ARoundWithRog - Home to Wales & Northern Ireland
After completing this gruelling challenge, I have at last resurfaced! I cast my mind back to all the messages of support that I had in the run up to the event. Failure in my mind was not an option, but that had to be kept at the forefront of my mind at all times during the challenge for the sake of all who had made the challenge possible and for the sake of those meeting me every day. . . . . . :
The last Saturday that I could attend, immediately preceding the start of the challenge, saw me win the Saturday morning Earlybirds 'roll up'. The term is used to describe the weekly stableford competition with up to 39 other gents who turn up ready to play at 07.30 on most Saturdays throughout the year. In four years of being a member of my golf club, this, of all Saturdays was my first opportunity to experience the sweet taste of victory. How good did it feel, having asked these gents if they wanted to play golf as part of the challenge, then to pay to guess how many shots it would take me to complete all of the rounds of golf, to then be presented with £80 prize money? Normally, this is used to buy all participants a drink and any little that remains is yours to keep. Immediately someone shouted out that I should put it into the fund, so I offered to do so if they all agreed to go without their drink!! I am not sure if it was true democracy in action, but sometimes quick thinking with a little peer pressure not to opt out achieves results! £80 prize money was added to the appeal to help it along the way.
This had to be a good omen, but there were a few problems still to be solved. My new Taylor Made custom fit golf clubs that I had agreed to use for the challenge had not arrived. That turned out not to be insurmountable, as they arrived the morning I was due to leave. Just back from Spain and making final preparations, I packed up enough gear into the bike's two panniers and club carrier in order to survive a couple of days before Ana arrived in Wigan with the support vehicle, providing me with the wherewithal to have a realistic chance of staying clean, dry and with changes of clothing to ensure I matched my smart appearance with the very smartest golf clubs in the land.
Nick, a neighbour who I often ride with, has a Harley Softail Deluxe. It, as most Harleys do, sounds great and looks even better. He had taken Thursday and Friday off work in order to join me on the first leg of the trip. We arrived in Cardiff having experienced only a handful of summer showers feeling relieved that my untested club carrier had completed its first trunk journey without incident. This was a great relief given what lay ahead.
We settled into our hotel room, the first of many provided by MacDonald Hotels and Resorts free of charge (although in Cardiff's case by the time we stayed there, it had been sold to Mercure). The welcome was warm, the staff knew about the challenge and had read about it via my website on Writebuzz. Already I was experiencing my own buzz associated with the 'Oh s***, this really is happening now'.
The bikes were parked out in front of the hotel and despite the unusual appendage strapped to the back of my bike, along with many stickers with the route, images and web addresses of sponsors all over the bike and carrier, it irked me a little to see a whole series of people at the entrance to the hotel passing comment on what a lovely bike Nick's was.
The following morning, I had an appointment with BBC Three Counties Radio to have a telephone conversation about the challenge I was undertaking. This was to be my second radio interview with this station. On the first one, it transpired that the DJ rode a Harley. He had asked me why not ride a Harley. Dutifully, I told of Nick's head turning bike, and that he had been able to join me on an overnight trip. However, I was going to be gone for three weeks and Nick had to head home, suggesting that while his bike undoubtedly looks good and sounds great, it is not designed for long distance touring and load carrying! 'Fair cop', the DJ conceded.
At 11.30, we arrived at Royal Porthcawl Golf Club in what I had expected to be typical Welsh weather - drizzle. However, this being coastal, the drizzle was coming in sideways, courtesy of the stiff breeze. Priorities were to check the tee time booking, meet my playing partners, plan food and have a warm up on the practice ground. Liam, Mark and Gareth had all already arrived and were soaking themselves in the fantastic traditional atmosphere of the clubhouse. As out tee time of 2pm approached, it was clear that unless I wanted to go and practise in the rain, I would just have to trust that the new clubs from Taylor Made would be fine. Soon I rationalised that they would have to be, as I wouldn't have the spare set until tomorrow (they were coming in the support car with my wife, Ana), so that saved me getting prematurely wet.
Photo shoot completed with the dramatic coastline stretching out before us, there were only fairways bordered by deep rough, vertical faced bunkers and greens to interrupt the view. My partners invited me to tee off and open the challenge to set the 21 days clock ticking. It was a sobering reminder that with a bag full of shiny, unused clubs, this would be their maiden shot - a bag of the great unswung! Understandably, I was desperate that it should be a good one, or at least not a bad one. After all, in the nick of time, while the breeze had stiffened further, thankfully it had stopped raining and looked set to continue improving. A few air swings to warm up my muscles completed, I relaxed into the shot and sent a reasonable 200 yard drive into the light rough up the left side of the hole. A bogey five followed and I was under way - only 359 holes to go. Nearly forgot - add a 2000+ mile ride into the mix!
