Coincidences, the number 50 and one small lie to wrap things up nicely

Fifty is an amazing number. The ol’ half-century, the big fiddy, the… uh…

Wow. There is a gaping dearth of slang terms for the big five-oh. Strange, because it’s such an amazing number.

Fifty is the number of cents it apparently takes to be a famous rapper. It’s approximately the number of awful new TV shows that my girlfriend discovers and tortures me with every month. If they walked that many miles, The Proclaimers would’ve been a tenth of the way to that door they’d so eagerly fall at. Unless they walked five hundred more.

Most notably – for me, anyway – is that fifty is the score I shot when I played nine holes of golf this weekend past at Green Fairways.

I’m not a great golfer. I’m not even a good golfer. My swing bears an uncanny resemblance to a drunken man trying to hold onto a greased broomstick as he falls down a flight of stairs. But I love playing. About a year after I started playing, I was shooting sub-fifty scores over nine holes. That was nearly 15 years ago. The memories of those rounds have haunted me since; a reminder of the dizzying heights of not-altogether-crap-ness that I might have eventually scaled if I had spent more time on the course. I believed then – and still, perhaps deludedly, do now – that deep down inside me, there is a round of 80 just waiting to be be unleashed on an unsuspecting course. An easy course, of course. But that’s golf for you: the 87 god-awful shots you hit in your last round weren’t nearly as indicative of your true potential as the 19 that went straight and didn’t take four minutes of searching through knee-high grass to find.

That’s why I was happy when I shot 50 last weekend, the first time I’ve done so since I stopped playing regularly around ten years ago. Funny coincidence, that…

Back then, I was at my local muni at least three times a week. I lacked a steady supply of funds at that time but I was always desperate to play so I often spent hours chipping and pitching for free on the practice green, the one that had a small “No chipping or pitching” sign that I never seemed to notice till I was done. After a year of conscientious devotion, I became distracted by work, family and the sheer thrill of wasting time frivolously. Eventually, I was reduced to playing once every couple of months, sometimes less. I eventually hit a spell where I didn’t own clubs and went for an entire year without playing. But, despite the lack of effort, I loved playing. Still do.

After shooting 10 on the first hole last weekend – blech – I hit a short but decent five wood that split the very narrow fairway on the 214m second hole, pulling up just short of the bunker sitting rudely in the middle of the fairway up near the green. My mud-splattered ball led to a poor pitch which left me a couple of metres off the green and about five metres from the flag. My third shot was one of those that came off the club so sweetly that I just knew it was going to give me something to get mildly upset over later when my girlfriend, who cares little about golf but loves me enough to at least feign interest rather poorly, would probably feign interest a little more poorly than I would’ve liked. The ball steadily rolled its way to the hole and ended up rattling inside the cup.

Birdie.

It was the second strange coincidence of the day because, while I can recall quite a few chips-ins during those glorious first couple of years of playing – I can recall every single one of them, actually – I haven’t done it since I stopped practicing avidly.

On the next hole, a very short par-three, my tee shot landed about eight feet right of the flag, safely in the centre of the green where I had aimed it, but an unseen ridge steered it gently towards the hole and, for a few exhilarating seconds, it threatened to go in. It would’ve been the first hole-in-one of my life. Golfers know that a hole in one is 99% luck but that wouldn’t have stopped me from having an engraving on my headstone commemorating the moment: “Here lies a dingy hacker on whose arse the sun once shined as he scored a hole-in-one at a course in Singapore you’ve never heard of.”

Birdies to poor golfers are like sedated, pre-plucked tweety birds to hungry puddy tats. I was happy to snag one, but two? I was elated. I don’t think I’ve had back-to-back birdies in a decade which is, coincidentally, around the same time that I stopped practicing avidly. The coincidences are piling up…

I had a so-so round off the tee after that but my short game and my short irons held up in much the same way that a man with a water pistol holds up a service station. I ended up on the ninth green with a five foot putt for a shaky 49. Nervous about shooting a sub-50 round for the first time in over a decade, I missed by an inch. I happily settled for my first 50 in a very long time.

