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'Immortal Dreams' Published novel part 8 of 10
‘A journey along a path to a dream can be a lonely one.’
That horrifying episode with Sunny emphasised to me just how alone we all are. Sure it’s great when we can help each other out but essentially in the way we are all unique, we are all alone. Everybody only has the right to rely on one person and that’s them self. If you ever feel like someone cares as much about you as you do yourself, then you better make sure you realise just how lucky you are.
The Wednesday and Thursday of the week before the US Open I used as practice days without going out on the course. Wanting to groove in the rhythm of my swing, and work on the touch around the greens that I knew was going to be extremely tested during the US Open. Sunny had the day off on Wednesday but her head was clear from Thursday onwards. Wendell arrived in the area on Friday and we played practice rounds together over the next four days. Usually on practice rounds players are as relaxed as a Jamaican on a bank holiday and not really focussed on keeping score, more concerned with learning about the course. However my early work had left me feeling I knew the course as well as I was ever going to, so I decided to play each of the four rounds as if it was a competition round, playing one ball with no extra practice shots. For the record my scores were 74, 71, 72 and 70. Repeating those scores in the tournament would get me a top twenty finish and comfortably my biggest ever cheque. Yet I was perfectly aware that the USGA would have the greens faster and the flags tucked away in tougher positions when the play got underway for real, but those four rounds still did a great deal for my optimism. I’d played as if on cruise control and felt like there was definitely something better to come when the adrenalin of the competition was added to the mix.
Dress codes in general do amuse me. Golf obviously brings about many examples of acceptable or unacceptable dress codes. I do find it difficult to understand why some body dressed in, for example, black jeans, shoes and socks and a well fitted dark blue round neck t-shirt would be deemed unacceptably dressed to play golf or even be at virtually every golf club I’ve ever been to. Especially when in the same establishment some guy wearing pink trousers, white socks, black shoes and a yellow t-shirt with the collar all uneven, a packet of fags bulging out of his top pocket and the fabric of the t-shirt barely stretching around his beer gut, would be deemed suitably dressed. In a society that is always preaching that it’s what on the inside that counts and that how good looking somebody is shouldn’t be an issue, I find it extremely hypocritical to be so concerned with what clothes people wear. To me it is just as superficial to judge someone on their clothes as it is on their actual physical appearance. The fact that night clubs have dress codes is so far beyond my comprehension it is funny. A man can come in, act like a drunken idiot, be rude and offensive to people all night but as long as they are wearing a shirt that’s all right. Heaven forbid they should wear trainers. Also the difference between what men can wear and what women can wear is astronomical. Girls can come in the shortest skirts and a vest top and will be positively welcomed, whereas if I pitch up to the same place in a pair of shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt there’s no chance of me getting in. The most amusing example for me is at a boxing match. Men get dressed up in tuxedos to essentially watch two blokes having a fight. Don’t even get me started on wearing my cap with the peak at the back.
Throughout my existence as a professional golfer I had tried to take the expectations off me. I liked to call it coming in “under the radar”. Theorising that by lowering the expectations I would stay relaxed and therefore give myself a good chance of performing well. So far it had worked out, certainly in terms of keeping myself relaxed and not getting too upset. Controlling expectations is another way of expressing “goal setting”. One aspect of successful goal setting is for those goals to be realistic, that word still sticks in my throat but used in the right way I can still make a use of it. Expectations should match your abilities, as I prepared for that US Open I had a strong urge to raise my expectations. I felt like I was better than a mini-tour player, who just wanted a chance to play on the main tour, I honestly felt like I could compete with the most elite of players. Quite where this confidence came from I don’t know, but it wasn’t just a brief moment or two, it was a consistent thought in my head. For a while I thought about resisting these thoughts and continuing with my under the radar act. Then one night when I couldn’t get to sleep it occurred to me that these thoughts were the sort I’d wanted since I could remember and trying to ignore them couldn’t be a good thing. Instead I decided to go full out with new high expectations and set my sights on the ultimate goal, winning the US Open, feeling that these expectations, especially if I made them public, would stop me from shying away from the spotlight and settling for a “decent performance”. It was time to see if I could make a step up and whether I’d feel comfortable up there or whether I’d get vertigo.