An excellent round with wind making a drive travel as little as 180 yards into the teeth of the wind and as much as 320 yards downwind. Well, perhaps not an excellent round of scoring, but a hugely enjoyable one. After some fundraising activities in the clubhouse, Nick and I returned to Cardiff to meet another biking friend Eugene, who would ride through Wales with me on the following day, to ensure my safe passage to Wigan. That evening, over dinner at a Thai restaurant, my eyes were heavy enough to doze off to Eugene's soothing Scottish accent, while Nick and he found out more about each other. Day one, wind, rain and exhaustion seemed to have arrived already. Perhaps the night before, we should have cut and run from the city centre earlier, instead of continuing to collect sponsorship late into the night. Nick had needed some money and went to a hole in the wall cash machine. A mixed group approached; while they waited, I told them what we were doing and asked for sponsorship, to which the claim of having no money put me immediately into taking the initiative again. 'Here you are at the cash machine, just make sure that you take out an extra tenner!' They obliged with coinage that had been mysteriously present all along and the funds swelled by seven or eight pounds. Nick couldn't believe my cheek, but it certainly set the scene for that first evening when we enjoyed raising more than £120 for my appeal!
On Saturday morning, we all set off in the rain. Nick back to High Wycombe and Eugene and I north through the Brecon Beacons and through Wales. Fantastic riding roads and a variety of conditions passed before we arrived ahead of a black cloud that looked ready to drop its load. We parked up in Oswestry's Little Chef ready for some late lunch fayre. As we parked the bikes a gent whose biking days were in all probability over approached me and made his assessment. 'I've been reading about this' he shared. 'Right' I interjected, followed by a pause to see if he really had read about my challenge. 'Yes, this is one of those new gas powered bikes that I've been reading about'! He had mistaken the case containing my golf clubs for a gas cannister.
As the ride approached its end, I realised that I had not been sufficiently organised to buy an anniversary card for Ana. She was singularly unimpressed that of all the nights to be spending on a ferry, it was to be the 20th May. No allowance would be made for the logistics of such a complex event resulting in us spending our anniversary night on the ferry. So I had to stop in Wigan and dive into WHSmith five minutes before closing for that all important card.
We were staying at Kilhey Court Hotel and were joined by good friends Max Fox, Paul Crook with wife Sandra and Paul Beard. The guys had been watching the FA Cup Final but were waiting for my arrival to help us celebrate our anniversary a day prematurely. Champagne, wine and a good feed later, we were tucked up to recharge the batteries for the road ahead. Ana had experienced a very easy journey to Wigan, mainly due to the football being on, but had experienced a tough time packing up all my belongings that needed to go with us. Contingency seemed a key priority, so old bike helmet and leathers to spare set of golf clubs had to accompany her. Then there were teddy bears from Leukaemia Reseach and other fundraising paraphernalia plus all the cans of Red Bull, Eat Natural bars for my sustenance and survival for when a normal home eating routine would be tough to keep up. Add to that all the clothing for three weeks on the road plus the all important Trooper Golf electric trolley that had been donated to assist me in achieveing my goal. It was hard to believe that the BMW X3 that had been lent by BMW UK for the event was packed up to the window line with both back seats folded down!
The following day, Hillside Golf Club reminded me of the need to use my theory that forgiveness is far easier to gain than permission. Fortunately the pro acceded to my request to park the bike on the golf course side of the clubhouse where people would see it, but suggested that if the secretary had been there, permission may have been much more difficult. This gave me a good opportunity to engage people and raise funds. The golf course was very challenging but also extremely picturesque, especially the par 5 11th. The course is a mixture of traditional links with pine trees mixed in. It creates a wonderful challenge as well as a slightly different course to the many old traditional links that I was still to play.
Hillside's 18th hole borders its more famous neighbour Royal Birkdale - one of only four golf clubs who refused to offer me a free tee time to support my challenge. The others were Royal Liverpool, Muirfield and Kingsbarns. I only name them here as this is the question that has repeatedly fascinated people. I do not wish to in any way criticise them for their decisions - indeed in 2006, Muirfield and 2007, Kingsbarns have offered a free day to one of my supported charities - the Anthony Nolan Trust, to assist in their fundraising programmes. Anyway, you cannot coerce people into giving - it should be encouraged, but never forced.
A high calorie pizza was required, so Ana had spied a Pizza Express on the main drag at Southport. Southport is a very lovely part of the country and is centre of England's Golf Coast with top courses such as Hillside, Southport and Ainsdale, Formby, Royal West Lancs as well as Royal Birkdale being all very local.
The bike was parked directly outside the restaurant and had attracted plenty of attention and thus conversation, to the extent that we were a little later than intended setting off for the ferry at Birkenhead. No problem though, we would still arrive with about 50 minutes before the sailing time. I arrived to find all the gates closed and no sign of Ana or Max. Quickly I checked that I was at the correct terminal and that the ship had not left, before ringing Max. They had missed the turning after exiting the Birkenhead tunnel and ended up arriving at the Mersey ferry terminal. Quickly I was asked to proceed through the re-opened gates to the ferry, but I refused until I knew Max and Ana would definitely make it there. They confirmed they had spoken to Max so onto the ship I went - one of two ships at the jetty. On the right was a ship covered in the Norfolkline logo, but I had boarded the left hand ship, signed to Belfast, not giving the livery any thought. I later learnt that as Ana followed Max down to the ship in the right hand lane, the Norfolkline ship that Ana clearly expected to be the Belfast ferry caused the roadway gangplank on which they were parked to vibrate as it set sail for Ireland. Ana yelled to Max, 'it cannot go without us'! to which Max responded 'Yes it can. . . . and it has. . . . . . but that one is going to Dublin!' Up on deck, I watched the famous Liverpool skyline slip past as we left port and set our course across the Irish Sea for Belfast.
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