By Paul Mahoney
Kevin Pietersen is smashing sixes. The thing is, at St Andrews, the key to scoring well is to keep the ball inside the boundaries. One of England’s greatest ever batsmen was practising on the range at St Andrews before making his debut in the celebrity-filled pro-am format of the Dunhill Links Championship.
He was testing TaylorMade’s new M1 driver. Pietersen is about 10 feet tall and built like a rugby player so when he makes the right connection, his ball sails straight back over the bowler’s head and over the horizon. But when he gets it wrong, he’s caught out on the ropes. It’s a volatile marriage of talent, timing and brute strength harnessed to the latest in TaylorMade’s precision engineering and innovation.
Pietersen admitted he had been struggling so much with his driving that he had chucked his big stick out of the bag. Yet the lure of this shiny new M1 was too much to resist. With a technician watching and tweaking the weights in the clubhead, the 12-handicapper loved the feel or it so much he decided to take it out onto the course for his first ever round at the Old Course. “I’ve got a good swing and I can hit the ball really well,” Pietersen said. “I have shot 78s and 80 but I can shoot a 95, too. I can play to 12 but I can also play to 24 quite easily.”
There was no chance of him unleashing the M1 from the first tee in front of the R&A clubhouse. So he slapped a 4-iron towards mid on then fired a 6-iron straight at the flag. Easy par. “I feel relaxed now that I’m away from the crowd,” he said on the 2nd tee. He shot 10 over par. A fine effort for a St Andrews debut. A terrific effort when he revealed he’d played his first ever links course only the day before. Instead of a gentle introduction to the original and ancient art of the game, Pietersen took a crash course in how to survive a links course at the toughest of them all – Carnoustie. What on earth was he thinking? He laughed. “I did that in my cricket career, too. I went and played against South Africa in South Africa as an Englishman who had come from South Africa. An introduction to the hard parts of sport is something where I have probably got used to. So why not do it in golf? Pietersen said. “It was straight into the deep end. “I actually did okay. I was four over par through the front nine and then I lost it a little bit coming home – 16, 17 and 18 were interesting. By that, he meant tough. I pared the 18th but at the 250-yard par-three 16th, I went out of bounds twice. What a clown that I am does when you see you have to hit it a long distance is you try and hit it as hard as possible instead of slowing your swing down.” The weather at Carnoustie and St Andrews was a barmy Indian summer. “I have a high ball flight,” Pietersen said. “If it had been windy with sideways rain, I’d have been screwed!”
He has only been playing golf since July last year when he moved to Sunningdale in Surrey. Not surprisingly, he caught the bug. “I love golf,” he said. “We live by Wentworth and I play almost every day. After doing the school run, I have breakfast in the clubhouse, warm up on the range for half an hour, play 18 holes, pick my son up, and go home. My wife used to be a cricket widow. Now she’s become a golf widow.”
Pietersen has been a global ambassador for adidas since 2005 hence he was one of the first non-tour pros to get his shovel like hands around the grip of the M1 driver. “TaylorMade is in the family,” he said. “For a complete amateur, they have been amazing for me.”
He said golf could learn from the way cricket has re-invented itself with shorter formats to appeal to a younger audience. “Kids get bored. I talked to some influential people in the pub the other night and they are really worried,” he said. “They say the grassroots level is a struggle. I think a six-hole format should come in to golf. But what is going to be amazing and inspirational is the golf in the Olympics next year,” he said. “I’ve won the Ashes, beaten India in India, and won a World Cup. But to win an Olympic Gold would be better than winning the Open or the Masters. You get the chance to win those every year. But to win a gold medal at the Olympics? Huge.”
Not surprisingly, another TaylorMade elite amateur athlete agrees with him. Sir Steve Redgrave’s five Olympic gold medals rather outplay his 14 handicap but he, too, cannot wait to watch golfers chasing a gold medal. “It’s the ultimate,” Redgrave said. “A lot of critics say golf shouldn’t be in Rio because it’s a professional sport and the Olympics should be for amateurs. But we’re all professionals. The only difference is we didn’t get paid. But the passion and desire was exactly the same,” he said. “For the people than win, that’s going to be classed as a major. In some respects it’s even harder than that because you only have one chance to win in every four years.”
Redgrave, too, was test-driving the M1. “My driving is not too bad at the moment so it’s always a bit worrying trying something new just before what is my biggest golfing event of the year,” he said “It’s like changing the oars before a big race because it’s all about the grip and that feeling that comes through your fingertips to the palm of your hands. But I’m going to give it a bash,” he said. “If it bashes well, I’ll keep it in the bag.”
To finish, here’s one of our favorite pics from the Old Course (Credit: Howard Boylan)