On the Tuesday, a couple of days before the tournament started, I began to wind down my practicing in my time honoured fashion when building up to a big event, spending around a couple of hours practicing, without going onto the course itself. Wendell played another practice round on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I had seen all I wanted to. Under the ever watchful eye of Sunny all the technical aspects of my game seemed to be functioning at somewhere near their potential. In the afternoon I phoned Will, who was in his house about to watch a film with some of the other lads from our university days. I told him I was playing in the US Open and to look out for me on Sky Sports. Also mentioned my high confidence and even went as far as to suggest to him to put some money on me.
‘You should get at least 200-1 if you shop around, maybe as long as 1000-1. They won’t have heard of me.’
‘You won’t take it as a lack of belief if I go each-way.’
‘Not at all, you’ve virtually got to at those odds.’
‘Tell the other lads to jump on if they want.’
Will relayed my comments. ‘They’re saying they’d rather buy some lottery tickets, they prefer those odds.’
‘Still as joyously critical as ever then.’
I also phoned my Mum and Dad, now truly settled into their retirement in Spain, and my Dad said he’d already phoned somebody back in England to tell them to put a tenner each way on me. Blind faith of parents didn’t really add to my confidence, but it was definitely fantastic to have their belief with me. Anya and Darla said they’d be watching back in California, Anya didn’t like the idea of gambling and said that no amount of money could make her any happier if I won anyway whilst Darla had plenty of money already. The high rollers in Las Vegas had me at 500-1, Sunny and I felt that was far too insulting to let slide, so we opened a phone account and between us put $250 each way on myself.
Even though it was only within my limited circle of friends and family, the talking up of my chances had served to sharpen my focus even higher than it had been. Honestly felt that I could go into this tournament with the mantra of “wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could win”. Wendell just seemed to be happy to be there and was taking in everything about his first visit to the US Open. Maybe his laid back approach would turn out to be the better one, but I had to let my confident feelings ride. I’d done masses of research about the course itself, I had my strategy precisely worked out and I was happy with every technical aspect of my game. Whilst accepting there were plenty of players in the field with more talent than me, I knew nobody would have prepared better than me. If I couldn’t be confident at this point, I may as well never bother teeing it up again. Derision from weaker souls back home wasn’t going to come near to putting me off. If I failed spectacularly, I knew they would be quick to remind me of my pre-tournament confidence, but I also knew that any success would lead to me doing the reminding, and that would be so much fun.
On the Wednesday I didn’t quite have the day completely off from golf. This time I practiced putting for an hour our so, the practice putting green had been cut so it matched the greens on the course and I wanted to get to grips with the pace of the greens. After that putting in the morning I spent the rest of the day relaxing with Sunny. We went to see a couple of films at a cinema and then had a fun meal out with Wendell. I had been drawn to play with another couple of qualifiers and we were in the penultimate group on the first day, teeing off just after three o’clock in the afternoon. Therefore an early night wasn’t a pressing concern, especially with knowing that I probably wouldn’t sleep too well the night before playing in the US Open. As it turned out Sunny and I stayed up until the early hours of the morning, going over the notes we made on the course with plenty of trivial conversation thrown in.
Ever go to bed at night when you can’t wait to get up in the morning? Like a kid on Christmas Eve. The night before any round in a Major Championship, I could times however much of that feeling I’d had before by a million. This really is what it is all about.
‘Greatness is nothing to fear, mortal souls can accomplish great feats.’