I feel rejuvenated! I want to practice again and work on my game. I’m excited and ready to spoil a few good walks with more sub-fifty (forty, even?) rounds. I feel like bumping my monthly hack up to a weekly bash with time around the practice green on the side but I’ll be going back to Green Fairways because golf in Singapore is expensive. But a round of golf at Green Fairways? It only costs – you guessed it – $50.

Strange coincidence, no?

Post-script: the round of golf actually cost $55 but that would’ve made for a pretty poor ending to this post. But the rest is true. Trust me, no one would ever actually lie about being as bad at golf as I am. 

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What golf is really all about: A hacker’s perspective

Golf in Singapore is expensive. For the cost of four rounds at most places here, you could buy a set of clubs. Literally. That’s why many golfers here – both good ones and hackers (not-so-good ones) – opt for cheaper rounds in Johor Baru, which is just over the other side of the Malaysian border, or on the Indonesian islands of Bintan and Batam which are both less than an hour away on a ferry. For around half the price of a round of golf in Singapore, you get a ferry ticket to Batam or Bintan, transfers to and from the ferry terminal and caddies who know their greens in the same intimate way that fifteen year old girls know the lyrics to all of Justin Bieber’s songs.

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This weekend I played golf at Batam’s Tering Bay GC with my mate Duncan. We’re not exactly threatening to grab the PGA Tour by the neck to shake loose a swag of trophies but we enjoy playing. And that’s what golf’s really about: the chance to play a sport you love with your mates, to get a little competitive and to drink copious amounts of beer without having your girlfriend constantly saying “Another one? How will you post about this on your blog if you don’t remember any of it?”

Although it’ll never host a PGA tour event, Tering Bay GC is a nice course. It doesn’t have many of the elevation changes that I personally think make a golf course a little more interesting but the layout is very polite and courteous to hackers like me. Its wide fairways forgive wayward shots, its slow greens won’t punish you heavily for putting a little too much pepper on your putts and it’s not entirely shrouded in thick, ball-hungry jungle like some of the other courses on Batam and Bintan.

IMG_5494We decided on a matchplay format to determine who would be crowned Best Player Within A Fifty Metre Radius. Matchplay is great padding for the egos of not-so-great golfers because you can shoot seven on a par three and still have a chance of winning the hole.

My playing partner, Duncan, was hitting the ball well but he was frustrated. He was spending more time in the sand than the cast of Baywatch. His ball found bunker after bunker and, understandably, it was getting to him.

Jackfruit

Jackfruit growing on the course. The flora and fauna on Indonesian courses is, at the very least,  interesting. At worst, it’s fanged and possibly poisonous.

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Friendly local kids from villages bordering the course were cheering us on with cries of “Bagus!” (“Good!”) when we’d hit a decent shot. Lesser efforts were met with giggles.

Swearing like a Scotsman – because he is a Scotsman and that’s the only way Scotsmen know how to swear – he was cursing the sport of golf from top to tail. He angrily teed up his ball at the par-three sixteenth after a poor performance on the fifteenth. He swung and connected well but as it soared towards the green, it veered just a little too far left and found a greenside bunker. He was about twenty five feet from the hole and chest-deep in the sand trap. Frustrated and looking forward to beers after the round, I think he stopped caring what happened.  I, on the other hand, was only trailing by a hole and saw my chance to wrench victory from his sweaty grasp.

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The local wildlife. Seeing monitor lizards – much bigger than this cute little thing, mind you – is pretty standard on golf courses in the region.

I stopped watching him as I thought about my shot. ‘I’ve got this hole’, I thought to myself. I was studying the green closely when he swung and fired it out of the bunker. I looked up to see the ball snaking its way towards the general vicinity of the hole.  “Nice shot,” I said to him as the ball edged closer to the hole. Seeing that it was actually going to end up very close to the hole, I repeated myself, this time with verve. “Nice shot!”

Then it trickled into the hole. Duncan, that #$%@.

It was an amazing shot, not least of all because I know he was in the throes of a palpable rage and that’s when it’s toughest to perform well.

Was he happy? See for yourself:

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High fives, hugs, gleeful swearing and a huge swig of beer from our cans followed. And that’s what golf is really, really about: beer and swearing. It was beautiful.

Bintang Beer.

Bintangs, fresh from the cooler. On a hot Indonesian afternoon, they’re absolute gold.

