Tension mounts for final round of MCB Tour Championship 2013

Golf journalist Matt Cooper is reporting on the final day of the MCB Tour Championship 2013 at Constance Belle Mare Plage, Mauritius. As play begins, here’s how things are looking.

Legend golf course, Constance Belle Mare Plage

Legend golf course, Mauritius

It would be foolish to entirely discount all but the top two on the leaderboard, but it does seem likely that the winner will come from the final group and the battle is an intriguing one.

Leading the tournament by three shots on 11-under-par is Englishman Paul Wesselingh, a three-time winner on tour this year and the current holder of top spot in the Order of Merit.
 
Up against him, on eight-under-par and three shots clear of third, is Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, an eight-time European Tour Order of Merit winner and eight-time Ryder Cup player.
 
Follow Matt Cooper on Twitter @MattCooperGolf

A special golfing week in Mauritius on the Legend and Links courses

“We’ve been coming for years,” said my Constance Hotels & Resorts Pro-Am partner David pointing to the third member of our team, Patrice. “We love it here. You’ll see why over the next two days.”
Links at Constance Belle Mare Plage

Links course

 
Behind us, on day one of the tournament, was the driving range and first fairway at the Links course, Constance Belle Mare Plage. High on the hill we could see the rolling terrain, covered with rainforest, through which the course twists and turns.
 
This week is a special one for the resort and the golf courses. In addition to welcoming the world’s finest senior golfers for the MCB Tour Championship, amateur golfers from across the globe fly in to enjoy the Air Mauritius Trophy and/or the Pro-Am itself.
 
For David and Patrice, who are from London and Paris, their annual participation in the Pro-Am is the highlight of their golfing year – a week of fun competition which creates a buzz amongst guests at the hotel. “Everyone talks about the golf at night and congregates round the scores to see how they’re doing,” explains David, “it’s a brilliant atmosphere.”
 
“We also love the fact that Belle Mare Plage has two courses,” he adds. “That makes it stand out from the other resorts on the island because we can always get a tee time and aren’t restricted to one layout.”
 
They were right about one thing: as we made our way down our first fairway I immediately knew I liked the Links course. Undulating fairways creep between huge lumps of volcanic rock, water hazards and thick indigenous rainforest. 
Links course, Constance Belle Mare Plage

Patrice rushes to see where David’s ball has gone on Links

The course, designed by Rodney Wright and Peter Alliss, calls for shot-making and it works for all levels of golfers: short hitters can plot their way round, big-hitters have the opportunity to take risks and gun for par-fives in two, or short par-four greens in one.
 
After concluding our day, David and Patrice, plus Marc Farry, our professional who also has a golf academy at the resort, grinned and told me I’d enjoy round two even more. “The Legend course is going to suit you,” they laughed and I wondered if they weren’t just flattering me a little too much.
 
It turns out they weren’t: the Legends course hosts the MCB Tour Championship this week and it’s little wonder that David Frost and Tom Lehman have excelled there. The course rewards an accurate long game – which is precisely why my team-mates suspected that my pit-a-pat drives and fairway woods would work well.
Legend golf course, Constance Belle Mare Plage

Legend golf course

 
It sounds a little peculiar – given that the trees are heavy with fruit and spices, and the foliage alive with vibrant tropical colours – but the track reminds me of a classic English tree-lined parkland venue (albeit the Bermuda grass greens are very different, as is the temperature and humidity!).
 
Most of the tee shots are hit down narrow funnels and if the course has one advantage over the Links it is that there are fewer blind shots. Only once does the course open up and when it does so, it does so in style when the dramatic 17th tee presents a wide panoramic view across a cove, over which you hit to a small par-three green.
 
David’s and Patrice’s enthusiasm for the courses and the competition, plus my liking for the Legends challenge, and a second pro (Spain’s Juan Quiros) whose fun attitude lifted our spirits in the heat, all contributed to earning us a top ten finish in the Pro-Am.
 
