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Ooi! Tonbo – 10

If there was such a thing as golf porn, that was it. I mean, if you love not just the playing of it but the idea of it. Watching it, thinking about it, arguing about it. Golf is a fascinating and unique sport, probably forcing more decisions at any given moment than any other. But it’s fascinating right down to the design of the layouts on which it’s played. I used to love the old PC-based golf games like Jack Nicklaus Perfect Golf, which let you do course design and then let you play your creations. Course design is a huge part of the game, and its geniuses are almost as revered as the legends of the game itself.

Kuta-san’s one-hole course strikes just the right balance between fantasy and reality. There’s a definite wish-fulfilment quality here. But a rich eccentric genius fleeing to a remote island and designing the perfect golf hole? Sure, you can imagine it. Igaiga is a pro, and he’s going to take the systematic approach that Kuta had in mind when he designed it. He postulates on every option – you sense as much for Tonbo’s benefit as his own. A straight shot – dismissed, as pros avoid that (two possible misses instead of one).  High fade, high draw? A low shot seems out of the question with the strategically places trees Kuta-san has incorporated into the design.

In the end Igaiga plays a draw with his pitching wedge, but – afraid of winding up in the hell bunker short right – overcooks it and plops it into the bunker long left (a fried egg lie, too). A brutal up and down from there, with that slope just behind the pin. So what will Tonbo do? Both men are keen to find out, and she’s keen to test her mettle – her “no second chances!” is music to Igaiga’s ears, as it signals she’s starting to embrace the competitive side of the game. Tonbo puzzles things out for a moment or two, but systematic is not in her nature. She whips out Tsubura’s hybrid Bertha and adopts a weird stance neither Kuta nor Igaiga can intuit out.

The shot she plays – a low skip with hook across the pond – is a real thing. It’s a trick shot, basically – one no serious golfer would ever risk in competition – and that’s exactly how Tonbo came by it, playing “catch” with her schoolboy pals. It’s the shot of someone who plays golf on pure instinct, purely for fun, with no fear of failure. And it works, effectively doing an end run around Kuta’s course design traps and finishing a few yards from the pin. Perfectly legal, if totally unorthodox. She is indeed a monster, there can be no doubt about it.

Kuta acknowledges Tonbo’s particular genius here. But still, he wants a real contest – to see her attack the hole with a conventional shot, try and beat the design he created without mooting it altogether. That means choosing the right club for such a shot – and she chooses an 8-iron, based on Igaiga hitting a pitching wedge and knowing he’s about two clubs longer than she is. But she’s never hit an 8 before, so Tonbo has to puzzle out what her shot will do based purely on instinct and a few practice swings. Which she does, to remarkable effect, executing a high draw that – for a moment – has her a few feet away from the pin.

This is the magic of Tonbo’s golf. A natural, a bakemono, who had to learn how to do everything with one club and a brutally hard one to hit at that, with no one to teach her. All the things golfers do with 14 clubs and a wealth of instruction she had to learn by trial and error with one. Everything those 14 clubs do she learned do with stance and angle of impact and swing plane. As a fan of the sport it’s kind of thrilling to watch, to be honest. But even for Tonbo there are things which only experience can teach – like the fact that 8-irons spin the ball a lot, especially with a high draw.

Last, we get the pleasure of watching Tonbo try and figure out how to hit one of the toughest shots in golf – the long bunker shot. Igaiga ably explains why every possible approach is fraught with difficulty. But this is Tonbo – he may say there are three ways to play the shot, but Tonbo doesn’t have to go by the book when she’s never even seen the book. She cuts across the ball with a sand wedge, playing an explosion shot – which would normally come up short or spin back down the slope – with hook. It’s an audacious and outlandish shot no one would ever teach her to play. Maybe Seve Ballesteros – probably the most imaginative and instinctive short-game artist in golf history – might have played it that way, but he’s probably the only one.

Lastly – once Tonbo races to mark her ball, which is hanging on to the top of the slope by a dimple or two – there’s the par putt. The challenge here is that hill, which has her right foot far below her left at address, making it impossible to get a good feel for the green (there’s also the fact that she’s putting with a 3-iron, which Igaiga is happy to let her do). As usual Tonbo comes up with a unique (again, I could almost see Seve doing it) way to tackle the problem, and drains the putt. It’s such a joy to watch Tonbo deconstruct this complicated game the way she does that one could almost imagine she could become great without every having to do anything else. But that’s now how golf works, and Tonbo will – if she ever gets serious about it – find that out.

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