Friday: I had the day off, which was a welcome break from work. Looking at the weather forecast, I wasn’t overly hopeful for getting much play achieved but still, I went early to beat the traffic anyway. It was now the weekend of the last major on the British Minigolf Association tour, the British Championships at the challenging Strokes course on the north coast of Kent in Margate. In all honesty, I wasn’t hopeful of my chances, despite my recent excellent form. Strokes is the one place I have never cracked, with its lightning fast cloth and selection of holes which can reward you if you get it right but burn the heck out of your card if you’re out by a fraction. It is a brilliant test of putting and a must to visit.
I arrived shortly before 9am to find Martin staring at the course from the road above, as if trying to psyche it out. The feared 11th, Heartbreak Ridge, looked bigger than I could recall. I was just hoping to at least learn more about the course and my temperament for this beast. After walking all the equipment down to the course, it was time to begin. Scott had brought a school outing for double advanced minigolf, much like Jack Black in ‘School Of Rock’. They were enthusiastic and five of them would be competing over the weekend. I wish when I was of school age to have had the chance to go putting like this. There is a photo somewhere of myself and my brother playing an eternit style course at Wellington Country Park back in the early eighties but that’s as far as it went.
As practices go, it was quite revealing from how I previously played it. I changed fifteen different balls from last September and my notes from then were almost pointless. With my new course notes, I just knuckled down, briefly distracted by the smell from the clubhouse of my favourite food on the tour, the sausage and onion baguette. I can’t resist. More people arrive in various states of waterproofing but as the day wears on, it’s overcast and nothing more. We’ve dodged that bullet but the rest of the time here, we’re expecting to get wet. Late afternoon, I’ve had around eight hours on the course and its time to check in at Our Nest Guesthouse. I’m on my own this time after a late withdrawal, which means a complete opposite to our accommodation in Wales. The hosts are immaculate and the location, although not close to the course, is exceptionally quiet. I’ve only stayed in one better hotel for minigolf, in Wroxham.
Scott and John invite me out to a new pub for me to put ourselves through the torture of watching an England football international. Despite taking the lead, the Czech Republic thoroughly deserve the victory but hey, at least the beer was cheap. I get back to my room around 10pm, looking forward to a night of undisturbed sleep as my regular roommate’s snoring won’t be missed, although he was as a person. I finished the night watching a documentary about Dundee United and their journey to the 1987 UEFA Cup final.
Saturday: Incredibly, I slept through until the alarm and put the kettle on. I tentatively opened the curtains expecting a watery outlook, but no, still nothing. I’m sure it will kick in as I hit my opening tee shot. Although they officially don’t make breakfast at the guesthouse, they do leave a groceries trolley in your room, full of cereal, tea, coffee and bread. Since last time, they’ve added a small fridge too. I actually want one. At the course, I set about getting the tournament hut ready before hitting a ball or two in anger. I didn’t want to overcook it, just wanted to test the pace of the cloth. As well as the lack of rain, there is also a real lack of wind too. It’s mid October in Britain, it should be far worse than this.
My playing partners for day one are Brenda, one of the favourites for the hotly contested women’s crown, and Andrew, a former Big Brother contestant who has been one of the most impressive newcomers on the tour for a number of years. As the British number two, I’m the second group off so none of this sitting around malarkey. Strokes is a course that you can break down into three sections. The first six holes is where you can make a charge, you can easily be three under at this point. The middle six holes are where legends are made and cards ripped to shreds. How you play here will determine how much money you hand over to your therapist in the coming weeks. The closing six holes are like a breather in comparison, but still plenty to trip you up. Anything around par and you would have really earned it.
My first round is reasonable until the dreaded ridge, where I fail to get up the slope and then brush the left lip on my second shot before seeing it disappear over the far side. There is no hole like it, apart from maybe the penultimate hole at Peterborough and Sidcup. You breathe a little deeper, your palms become a little sweatier, you avoid eye contact with everyone. I take a six. My first thoughts are to start edging my way back. I’m not helped at the next by having a bounce out for another dropped shot. I shake my head, already at six over, just trying to compose myself. I’m clean the rest of the way for a 42. I reassure myself that I did very little wrong rather than dwell on that blasted hill. Many people will suffer here.