“See you next year?” asked Patrice with a smile. You know what? I quite fancy trying to make the top five in 2014.
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Colin Montgomerie at the MCB Tour Championship 2013

There is something about Mauritius which makes me think of old-time explorers, ones who came across the island after weeks at sea and were awed by the beautiful beaches, steep mountains and lush trees.

MCB Tour Championship 2013 - Colin Montgomerie tee's off

MCB Tour Championship 2013 – Colin Montgomerie tee’s off

When locals point into those trees at the fruit and spices I can pluck from their branches I genuinely feel like a 16th century traveller, one who might have been awed by the possibilities of trekking inland to discover the local wildlife.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself, on day one of the MCB Tour Championship, excited by the prospect of trailing one of golf’s most famous creatures. No, not the famous golfing Tiger, but an animal whose reputation also goes beyond the game and is built on not only a unique talent, but a personality and facial expressions that are unmistakeably his.

There are plenty of golfers who hide behind wraparound sunglasses and underneath caps. They are rarely excited, rarely reveal their frustrations. Indeed they take great pride in the fact that you cannot tell if they have just made birdie or bogey.

Colin Montgomerie is not one of those golfers.

In fact he has more quirks and idiosyncrasies than entire fields put together. Consider, for example, that habit he has of taking two steps forward in a sentence and one step back – he repeats words like he’s a YouTube video being buffered. It’s extraordinary and uniquely Monty.

He is, as the British say, a bit like Marmite (you either love or hate him). But the fact he inspires passionate responses is good for the game. Better that than 156 automatons standing on the tee.

And on day one at Constance Belle Mare Plage’s Legends course, Monty was, well, not quite in his element (it was too hot for that), but he gave the crowd what they came to see.

He opened with a birdie three at the first hole, but he completed it only after patiently, and with good humour, asking for a few of the fans not to take photos at the wrong moment. On the next tee he repeated the request and laughed: “You don’t want to make my caddie angry.”

Montgomerie & his caddie plan the approach

Montgomerie & his caddie plan the approach

Behind the second green he stopped for a few seconds with fans to watch the deer scurry through the bushes, a peculiarly Christmassy scene in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On the fourth tee he took shade in the trees and joked with the crowds about the boiling temperatures.

It was classic Monty: he’s genuinely quite funny when he interacts with the public, he was also pulling all those over-the-top dramatic facial expressions he likes (and which have a sort of cartoon-like honesty) and his famously languid swing was arrowing the ball at the flag. By the eighth he was five-under-par and leading the tournament.

But on the ninth green he was looking hot and the fact he was distracted by a banging noise coming the clubhouse suggested he was getting bothered. More classic Monty.

On the 13th he hit an approach shot into the trees and followed it with a tee shot on the 14th into the woods. Suddenly it was not Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, but Monty the red faced golfer. (He wasn’t the only one, though – there were red faces everywhere.)

He had chances to recover those dropped shots. But he missed an eight foot birdie putt on the 17th and three-putted from 18 feet having made the par-five final green in two blows.

This is not quite the Monty of old however. He said in the tournament press conference that when the “gun goes off we’re all as competitive as ever”, but he didn’t stomp away from the 18th green this time. His shoulders were slumped, he scrunched his face up and raised his eyebrows in a typically expansive show of bemusement. No-one rushed to ask for his post-round thoughts, but no-one was scared of him either, as they have been in the past.

And he’s only four shots back. He drew the biggest gallery today and is sure to for the rest of the week. It’s still not out of the question that he’ll be in contention come Sunday afternoon – and the back nine on the final day is a habitat Monty is right at home in, even the more cuddly version.

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“On the golf course I have two legs” – An interview with Manuel de los Santos

The annual Dunhill Links Championship is one of the highlights of the European Tour season. It takes place on three great golf courses in and around St Andrews (the home of golf) and it features not only the finest players on tour, but also movie stars, comedians, musicians and sportsmen (plus a handful of businessmen no-one has heard of).

