It was our first tournament of the year, and we arrived early in Abu Dhabi, on the Sunday, for a few holes and a bit of practice. Paul had a company day on the Monday, so it was ideal spend some time at the course early. In theory, it was a great plan, but when we arrived at the course on Sunday, everything was closed....the range, the putting green, and the course. Nothing was going to be ready until Monday....disaster. What a way to start the year. Paul did some chipping with his own golf balls, then we headed back to our hotels. As Paul was busy on Monday, I walked the course at Abu Dhabi. It was much softer , due to recent rain, and the rough was thick, very thick. A missed fairway was a chop out. It was going to be a tough week. We played the pro-am with some Chinese clients of HSBC, who spoke very little English, but we still managed to communicate and have a bit of a laugh. Paul played nicely, having spent some time playing old on holiday over Christmas, so he didn't feel too rusty.
For the first two rounds we were drawn with Thongchai Jaidee and Robert Karlsson. This made for a very experienced grouping, with over 20 European tour wins between them. Our first round was on Thursday afternoon, and Paul played steadily for the front nine, turning in one over, having missed a couple of chances. There are a couple of par fives on the back nine, and I was thinking level par would be a good score, as it was quite breezy in the afternoon. Unfortunately, a couple of bad tee shots resulted in a double and a triple bogey. Throw in a couple of missed puts and all of a sudden an 80 was the result. I was a bit shell shocked, and I think Paul was too, as neither of us expected it. It was just one of those days. On Friday Paul played steadily for a 73, and it gave us some encouragement for the following week in Qatar.
Normally when Paul misses the cut he goes home, but as we were in the Middle East for 3 weeks, we had some time to spare. Most guys who missed the cut spent the weekend in the range, but Chippie had other ideas. "Fancy a few holes on Saturday at the course next to my hotel?" I didn't need to be asked twice. It was much better than standing on the range all day, and better for Chippie to orather than practice, so I headed over to Saadiyaat island on Saturday morning where we hit some balls, had a coffee then played nine holes. I got a bit over confident, only taking 5 shots from the boss, and when I birdied the first, I was thinking it was too easy....stupid, very stupid. Chippie roared round in 30 shots, 6 under, while I sklanked it round in 40... A proper humping. It was still great fun though, and a good days prep for Paul. The funniest part if the day came when we were having a coffee before we played, and a young kid came upto Paul and asked him if it was 1999 when he won the Open. Sticking his chest out proudly, the Chipmaster replied "it was indeed lad" The little boy's next question had me on the floor "that's your only major win though isn't it?" Gobsmacked, but still laughing, Chippie replied " sorry son, I'll try better next time!!" Great banter from a boy of ten years old. Onto the next week in Qatar, where we hope for better things.
The Royal Trophy is a team event in which Europe compete against Asia. It was the brainchild of the great Seve Ballesteros, and I was looking forward to this week immensely .This year it was to be played in Guangzhou, in Southern China. The European team was… Paul Lawrie, Stephen Gallacher, Marc Warren, David Howell, Thorbjorn Olesen, Bernd Weisberger, Nicolas Colsaerts and Alvaro Quiros. I’d had five weeks off after the Turkish Open, and was raring to go. The event may not be quite as prestigious as the Ryder Cup, but it certainly made up for it in the hospitality stakes. Each player and caddie was given a return business class flight, complimentary room in a brand new top class hotel, and we were suitably fed and watered all week. And to add some passion and nostalgia to the week, the European captain was none other than Jose Maria Olazabal.
We landed at Guangzhou airport on Monday evening to be greeted by photographers and security guards, not quite what we were expecting, especially as we had just had two 8 hour flights via Dubai to get there, and we were a tad tired to say the least. The tournament wasn’t kicking off until Friday, so after a good night’s sleep, we ventured into town on Tuesday for a bit of retail therapy. The wholesale markets in Guangzhou are just outrageous. There is a building six storeys high just for shoes, and if you fancy some watches, there are over a hundred stalls selling anything you fancy. This killed the day nicely, and we started the preparation on Wednesday morning. Strangely enough, the three Scottish players played together in practice, so the mood was jovial. We had a good days practice, then all the players had media commitments, so the afternoon was spent relaxing, as we had a 6am alarm call for the pro-am the next day. We had tried to guess what Jose was going to do with his pairings, but we’d figured he would put Chippie and Stephen Gallacher together, as they had been a successful partnership at the Seve Trophy. This turned out to be the case, and on the Friday and Saturday, they played against Asia’s strongest pairing of Thongchai Jaidee and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, both from Thailand. The Thai’s were immense on the grainy greens, and although Paul and Stevie played well, they couldn’t get ahead, and lost both games. The rest of the team managed to keep things going, and the scores going into the last day was 5-3 to Asia. It was going to be a tall order for the Europeans. Jose put Paul and Stevie out in the first two games in the Sunday singles, hoping to get some points on the board early, but they were again up against the Thai hotshots, with Aphibarnrat and Jaidee both beating Paul and Stevie 3 & 2.Paul played his best golf of the week, but struggled on the grainy greens. On the 11th tee, Olzaabal crept up to me and said “Do you need anything other than a few putts to go in?” I started laughing, and Chippie must have caught me… “What was he saying there?” when I told him , he replied “ well he’s ******* right!!!”
Now it was 7-3 to Asia, and with things looking bleak, I trudged back to the clubhouse to dump the clubs, grab some food, then head out to watch the final stages. I didn’t expect what was to happen next. Olesen and Weisberger quickly wrapped up their matches at the back of the field, while Marc Warren held off Ryo Ishikawa to win on the last green. David Howell won his last four holes to win 1up. All of a sudden it was 7-7. Alvaro Quiros halved his match, leaving Nicolas Colsaerts needing to win his game. One up playing the last, he made a solid par, and the trophy was Europe’s.
It had been a remarkable turnaround, and Jose, as ever, was filled with emotion. He gave an emotional speech in the team room afterwards, as we toasted the success with champagne. It was a special moment. After all the excitement had died down, it was back to the hotel to pack, grab a quick bite and head to the airport, where the final treat of the year was in store. As the stewardess scanned my boarding pass at the gate, a little red light came on, and I knew exactly what it meant “You’ve been upgraded to first class sir” I tried hard to hide my pleasure. I walked on to the plane, turned left, and kept going. I passed Chippie as I was shown to my suite “ What you daeing in here min?” “Free upgrade” I replied. “I had to pay for mine”said the boss …..”Och well, you can afford it” were my last words as I settled down to a glass or three of wine, then closed the doors on my private suite and nodded off to sleep to dream of caddying in the Royal Trophy every week. All the best for 2014 folks………