5 THINGS I LEARNT FROM A DAY AT #AIGWBO WOBURN

THESE GIRLS ARE GOOD

I am more of a doer than a watcher.

Driving to Woburn on a sun-kissed morning, I confess that part of me wanted to be teeing it up rather than cheering on Georgia and Charley, but all of the best female golfers in the world only visit our shores once a year so I figured this was my solitary chance to see what they are doing that I am not. Yet!

I was simply, surprisedly awe-struck.

From the first soaring shots that I watched fly effortlessly from their flashing blades, I was mesmerised by their finely-honed skills. The connection of sweet spot with ball made a totally different sound to any that I had heard in the monthly medal, the flight paths of their sonic drives seemed endless and, as I peered towards the stratosphere for signs of incoming artillery fire, their approach shots suddenly fell to earth with a light plop before standing to attention by the flag.

I have played the Marquess course myself a couple of times but I was not playing  the same sport as these prowling big cats of the women’s game.

Golf is an unusual spectator sport in that your entrance ticket affords you a view of only a tiny fraction of the arena at any one time. I can understand why many would consider that ‘it is better on tv’. I would now argue that it is simply different on tv. Different and distant.

Standing close enough to touch these untouchable talents and witness their excellence at such close quarters comes with its own mysterious excitement. The reverential silence by which they are surrounded as their galleries gather in close to gaze and wonder at the concentrated intensity of each shot that they carefully consider then execute can only be truly appreciated by being there.

It is a touchable tension broken only by the oohs and aahs that greet each heavenly blow. It’s live theatre. Very good live theatre.

I have not yet quite quantified what I learnt but I know I enjoyed it as a totally different perspective on golf.

MEN LIKE WOMEN

I wasn’t counting but I think there were at least as many if not more men than women walking behind the Woburn ropes on Saturday. They all seemed to like what they saw.

I haven’t stood next to Tiger or Rory when they are unleashing their athletic wrath on an innocent ProV1 but I imagine it is a moment far beyond the outer universe of the average club golfer. The best women players are mind-blowingly good but they do at least inhabit the same planet as the rest of us.

A smooth, measured female tour player’s swing is somehow more achievable, more relatable. Good amateur players of either gender can aspire to swing like Jin Young Ko. They are wasting their time attempting to replicate what DJ or Brooks are doing with their crushing blows.

During the day, I was privileged to interview Dame Laura Davies and she told me that the biggest single thing I could learn from the best was the easy tempo and rhythm of the elegant swings I would see. The Open Championship leaderboard was made up of women of various shapes and sizes, but whether chunky or petite, few of them appeared to be trying to knock the casing off the ball. In the words of a million coaches, they ‘trusted’ their swings.

So, standing directly behind the tee at the 260-yard par 4 12th hole, it was mainly the male onlookers that could readily identify with the players’ dilemma as to whether to try to drive the well-guarded green or not.

I have stood on the same Woburn tee with my own tricky question to answer. Can I find the 160 yards to clear the first water hazard and land my drive on the lay-up island beyond? That was a controlled 6 iron for the pros that opted for safety.

The challenge for most of them was not so much the longer carry over the second pond – Nelly Korda and Ariya Jutanugarn hit fairway woods not drivers – it was an issue of whether they could stop the ball on the shallow bunker-surrounded putting surface.

I stood there for an hour transfixed not only by the purity of successive strikes but also by the decision-making processes, the debate between risk and reward. I could actually hear the discussions between players and caddies. And so could all of the men standing around me.

All were clearly avid golfers, some of them would possess the power and length  to face the same quandaries themselves at such a hole. They could identify and so they could better admire and even learn from the exhibition of quality hitting they were witnessing. They were on the same page as the pros they were watching and so they could take notes for themselves.

A 250-yard carry… Tony Finau would probably have been between a gap wedge and a sand iron or something equally ridiculous. That’s not golf, it’s PlayStation.

Tempo and rhythm. The swing essentials. The headline women players have both.

DAUGHTERS LIKE DADS

The British challenge certainly added to the buzz of this year’s Open.

I can still remember the sheer joy watching from my sofa as Georgia Hall won at Lytham in 2018. She is a gifted sportswoman, a young and dedicated professional athlete that has truly earned her success and she is a modest and respectful role model and ambassador for the sport I love. And she is one of ours.

Like Charley Hull and Bronte Law, she was outside the world’s top 20 when she teed it up at Woburn for her defence. All three did well to sustain a contender’s interest into the final day. They all have plenty of time on their side.

They  all have remarkable dads on their side too.

Wayne Hall, Dave Hull and Tim Law have each played massive roles in encouraging their daughters to harness their sporting potential. Their career stories are ones of entire families adapting to different lives in different places in order to give the three girls the best possible chance to succeed. Missed school lessons and social events. Home learning and ‘away from home’ travel. Special measures to produce special players.