Manuel de los Santos - “On the golf course I have two legs”

Manuel de los Santos

But back in 2009 a very different amateur took part in the event and immediately caught the attention of the watching fans, both on the courses and on television. His name was Manuel de los Santos, he hails from the Dominican Republic and he plays golf with only one leg.

Despite his disability Manuel plays to a handicap of four, thanks to powerful hitting and a delicate touch around the greens.

This week in the run up to the MCB Tour Championship, Manuel has played in both the Air Mauritius Trophy and the Constance Hotels Pro-am, after qualifying via an event in Reunion which he won with his playing partner George Necs.

The prize for that win included transport from Reunion, but Manuel lives in Paris. When MCB and Constance Hotels & Resorts discovered this, they upgraded the prize, a generous offer which has proved popular, not only with the hotel staff – who have followed his group around the course all week – but with locals too.

“It is amazing,” Manuel told me. “I was playing on the Links course and a girl came up to me. She told me that people in the local towns were saying a man plays golf on one leg and so she had to come to see it with her own eyes. I was very pleased to show her!”

It’s pretty clear that Manuel not only inspires other people, but is inspired himself by their interest. And the young girl is not alone: Manuel has many fans across the world, including Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who has given Manuel a 20-minute long-game lesson.

These remarkable encounters were far beyond his imagination ten years ago when, as a promising baseball player, he was hit by a car whilst on his motorbike. Waking from a coma four days later he discovered his left leg had been amputated.

He relocated to Paris with his wife Elena and one night watched the golf movie ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’. Next day he visited a driving range and was hooked: he had found something he could throw his heart into; which offered the prospect of improvement, competition and achievement.

“It also gives me a release,” he said after the first round of the pro-am. “Out on the course, when I am playing golf, I feel peace.”

In addition to travelling the world he competes on the European Disabled Golf Association Tour and hopes one day, like all other disabled golfers, that the sport is included in the Paralympics (there is currently a divergence between disabled golf categories and those of the Paralympic organisation).

He also loves the effect his story has on others. His wife Elena said: “Manuel is very competitive on the golf course, but it is also very important to him to let people know that we can all have our problems and yet all is not lost.”

His latest trip has offered yet more proof of what golf has given him. He and Elena are grateful to MCB and Constance Hotels for the chance to play, but also the opportunity to meet fellow golfers in the tournaments, the staff who have supported him and that young girl who wanted to witness his talent first-hand. “I love golf and I like these courses,” he said, “but those experiences are special.”

Manuel says he has a simple philosophy: “Out on the golf course I have two legs, off it I have one.”

He smiles, shakes my hand and says in farewell: “Remember, my friend – golf is my second leg.”

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Throwing off the fear of winning

Oscar Wilde wrote, “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

The stage is set for the MCB Tour Championship 2013

The stage is set for the MCB Tour Championship 2013

It’s an adage the finest players on the European Senior Tour may not be aware of, but might ponder because they are all aware that late in their career they are being rewarded on the course for the many years of hard work that has gone before.

When I asked Colin Montgomerie to determine the difference between his prime and today he was open and forthright, although initially he joked: “Hang on, I’ve forgotten the question … that’s not a good sign, is it?”

More seriously he added, “I think we all relax more. I’m definitely more relaxed now than I’ve ever been. We’ve all been successful and have nothing to prove, so we relax and enjoy it. And you know what? You tend to do something better if you enjoy it.”

Of course Montgomerie had a stunning career which needs little polishing on the senior tours. He won 31 times on the European Tour (only three men have won more), represented Europe eight times in the Ryder Cup and won it as captain in 2010.

He nods when I ask him to discuss about the narrow margin between victory and close defeat.

“It’s a good question and one I have recent experience of at the AT&T Championship in San Antonio.

“What we, as golfers, all have to accept is that you lose a lot more than you win. If you win three times in a year that’s a great year, but you might have played 30 times so you lose quite a bit.

“At senior level I’ve seen a lot less fear of winning and yet there was a fear of winning on the main tour. No-one throws it away out here – we think: ‘We might as well just go and do it.’

