Thursday, 30 April 2009

Having survived the Boston Marathon and escaped Swine Flu (I think), I’d like to relate one of the more interesting experiences of my recent sporting sojourn to the States.

In between the Masters golf and the marathon, I spent a few days in Lexington, Kentucky, home of blue grass and the centre of the American thoroughbred horse racing industry.

The bloke I was staying with had some Amish builders renovating one of his farm cottages. As fate would have it, my visit coincided with an invitation for some Amish hospitality at their farm. Five days out from the marathon, I was slightly concerned about eating the Amish food, bearing in mind they do not believe in using electricity. So refrigerating or freezing food was obviously out of the question!

I need not have worried about food poisoning. Their salted and smoked meats were succulent, their vegetables fresh and crisp and their desserts were to die for. As an added bonus, after a week of weighty hospitality at the golf, there was no beer on offer.

With their pudding-bowl haircuts, beards-without-moustache, horse-and-buggy 19th century mentality, they’d be easy to dismiss as backward. Yet these kind, simple folk offered me hospitality the five-star Masters could never match.

Duckshooting is but one sleep away. For me it’s a great opportunity to return to Southland to my old home town for some quality bonding with some great mates. For many of us our friendship dates back to 1964 when we started out life’s academic journey at Riversdale primary school.

Some proved to be more scholarly than others but we’ve all done okay and, besides, all men are equal in the maimai. Included in our number are a doctor and a lawyer.

By day, the latter is a serious, pin-striped, charge-like-a-wounded-bull solicitor. Come opening morning he’s just a big kid who loves nothing more than dressing up in his latest Armani or Gucci camouflage gear. He looks, as I oft quote, like a hybrid-cross between Liberace and Rambo.

Early tomorrow morning, as we line up for breakfast at the Riversdale pub, he will doubtless frighten us again with his latest ensemble. Ironically the only ones with nothing to fear on the day from the camp combatant are the ducks.

So good luck to John Young and to all weekend warriors! Rest your weary heads tonight. At first light, the battle against the feathered foe begins.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Mick Jagger once famously and rather harshly called Invercargill the ars#hole of the world. Well the Rolling Stones obviously never played Buffalo!

I'm killing time here enroute to Chicago from Boston because I wanted to tick the Niagara Falls box. The world's greatest volume of fresh water spilling over a cliff did not disappoint and nor did Boston. But Buffalo's soul-less state has been a mere blip on a wonderful sporting jaunt around the USA.
From watching Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson do battle at the Masters, to hitting golf balls into the snake-infested rough of a Nevada desert golf resort, to visiting the Muhammad Ali centre in Louisville, seeing Churchill Downs - the home of the Kentucky Derby, watching baseball bats being made at the Louisville Slugger bat factory, to surviving the Boston Marathon, this trip has been a priviledge and an eye-opener.

America is a land of vast contrasts - climatically, culturally and financially. Some cities - Las Vegas, Atlanta, Augusta and obviously Buffalo - I will probably not bother to visit again.
Ah but Boston! Beautiful Boston! I'm going back to this remarkable city even though I spent possibly the most painful 3 hours and 55 minutes of my life there. But you can't hold a grudge because Bostonites are such wonderful supporters of the great race that has taken place since 1897, the year following the birth of the modern mararthon as we know it, at the Athens Olympics.

My running mates at Boston were a couple of good Southland farmers. Seaward Downs cow cocky, Big Kev Hall, proved the quickest of the three of us, getting home in 3:44. Heddon Bush playboy, Ken Dykes, on yet another international jet-setting jaunt, was again cruelly robbed of breaking the magical four hour barrier because he couldn't break wind, quite literally. A midnight mix-up between some sleeping pills he thought he was taking and the anti-diarrhea pills he accidentally took, meant he had to haul an extra payload around the historic 42.2 km course.

Not to be deterred though, he was quick to perk up and declare his candidacy for the 100th anniversary running of the Riverton to Invercargill marathon later this year, where he hopes wind of another kind, namely a gale-force westerly, will finally see him home in under four hours!

We were also lucky enough to catch up with well-known Southland running identity Mike Piper in Boston. Mike took us for a pre-race orientation tour of the infamous Heartbreak Hill and we had an enjoyable ale or two in the Harvard area as we nervously pondered our running fate. He is a wonderful running ambassador for his province and his total in-excess of 100 marathons completed is testament to his ability, training ethic, longevity and downright enthusiasm.

His time of 3:52 wasn't bad either for an old bugger!

Ah, the Masters. Where do I begin!

Let me start by saying the Augusta National Golf Club is all you expect and so much more. It's a truly beautiful golf course and, while television can do justice to its beauty, it can never truly reflect its difficulty and steepness.

The fairways, the notable exception being No18, are surprisingly wide and there is little trouble to be found under the massive pruned pines guarding their borders. The fun begins and the numbers mount, however, when it comes to keeping the ball on the sloping fairways and trying to putt on the massive rolling greens. A four-putt would be a moral victory for most. And let's not even go to Amen Corner, devilishly difficult dirt if I've ever seen some.