From what I’ve read, the wave of South Korean success in the women’s game is similarly focussed and drive. There are no short cuts in golf.

My evidence is only circumstantial based on what I saw with my own eyes at Woburn but most of the leading players of all nationalities had a predominantly male entourage in tow. At the practice area, they each arrived with three or four accompanying advisors- coaches, caddies, representatives – mainly men.

I spoke to a golf coach called Sarah Walton of Belton Park GC in Lincolnshire who was giving her time to advise and instruct in the Swing Zone at the tournament tented village. She told me that while there are plenty of qualified female PGA coaches, few hold head coach positions. Sarah felt that female teachers were more in tune with female pupils but these relationships are yet to blossom at the top of the game.

Georgia still has either her dad or her boyfriend on her bag. Bronte has the same male coach that first taught her how to hold a club at 7 years old. Trust plays a big part in schooling top young sporting talent. I imagine golf can be a pretty lonely profession on tour. Lonely but lucrative if you hole a few putts.

Who better to cushion or steady you amid its highs and lows than the guy who first got you hooked on the game? Dad.

I repeat, my research is not scientific. But over and over again, the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard and read is that the most common entry point into golf is at the side of a golfing parent.

It’s not specifically a gender thing.  Through my own growing obsession with this addictive game, both of my sons have suddenly become hooked… and better at it than me! They started playing through their mum. I got the bug from my husband. He got it from his dad. There are just more golfing dads than mums, that’s all. But family connections are strong drivers in golf.

There were an encouraging number of youngsters among the crowds at Woburn but the average age of the paying customers I would estimate at 40 plus. We are the generation with the time and the money to play and watch golf. We have stepped off the gym treadmills and onto the fairways. Golf is our exercise, our challenge, our social life, our conversation. It is our gospel to spread.

I keep across the main contemporary golfing social media accounts and influencers but I had not heard or seen a thing about (the catchily-titled!) Women and Girls Golf Week until the eve of the Open. Such institution-led initiatives are welcome enough and #whyigolf has been well supported, but those in positions of power driving the recruitment of new converts to the game must not ignore the most traditional word-of-mouth route for introducing outsiders to the rewards of golf.

If we are looking to the Georgias and Charleys as examples, then we should look at where their empowering careers began. It is golfers that inspire golfers. Dame Laura followed her brother into golf, Sarah Stirk was first taken to a course by an uncle. Enlist the parents and kin to the cause and you have the most effective recruitment drive.

GEORGIA HALL IS NOT FAMOUS

“Which one is Georgia?”

I swear I heard the question asked behind me as the reigning champion walked towards the first green… paired with Ariya Jutanugarn.

Sporting Icon Dame Laura Davies

There was nobody in the entire field that looked less like Britain’s latest golfing MBE than her playing partner but the truth is that Georgia could probably walk down the length of Oxford Street without being asked for a single selfie. Justin Rose wouldn’t get past Marble Arch.

At a tournament, among her own (or most of them) she is a star. Many in the galleries at Woburn talked about her as if they knew her. Our Georgia. Come on Charley. Go Bronte. They are all recognised and revered.

And they all carry themselves like stars. They each have an air, an aura as they stride purposefully to the next tee. Some would run 50 metres faster than others but they all have the look, the poise, the purpose, the confidence of A-list performers in their field. Georgia beat them all last year. She is a major champion. Nobody – certainly not this 16 handicapper – can ever take that away from her.

The atmosphere at Woburn was more Henley than Anfield. There was a reserved and polite vocal appreciation of the players’ excellence. Much as a home win would have pleased the majority, it wasn’t the tribal support of a football crowd. It all had a bit of a garden party feel.

This may not be a popular view but I don’t think Georgia Hall’s wonderful win last year changed very much for women’s golf in the UK, though. More significantly, it is a view shared by BBC Radio’s golf correspondent of more than a decade, Iain Carter. In a wide-ranging interview I did with him at Woburn, he contended that Dame Laura remains the only British female golfer that most people outside the game have heard of.

Iain says golf is “living in an echo chamber”.

Iain Carter at Woburn 3 Aug 19

He is the first to admit that he has a vested interest. Since 2017, live television coverage of the Women’s British Open has moved from the BBC to Sky. It is part of a familiar trend in golf and one in which I cannot take sides.

I spent a hugely enjoyable part of my Woburn Saturday with Sarah Stirk and the Sky operation. Their professionalism and attention to detail is right up there with that of the elite players. This year they have introduced the Sky Cart and the On-the-Range features from their coverage of the men’s game. They provide a feast of golf viewing. Every angle is covered.