Once I got to sleep I did actually get a good nine hours or so. A late tee off time always leaves the question of what to do before you play. I didn’t want to get to the course too early and either practice so much I got stale or end up just waiting around with nothing to do. In the end Sunny and I decided to drive to a nearby grass field and kick a football around for a little while. This was perfect for giving me something to take my mind off the golf, but still being completely stress free. Sunny wasn’t the most gifted of football players of the association variety, but I’d got her playing a little bit over the previous year or so. She enjoyed kicking that sphere around and was competent enough to kick it a decent distance with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Even though I didn’t exert myself too much the temperature was such that I still worked up a sweat, by half past noon it was a perfect time to get something to eat then get down to the golf club, so that I had time to have a shower there before starting my warm up routine. Wendell was one of the early starters, he finished his round over three hours before mine would start. I saw him in the clubhouse having something to eat. He described his round as the most enjoyable 78 of his life.
The walk from the locker room to the practice ground is through an avenue of the paying public. Hip high mental railings form a walkway for the players so that they can get to the practice ground without having to barge through any crowds. People hang around this area to catch a close up glimpse of the stars and hope to get an autograph or two. I got about four paces down the avenue before some boy, around ten years old, asked for my autograph.
‘Without looking at my caddies bib can you tell me my name?’ I asked in my light hearted manner which is sometimes misinterpreted as mildly aggressive.
The boy looked a little scared and merely shook his head.
‘I’m only kidding mate, of course you can have an autograph. What’s your name?’
In that wonderful way that kids can have, he lost all his fears and totally changed his judgement of me and happily said, ‘Aaron.’
I wrote “Thanks for asking Aaron” then signed my name.
‘Nobody else want an autograph?’ I said loudly enough for most of the people on either side to hear me. This brought a couple of smiles from the crowd, but mostly they were a little unsure of me and didn’t know where to look.
‘Come Sunday you’ll be sorry, you’ll all be sorry.’ I went into overacting mode and pointed all around me at the crowd who now realised I was only having a bit of fun.
As I set off for the practice ground I heard another boy ask his Mum who I was.
‘I’m not sure honey, some young Australian professional I guess.’
‘Whoah, whoah, whoah. I’m not Australian, I’m English. Why do people think I’m Australian?’ I turned and stared down at my accuser but smiled in a way to make sure she knew I was joking.
‘Perhaps its cause you like barbecues,’ Sunny began her suggestion for and explanation. ‘Are good at cricket and rugby league, dress scruffily whenever you can, swear a lot, call everybody mate and your accent doesn’t sound terribly English to us Americans.’
‘Good enough.’ Off I went to the practice ground.
Immaculate grass to hit off and precisely laid piles of balls. Must admit the slightest moment of star gazing as I noticed one or two of the other players on the range, but I quickly got my mind back to focussing on myself. Approximately a thousand people were around, either sitting or standing watching the players hit balls on the range. As always I started my warm up routine hitting a few sand wedges. That first shot on the range came with a jelly like feeling in the legs, all of a sudden I didn’t even feel completely confident in my ability to make contact with the ball at all. Made a movement that just about passed for a golf swing, caught the ground a little before the ball and sent it high and straight, but not quite the usual distance for my sand wedge. Promised myself that would be the last time I’d hit golf shot with negative thoughts dominating my mind. Loosened my shoulders, pushed them back, focussed on my target then hit the next one just perfect. I was off and running, well and truly ready to play in the US Open. Stayed on the driving range area for around twenty five minutes, hitting forty or fifty balls, finishing off with a few wedge shots between 60 and 120 yards to check my distance control. Moved onto the chipping and bunker practice area, that slow rhythm I craved for on the touch shots was there without any conscious effort. On the putting green the ball was rolling as well as possible. All in all I went to the first tee in as positive a mood as I have ever done.
