It is less than four days since Rory McIlroy hoisted aloft the most famous trophy in golf, the Claret Jug awarded to the winner of the Open Championship. He is relaxing in a comfortable armchair, dressed head to toe in crisply pressed Nike golf apparel, other than for the Omega watch on his wrist. A shaft of brilliant morning light dissects the suite we are sitting in at the Gleneagles Hotel, and he is describing the shot he played on the penultimate hole of the tournament; a delicate chip over a bunker from a knot of tall and tangled grass. Little does he know that what he says is making me hate him.
“The first thing I did was to look at the lie of the ball,” he explains. “I wanted to see what way I thought it was going to come out. Was it going to come out with spin or come out dead or was it going to come out a little hot? It was lying ok. I felt I could do with it pretty much whatever I wanted.”
McIlroy was leading the Open by two shots at the time, but a fast-charging Sergio Garcia had eaten up two-thirds of the six-shot advantage he had held overnight. A miscue at this point would have planted seeds of doubt in the Ulsterman’s mind and made for a most uncomfortable journey up the par-5, dog-legged final hole, with its out of bounds posts all down the right, its necklace of perilous pot bunkers and, in the distance, the gaping yawn of packed grandstands.
“It’s not like I was limited to one shot,” McIlroy continues blithely, unaware of the effect his confidence in a highly pressurised situation is having on me. “I had to carry the bunker but then I had quite a lot of green to work with… So it was all about picking my spot and landing it there. I went back to the ball and the last thing I looked at was the spot. And then I just played it…”
The shot was perfect. Struck so sweetly that it would have felt like the club head had passed clean through the ball, it popped out high and soft before landing exactly where he had planned and rolling out to a point a little more than a foot from the hole. It left McIlroy the simplest tap-in for his par and, crucially, gave him the cushion required for him to enjoy the champion elect’s walk up the closing hole.
McIlroy’s eyes look tired, which is perhaps not surprising given that he has spent the interim period partying with family and friends in Belfast, but he is in chipper mood. This is a good thing because I am not here to ask him about when he thinks he will become only the sixth player in history to complete golf’s Grand Slam (winning all four of the sport’s major championships — the Open represented the third leg for McIlroy, and he joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in doing do so by the tender age of 25). And nor am I here to ask about the Ryder Cup matches, in which he would play a starring role for Europe on the manicured acres of Perthshire countryside that pitch and roll beyond the window of the hotel room. No, I am here because I have a problem.
It turns out that Rory McIlroy has had the same problem. “Oh yeah,” he smiles when I reveal my intentions. “I was 16 at the time, and playing in the British Amateur at Royal Birkdale. It was the same thing you’re going through. You’re standing there thinking about all the possible ways you can mess it up.”
The author, Dan Davies, with Rory McIlroy at Gleneagles in 2014
He assures me that the problem is easy to fix, but I remain sceptical. I explain there have been others like him – major winners, greats of the game – who have tried and failed over the course of the last decade. The real problem, I tell him, is that it has become more than a problem. It has set the parameters for how I regard myself. It has seeped into my mind, body and soul and made me feel like I am inhabited by someone, or something, other than myself. It has embarrassed me in company, flushed me through with hot rage and lost me sleep, money and friends. So ingrained, so grimly reliable, so predictably awful has my problem become, that my total inability to chip is now a self-fulfilling prophecy, a warped philosophy for life: expect the worst.
“So, it’s mental then,” laughs McIlroy, who jumps to his feet to demonstrate in the simplest terms how he found a cure.
When he was six years old, Rory McIlroy began chipping golf balls off the lino floor of his parents’ kitchen, dropping them into the drum of an open washing machine. I also began playing golf as a young boy. And like him, I showed real promise. That, sadly, is where the comparison ends.
I remember the very first time I picked up a club. We were having Sunday lunch with family friends. On the lawn outside was a back and white-striped golf flag. As the adults chatted, I spent the afternoon putting balls to the hole. My father must have noticed how engrossed I became in this strange pursuit because soon afterwards he took me to the local pitch and putt course, situated on a scruffy corner of a municipal park in South-west London. A litter-strewn brook split the course down the middle. The flag poles were fashioned from bamboo canes, the tees were coarse rubber mats, and it was run a miserable man with a unkempt beard who smoked strange smelling roll-ups and lurked in a hut that reeked of oil and grass cuttings.