The turnaround between laps of the course is fairly quick, about twenty minutes to recover and look forward to doing it all over again. Round two is an improvement, taking a four at the ridge and a one over round of 37. I’m satisfied with that but my targets for the tournament had shifted to relaxing and seeing where it would lead me. All I wanted to do was just control the course for one round to know that I could play here. I was thirteen shots back from Martin, so any thoughts of being a national champion were gone from my head. Helping me to relax were my playing partners, who were an absolute joy to be around. We were encouraging each other, that helps a lot.
Round three and I’ve put some credit in the bank before the hill. A minor miracle happened, and I left the ball on the hole level, taking a two. I dropped to my knees as if praying to the putting gods. I finished on a 34 and my fight back had begun. I rewarded myself with a sausage and onion baguette, smothered in ketchup. And a jacket potato with cheese and beans. But that’s all, I swear. Whatever was put in the food hit the spot. The last round of the day would turn out to be my best ever at Strokes. Despite a bogey at the third, I hit seven aces in the round, slamming home the last with a guttural roar. I found the course owner, Matt. “I’ve done it,” I exclaimed. “After five years, I’ve finally cracked your bloody course.” Not only had I vastly improved throughout the day, my group had been brilliant to be around. Even the weather was cheering me on, with light drizzle starting a few moments after I made my last putt.
After helping to sort out the running order for day two, I headed back to the room, preparing myself for sumptuous buffet at the Ali Raj curry house. It was a great mix of players and a superb way to wind down from the drama on the course. During the night, Scott started to play songs on his phone by The Shadows. I taught him the system about how you can name The Shadows hit by singing the title over the instrumental. I then went onto demonstrate why I should be first pick on everyone’s music quiz team. Who are The Ward Brothers anyway…
Sunday: Once again, there was rain expected to fall at some point, but I awoke to some hazy sunshine. I took what I could carry from the breakfast cart back to the car for the journey home. My day two partners would be the Planet Hastings pair, Ted and David. I knew I would have some work to do today to keep up my record of finishing in the top six of every strokeplay event this season, which gave me something to aim at. Having jumped out to two under after four holes, Strokes bit back and I fell back to one over three holes later. I missed the ninth for the only time all event and approached the ridge, just wanting to get the job done. I played it perfectly, fist pumping. A level par start.
Today, as yesterday, there was no wind but chilled enough that a few layers of clothing remained on. Rounds six and seven were steady with a pair of 34’s. My delight at my scores was reigned in as the cafeteria had ran out of sausages. I had eaten them out of sausages. Sorry, not sorry, ok? As the final round begun, our luck was over for the rain. For a short time, there was talk of pulling the groups off the course. I took one look across the bay and proclaimed, “that’ll clear in five minutes, I work in farming, I spend all day looking at the weather.” It cleared in five minutes. Smug mode. My final group was with James and Andy, who were both pushing for some silverware.
I exploded from the blocks, reaching four under through nine, dragging Andy along with me. Maybe I wanted it too much but I just couldn’t make anything drop coming home, losing a stroke for a finishing 33 and sixth spot overall. I had exceeded my target and felt as if I had partially conquered my personal Everest. Like reaching the highest base camp. During the closing ceremony, we were reminded why we are one big family. Last year’s senior’s champion was Dave Donnelly, who as many of you know, passed away in June. A new trophy had been created for the super senior’s title and was presented by Dave’s widow, Jean, and son, Will. Holding the microphone, I could feel myself shake a little and looking at the assorted hordes, there were one or two tears. It was a lovely moment for us all to share in.
I drove home, looking forward to not playing for the next three weekends and a rather large pizza.
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