We were in pretty good spirits and with reason. Cans of Bintang are three for $12 there (a pint costs $18 in Singapore), we had a good round of golf on a sunny Sunday at a nice course in Indonesia and, despite our complete lack of skill, each of us had a handful of the type of shots that give you a glimpse of what it would be like if you actually bothered to practice. And that’s what golf’s actually really, really about: eyeing that next level of performance and striving for it.

If you’re in Singapore and keen for a round of golf, Batam, Bintan and Johor Baru are definitely worth checking out, not only for the price but for the range of courses on offer.

But don’t play with Duncan. He’s likely to pull another shot like that out of his #$%@ and when he does, he will hug you, soaking you in litres of sweat.

Me? Dirty on that lucky #$%@? Can’t imagine what would make anyone think that. And that’s what golf’s really, really, really all about: hating your mates for having beaten you despite their ability to find nearly every bloody bunker on the course. Really.

Golf, too many mind and three important life lessons

This post isn’t entirely about golf. I guess golf is just the medium through which I learned three very valuable lessons last weekend. So even if you’re not an avid golfer, read on.

I love playing golf. I also hate playing golf. Anyone who has stuck with it for any amount of time will know what I’m talking about. When you’re not playing, you’re looking forward to your next round eagerly. And when you’re finally playing again and ready to tee off on the first hole, you’re excited. Then you hit your first shot.

You then spend the next four hours swearing crassly enough to make Gordon Ramsey blush as you angrily hack your way from hole to hole, cursing those masochistic Scots for having created what is without doubt the most frustrating pastime in the history of man. Afterwards, you hit the clubhouse and enthusiastically plan your next round over a few beers. Sounds crazy but golf is hard so all you need are one or two good shots, buried like gold nuggets somewhere beneath a mountain of dismal efforts, to bring you back again.

My girlfriend spoiled me on my birthday last weekend with a night at the Banyan Tree resort on Bintan Island, a one-hour ferry ride from Singapore. We had an opulent little villa with a spectacular view.

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Yes, that’s a plunge pool on our deck. Banyan Tree’s villas are awesome.

As if that wasn’t enough, my amazing woman went one step further, organizing a round of golf at Ria Bintan, my favourite course and the scene of my undie-soiling encounter with a crazed, hungry monkey. It’s an award-winning course, challenging but immaculately kept and very easy on the optic nerve.

The view from the club house.

The stunning view from Ria Bintan’s club house. Golf courses are always nice places. This one is gorgeous.

Banyan Tree has its own course called Laguna Bintan. When we arrived, my girlfriend suggested I play a practice round of nine holes there before hitting Ria Bintan the next day. What a chick…

Quick lesson for non-golfers: par is the number of shots a good player should be able to finish a hole in. A bogey is one shot over par. Finish a par-five hole in five shots and you’ve shot par. Finish it in six and it’s a bogey.

The round at Laguna was uneventful until the sixth hole, a par five. I’d made it two hundred metres up the fairway after three terrible shots. I should’ve made that distance on my first shot. My fourth shot hit a tree branch hanging over the fairway and ricocheted into the jungle. Feeling a sudden urge to snap every club in my bag, I figured I should relax and concentrate on the task at hand. I put my cigarette out in my empty beer can and took my next shot. The ball, disgusted by my pathetic swing, traveled fifteen metres before refusing to move any further. Feeling a sudden urge to snap every club in someone else’s bag, I grabbed my cold beer and took a nice, long swig to calm me down. It wasn’t until I felt the cigarette butt sloshing around in my mouth that I realized that I’d put it in my full can, not the empty one. Spitting Tiger beer and a Dunhill butt onto the middle of the fairway, I spouted every swear word in my lexicon. I may have even made up a few (‘funt’ is going to catch on, trust me). I poured the remainder of my beer into the grass, one of the only two I had. I could taste cigarette butt. I wasn’t exactly happy. I ended up scoring a ten on that hole. If you’re unfamiliar with golf, a score of ten on one hole is as bad as it gets. At this point, I had pretty much had it. “Funt it,” I thought, “stop worrying and have some fun.”

Views

Some holes at Ria Bintan are bordered by beaches and the ocean views are spectacular.

On the very next hole, my fourth shot was an eight foot putt which went in for par. Cheering!

