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Golf: County punching above its weight; TEEING OFF.

Byline: TIM TAYLOR

THE Northern Counties League season starts for Northumberland against champions Yorkshire at Morpeth on Saturday and there is often an alleged piece of wisdom offered before such a fixture.

It runs along the lines of the comparatively smaller county (which had 42 clubs to choose golfers from) offering the excuse in advance it has next to no chance against the big county (192 clubs) and the smaller county starts making noises about splitting Yorkshire into regions to give everybody else a chance.

Well, let's wind back to 2006, the season Northumberland won the title for the third time. Their captain, Kevin Cademy-Taylor, took the alternative view before the match against Yorkshire at Bamburgh Castle. "No, let's keep the tournament the way it is," he said.

"Bring them on - we can beat them."

And they did.

So it was interesting to accept an invitation to join Northumberland at their Golf Excellence Camp weekend at Matfen Hall, where I was surprised to find myself watching a DVD clip from the film Any Given Sunday. By all accounts the film is forgettable, but the clip was of an American football coach, played by Al Pacino, giving a team-talk.

I would defy anybody to watch that and not feel motivated enough to think about getting in the ring with Joe Calzaghe, let alone sinking a kneeknocker at the last to win a golf match for the county.

The weekend timetable covered warm-ups, distance control and the short game, fitness and flexibility, a foursomes match, a bunker challenge, a nine-hole competition, a presentation and discussion sessions.

At one of the talk-ins, even the youngest golfer there, Jack Hermeston, a 12-year-old nine handicapper from Newcastle United, happily took his turn introducing himself. And here's something different, a half-hour session on TCUP - Thinking Correctly Under Pressure. To illustrate this, the captain organised a game which involved the golfers splitting into relay teams, each man taking it in turn to travel from a few yards off the green to take a putt and then return to the back of the queue his team had formed.

The first team to hole 10 consecutive putts won. It was all about pacing how fast you moved to take your putts without losing composure. That's TCUP.

For DVD back-up there was a clip illustrating the tactics the England Rugby Union team used to put Jonny Wilkinson in position for the drop-kick with which he won the World Cup.

The team of coaches for the development weekend was headed by The Journal's Dr John, the laid-back John Harrison, who - as the man whose guidance has helped Kenneth Ferrie win twice on the European Tour - was in effect Al Pacino's understated understudy.

Harrison, who also coaches County Durham, was backed up by the City of Newcastle professional, Steve McKenna and his brother, John, from Tynemouth - golf being one of the few sports where top county amateurs receive coaching from professionals.

The sheer volume of logistics involved in organising a weekend that ran like clockwork added up to well over 100 hours of volunteer effort put in both by captain Cademy-Taylor, a member of Newcastle United and De Vere Slaley Hall, and his wife Lynne who is also a golfer.

The benefit of it all will be that Yorkshire will run up against a Northumberland team who fully understand the benefits of looking out for each other, the way Europe's Ryder Cup side do.

Two senior players - Phil Ridden, from City of Newcastle, and Newcastle United's Simon Lee - gave up their time to offer their experience to the younger players, putting something back into the county development programme from which they have both benefited in the past.

As coach Harrison put it: "There is not really any youth golf anymore. Good young golfers these days are expected to be ready to play county golf when they are 18."

As an example of what is possible Jack Walling, the eight-year-old golf prodigy from Matfen Hall was, coincidentally, on the driving range on the Saturday morning of Excellence Camp, taking the opportunity to joyfully show off both his "Tiger Woods swing" and his "John Daly swing."

Jaws dropped all around us, even though young golfers nearby were whacking range balls out of sight off Maffen's new launch monitor at speeds reaching 118mph. Back with the big boys, Ridden was as flexible as the best of them when it came to perfecting the core control exercises explained in the hotel dance studio by the county golf physio, Louise Lewis, who works with the coaches on conditioning golfers for the dynamics of the golf swing.

Ridden was looking inconspicuous in his Hawaiian shorts and Newcastle United football top, bearing the word "power". This is unconnected with his golf game, it is because he looks like the darts player Phil "The Power" Taylor.

While the golfers were gathering in the dance studio for the fitness and flexibility session, Bellingham's Will Robson, last year's 17-year-old runner-up in The Journal Champion of Champions tournament, spotted a speed ball normally used by boxers.

A former schoolboy football left-back good enough to turn out for a Newcastle United Academy age-group team, Robson also played his way up the Tynedale rugby club's teams as a flyhalf before he concentrated on golf.

Watching him effortlessly beat out a flawless rhythm on the speed ball, a difficult piece of equipment to master quickly, you got the impression that - unlike many golfers - young Will needs TCUP instruction about as much as I need a box of doughnuts.

Watch out for this lad. Throughout the ages, the vast majority of the truly great golfers have been natural athletes and Robson is a magnificent striker of a golf ball.

He's The Journal's tip for the top.

TO contact the golf physio, ring Gosforth-based Louise Lewis, from golfit, on (07986) 563175.

Let's keep the tournament the way it is. Bring them on - we can beat them

CAPTION(S):

PART OF THE COUNTY SET Phil 'The Power' Ridden, getting in trim to square up to the champions. PICTURE: Emily Barber; YOUNGEST Jack Hermeston, 12.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 8, 2008
Words:1015
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