The first hole was just under four hundred yards, but being uphill all the way meant that it played about twenty or thirty yards longer. Driver, the big fella, the longest club in the bag and after my putter and wedge it was third most important club in the bag. Especially this week, US Open fairways tend to be narrow and the punishment for missing them more Draconian than regular tour events. Any player who putts well, drives the ball well and uses his wedge clubs well over the next four days has a good chance of winning. Any player who has problems with one of those areas of his game is in for a big struggle, more than one and he’ll be making travel arrangements on Friday and not picking up any pay cheque. My strategy called for the driver on the first, pre-shot routine was good, mentally ready to hit the shot yet I still pulled it a fraction into the uniformly thick rough. Sometimes you do all the “right” things before a shot and it still doesn’t come out well. One thing is for sure that you can’t do anything about it after you’ve hit it. You just have to go and play your next shot and trust that your routine and thought process will produce good results the vast majority of the time. Also if you’re philosophical enough at the time you’ll remind yourself of all the times you’ve played a shot poorly only for it to end up in a good place. On this occasion the ball had found a poor lie in the rough, the sort of lie I’d get nine times out of ten anytime I found the rough over the next four days – thick grass about five inches long surrounding the ball. Even though I only had 160 yards left to the hole and even out of that lie I knew I was capable of hitting the ball that far Sunny and I were both in agreement that my best option was to advance the ball some 70 or 80 yards down the fairway leaving me a reasonably straight forward pitch shot. All the greens on the course were shaped like upturned saucers and any shot slightly off target would be punished by rolling off the green and down the slopes surrounding the green, more often than not into a spot that would leave a very demanding chip or sand shot. At least with the conservative option I had much greater control of where I would be playing the next shot from. Sand wedge out of the rough was probably going to be a much used option by all the players during US Open week, the more loft on the club the easier it was to get the ball up and out of the rough, plus the leading edge of the sand wedge made a better job of cutting through the grass than the other, less lofted clubs. My pitch shot from the fairway spun a little more than I wanted to so the ball stayed about twenty feet short of the hole. Sunny gave me a read on the putt that I was really happy with and could clearly see the ball going in. The morning before on the putting green I felt I was rolling the ball better than ever and the rhythm of my stroke was as close to perfection as I could ask for. Standing over that putt on the first green I felt that strange sense of calm composure I’d felt before, only this time there was an extra dose of confidence added to it. I stood on the green as if I owned it. Performed my usual three practice strokes, focussed intently on the hole then hit the putt. With an eerie sense of inevitability the ball rolled majestically towards the hole and dropped in at a lovely speed. Late in the day, even at the US Open, the crowds aren’t massive, but the people that were watching enjoyed my putt and were generous with their applause.
Managed to hit the second fairway, but this time it was my second shot with a five iron that I slightly pulled leaving me left and slightly past the green. Faced with a classic Pinehurst chip shot I had to chip the ball up and over a slope but stop the ball quickly as it ran downhill toward the flag. Leaving myself a fifteen footer up the hill for par wasn’t too bad an effort. Once again the putter felt almost magical in my hand and the thought of missing never occurred to me. The ball poured straight into that welcoming white cup and my score was still in tact.
As it turned out those first two holes set the tone for the whole of that round. I didn’t actually play my best, apart from the putting. It was like I was putting down a gutter and the hole was at the end, like going ten pin bowling with those inflatable tubes in the gutters. Or like one of my playing partners remarked at the end of the round: ‘Man watching you putting today was like I was watching the highlights show.’
Most of those putts were for par, otherwise I’d have been looking at a round of golfing immortality proportions. I did manage to birdie the par five on the front nine, the fourth hole, allowing me to reach the turn in one under par. The tenth hole is another par five and this time a good wedge shot to three feet left the putter with little work to do for that birdie. As we walked down the fourteenth fairway Sunny and I both took a look at the leader board and discovered I was tied for the lead. A couple of players had shot two under par 68 and another two had gone round in 69 and by the looks of things nobody else still out on the course was under par. I told Sunny that I could imagine the television coverage coming to an end about then and people thinking that two under par was going to be the best score that day, because there’s only some guy they’d never heard of at two under on the course and he’ll probably just fade away and finish over par.