I remembered to stay positive the next day at Ria Bintan. I shot a ten on the first hole, a tricky par five. Determined not to let the rest of my round fall apart, I got onto the next tee and thought of that line in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise’s character, Captain Algren, was being beaten by his opponent when practicing his sword technique. Nobutada, the young samurai, gave him some advice, telling him “Too many mind. Mind the sword, mind the people watch, mind enemy. Too many mind… No mind.” So I cleared my head. “No mind,” I told myself. I had a zen moment: I visualized my first shot reaching the green 135 metres away. I pictured myself making two decent putts for par. I pictured a quiet, proud fist pump before moving onto the next hole. And that’s exactly what I did.

No mind... no mind....

No mind… no mind….

After that par, I shot four bogeys in a row which, for non-golfers, means one shot over par. To good golfers, that might sound terrible but for a hacker like me, it’s pretty good. I was on a roll. I finished the front nine with a score of 53, the best round I’d played in a long time. It’s not a score that good players aspire to but Ria Bintan is a tough course and if not for that score of ten on the first hole, I could’ve shot 50 instead of 53. I was thinking positively. Maybe I’m not the worst player ever, I told myself.

The green at the 8th hole is surrounded by ocean. Sounds nice, but overshoot it and you’ll suffer a eunuch’s fate: balls will be lost.

The player behind me caught up to me at the tenth hole so I invited him to play with us. He was a great guy but as far as my performance goes, it was a bad move because for me, golf is like peeing: it’s harder when someone you don’t know well is watching.

From there, my game went downhill faster than a seven pound slab of double Gloucester cheese at Cooper’s Hill.

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Go, little seven pound slab of Double Gloucester Cheese at Cooper’s Hill! Go!

Still, the player – let’s call him Sean, mainly because that’s his real name – was a nice guy. Sean, my girlfriend and I got along really well and had an enjoyable round. And my fall from the dizzying heights of ‘not-the-worst-player-ever’ didn’t affect me much. I had quite a few good shots on the front nine and I was happy.

Besides, it was my birthday and my girlfriend gave me an amazing birthday present by taking us to Bintan and booking in the rounds of golf. I heard a saying the other day: “Happy people are not always grateful but grateful people are always happy”.

I was grateful for the three lessons I learnt that day:

1. I have an awesome girlfriend. I already knew that so I guess that lesson is for you, dear reader. The lesson I learned is that being grateful for her makes me happy to be with her every day.

2. Think positively and good things are more likely to happen. Shut out the unnecessary. No mind…

3. Dunhill sangrias (cigarette butts floating in beer) are to be avoided at all costs. They are funting funted.

Macaque attacks and (nearly) soiled daks

What I love about traveling the most – what anyone loves about it, really – are the memories you keep, memories of things you could never have experienced at home, things like making friends from around the world, experiencing other cultures first-hand, seeing buildings and monuments and works of art that are hundreds or even thousands of years old, things like having a Mexican stand-off with a hungry, cocky monkey who just isn’t scared of an umbrella, a putter and a tipsy weekend hacker who hasn’t thought far enough ahead to consider how silly it would be to have the cause of death on his death certificate listed as “took on a rabid macaque with a shitty Ping”.

Ria Bintan is a gorgeous golf course, a very challenging but picturesque layout carved into the Indonesian jungle on the island of Bintan. It is spectacular. The first time I played there, it was being swept and surveilled by Indonesian soldiers and security guards because the president of Indonesia was to play there the following day. That’s how good it is: uber-rich guys like the president of Indonesia, who can play anywhere they like, play there. I was playing there for the second time with two friends. The weather was pretty bad but it’s a great course and we were having a blast.

We were walking onto the 7th green to putt when our caddy, who was behind us, suddenly squealed. We turned to see a cheeky macaque on our buggy, reaching for the caddy’s bag. If you’ve ever traveled through south east Asia, you’ve probably seen one of these monkeys. They’re cocky, they’re smart and they’re not shy. Our caddy was worried about her bag. She said it contained her lunch and a few belongings. Being a chivalrous sort of guy who doesn’t mind opening a car door for my girlfriend or taking on a potentially rabid simian to save a nice lady’s toasted cheese sandwich, I figured I’d just scare the monkey off. I gripped my open umbrella in my left hand, held my putter in my right and I walked towards the monkey thinking ‘right, this will be easy’. I came towards it and gave it a strong Australian “Oi!” It turned, looked at me, coolly raised its eyebrows and flashed a look that said ‘right, this will be easy’. It got off the buggy and started pacing towards me slowly, first sizing me up as it walked then sizing up my two amused friends with a sideways glance. Realizing that it had our measure, its walked instantly turned into a sprint and it charged at me. I’m talking a full-blown burst of speed, fangs bared with the intent to injure written all over its little face.

