October 31, 2015 by Stephen Bentley
If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron.
The quote above encapsulates the degree of difficulty involved involved in hitting a golf ball with a 1-iron or for that matter a 2 or 3-iron.
I love sport. Love watching it but above all loved playing various sports from being a kid right through to my early sixties. However, the only sport I found I could still play in my late fifties and early sixties was golf. I first played golf as a teenager then didn’t hold a club again until I was about forty. At that time I was visiting my brother in Canada and all the “boys” were due a Sunday morning game of golf. I was invited and at first was reluctant to go seeing it had been many years since I last struck that small white dimpled ball. My brother persuaded me and overcame my last objection by suggesting I use his wife’s clubs. She is a tall lady so I thought that should work.
Off we went to the golf course somewhere just outside of Metro Toronto. A typical Sunday morning as the line for the first tee was backed up some 100 yards or so. We waited in line ready to tee off as a four balls. There were eight other buddies of my brother’s in front of us in their respective four balls including the Jocks – the regular Scots expat crowd. A jovial, hard-drinking bunch within a larger group of jovial hard drinkers. The raucous banter kept my nerves at bay until I got closer to the teeing off area. Golf etiquette dictates a solemn hush when other players are about to tee off. The onset of silence started my nerves jangling – what if this? And what if that? Thinking of all the horrendous things that could and probably would go wrong!
I need not have worried. One of the Scottish guys was in the group ahead of us and we watched reverently as he went into his back swing and struck the ball. He struck it hard and it flew. It flew way off to his right and traveled a few yards into one of those metal posts used for washing dirty golf balls. It flew straight back at him and landed in his groin! One of the funniest sights I have ever seen on a golf course – a grown man doubled up with pain in his most sensitive parts – yelling and cursing in that Billy Connolly like accent! It was gold!
My nerves disappeared. I took a 3-wood (I still call them woods even though they are made from metal in the modern age) on the 1st tee as I knew enough about the game to recognize it was foolhardy to use a driver after my long absence from golf. With a slow intake of breath and a slow back swing, I concentrated on that little fella sitting up on the plastic tee.
Keeping my head down and still with eyes glued on the ball, all I heard was “ting”. The beautiful sound a metal wood makes when you have sweetly smitten the ball. On hearing “ting”, I looked up and saw my ball sailing true and into the middle of the green fairway. With a little roll and carry, it had traveled some 270 yards. Not bad at all for a 3-wood. I ignored the catcalls from my fellow four ballers to the effect of “Hustler” and a sarcastic “Yeah, right! How many years since you last played?”
The point of that story? You don’t have to be a top professional sports person to take great pleasure and enjoyment from playing a sport. The success of that first shot of mine on my return to the golf course after all those years, kept me going back and back many times over. I loved playing all ball sports and was never good enough to play at the very top levels of any of them. However, I had moments playing these ball sports which any professional would have been proud of and naturally those are the memories that are etched in my psyche.
It is with a sense of resignation that my arthritis affecting my spine, neck, hips and to a lesser degree my knees, prevents me from playing ball sports in my more senior years. I played golf until my early to mid sixties and cricket until I was fifty something. Football (soccer) was my thing until my early thirties when a knee injury forced me to stop. During my teens and twenties I also played basketball, volleyball, squash, tennis and table tennis to league standards.
Cricket and football were played in highly competitive leagues. My early cricket days took place in the Manchester Association turning out for Prescot, Merseyside. We played on some beautiful and well manicured grounds. The standard was one below the leagues in Lancashire where it was common practice to have a well known professional cricketer hired to boost takings through the turnstiles. Lancashire and Yorkshire are hotbeds of fierce competitive cricket no matter what level you play at. There is also a white hot rivalry between those two counties at most things and certainly evidenced in all cricket matters. In my forties and fifties I experienced this at first hand when I both lived and played cricket in Yorkshire.
My early football was played in competitive leagues in Liverpool before later moving to Hampshire where I also took part in a very competitive league which was a recruitment and feeder league for professional clubs such as Southampton and Reading.
Although I enjoyed taking part in all of these ball sports, my real favorites were football and cricket.
I take those two sports to show you the memories that are etched in my mind as moments that even a top professional would have been proud of.
Football brings to mind two incidents seared into my memory. My team were playing a Cup tie on Stanley Park, Liverpool. I was 17 years old. In those days my position was center back or center half as we used to call it. We were awarded a corner which I went up for, but arrived late at the edge of the penalty area to avoid the opposition picking me up. The ball was dispatched by the corner taker and I ran towards it meeting it full on with my forehead and directing the ball goal-wards. It hit the back of the net like a bullet! The strange thing was that at that moment I heard a loud cheering noise. I was momentarily flummoxed as there were only a handful of people watching our game. Then it dawned upon me – Everton had scored a goal at the same time as mine! (For those not familiar with Liverpool, Stanley Park sits between the home grounds of both Liverpool FC and Everton FC. These two famous clubs are only about 1 mile apart in location).