With his 9-iron, which was long and heavy enough in my hands to feel like a rolled-steel caber, my father showed me the rudiments of the game. While he seemed to effortlessly clip the ball high and true, I could only heave and moan and sulk. Gradually, though, I learned how to swing the club and get the ball airborne. And in time, like the young Rory McIlroy, I discovered the elusive, intoxicating joy of the sweet spot; that mysterious interface between club and ball that sends a pulse of pure pleasure through your hands and up your arms before settling, like warm honey, in your entire being.
What two years of obsessive pitch and putt taught me, other than an enduring love of the game, was the single most important skill in golf: how to get the ball in the hole in the fewest number of shots. With that old Slazenger 9-iron I learned how to play any number of deft strokes, all designed to put the ball close enough to the flag to necessitate a single putt, usually a short one. The ‘up and down’ (or chip and putt) became second nature. It was a skill that served me well.
When I graduated to the big league at Richmond Park, at that time the busiest public courses in Europe, I could only hit the ball a short distance from the tee, but it was not long before I was being backed in money matches against grown men. Those placing the bets had found out to their cost how demoralising it could be to play a 4ft 10in tyro in a Pringle sweater and bad slacks who was capable of getting up and down from a telephone box. These same men told my father that I was good; good enough to perhaps one day become a professional. I began to believe them, although the truth is I never had the temperament or the mind for it. I was more fixated on the consequence than the process. The first painful reality check came when one of the professionals beat me in a chipping and putting competition using only the handle of a golf trolley.
That happy, innocent, hope-filled time is now nothing more than a distant memory, and golf is a very different game. It has become an industry, one that ploughs many millions each year into developing and marketing new technologies that promise to deliver explosive distance from the tee rather than finesse around the greens. The result of this shift can be seen on driving ranges across the world, as weekend hackers whale through buckets of balls with their expensive new drivers.
I, too, was sucked in, seduced by the sensation of sending a ball out 200 yards or more, thanks to a growing physique and the quantum leap in equipment that saw the old persimmon woods replaced by their modern metal-headed equivalents. Rather than feeling like journeys to the end of the world, par-5 holes could sometimes be reached in two shots rather than the regulation three, and some par-4s could even be driven in one. Power and distance became the standards by which I judged myself. If only I knew then what I know now.
I have no muscle memory from the many thousands of perfectly struck chip shots I executed as a boy. None whatsoever. The sensation of those shots in my hands, and up through my arms and in the core of my being is a chimera, a mirage that flickers and dissolves in an instant. I cannot pinpoint when I lost the ability to chip, or whether there was one round, or even one shot, that consigned me to the mental purgatory I now inhabit when standing over the simplest of chip shots. But I do know that I have been here for a long, long time.
Perhaps I never truly wanted to be a good golfer; perhaps I was scared of being good but just not good enough. Maybe that’s why I stopped practicing and began over-thinking, analysing and agonising over finding a more profound truth in something that could be easily explained.
Chipping is really not that difficult. In fact, outside of putting, which entails the basic pendulum motion of a triangle formed by the shoulders, arms and hands, the act of chipping a ball requires the simplest, shortest movement in golf. I have been on the course with people who rarely, if ever, play the game and marvelled at their ability to move their arms back and through to clip the ball cleanly off the turf. It looks like the easiest thing in life. They might envy my ability to occasionally drive the ball through the narrow gap between distant bunkers, hit unerring long distance iron shots over tall trees, or land fairway wood shots next to the flag, but I would give anything to experience their carefree approach to golf’s most unassuming task. Instead, after two near-perfect shots I can be plunged into a pit of panic and self-loathing because I am faced with the prospect of a chip.
I have played the game well at times. I have completed courses in level par and on a few occasions better. But trying to play a round of golf without being able to chip is like to trying to park a car without a reverse gear. Rather than the whole filing cabinet of shots that I once had at my disposal, I now have three. They are all bad, all deeply destructive and all ruinous to my sense of wellbeing.