I was never very good at counting sheep so didn't bother estimating numbers but it felt like there were 20,000 following the dream pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on Sunday. I will eternally count myself blessed to have been included in the seething throng.

Some other Masters magic moments and observations:

- Passing by chance the practice putting green when five of the world's top 10 golfers were within touching distance. Up close and personal Mickelson is a big man, Sergio Garcia and Anthony Kim are tiny, Padraig Harrington appears to be a happy Irishman and Jim Furyk is gawky and gangly.
- Maybe it's because Augusta is in the heart of the south, but the overwhelmingly-white crowd appeared to warm to Mickelson more than Woods. Tiger was intense and almost surly, whereas Big Phil seemed to take more time to acknowledge the gallery's rapturous applause.
- Their respective caddies talked freely. Woods and Mickelson did not. Suffice to say Steve Williams and Big Phil did not exchange pleasantries.
- Tiger might be the best athlete in the field but the three guys (Cabrera, Perry and Campbell) who made the playoff all had one more chin than him.

No talk of double chins would be complete without mention of Long John Daly (above). He has been red-carded from the PGA tour until May but that never stopped him hawking memorabilia outside the gates at Augusta from his large touring bus. It's kind of sad a great golfing talent had to resort to that to make a buck, but my sympathy didn't stop me paying the obligatory $20 for a signed cap and a personal photo with the portly power-hitter. I reckon that one will go straight to the pool room.

I, too, will be overweight coming home with all the Masters memorabilia I have bought for my many new-found friends (including Nathan Burdon, who shamelessly demanded a towel). And a week of Budweiser has left me overweight for the Boston Marathon.

Here's hoping I survive to tell the tale next week, plus I've got a great yarn to spin about a real redneck bar in Georgia and an electricity-free Amish family in Kentucky.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Gidday from Atlanta USA, home of Coca-Cola, CNN, Delta Airlines, the Atlanta Braves and venue of the 1996 Olympic Games.

It's also just a couple of hours drive from Augusta, Georgia, home of the Augusta National Golf Club and the 73rd Masters. As far as sporting pilgrimages go, I'm about to live the dream!

The Masters is the toughest ticket in sport and as I sit in my hotel room on a Thursday night pondering this column's contents, I have to continually pinch myself to remind me I'm actually going to be there at the weekend. I'm just hoping Danny Lee will be there as well, as a group of us are intending to walk the 18 holes of majestic Masters with him, should young Dan make the cut.

Our tour group is an eclectic, diverse and interesting bunch but we all have a great passion for golf. Some of us aren't so flash at playing the game but that never stopped us enjoying three great rounds of golf in Las Vegas en route.

The first round was at the Wynn Resort course, probably the most expensive piece of golfing real estate in the world. Those of you who have been fortunate enough (or unfortunate, if you detest mindless gambling and smoking) to go to Vegas will know the Wynn Golf Club as the only piece of green, as opposed to greenback, on the "Strip". Before the recession hit, it was reckoned to be worth $15 million per acre, which made the 137 acre course worth over $2 billion. Which means after the economy comes right they're going to turn it into more casinos and more hotels for more mindless gambling and smoking.

The second course, Wolf Creek, was truly spectacular. Carved out of the canyons of the Nevada desert it takes over a million gallons of water a day to keep the fairways and greens watered. As for the rough don't go there quite literally! It's snake season and you venture to look for wayward drives at your peril.

Our tour leader, three handicapper Grant Fox, hits a golf ball almost as sweetly as he used to kick goals. His son Ryan (who plays off a plus three handicap) was to have been on the tour also but had to forsake his dream of watching Tiger at the Masters when he was selected for the New Zealand amateur golf team.

It's been interesting getting to know Fox senior. We are of similar vintages, the only difference being he was picked for the All Blacks and I wasn't. Foxy's body these days bears testament to his outstanding service to his country. An impending knee replacement means he can hardly walk while I'm off to have a crack at the Boston Marathon. Who says a lack of commitment on the rugby paddock doesn't pay in the "long run".

Tell you all about the Masters next week ...

There are few feelings in life more rewarding than finishing your first marathon. It’s a journey into the unknown, an epic odyssey out of your comfort zone.

Running past the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Westminster’s Parliament buildings and Buckingham Palace, you know there’s never been a more inspiring finish to a run. You wear your limp and aching thighs as a badge of honour. You swear you’ll never do another one.

Then after the pain in your legs dissipates you start to wonder, with a little more training and more discipline with your weight, whether you could have gone faster? Of course you could have.

Your second marathon is still a novelty. You wonder whether you just fluked it first time around. You wonder whether you can go to the well one more time and go one better by going faster. Although you train equally hard, the all-consuming fear of failure, while still there, has diminished somewhat. You swear, this time in expletives, you’ll never do another one.

