x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

On a UK summer holiday, a course to learn golf

Melanie Swan uses a break in the UK to tackle her golf swing at the Grove, a converted summer mansion and spa.

Handout photo: The Grove - pool, Hertfordshire, UK. Photo courtesy The Leading Hotels of the World.
Handout photo: The Grove - pool, Hertfordshire, UK. Photo courtesy The Leading Hotels of the World.

The Tiger Woods grip, I am told, is the best to learn: firm and accurate. Given that I don't know a birdie from a par or a putter from a driver, who am I to disagree? Left index finger interlocked with my right little finger - this is my first real golfing experience.

Previously, my only time at a club of any description was the odd game of pitch-and-putt or crazy golf, which happens about once every two years. I thought I was too accident-prone to be let loose on a golf course, and never thought that I'd see myself teeing off. Yet, since many of my male friends have been taking up the hobby, I've succumbed to the pressure to give it a try.

When I arrive for the lesson, my teacher, Andy McMahon, asks me what sports I play that may help my swing. None, I told him, although I had for many years played rounders, cricket and tennis at school. Little did I realise how good it is that I have fitness and flexibility through years of yoga on my side. I feel nervous but Andy soon puts me at ease, making jokes and finding out more about my background curious to find out how I'd ended up there.

He also proves to be a patient teacher. He has been at the Grove for nearly six years, so the 29-year-old is well accustomed to teaching at all levels. He turned professional nine years ago and became a fully qualified PGA professional five years ago, working his way up the ladder at the club from assistant professional to head.

Andy tells me that there are four stages to a lesson but most people only get through the first, the grip. Next up is the swing. Andy tells me to have a go saying that it must "feel natural". Then, somewhat worryingly, he promises to show me how the experts do it.

Having spent no time observing the likes of Mickelson or Singh, I take the club in my hands, clench my teeth and give it a huge whack, as if I'm playing cricket. I quickly learn that this sport is far harder than it looks, missing the ball on my first attempt and taking a chunk out of the grass while I'm at it.

Point made, Andy takes me through the stance to maintain while swinging, teaching me how to move my body, keeping the feet flat and the back leaning forward, flat, from the hips. It is a lot to think about and here's where the importance of flexibility comes in. Once my body started to move forward in the direction of the moving ball, with the club and my body twisting round nearly 360 degrees, I started to realise why he asked me if I had any niggling injuries. The whole body is - and should be - involved in each and every hit.

My success is limited, at least at first. The ball travels 20 metres or so each time I hit it - which isn't every time - and not necessarily straight. But the better my stance becomes, the straighter the ball travels, reinforcing just how important shot preparation is. Together we work on the follow-through, the part of the swing that makes the ball travel great distances. I quickly start to feel muscles I barely use day-to-day. Those in my forearm and my wrist throb for days afterwards.

It was all far more physically taxing than I imagined, but my yoga-induced flexibility gave me an advantage. For many, Andy says, fitness is their first stumbling block and newbies are unable to sustain an hour's practice. I'm surprised to be told that I'm a natural, managing to quickly sail through the stages of instruction - much to the chagrin of my male friends, who are sure it is a "male sport".

When friends suggested retreating to the English countryside last summer, the Grove, in Hertfordshire near Watford, seemed to be the perfect choice - a converted 19th-century mansion in 121-hectare grounds, rolling hills overlooking the nearby canal, not too far from London but with a world-class golf course. I am always keen to try a new sport, so it seemed like a great way to have a country escape and explore something new. The house was originally built for the Earls of Clarendon and now has 211 rooms and 16 suites, thanks to a new wing. With its low ceilings and original architectural features such as wooden beams, it has an intimate feel, almost like your own country home.

The nearest town is Chandler's Cross, a short drive away, but the grounds are surrounded by several miles of parkland. We use the hotel's bikes and maps to ride along the Grand Union canal, cycling through the local forest and past the golf course. A relatively easy ride which is mainly flat, it makes a lovely addition to the stay for those with a penchant for staying active, and enjoying the fresh air. The spa is a great place to relax after a round of golf or else there is a croquet and bowls lawn, tennis courts, a lido and even a mock-up mini beach, inside the walled garden.

Many UK golf clubs are members-only stuffy affairs, where strict dress codes and handicaps rule, and not somewhere I'd have had the confidence to take to the greens. The main attraction of a hotel golf course is that newcomers are made to feel welcome and this particular 18-hole course has attracted the likes of the England football team, Colin Montgomerie and even Kylie Minogue.

On top of wanting to join in with my friends and try out a new sport, my inner, competitive self wants to show them that girls can do it, too. The sport of golf is still dominated (98 per cent) by men, so a lesson at the Grove is the chance for me to go up against the boys. My friends have only been playing for around six months and are only too happy to have the chance to play on this course which saw Tiger Woods win the 2006 World Golf Championship.

All in all I hit 100 balls with all my strength. It's tiring; I'm holding the club too tightly and putting all my physical energy into it, but the thrill of hitting one full throttle with a driver - the club for getting real distance on the ball - can't be beaten, especially when it goes around 60 metres and relatively straight in the first lesson.

The satisfaction of learning so much so quickly is very satisfying - if mentally draining. After just one hour, I now feel confident enough to say I'd go to a driving range in Dubai, at least knowing the difference between "chipping the ball" a short distance, and "driving it" with all my might.

Practising just once a week can lead to great improvement, according to Andy: a series of six to 10 lessons would see me on the greens in no time, he says. By the time my 60 minutes is up I feel confident that in a short time, I could catch up with the boys.

Friends who try the Grove course tell me it is the best they have played. Here, anyone can walk off the street and play on a Championship golf course, which means that people need not be fearful about the level of their handicap. No wonder the Grove is widely known as England's top pay-and-play facility.

If you go

The flight

Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to London cost from Dh3,275, including taxes

The stay

Double?rooms at the Grove (www.thegrove.co.uk; 00 44 1923 807 807) cost from £295 (Dh1,683) per night. Golf rates start from £89 (Dh507) per round. A one-hour golf lesson costs £80 (Dh503); a starter package costs £300 (Dh1,696), including six 30-minute lessons. The players package costs £450 (Dh2,544) for six one-hour lessons

mswan@thenational.ae