The first is known as the ‘knife’. Rather than sliding the club smoothly under the ball and allowing it to spin up the grooves on the clubface, as McIlroy demonstrated so poetically on the 17th hole at Hoylake, this entails striking the ball on its equator with the sharp, leading edge. There is no sweet sound at impact, no pleasing trajectory and no landing like a butterfly in ballet shoes. Instead, the knife is heralded by a sickening clack, followed by a rocketing, knee-high trajectory that sends the ball ten times the intended distance, and always into deep trouble. Had I hit the ‘knife’ from where McIlroy played his wondrous chip, I would have almost certainly hospitalised an unfortunate member of the gallery on the far side of the green.
The second shot in my repertoire is the ‘dunch’, which, like the knife, is produced by the same involuntary spasm of the nervous system, one that’s borne out of desperation to get the ball airborne. I have had the misfortune to see video footage of myself performing this shot: knees doing an approximation of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” dance routine, shoulders lurching up around my ears, wrists flicking like a chicken coup door in a tornado, weight rocking back onto the right foot in a pathetic bid to scoop the ball skywards. This total collapse of form and function invariably results in an ugly divot that the ball barely escapes. It is not uncommon for the divot to travel further than the ball or, worse, for it to land it on top of the ball, which generally leads to the dissolution into uncontrolled laughter of one’s playing partners.
The third shot is a hybrid of the other two and perhaps the most spectacular in my arsenal. It is the “double-” or “triple-hit”. Even the uninitiated will appreciate that it is quite a feat to swing a length of steel and iron in the direction of an inanimate orb and strike it in such a way that it makes contact again and again with the head or shaft of the club before it has left one’s orbit. It counts as two, three or more shots, depending on how many times you’ve hit the ball with one swing. It is a foe I know well and one that’s guaranteed to make me ponder the futility of my existence.
There have been occasions when I have wondered whether my appalling chipping is an indicator of a wider malaise, or that it might be a curse for something I have done in the distant past. I’ve told myself that if only I could chip then my relationships, my professional life and my sense of contentment would all improve.
Golf is nothing if not a frank conversation with oneself, and for years I did not enjoy what was been said. But rather than tackling the problem head-on, I made my apologies well in advance. I’d step onto the first tee filled with a sense of impending doom over when the first knife, dunch or double hit would occur in the round. The wait was almost more painful than the act itself, and I now believe I was subconsciously willing it to happen, switching my brain off and surrendering to the rigor mortis of fear. There was a twisted comfort in the familiarity of my affliction.
Ridiculous as it may sound, my inability to hit a very short, very easy golf shot had parallels with the other conversation I was having with myself. It was over the direction my life, or more accurately, its lack of direction: constantly moving house, in and out of relationships, in and out of jobs, in and out of debt, self medicating to convince myself that it was all part of the rich tapestry. I even tried getting stoned to play golf, telling myself that I’d feel more relaxed about chipping when in fact it was nothing more than a crutch that allowed me to blame something else when it all went wrong.
As long as I continued to chip like a cretin, I could only be the same person stuck in the same rut. The disappointment with my lot came to be distilled through the vessel of the one thing I loved and could rely on. Negative thinking ruined my chipping and my chipping then became a manifestation of a deepening depression.
As I raged at it golf’s betrayal, I tried to visualise the things that made me happy whilst attempting the thing that made me most miserable – variously thinking about my baby nephew’s smile, the smell of freshly cut grass or looking out to sea on a summer’s evening – to induce a more constructive mentality when swinging a pitching wedge through an arc of no more than six feet. I read countless instruction features in magazines, listened to audio books on positive thinking and even tried chipping with my eyes closed. Latterly, I have sought the advice of experts.
During my career as a journalist, which began on a golf magazine in 1989, I have been fortunate to play on some of the world’s best golf courses with a number of the finest players to swing a club. All of them have been asked for a cure.
In 1995, I competed in the curtain raiser to the King of Morocco’s private tournament. I was paired with Corey Pavin, the reigning US Open champion and a leading light among America’s ranks of god-fearing touring professionals. Pavin was famous for being a short hitter, but a wizard when it came to getting the ball up and down from around the green. During our 18 holes together at Royal Dar Es Salam, outside Rabat, I suffered a severe bout of the ‘Dunches’ until I was finally reduced to shrieking ‘Jesus fucking Christ’ at the top of my voice. After my blasphemous bellow had stopped echoing off the pines, I skulked to the ropes where my girlfriend at the time was standing. Filled with shame, I muttered how awful I felt about swearing in such a fashion in front of “a fully paid-up member of the God Squad”. “I know,” said the old man standing next to her. “I’m his Dad.”