If I had known they had teeth this big, I would've just offered it a serviette and a coke to go with the sandwich let it go on its way.

If I had known they had teeth this big, I would’ve just offered it a serviette and a beer to go with the sandwich let it go on its way.

I was hopelessly outclassed: the monkey was faster, could bite harder and wasn’t too scared to take on an opponent that far outweighed it. I clenched my butt cheeks as it charged at me. This was to prevent me from soiling my own daks from the sheer terror that grips you when you have the sudden realization that you may end up being mauled by an animal that, despite being small enough to serve whole with a side of mashed potato, is big enough to bite off the old giggle-berries. The fact that I wasn’t prepared to do the same to the macaque gave it the upper hand. As it ran at me, I used the umbrella as a shield and I started swinging my putter around. The monkey pulled up short of me but I think it realized that I was its city-dwelling, hominid bitch-cousin so it came at me again. Again, I shielded myself with the umbrella and, this time, started poking my putter towards it, much like a fencer attacking with a sabre. This pushed it back a little so I went forward a little. But only a little. It hissed at me and, after a moment, decided to retreat. “I won!” I thought to myself. “I showed that monkey who’s…. hold on… why is it going back to the buggy?” I hadn’t scared it off at all. I guess it figured that, being the (supposedly) highly-developed primate that I am, I had probably learned my lesson. Wrong, little monkey. Wrong.

A family of macaques from our visit to the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, Nov. 2012.  "Hey, is that a sandwich?"

A family of macaques from our visit to the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, Nov. 2012.

I took a couple of steps towards it and gave it another “Oi!” The monkey thought exactly the same thing that you, dear reader, are thinking right now: did this guy not learn his lesson the first time? The monkey jumped off the buggy and charged at me even harder than before, coming much closer this time, far too close for comfort. It truly scared the living crap out of me so I had to clench a lot harder this time. Again, I put the umbrella between us and started swinging my putter. He pulled up short again, seemingly scared of the umbrella, but not too scared to charge at me again. We danced like this for another minute, the monkey hissing and running at me while I shielded myself with the umbrella and swung my putter around wildly. I tried everything: I used my club like a sword, I slammed it into the ground (the way I was putting that day, the putter deserved it), I waved my umbrella around, I yelled, I even tried to remember everything I’d learned from Nat Geo documentaries like puffing myself up to make myself look big, baring my teeth and making a lot of noise. I must have looked like an idiot, particularly because nothing seemed to scare it in the least.

Then one of my mates called out to me and told me that some poor tourist had lost two fingers to one of these monkeys only a few days before and that I should probably just leave it. That’s when I had an epiphany, a moment of clarity where reason hit me like a bucket of ice-cold water in the face:

It’s not even my bloody sandwich!

To hell with chivalry. What little bravery I felt disappeared faster than a fart in a fan factory.

I stepped away and let it go for the bag. And once I saw the monkey rip the bag apart with its teeth with amazing ease – staring at me the whole time, mind you, in a menacing “this could’ve been your ‘bag’, mate” kind of way – I realized that this monkey could’ve walked away with a piece of me in its mouth without too much trouble, possibly a piece that I might have really needed.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20 and I should’ve let the monkey just take the bag in the first place but what’s done is done and I now have an amusing story to tell my mates over a few beers. Still, I wouldn’t recommend ever taking one of these little fur balls on, especially since rabies is endemic in parts of Indonesia.

And, as if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, an hour later we saw a huge cobra – it couldn’t have been less than twelve feet long – slithering across the cart path and disappearing into the dense jungle. Our caddy shrieked like a banshee. My butt cheeks clenched again. My glutes got a fantastic workout that day.

The joys of travel…