The second memory took place a little earlier and the scene was a house match, indeed the final, at my old school. In the opposition goal was big Mackintosh, a giant of a goalkeeper and automatic first choice for the school team. The ball rolled across my path at a perfect speed, not too fast and not too slow, some 40 yards from goal. I thought what the hell! I’m going for it! I unleashed a thunderbolt of a shot that traveled the 40 yards distance in milliseconds. It crashed against the bar shaking it for several minutes and making a wonderful “thwack” noise. I failed to score a goal, but the collective “oohs and aahs” gasping noise from the several hundred strong crowd will never leave me.
Cricket serves to remind me of many “feel-good” moments so I have to be selective. For some strange reason I was not much of a batsman until I was older. Sure as a kid I had all the strokes in the book playing with a soft tennis ball. When it came to facing the fast bowlers in competitive leagues I just didn’t “fancy” it despite all the protective equipment I was wearing. So I guess I decided to concentrate on “sending” rather than “receiving” the fast hard cricket ball.
I had a natural ability to bowl (pitch to you Americans – and no I am not going to even try to explain the rules of cricket) an “outswinger”. That is a delivery that leaves the right handed batsman so as to induce a nick off the outside edge of the bat and thus be “out” caught by the wicket keeper or in the slip cordon. Even top professional cricketers find it difficult or impossible to bowl both the “outswinger” and the “inswinger” with one or two notable exceptions such as Ian Botham . It was one humid thundery day (conditions that assist swing bowling) and I suddenly discovered a new found ability to swing the ball both ways at will! I mixed up the deliveries and the opposition batsmen were bamboozled. I took 8 wickets that day (10 being the maximum) for low double digits in the “runs” column including a much coveted “hat trick” – 3 wickets in 3 consecutive deliveries.
The last of those three victims was a very good cricketer who had played for Yorkshire in his prime. Upon his dismissal he walked up to me and shook my hand saying, “Best performance of swing bowling I have ever faced”! Wow! Praise indeed from a well respected cricketer and especially coming from a Yorkshireman whose general stock in trade is not to praise anything at all but moan about its very existence!
In later years I developed into a decent batsman as I overcame my fear of being struck by a hard ball and also my bowling became less effective owing to advancing years. As I said earlier I had all the strokes from my childhood playing the game with a soft ball. My father was a very good cricketer and only watched me play on one solitary occasion. He saw me bat and I scored a respectable forty odd runs. He also saw me execute a sweep shot. Nine out of ten has to be the best way to describe the degree of difficulty in playing that shot. But it is a shot I used to practice endlessly as a kid with the soft ball. It was etched into the muscle memory bank. I played it to perfection the day Dad was watching and the ball raced to the boundary on the ‘deck’ for four runs. I was delighted but that delight paled in comparison to what Dad said to me after the game – “In all the years I played cricket I was never able to play that shot”. His face beamed and it was one of the few occasions when I perceived that here was something he was proud of in respect to him lavishing praise upon me.
My final cricket story is set in this context – the sport of cricket is not all about batting and bowling. Of course they are vitally important components but fielding is equally as important. Holding on to catches can, and often does, mean the difference between a win or a loss.
This was again in the highly competitive West Riding League in Yorkshire. I was fielding at second slip – my favorite position. You require excellent eyesight and quick reflexes to catch a hard ball approaching you at what must be something like 60 MPH from a distance of some twenty to twenty five feet away. Our really fast bowler was on fire that day hitting the dry rock-hard playing strip with venom, forcing the opposition batsmen to hop about like they were treading on hot coals! Some of the braver souls attempted to play attacking shots to counter this hostile barrage. That is when I sprung into action, I made three catches that day from the bowling of our fast bowler. Two were from consecutive deliveries. They were the last two of the three.
Both of these last two catches involved me diving full length along the ground to catch the fizzing ball in the palm of one hand. Believe me – I was as pleased as punch to do this for the first catch. Then the next delivery nicked the outside of the batsman’s attacking shot and once more flew in my general direction. I was like a magnet and was actually willing the ball to come to me. I quickly assessed its line of travel and launched myself low in the air to my left. The previous ball had me going to my right and my stronger right hand. The ball once again “stuck” in my palm and my fingers closed in on the ball to prevent its escape.
I knew they were quite remarkable catches by any standards. That feeling was reinforced by the whooping and hollering I heard from my excited team mates. Every one of them a Yorkshireman through and through and not usually given to moments of excitement! My skipper approached me and shook my hand and left his approval in typical Yorkshire fashion by saying, “He could catch bloody pigeons yon man.” Praise indeed.
I believe you will have sensed my love of sport in reading this piece.
The thing is about playing sport at any level is that you experience odd moments when you achieve what the greats of sport achieve. You will experience the same sense of satisfaction and elation that they feel. That can’t be a bad thing!
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