In 2008, I was invited to play in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, a pro-am staged over the famous links of the Old Course at St Andrews, Kingbarns and Carnoustie. Some weeks before the tournament, I played in a corporate golf day at Wentworth where the guest of honour was Sir Nick Faldo, Britain’s most successful golfer and a winner of six major championships. I told him about my problems and to my surprise, he instructed me to meet him at the practice range after the round.
So, having knifed, dunched and double-hit chip shots all afternoon, I rocked up expecting nothing more than a 30-second tip and a photo as a souvenir. What I got was an intensive half an hour private lesson in which the notoriously self-absorbed Faldo became ever more animated as he tried to instil into me the simple mechanics of chipping. Having totally rebuilt one winning swing and replaced it with a better one, he spoke in a jargon I did not understand. There was talk of which direction my belt buckle should be facing, and after explaining each stage of the process he looked up at me and said, ‘You get me?’ I didn’t, but appreciated the lengths that he went to.
A few weeks later, during the third round of the Alfred Dunhill Links tournament, I was faced with a tricky chip shot on the 12th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews. In the five minutes between hitting my drive and arriving at the ball, I tried to summon Faldo’s words in a bid to quell the rising tide of fear. One good shot at this crucial point in proceedings might propel us into a position where we could kick on and make it through to the final day. Instead, I dunched the chip, killed the dream, and spent the next few holes in the locked room of my own self-hatred.
Twelve months on and I was back at St Andrews, and still suffering. This time, I asked Mark Roe, the former European tour professional who has gone to become a TV commentator and chipping coach to the stars, whether he could take a look at me. I had got to know Roe a little while producing a radio show for TalkSport, and he agreed to follow me to a small practice green beside the Old Course. After watching me knife three balls into the distant rough and almost triple hit the fourth backwards over my left shoulder, he shook his head and delivered the verdict: “Sorry Dan, there is nothing I can do.”
In 2010, I was lucky enough to play with the sweet-swinging Louis Oosthuizen, just a few weeks after he had won the Open Championship at St Andrews. On a sun-kissed afternoon high in the Swiss Alps, everything seemed to click, and led by the smiling South African, our team won the pro-am at the Omega European Masters by a country mile. But even on this day of days, one in which I had played my best golf in years, Oosthuizen still got to see the real me as I suffered a physiological meltdown in the process of quadruple hitting a chip shot on the uphill 9th. “What happened there?” I asked him as we walked off the green. “There seemed to be a lot of moving parts,” he replied, “None of them moving in the right direction.”
Another penalty drop out of the water meant Harrington had by this point clocked up four strokes, but still had some 48 yards to the hole. “It was the exact shot I had worked on in the garden as a kid,” he smiled. “I hit the next shot like I was a 14-year-old. I knew the yardage. I hit it really hard and really low, you can’t believe how hard. The whole crowd ooh’d as it was coming in.”
In the commentary box, Nick Faldo shouted at the ball to slow down but Harrington knew better: “I swear to god, I was like a 14-year-old kid showing off; ‘Watch this. Watch this spin! When it landed and spun I was like, ‘Yeah, I told you so’.” The ball finished four feet from the hole. Harrington holed the putt for a six, Sergio Garcia bogeyed the final hole and the Irishman went on to win the playoff.
I then told Harrington, who now has three major titles to his name, about my chipping woes. Without letting me finish, he delivered his diagnosis. “It’s quite clear to me,” he said. “You’re chronic.” It was a blunt assessment but one that was nevertheless correct.
A short while later, Harrington marched out to a small practice green located near the second hole, trailed by around 60 people, all of whom were keen to see an Open winner give a short demonstration before they headed out through the empty grandstands and onto their dates with destiny. After demonstrating the basics of grip and stance, Harrington explained about how he swings the club. Then he moved onto the short game. I edged in closer, hoping to absorb something that might help. “Now then, where’s Dan?” he asked suddenly, scanning the faces in the crowd. Spotting me, he called me out and handed me his pitching wedge, the same one he had used to play that remarkable chip at Carnoustie: “Ok, now come and show everyone how chronic your chipping is.”