Then, after finishing two minutes slower than your first marathon, you don’t wonder whether you could have gone faster, you damn well know you could have. You blame the never-ending avenues of New York’s skyscraper-clad Manhattan Island. And you know that despite the beauty of Central Park, once you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all, and you yearn for London’s historically breath-taking finish.

Your third marathon represents an act of bravado, a refusal to submit gracefully to the inevitable call of middle age. You try to train just as hard as you did for your first two marathons but your aging body starts to fly the white flag of surrender.

You know it would be an act of cowardice to pull the pin now but you wonder, in the questioning recesses of your mind, whether you’re up to it one more time.

Even though you justify your entry in the Boston Marathon but telling yourself you’ve paid a fortune to attend the Masters golf at Augusta to see Tiger Woods, that you’re killing two birds with one stone and that this will be the sporting trip of your lifetime, you seriously doubt the wisdom of your ways.

Then you think of your friends on the wrong side of the grass who will never have your opportunity. And you know you’ve made the right decision.

Later tomorrow afternoon I’ll trudge along to Carisbrook for a few beers and a bit of footy. The beer I’ll enjoy. As for the latter, I hope it’s third-time lucky because, for me as a fan, the Highlanders at home and Super 14 rugby are knocking on the door of the Last Chance Saloon.

I have no doubt the Highlanders will beat the Cheetahs but they can’t afford to win ugly like they did against the Crusaders or the ‘Brook will resemble a deserted tumble weed town from a B-grade Western movie, as fans vote with their feet.

Having spent the best part of half a century watching rugby, I can say, hand-on-heart, I’ve never seen a worse game. And I had free beer to dull the pain!

When some of our greats are expressing grave concerns about our national game, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Last week on the Farming Show the great Sir Colin Meads said he no longer understood or enjoyed the modern game. Gates, he said, belonged on farms and pods in vegetable gardens.

Stu Wilson, for his part, said rugby players are in the entertainment business but they are no longer entertaining him.

I don’t blame the players, they have my sympathy, for they are better-prepared athletes today than the likes of Meads or Wilson were in their heyday. The fault can be laid fairly and squarely at the doors of the rule makers and the IRB.

Until rugby reverts back to its purest and simplest form, that of the 14 players creating space for the 15th to score a try, the game is buggered.

A rugby paddock is a narrow channel on which to attack and an easy fortress to defend with 15 men spread-eagled across it. Commit seven or eight of them to a ruck in the middle and you suddenly have space and a resultant meaningful contest.

Southland bids farewell to a good man tomorrow.

Riversdale policeman Jacob Schriek moved into my old home town just after I moved out so thankfully I never got to know him in a professional capacity. But over the past 15 years I got to know him in his capacity as a sports nut.

His contribution to cycling, as an elite athlete and latterly as an administrator, has been well documented in this publication following his tragic passing on the Motatapu Icebreaker last weekend. But his interest and passion for sport went well beyond the two wheels he was so good at peddling around a track at a frightening pace.
God speed Jacob. And if He is speeding up there, I’m sure even He won’t be exempt from a ticket.

Golf, cricket, rugby, league and the magnificent Motatapu. Take your pick. We are truly blessed for sporting options this weekend.

Pride of viewing-place for me is the New Zealand Golf Open at The Hills. I’ll live to regret this but I’ve turned down a weekend of corporate golfing hospitality in deference to my waistline and some training ahead of next month’s Boston marathon.

I guess I could be like my Boston stablemate, Heddon Bush playboy Ken Dykes, and tackle the Motatapu but I figure running 42.2 kilometres on a flat road is tough enough, let alone over a bloody great hill.

To all the runners and mountain-bikers taking part, you have my utmost admiration. Wrap up warmly – especially you Ken with your exposed pate - there’s snow in them there hills!

As for the golf, despite a brave first round effort, it might be too much to ask of Sir Bob Charles to make the cut and repeat his heroics of 2007, so those of you there today might witness one of the all-time sporting greats bid farewell. I hope I’m wrong.

Then there’s the final one-dayer against the Indian batting machine at Eden Park with its invitingly short boundaries. I don’t usually derive enjoyment from seeing my country beaten but to witness Tendulkar, Sehwag and Dhoni in full flight, I’ll make an exception. And across town at Mt Smart the Warriors celebrate super skipper Steve Price’s 300th game in the season opener against Parramatta.

With all the action in Central Otago and great sport on the box, I hope someone’s left in Invercargill tomorrow night to support the Highlanders. And they might need that support against a resurgent and talent-chocked Chiefs.

The Highlanders will have taken great heart from a gutsy, if heinously ugly, win over the crocked Crusaders. Glen Moore has wisely included as many Stags as he can in the starting fifteen and the sight of the Highlanders in their maroon strip is another great PR exercise in garnering hometown support.

A final thought. Isn’t there something seriously awry when we’re contemplating Super 15 (we don’t need another boring team) rugby in January yet we’re trying to play a cricket test in Wellington in the first week of April? Go figure!

Quote of the week: If you want to hit a seven iron as far as Tiger Woods, simply try to lay up just short of a water hazard.