‘Make some good swings coming in and with the way you’re putting you could have a good little lead.’
‘That’s the plan.’
Good tee shot had found the middle of the fourteenth fairway. From there I elected to play a five iron shot uphill to the green. Best swing of the day sent the ball arrow straight at the flag, finished ten feet directly behind the hole. Downhill putt left for birdie, one of those that all I had to do was start it on the right line and let it trickle into the hole. On another day it might have seemed tricky, but even the knowledge that holing the putt would give me the lead in the US Open couldn’t take away from my confidence with the putter. Rolled slowly and smoothly down the hill and allowed itself to be gathered up by the hole. Three under par and the US Open had a new leader. Fifteenth hole, par three and a towering seven iron shot came crashing to earth twenty feet right of the flag. I’d often heard people talk about “one of those days when everything went right and all the putts went in”, even some amateur club golfers I’ve heard say something like that to me. I’d never had that feeling over the course of a full round. Yet here I was, having one of “those” days, and it was in the US Open. By now it would have been a surprise if I’d have missed the putt with two feet of break from left to right. Once again the ball homed in on the hole and disappeared. Sometimes in golf you have a round when you start off by repeatedly holing good putts to save pars and then later in the round when you have makeable putts for birdies, for one reason or another you can’t hole them. On this day I was simply putting too well for any of those little mind games to affect me, let alone the fact that I was leading the US Open. Sixteenth was probably the toughest hole on the course, a very long and demanding par four, playing uphill to an elevated green. Drive found the light rough, did well to get a three iron on the ball and propel it to within a few feet of the green, did even better to chip the ball to five feet and the rest really was inevitable. Seventeen was a par three with an elevated tee and the green down below you looking very inviting, but as ever on this course there was punishment waiting for any poorly executed shot. From the yardage Sunny and I both thought that it was an eight iron shot, but then Sunny saw the possibility of a shot struck with full power might spin too much, with the flag at the front of the green that wasn’t a good idea. So we decided on a seven iron shot with a little taken off the power, therefore reducing the distance and the spin on the ball. Didn’t quite take enough power off it, meaning it ended up about fifteen feet beyond the hole. Fifteen feet away from the hole and on the green was an excellent place for me to be that day. For the first time that day Sunny and I weren’t completely confident in the line we decided to aim on, but my stroke was still pure and just at the last minute the ball turned to the left and dropped in. Five under with one to play and the hardy souls that had stayed out to watch us, there were maybe forty, were being rewarded.
The eighteenth was a tough par four to finish with. Not a great deal over four hundred yards but the vast majority of it was up a pretty severe hill. For the last few holes I drove the ball particularly well and the eighteenth was no exception. From the middle of the fairway a four iron shot almost crawled onto the front edge of the green. Despite not being on the green, I still felt I had a decent chance of holing the shot. The mind games of golf are amazing, had I been struggling to beat eighty shots at this point then I would probably be thinking that this would be difficult to get down in two more shots. With what had gone on so far in my round I had no other thoughts but to chip the ball in the hole. Took out my most lofted of my two sand wedges, the one with 56 degrees of loft on it and the one I do almost all of my chipping with, asked Sunny to take the flag out after she had advised me on the line the ball would roll upon landing. Focussed on the hole, took dead aim and fired. Popped the ball up in the air with a delightfully soft handed stroke, it landed equally softly and after one bounce started to hug the immaculate surface and roll towards the hole. The only bad thing was that I didn’t get another chance to use the putter in that round. Chip in on eighteen to shoot sixty four in the first round of the US Open. I’d often dreamed and envisioned doing something like that, all of those visions had me playing out in front of a crowded grandstand with thousands of people cheering. As it happened there were no more than fifty people watching. Holding my sand wedge up in triumph I got a warm high five from both of my playing partners, and of course from Sunny. Also I heard a cry from behind the green of:
‘Go get ‘um Jack, you Pommie bastard,’ the thick Australian accent causing me to look up and see Wendell standing there clapping his hands above his head. He’d been watching it on TV in his nearby hotel room and when the coverage did indeed go off as I was half way down the fourteenth, he decided to nip down to the course to watch first hand how I finished up. He told me that none of my shots were shown on TV, he’d just noticed my score as they came across the screen in player surname alphabetical order. Wasn’t all the drama you’d associate with shooting a sixty four in the US Open, one off the lowest scores ever in the US Open or any of the four majors, but I’d just shot sixty four in the US Open and I really didn’t care how many people saw it.