I tried to persuade him what a bad idea this was, but he was oblivious to my pleas. And so it was that I found myself with three balls at my feet, a deep bunker guarding the practice green not 20 yards away, and the gaze of scores of people burning a sweat patch into the back of my shirt. I appealed to Harrington one last time before taking his wedge and using it to knife the first ball into the face of the bunker – clack, thud; dunch the second short of the sand, and conjure a textbook double-hit with the third: the unholy trinity. People laughed, and like Harrington at Carnoustie, I wanted the ground to swallow me up.
Things only got worse on the course. By the time I arrived on the 18th tee, I was utterly demoralised. After hooking my drive into the hay I managed to chop the ball out short of the green. Suddenly, I was alone in the ampitheatre that would rise to acclaim Rory McIlroy, surrounded by 7,000 empty seats and giant scoreboards. One good shot away from the Claret Jug, I told myself. One big problem: the shot was 50 yards, over a bunker, off a bare lie. And unlike Padraig Harrington, I could not remember what it felt like to be a cocky 14-year-old kid. There was an awful inevitability about what followed. The dunch propelled the ball no more than three yards and sent the familiar molten jet of fury up my spine.
I don’t play as much golf now as when I foolishly allowed the game to become a barometer for my happiness. It has been replaced by the things I once felt to be missing from my life — a settled home with a wife I love and three beautiful young children, and a career that’s going as well as I could realistically hope for. Sadly, this new found contentment has not led me to rediscover my childish joy at getting up and down from anywhere within 100 yards of the green. And nor has it neutralised the power of a duffed chip to stir the demons within.
“What I was told to do was to make it like a longer putting stroke.” Rory McIlroy is on his feet in the hotel suite, demonstrating how he found a way out of his own short-lived chipping hell. “Try and keep your forearms rigid, your elbows rigid and your wrists rigid, and make it like a pendulum motion. When you chip, I bet you take it back and then everything goes, and you think, ‘Shit, I don’t know where this is going’.”
That’s about right, I tell him. “What I think about with my chipping is making sure there’s no movement in my lower body and no movement with my wrists,” he says. “It’s basically all done with your bigger muscles – your shoulders and your back. So all I do is turn back and turn through. It’s very easy.” Very easy for him to say, but he has not been afflicted for half his golfing life.
And this, in a nutshell, is where I’ve been going wrong. The time I’ve spent studying, talking to and even playing with top professional golfers has brought me to the conclusion that to be as ridiculously good as they are, they must have sacrificed some part of themselves, some aspect of their personality, along the way. These, after all, are extraordinary human beings who do not seem to hear the voices in their heads. Instead, they invest their trust in muscle memory that’s been forged over the years they’ve spent honing their talents. As a result, they have cultivated the enviable ability to switch off and let it happen whereas I only tune in to the looming catastrophe.
Buoyed by McIlroy’s tip, and how simple he assures me it is to put into practice, I head out onto the course where, a few weeks later, Europe successfully defend the Ryder Cup against the 12 best players from the United States. On the very first hole, my approach shot to the green finds the fringe of longer grass next to the putting surface. Turn back and through, I tell myself, taking a wedge from the bag and practicing a longer putting stroke as McIlroy has suggested.
It all feels so right until I stand over the ball. And as I do, I begin the familiar free-fall down the lift shaft of doubt. My mind begins to race, my grip tightens, my shoulders hunch. All communication between brain and limbs dissolves into static until the only sound I can hear is the clamour from the ghosts of a thousand desperate chips. I take the club back and then blank. The clubface reaches the ball and rather than continuing through in a smooth motion, it judders and stops, making contact with the ball once, twice and a third time for luck.
From the far side of the green, an audible inhalation of breath from one of my playing partners. “Better change your coach,” he quips, trying hard not to laugh. I turn and stalk away, resisting the temptation of launching my pitching wedge in his direction — only because I know it would miss. Some things, it seems, will never change.