly. I went back to trying to fix the internet.
Starting round two, I thought to just play minigolf and felt better. Four under through five and I felt I was now playing as the British number two. Questions had been asked about the course, with a few of the lanes having new felt laid, if the scores of seasons past could be achieved still. I just kept going and the aces kept coming. By the end of the round, I had a 26 and the lowest score on day one. I had halved the deficit and went in search of food. In the hut, the temperature was comfortable but, on the course, it was sizzling. I had nearly a full bottle of sun tan lotion, making me become rather popular. My other two rounds were fairly unspectacular, a 31 feels like a par and probably what I deserved having not made inroads over the first half of the round. The end of day one, I stood joint eighth. Far better than I thought I would be at the start of the day.
As we were setting up for day two, I overheard someone blame me for the internet issues. I’ve been told to ignore comments but no. I will not be the fall guy so I let rip. I make no apologies. I work hard to try and make things right and the best experience for everyone. I will not stand for throwaway comments from people who do nothing but complain. I left the course seething, wondering if being at a minigolf event to run them was truly what I wanted. The incident has hardened my resolve against the undercurrent of the minority who don’t appreciate us. Will I react like that again? I don’t doubt it. I will not be a pushover and those people need to understand that we are in this for all the right reasons. After a shower, I fancied a change of scenery. I suggested to Ed that we pick up a Subway and head to the beach. It was still warm and with Ed’s phone to pick up the football, it was a relaxing way to end a stressful day. In six years, despite the course being fifty yards from the beach, I’d never really been on it. Maybe next year, I’ll go and found the beach where David Bowie filmed Ashes To Ashes, which is just a few miles away. A walk through the Old Town area, we came across a few minigolfers in various states of sobriety. It was another classic night out at a major tournament.
Sunday: I found myself awake fairly early, looking at the leaderboard. Some of the bigger names hadn’t quite performed to expectation on the Saturday and as great as they are, many had putted themselves out of contention. Today, I was in a group with Will Donnelly and Johan Ahlander, who had somehow managed to break his toe. Johan was a previous British Open runner up and Will has been a big time major player in the past few seasons. I was just nine shots back, which sounds a lot, but not bad compared to having been eight back after one horrendous round. I made a poor start, dropping a shot at the second, but from there, I found my game. I fought back to record a 28. I pretty much needed it. The lead group had been spectacular. Michael with a 29, Eirik with a 26, Karsten tied the course record with a 24. An already incredible standard was now the normal.
Round six was the one the kind of got away. I reached four under through nine and the homecoming half are the lanes where you do pick up the about the same. Two aces isn’t good enough. Not often you walk off the course with a 30 and feel you could have done more, well, apart from Kungalvs. I still felt in my heart that I was too far outside the top five to cash. I think this helped, not being in true contention, even though I had climbed from my overnight position. The penultimate affair was the one where I could dare to dream. I made the first four for the first time since my final round in Dublin, 2017. The couple who were watching my group, I encouraged to stick around for a while. Although I dropped one at the seventh, I did what I had to do coming back and bagged a 28. All of a sudden, I was fourth. My previous best effort at the British Open was tenth.
I gritted my teeth and had belief. With the groups being reordered and myself having an extended break, I had a chance to grab some food and ten minutes away from the course. The last two days had felt like the Truman Show, trying to sail the edge of the studio. For a short time, it was nice just to take it all in. As I introduced the players for one final time, the players who had their own hopes for the week were conducting their own post-mortems. I was one back from Nuno in third, who I set my sights on. Karsten and Milan were now in my group, two top putters that I get on well with. I was steady enough, just picking up the second in the first seven holes. Then things went a little crazy. I played the last eleven holes in only fourteen shots. This was the best I had ever played. A 27 to close out. I was now joint second. I was going home with something.
As I announced the first playoff between Milan and Frank, the questions that I had regarding I belonged in this company that have been rattling around my head for a few years were being answered. Eirik Seljelid of Sweden, Nuno Cunha of Portugal and me. Deep down, I know these guys are more talented than me and have been for years. Today, we stood as equals. Maybe now is the time that I should believe in myself more often than I do. Although Eirik made a classy ace at the first to secure second, I still wanted a spot on the podium. When Nuno rolled in the one on the second, I jokingly mocked kicking the ball in. I stroked it in instead. We both made the third and this was turning into a playoff for the ages. Nuno was too firm on the fourth and with his ball up against the rough, he could only lip out. I didn’t want the same fate and knowing a two would do, I left it just over two feet short. Without hesitation, I struck my final putt and dropped to my haunches. I was third.
On the way home, through the traffic around M25, I struggled with my emotions. I hadn’t switched off since Friday and I just let it all out. I never thought I would cry as hard as I had done following my performance at the WAGM in 2015 but this matched it. I don’t know what the passengers in the other vehicles thought but mum always said I was the emotional one. And she was right. The weekend had been a rollercoaster. From the lows of Saturday afternoon to the elation of a day later. I think I will look back on the British Open of 2019 in years to come as something quite pivotal, from the organisational side to my putting efforts.
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