When club players think of a professional scoring sixty four, they will think of massive, booming straight drives and arrow like iron shot after arrow like iron shot. In reality a lot of the time it is down to magnificent putting. In this case I actually missed more greens than I hit, but only having twenty putts more than made up for that. They don’t draw picture on the scorecard and as the old saying goes “you drive for show and you putt for dough”.
Just when I thought I’d got myself a four shot lead in the US Open without being noticed at all, I was called to the press room just after I’d finished in the scorers hut. The room wasn’t as full as it can get, just like many of the spectators, a few of the press people had gone home. Yet it was still the biggest number of people that had ever been interested in a round of golf of mine. Got the distinct impression that most of them didn’t have a clue who I was, to the point that most of them were surprised that I wasn’t American and I even had to spell Warrington for them. Once they had established a little of my background they wanted to find out about my round that day. They took a lot of convincing that I didn’t play my best at all from tee to green and that the score was a result of an almost perfect putting exhibition. It was clear that none of them had seen a shot I’d hit that day, apart from one or two that had got to the eighteenth green in time to see my climatic chip in. During the question and answer session it occurred to me that I could tell them anything and they would write it. I could have told them that I hit it to within ten feet on every hole and if I’d putted well I could’ve broken 60. They were completely reliant on me for their story and therefore all the golf fans in the world were going to read the story as I told it. Soon enough the press turned to trying to find any weakness in my mind set, trying to get me to say something that showed a lack of confidence. They were actually trying to make scoring a 64 in the first round of the US Open into a bad thing that I can’t be happy with. Fortunately I had more than enough presence of mind and dare I say intelligence, to be fully aware of the ludicrous nature of their suggestions. Did all I could to convince them that I was completely ecstatic with my score and that having a four shot lead in the US Open was a good thing, whilst inwardly being amazed that I had to do such convincing. They persisted in talking about the pressure of leading the US Open and the fact that the golfing world would be looking at me tomorrow. I told them that any pressure would be self inflicted and that having dreamt of winning majors, then I had realised that I the likelihood was that I would have to be in the lead at some point whilst out on the course. On top of that I covered the basic concept of rather being four in front than four behind. Got the feeling that as I left the room most of them were unconvinced by my outward mood and they probably were about to go off and write about how I wouldn’t hang around the leader board for too much longer.
Within an hour of leaving the press room I had phone calls from my parents, Anya, Darla and Will. It was indeed an amazing day; however some things don’t change, one overriding feeling was of hunger. Sunny and I ate at a Waffle house before settling in for the night in the motor home.
I already knew that trying to get to sleep the night before the first day of a major was a difficult task. Trying to sleep the night after shooting 64 to lead the US Open by four, was about as difficult as swimming up Niagara falls. Not only was there an increase in nerves and excitement, thinking about the next day, I also had the exhilarating thoughts of that days round running through my head, in particular those putts and that prettiest of chip-ins. It was good having so many positive thoughts going through my head as I lay on my bed, but they weren’t helping me get to sleep. Apparently Sunny had no such problems, she fell asleep virtually as soon as her head hit the pillow. I was left alone with my thoughts, “had I really just shot a 64 in the first round of the US Open?”
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