Saturday September 5th: Even though minigolf in competition form had been back a matter of weeks, with my insatiable appetite for playing was starting to stretch, so much so as to feeling this was an onslaught. It had only been six days since I won my own club open and I hadn’t had a chance to wind down with work becoming a way of life. Farming at this time of year is hectic. For the first time in almost six years, I seriously considered sitting one out. I just can’t let others down.
The Midlands Open was going to be a late afternoon at Dorridge, around a ninety minute drive for me. With the course not willing to let us have an extended closed off practice, many of the participants chose to book a time slot to at least get some warm-up. I booked myself in for the 1630 slot, although I probably should have just walked on the course and found a spot, like a few had done. I completely get why a course would want to control numbers during the time of Covid-19, who wouldn’t understand. I almost felt cheated to see others who couldn’t wait taking a few precious putts. My practice group was Matt, James S and John with the first two having never played here.
Dorridge has been one of the longest running partners of the British Minigolf Association. A fantastic complex with ideal facilities. The old course had been torn up over the summer and you can still see the outline, like chalk around a victim. It had been a classic and is hard to see it gone. However the new course, in the two previous events we have played plus today, is turning into one of my favourites. I like to look at a hole and see more than one way to play a shot. It is unique and although I pine for the old track, this will ease the pain.
Due to Covid-19, we are grouped in pairs and ideally, in a bubble. Where that can’t be done, your partner will be someone of equal ability and mine is one of the most decorated in the game. Making his return after three years out, Chris Harding, the three-time World Crazy Golf Champion, was going to be my playing partner. In simple terms, when coaching minigolf, I would say just watch Chris for an hour and that will set you up for the years ahead. Not only one of the best but an absolute decent human being. To be considered for the day as an equal to Chris is testament to how far I had progressed since.
Michael blew the whistle to call an end to practice shortly after 1800 and we were straight into the action. We got underway at the 10th, a deceptively tricky uphill putt which we would both par. From there, we dug into the round playing a game of match it. We were driving each on and, with all due respects, the relatively tame course record of 32 was going to go. We both aced the seventh to go five under par. I got in trouble on the ninth, our last but got some luck out of the pipe to end with 31. We were tied in the lead, one clear of Andy. The word quickly spread about our exploits. “How did you do that?” exclaimed Michael. In all honesty, myself and Chris were surprised it was only five under. Anyway, it was now in the book.
Straight into the second round, we both make a steady start, again dragging each other along. I had been working on something a little different on the thirteenth, a firm shot with a low bounce ball above the hole and let the course do the rest. It rolled into the centre of the cup. “I’ve got to learn that,” said Chris. On an adjoining hole, Stephen had seen it too and was really raving about it. By the fourth, I had got to nine under for the tournament and at this point, despite not being able to shake off my playing partner, this was the best I had played in a year. If I could just pause time and have that moment of pure invincibility, I would have told myself to breathe and drink it in. From there on, I flattered to deceive, dropping my first shots of the tournament to finishing on six under, two back from Chris but one clear of Michael.
After a short break and with the daylight fading fast, we have to pick which hole to start at. The tenth is already taken but the penultimate hole was free. My tee shot is woefully short, leaving around fifteen feet. I’m in the realms of guesswork now. Let’s got inside right. It held a line and I made par. Chris hit a hole in one and immediately, I was three back. This was going to be almost impossible to recover. I made the third but I was started to get agitated by the lack of natural light and the reticence to put the floodlights on. “They are going to put them on, aren’t they?” Chris said. “I’m sure someone will mention it,” I replied. Nothing came. We were about as far away from the clubhouse as you could be. I got increasingly agitated as I could no longer see the lines in the felt I used to aim my ball and near the end of the round, I could hardly see the ball at all. Chris was going to be a deserved winner, I had just lost the will to have any kind of interest and was dropping shots as if I was kicking it round. I went out with a whimper to end on two under, level with James H in fourth. We had a playoff with the lights on and after two near misses, I had a chance at the third to win after James took a three. I hadn’t missed the hole all day, just play it to the left of the rock and you win. Of course, I chose now to hit the rock and match James. By the fifth, I found the only bit of surface that wouldn’t propel my ball into the crater and I lost half a tank of petrol.
Afterwards, there was no ceremony and the players were left to pick the prizes up from the floor. All that mattered to me now was to make last orders in my local pub. I was dismayed to see the matrix signs saying my route home was closed but relieved that I got through the closure with two minutes to spare. I would have that beer and a good night of sleep. My love of the Dorridge course had gone up, despite my faux pas in the final lap. Potentially, this has the ability to host a major event here. Stick it by the seaside and it would have done by now. Next up, the British Open.
Friday September 18th: We had made it to our first major event of the year, the British Open, which is the longest running British event dating back to 1998. With 2020 being what it was, the first choice of Hastings Adventure Golf had cancelled hosting so for Dunton Hills to step in and host was a relief. Because it was that or nothing at all. Corona had put my plans in mild chaos a few days before as Ed had to pull out, so I had to weigh up the benefits of driving down and back three times or trying to find accommodation. Five minutes later, Airbnb had come up trumps although if you read on, I wished they hadn’t.
The abysmal weather from five weeks earlier for the pairs weekend had been replaced by bright sunshine and a brisk wind. Normally, on the day before the British Open, there is a buzz that only a major can give you. It feels like something very important is about to happen. With the field already reduced to the world situation and a number of homegrown players not keen on the course, we had less than half the competitors from a year ago. For the practice day, only thirteen putters showed up to size up Essex’s green monster. Dunton Hills had also shut its great kitchen a couple of years ago so the selection of snacks and drinks looked like a student’s fridge.
