Friday: “I’m off to Scotland for a few days shooting, take a day off Friday, if you like,” the boss said to me, a couple of days before. Yes, I thought. This is going to work out very well. With the farming world I work in decimated by a continued spell of fairly terrible weather, I had the chance to make a proper weekend of it. A quick look at the internet and I grabbed myself a deal for a room. I was going to get three days on a leisure park. The tenth Star City Open was upon us.
Star City in Birmingham had made the news six days earlier after violence broke out in the foyer of the cinema. Expecting to see a war zone and armed guards everywhere when I arrive in the morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find it almost deserted, except for myself and the three-time World Crazy Golf Champion, Chris Harding, who also had the day off. Chris was a previous winner at the course so I had the chance to really know Star City in the company of the man with the best putting stroke I’d seen on tour. With it being term time, it was exceptionally quiet so we barely bumped into any members of the public. It was absolutely ideal.
For the first time in weeks, the sun was out, which made for crisp conditions for those outdoors. However, in Star City, the heaters are employed so it is shirt and shorts attire. When the sun crashes through the windows, we’re at Defcon Sauna. After three hours or so of doing nothing but learning, it was time to put that into some rounds. I normally refuse but there is a chance to see my progress against some I admire at minigolf. Best of five rounds. Although it was fun, there was a level of intensity too. Putts felt important. A few hours later and with the scores tied at two rounds each, it came down to the final hole. I made my two, Chris uncharacteristically pushed his tricky second to the right. A narrow victory.
As way of revenge, I gave Chris a lift, which meant driving past Aston Villa’s ground, who had recently beaten my beloved Brighton. We made plans for the night and I checked into my room, which only cost me £19 for the night. Not quite Simon Brown levels of cheapness but I had done well. Twin room, bed was comfortable. Huge shared bathroom. Even bigger shared lounge. There was only one other guest staying. Even better than Dublin, when I had an eight berth room to myself for two nights. I decided to take in the delights of Great Barr, just north of junction of the M6. Chip shop wasn’t amazing but the beer in the pub was at least wet. Chris joined me and we chatted about minigolf seasons past and family life. Chris is a rare visitor to the tour nowadays and with work commitments wouldn’t in taking part in the event, but certainly always welcome. My day off had been a good one.
Saturday: Up early at the guesthouse and their promise of breakfast came true, in the form of supermarket own brand cereal and toast, washed down with a pot of tea. Whatever happens in the next couple of days, I’d already sourced future accommodation. I crawled out of the road I was parked in as it was iced over. Star City had kindly given us four hours of exclusive practice time, so roughly the time it had taken me to whittle down my ball choices from yesterday. There was a buzz amongst those arriving at the course. Although it was the last event of the year, nearly all of the calendar was ready for 2020. People were positive about the future. We’ve had higher numbers than in previous years on the whole. Plenty of new members, which has reinvigorated the more experienced.
I started trying some trick shots to break up the occasional monotony of practice. I would try to ace facing away from the cup, with some surprisingly good result. This including a first-time effort on the difficult 12th, to which Martyn exclaimed “oh, %^*& off!!!” Second best shot of the year, after Helen Dodd at the British Championships. Noticing I was just killing time, Ruth challenged me to a couple of rounds of matchplay. I agreed. I know I’ve improved this year, but I dominated here. Even when Ruth hit a good second round, I responded with a 26. If that was in the tournament, that would have been the course record. “No need to practice anymore if I’m going to do that,” I said, picking the ball out of the final hole. From there, I went to the Harvester, where I formed Sussex Wasps back in January 2014. The waiter even took me to the very table too.
My plans for the evening were radically different to what was initially planned. Due to a double booking, although I was staying at Ed’s for the night, he was out for the night sampling cocktails and on the roulette tables. We caught up for a few hours before he hit the town, before I settled down with brie and tomato rolls for the football and a documentary on spree killings. I don’t know what time I passed out on the sofa but it was early enough that I didn’t hear the family Pope arrive, sometime in the early hours.
Sunday: I slept rather well, all things considered, although maybe with age, my sofa days could be nearing an end. The next event I play after today will be as a senior. I’m trying to let that sink in. I text Ed to see if he was awake and he was. We lifted our spirits with a touch of Kisstory on the radio, which mildly took Ed’s mind off an ever so slight hangover. We waited outside the course for the manager, Maj, to arrive. I was grateful to everyone who helped unload my car and walk it all up the stairs. I assembled the equipment and gave myself around half an hour to get up to speed on the felt. If I played the way I had been playing, I honestly believed I could do this today. Today might finally be the day I beat Michael and win a competition. I had more wins in five weeks than Manchester United did in the Premier League.
My playing partners for the first two rounds were Simon and Rob, who I had shown a few shots to on Saturday morning. We start at the straightforward 15th, which I just brush the right side of the cup. Simon jumps out quickly with two quick aces. I had to wait until the third hole for my first ace. By the time the tenth hole was complete, I was six under, which included a dropped shot in that run on the eighth. There, I had managed to clip one of the orbs in the ground. If I had been a couple of centimetres to the right, I would have had eight aces in a row. This day off I had on Friday was reaping the dividends. A 29 placed me second. Behind you know who.
Round two required me to earn a few aces. They weren’t hard to come by in the end. I just had to remain patient. I finally achieved a 30. A couple of years ago, that would probably been a 35. I think I’ve learned to control that side of my game. Rob had been a pleasure to play with, he was unlucky not to break 40 in both rounds. Simon had been on good form, apart from one stretch. He makes an incredible amount of holes in one and at some stage very soon, it will all come together for him. After the round, I served up a range of my homemade chutneys with poppadoms. It’s something I took up after mum died to pass the time and they’ve turned out to be rather good. Maybe better than that. All the taster pots were emptied, and I sold out of caramelised red onion. The plan for my retirement grows stronger.
The final round of the year saw myself two back from Michael but two in front of Mark. In past tournaments at Star City, Michael, a six-time winner here, would be already galloping over the horizon. Although Michael is still the yardstick we aspire to reach, we are slowly reaching it. Mark was the first to start making an impact and started hauling us both back making four in a row from the eighth. His burst raised my game too, picking up three in that spell. Like the champion he is, Michael would respond, shutting the door when the shaft of hope appeared.
The first to crack was Mark on the 12th as he overhit his tee shot, leaving the ball down the far slope. His tee shot on the next looked nervous, I just hoped he could relax enough to keep a position on the leader board. I pretty much secured second place by the 15th but was four back. By the end, I had halved the deficit and my final shot of the year was an ace. Michael had proved a bridge too far once again, but I know I can stay the pace now. Mark clung onto third, beating an incredible effort by Andrew in a playoff. The medal ceremony was a celebration of the tour in general. As well as the medallists on the day, the season long category prizes were handed out to Shelley, Andrew and Seve and an honorary membership was presented to Marion. We packed up and I treated Ed to a Subway. Everything was good in my world. I won enough that I could put fuel in my car to get home, the reality of being successful at a sport with no funding. Thank you to everyone I’ve met this season. Too many memories to store away.
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