The vibe you get from a course can be key to how you approach a tournament as Northern Ireland’s Ryder Cupper explains ahead of his ‘mini season’

 

Standing on the 1st tee of a tournament on a Thursday is clearly a fantastic feeling. I am well aware of just how special it is to play golf for a living, but sometimes, no matter how well you have prepared and how up for the challenge you are, you just don’t quite fancy what is in front of you. Everyone who plays golf knows the feeling; there are some courses that don’t suit your eye and it’s the same for us professionals.

At the start of the year I sit down with my full team and work out my schedule – it’s something I’ve learnt with age that is vitally important to get right. So, we pencil in all the Majors, the WGCs, the top Tour events like the Irish Open, the Open de France and the BMW PGA and any other crucial top-level tournaments that I clearly want to play in. Once we have those 15 or so tournaments scheduled, it’s a case of making sure I have enough breaks between them. Five weeks playing in a row is definitely my limit, after that my head begins to spin! We also factor in other considerations, such as the fact that at home tournaments – like the Irish Open – there is going to be a lot more media attention on me and requirements to fulfil. So it’s vital that Clive Tucker (my coach) and I work out a practice schedule that takes these things into consideration.

However, for the rest of the year I need to pick those tournaments that I think I can do well in – and the vibe I get from the course is really important in this. It’s perhaps not the best example, but let’s take the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. As one of the eight or so biggest events of the year I would never want to miss it, but Firestone GC simply doesn’t suit my game. It’s a course set up for long, long hitters off the tee. The advantage you get from whacking it 300 yards on every hole is huge and for me, with a game based around accurate driving and very precise iron-play, I have to be having an exceptional week on the greens to have any kind of chance. It was no surprise this year to see the likes of Vijay Singh, Lee Westwood and Stuart Appleby dominating the leaderboard – to make up that difference in length and to compete I need to be holing everything.

In an ideal world I would love to tee it up most weeks on tight, medium-length courses with linksy-style run-offs around the greens and pure putting surfaces with not too much grain! Obviously having grown up at Portrush, links courses really suit my eye, especially in and around the greens. I am a very visual, image-based player, someone who likes holes to be well framed. For example, I love Wentworth, the towering pines and tall trees combined with the well-set bunkers offer you loads of targets – both off the tee and into the greens. So it doesn’t need to be a links layout in itself to give me a good vibe, but if it has those sort of qualities then I usually feel very good standing over the ball.

Funnily enough, both of my victories so far this season have come on courses just like those above. Despite the fact that the Ballantine’s Championship in March took place in South Korea, the greens at Pinx GC were actually very linksy. They were so nice and pure and didn’t have too much break in them so I could trust the line and get a really good roll. I seem to putt really well on those sort of greens. So after the practice rounds there I just had a really good vibe from the course. It was the same at Loch Lomond – it is so well framed and, again, the greens are so pure that I felt very comfortable and confident.
One other strange pre-tournament feeling that has popped up in the second half of this year has been that Tiger Woods is not in the field. Let’s get it straight first of all: there is no doubt in my mind that the world of golf is a far better one with a fit and healthy Tiger Woods in it. I want the chance of going down the stretch with him on a Sunday afternoon and tournaments lose a bit of feel without him as there are a few less people watching.

However, you only have to look at the stats. In fact, you only have to be a vague golf fan to know that we all have a better chance when Tiger is not in the field! The fact that the favourite in an event goes from 3/1 out to about 12/1 when Tiger is not playing tells you all you need to know. It’s not something that I factor into my preparation because, of course, golf is all about how you hit the ball. But, sub-consciously, I do think we all know whether or not Tiger is in the field and what that means. If Tiger goes out and shoots 15-20 under-par every week, then he is going to be pretty tough to beat. It’s a bit of a cliché, in fact it’s a huge cliché, but you just have to go out there and get on with your own job as much as possible.

As you read this we will be entering the final stage of the season and the Ryder Cup will all be over. Having set out my stall at the beginning of the season to gear everything towards making that team, it is now a question of attempting to come down from the heights of fulfilling my dream and setting myself some new goals. It’s been impossible to look beyond Valhalla for sometime. As a very target-orientated player I am going to treat these next couple of months as a whole mini-season of its own. My main goals are the Order of Merit, which I am in the mix for, and securing my place in the top 25 of the World Rankings, which ironically, will of course help set my schedule for next year. Bring it on!