I left around 4pm to make my way to the village of Ingatestone for what I believed would be a homely castle. Sadly, the host wasn’t expecting anyone, despite the fact I had email confirmation of my booking. I managed to get in the house as my host made some form of effort to tidy the room. I jokingly said that I’m only here for a place to put my head down at the end of the night but judging by this, sleeping in my car was looking promising. I tried the bed out, springs were piercing the mattress. The shower was far superior. The battle was now on to find a pub locally for a meal and the village had three of them. The first one was fully booked but the Prince Of Wales had some room, beer and a homemade curry. Whereas Hastings or Margate would be an appealing window to the world of the tapestry of life, Ingatestone was a sleepy commuter belt district that reminded me of where I actually live, expect this had a train line. I knew this as my room was around sixty yards away. I went home early for the night.
Saturday September 19th: Tournament day. I had been awake from around 5am, not due to anticipation but that my back couldn’t take the springs anymore. Everything about the week had thrown me off and this was most evident when I arrived at the course unable to find my putt maps. I assumed that they were back at the room, which would be a 35 minutes round trip. They weren’t. They were in the back of my car. I only discovered this once I got back and found them tucked away in a bag in the boot of my car. I have less than an hour but I am now thankful for taking the day off. The tournament had been organised into particular bubbles of groups of six, which meant that you would be sectioned off with a maximum of four others all weekend. For the first four rounds, I would be with Chris and James.
My plan was to cut out the errors which nearly ended my run of consecutive top ten finishes on the tour which had dated back to nearly two years. You simply can not rock up and play Dunton Hills, too much happens between the clubhead and the cup. As the lead group went out, the word got out that Michael had aced his opening tee shot. We were already playing for second. You are going to drop shots here, so much so that I would say the par would be 48. The trick is to strings pars together and limit the damage where possible. “We’re cheering getting twos,” said Scott as we passed on nearby holes. That’s what the course makes you feel.
The general consensus from my playing partners was they felt that I was unlucky for not making a hole in one for the entire day. In short, I was steadily consistent. James hit an incredible amount of aces but backed them up with the odd four or five. Chris built up to his final round of the day, the rarest of those sub 40 rounds. The felt dried up and the wind had changed a number of players tactics on how to play here. I had gone for the heavier set of minigolf balls to counteract the conditions, much like playing the Planet Hastings event in winter. I ended the day in fifth spot, which I wasn’t complaining at. I reckon that I only hit three bad shots all day. Maximum.
Contemplating another quiet night, somewhere near the cattle grids, Simon messaged and asked if I wanted to join them. A quick scope of the internet took us into deepest Essex and Billericay, which is proper Range Rover country. On the drive in, I passed a Wetherspoons pub. The amount of people in it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, with no attempt at any kind of social spacing. Thankfully, the Coach And Horses was different. I met up with Simon, Matt and Seve, who wanted to find a local minigolf course for a late night round. I didn’t. I’m starting to feel my age nowadays and all day in the stiff breeze complete with a touch of sunburn to my calf muscles. It was a good night out, I’m very appreciative for the offer for company. I drove back to borstal to wonder what was one rung up the ladder of comfort from my bad. Gravel and broken glass were about right.
Sunday September 20th: Once more into the breach, my friends. The battle to survive Dunton Hills without the need for counselling had now reached day three for me. As mad as this sounds, my aim for the day was to get a hole in one. How many times do you walk up to a minigolf course and just ask for an ace for satisfaction for the weekend? It is ridiculous to even think like this but here we are. I had made the top three in my bubble so I would get to witness the top end tussle for the title, with Michael and Will, who were in first and third respectively overnight. I start well with my best round of the weekend, with a 42, doing the rarity of beating Michael in a round.
My frustration of still not getting an ace started to really grate on me and that boiled over in the second round of the day. Far too many threes while watching my opponents pull away effortlessly, I simply had lost the will to be here anymore. I shut myself in the car, feeling the agitation of the situation. Although I came out for the final round to finish strongly in sixth, I hadn’t enjoyed the experience. I left quickly following my final putt. This day marked two years since my last phone call with mum and I just wanted to be alone.
As much as we want to play minigolf, 2020 has provided a different set of challenges that now seem almost a part of the regular way of life. The people of the British Minigolf Association should take a lot of credit for doing so well in view of the restrictions, limitations and adaptions the world has thrown at us. We have held our national open for the year but for me, it never had that feel of the premier event. An effort had been made to make the course in a good condition, but it doesn’t escape the fact that it isn’t suitable for a tournament of this magnitude. The borders are falling apart and jagged, lacking a reliability and fairness to all competitors. The thing is, if Dunton Hills invested in proper kerbing for borders and a touch of tender loving care, it would be an exceptional place to go minigolfing. You need to play courses that test the way you putt and not submit yourselves to straightputts,com. 2020 had forced the association to show its hand and the hope going forward that the regular hosts for the British Open will continue to support it or that a suitable alternate can be found. Its taken a while to build up the overseas contingent and the numbers we had in 2019 were outstanding. Once the ship steadies itself in the choppy seas, we will have to see if we have left the storm or are just entering the eye of it.
The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the writer and do not represent the World Minigolf Sport Federation (WMF), Minigolfnews.com or any other organization that the writer may be associated with unless expressly stated in the blog.