“So the standard of play is very high because of that mentality. You can’t rely on others to make bogies, you’ve got to keep making birdies.”

The Legend, Constance Belle Mare Plage

The Legend, Constance Belle Mare Plage

“That’s what happened in San Antonio – I was two ahead with nine to play, played the back nine in level par and was overtaken by two men. Level par on these events is not good enough and it usually was on the main tour.”

David Frost understood Montgomerie’s point: “Definitely the players have lost that fear. I lost out to Russ Cochran recently – I had a lead with four holes to play, he birdied the last four holes and beat me by one shot!

“I also think that we don’t try so many things. When you’re young you try everything and it’s probably too much. When you get here, you use what got you here.”

Denmark’s Steen Tinning agrees: “You stop trying to be a world champion and you understand your limits.

“And once you are in the zone you keep going on the back nine. But it’s a long process which some of us just had to go through that. It takes a lot of years to gain that experience and I needed that time. Now I have it and I felt comfortable in contention this year.”

The stats back the Dane’s claims up – twice this year he held the lead with 18 holes to play and twice he converted the win.

Like the Montgomerie family, the Tinnings are enjoying the beach and all the facilities at Constance Belle Mare Plage this week. Both are hoping to put their lack of fear into practice if they are in contention come the final round on Sunday.

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Miguel Angel Jimenez – an ageless legend of European golf

There was a time when golfers licked their lips at the prospect of senior golf and as he prepared for his debut in the MCB Tour Championship at Constance Belle Mare Plage Colin Montgomerie admitted that he made that “mistake”.

The red wine is waiting for Miguel Angel Jimenez

The red wine is waiting for Miguel Angel Jimenez

“You turn fifty and think you’ll win lots of events,” he said. “But the standard is very high and I underestimated that.”

All of which makes the performances of Miguel Angel Jimenez on the main tour all the more extraordinary. At a time when most players notice their power wane Jimenez has done the opposite, winning 13 of his 20 European Tour titles since he turned 40.

The most recent of those wins came last week in the Hong Kong Open, less than one month shy of his 50th birthday (and qualification for the Senior Tour), which means all of the players in this week’s field have an eye on the Spaniard’s stunning feats.

Montgomerie knows exactly what ‘The Mechanic’ (as he is better known on tour) has achieved.

“All credit to him to be winning as he turns fifty on the European Tour,” said the Scot. “It’s something I tried to do – and failed – so I realise what he’s done. And it’s also tremendous that he has come back from a skiing injury earlier this year too. That’s tough at any age never mind fifty.”

The latter point prompted Steen Tinning to point out that Jimenez is “sneaky fit“. “Trust me,” said the Dane. “We all know about the red wine and the cigars, but he does his stuff in the fitness centre. He might not look fit, but he is.”

What amazes the world of golf is that the Malaga native’s early career gave no hint at what was to come. Roger Chapman remembers his entrance in the early-1990s: “He was a good player, but he was just that – another good Spanish player and there are lots of them. Not many achieve what he has done.”

So what turned a solid tour pro into a multiple winner with four Ryder Cup appearances? Perhaps the Ryder Cup holds the key because in 1997 many in the sport raised eyebrows when Seve Ballesteros made Jimenez a vice-captain.

He not only helped the team to victory, but was inspired by the experience to become an actor in the production rather than a scene shifter, something Montgomerie appreciates more than most: “I captained the team in 2010 and when we were struggling in the final day singles Miguel came up trumps for me. He was the oldest player in a team of major winners. He’s very good. Very few people improve in their 40s, but he’s one.”

The Ryder Cup remains a motivation. After victory in Hong Kong he was asked about his future on the Senior Tour and said: “If I play the way I am playing this week I will be in the Ryder Cup. I would love to be part of the team again.”

If he does gain selection he will become Europe’s oldest ever Ryder Cup performer. If not the Senior Tour players, currently practising on the Legends course ahead of Friday’s first round, have red wine ready and waiting for him.

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