What they can’t provide is the same free-to-air exposure or the same viewing figures and reach that the BBC did. It is a simple television fact that less people watch subscription channels. You need a commitment to golf to pay for your golf broadcasting. If you have that commitment, you welcome the expert depth of Sky’s coverage.

You don’t need telling who Georgia Hall is.

As a golfing aficionado, Iain Carter applauds that depth but he questions whether it is simply preaching to the converted. The ‘echo chamber’ he refers to is golf talking to itself and not to those looking in from the outside.

He is particularly proud of the way 5Live dedicates itself to providing four days of dawn to dusk coverage of the men’s Open on network radio each July. The theme of that coverage is a more inclusive approach to portraying the Open not as another golf tournament but as a national sporting event like Wimbledon or Royal Ascot.

Iain is a believer in broadening the appeal of the biggest golfing events beyond the shot trackers and greens-in-regulation stats of Sky’s editorial approach to a more basic layman’s account of proceedings in which the vocabulary and culture of our sport is explained and examined.

As a relative newcomer to golf, I have found it almost as challenging to learn the jargon and the etiquette as I have the swing basics. Golf can make its outsiders feel pretty stupid. Not recognising Georgia Hall at 50 metres range is not a criminal offence last time I looked. Our 5 handicap club champion at my course went to the Test Match at Edgbaston last week but has little or no interest in women’s pro golf. And that’s ok.

Different people find pleasure and fulfilment in golf in different ways. Uplifting examples like Georgia will uplift some golfers more than others. Winners can help the profile of the game but they cannot promote golf’s appeal all by themselves.

GOLF DOESN’T HAVE TO BE COOL

Golf is not a young person’s sport and that’s the way a lot of old golfers like it. Anyone disagreeing?

Much as you and I may like to challenge that extreme and unhelpful view, let’s be honest, a lot of the main barriers to encouraging young blood into our sport are erected by golf and golfers. We like the game the way it is.

Some of us might not like slow play or belly putters or flags left in for putting but our arguments and debates about the finer points are mere detail to our staunch defence of the fundamental codes and good practices of our beloved pastime.

What on earth must we look like to those teenagers that were persuaded to take out their earphones and put away their I-phones for a few hours to come to Woburn last weekend? Where is the appeal in a sport that still insists on jackets and ties at times? And don’t get me started on Men’s Lounges!

 Dame Laura herself told me that she hated the idea of budding young converts to the game being scolded for wearing the wrong clothes. She recalled the dim view that senior members at her first club took to her cleaning up their trophy collection as a hard-hitting teenager. We all talk about moving our game into the 21st century but we are all a little stuck in our ways.

We impose our own idea of standards on others.

As Jutanugarn began her pre-shot routine on the 12th tee, the silence was broken by a single cry of a toddler a few yards away. To a man and woman, the gathered gallery sighed under their collective breath, ‘who would bring a baby…?’

Mercifully, the junior fan was gagged by a sweet or a dummy so that the Thai player could give her 3 wood her undivided attention but, actually, would it have been the end of the world if she or he hadn’t? Is golf too set in its ways to even want to change?

The reality is that a lot of young people that do overcome golf’s resistance to their way of  playing and enjoying sport and find an early entry point then subsequently leave the fold to grow their careers, their marriages, their bank accounts and their families before maybe later returning to the sport. It’s a natural progression, a familiar tale.

The word is that the golfing economy is struggling a little with competition from cycling and a host of other ways to spend disposable income in search of some fresh air. The knee-jerk reaction is to try to modernise and move with the times and make golf ‘cool’.

And golf is pretty cool when Nelly Korda is rewriting the fashion pages in lairy leggings, when Anne van Dam is smashing a drive 300 yards, when Anna Nordqvist and Michelle Wie are raising the skirt hems. I’m sorry but when I paid a visit to the Miss Designer golf pop-up shop in the tented village on Saturday, most of the women queueing for the tills with handfuls of tops and skorts were old enough to be the mothers (or grandmothers) of any of the above.

Like any woman, they want to look good in what they wear but they are not looking to push any style boundaries back. They are golfers, not catwalk models.

There is room in my sphere of activity for young golf influencers to put their slant on the social media profile of the game but if we believe that all Instagram users are under 25 then we really are behind the times. The race to court millennials will produce minimal returns for that golfing economy. Older potential converts to the game are lower hanging fruit. Golf should not be too proud to promote itself on daytime television and in lifestyle magazines if it wants to become a broader church.

Sunday’s eventual champion, Hinako Shibuno, was a very young golfer with delightfully old fashioned virtues. Her sense of fun and joy beamed from her smile, her respect for the game and her peers shone out of every gracious bow. Her politeness didn’t stop her drilling in that winning putt when she needed to or from picking up the £400,000 cheque.

Golf doesn’t come any cooler than that for a 20-year old.

ENDS 6.8.19

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