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It's really great to be mixing it with the best

When you win a big tournament on the European Tour which has a lot of World Ranking Points you get invites to some of the World Golf Championship events.  I'd attended the WGC event in Shanghai at the end of last season and also received an invite to the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club for this season through wining the Dunhill Links Championship last season.  I'd been looking forward to this trip to America ever since! It's my first trip to America as a Pro, and the first time I'll have played in America since 2002.

Fairway, the European Tours travel agent helped Bev and I with our flights to Akron via Chicago. They generally receive better terms from British Airways than we do as individual passengers, but BA are so busy with the Olympics at the moment that all flights are non-changeable and non-refundable! We decided to spend a few days in Chicago acclimatising to the heat, time zone and site seeing as we'd never been there before.  It was great to see the windy city on Lake Michigan, it's a big city but it's more relaxed in the Mid-West than it would be in New York, or some of the Eastern Cities. 

We arrived into Akron on Sunday evening, formerly known as "rubber city" as so many tyre manufacturers were located here and were met by a brand new Cadillac.  Our driver took us to the hotel and handed me the keys to the car saying "this is your car now for the week".  I was a little confused and asked if she was joking, but apparently not - it's sure not like this on the European Tour!  We stand in queue at one of the car hire desks for up to an hour waiting on a banged up car which has cost a fortune for the week.  Here they give you a car with 50 miles on it and let you go! Unbelievable!
First thing on Monday I met with my new Caddy James Baker in the locker room.  James is a former caddy of Jamie Donaldson's having worked with him for 5 years.  We spent a little time going through the yardages I hit each club as players distances vary a little from club to club.  I had 3 really good years with Owen Craig, my caddy from Newtownards but we both agreed after the Open in Lytham that it was time for a change.  Owen is a fantastic caddy and has helped me a lot.  He was the guy helping me through Q-school back in 2008, so we've been through a lot together!  He's even tried to help Bev understand the game, and for that he deserves a medal!  It's a little bizarre meeting a new caddy, kinda like a first date with a new girlfriend, and it's something I hadn't experienced in a while so I was a little nervous!  But James is a great guy and things seemed to go well.
I played 9 holes with Lee Slattery on Monday morning, both first time for us at Firestone.  We noticed on the first green how fast and slopey they were.  Sometimes short putts have 4 or 5 feet of break in them here and they are so fast it's like putting on glass; they are totally different to the greens we play on in Europe.  The rough was also very thick and the fairways were very narrow.  It was going to be a tough test.  The site was already busy with people - staff and volunteers; I could only imagine what it would be like with the crowds!  I spent the rest of Monday hitting balls, putting and having a rub from Shane.  Bev and I then headed out to find a restaurant.  We found a place in downtown Akron, a little Italian American style diner with good spaghetti Bolognese but not the highest calibre restaurant in the world.  Bev's pizza was amazing though - that thick base stuff you get tastes really good but is so bad for you!

Tuesday was much the same; I played another 9 holes with Slats. I was struggling a bit but he was hitting it really well, and continued to all week finishing tied 8th which is a great effort on your first visit to the Bridgestone.  We found a much classier affair right beside last night's restaurant - it was proper restaurant food like you get in Belfast.  I couldn't believe that Americans actually dressed to go to dinner; I'd never been anywhere before that required more than a t-shirt and short combo.  The spaghetti Bolognese here was truly amazing, the best I might have eaten anywhere!
I decided to start earlier on Wednesday and GMAC joined me for 9 holes on the 10th green, the galleries had arrived and it was hard work moving from green to the next tee-box.  Graeme and I signed a lot of items as we walked off each green, adding a lot to the time required for the practice round.  I couldn't believe how many people had turned up for the practice day; they seem much more into it than on the European Tour.  We allowed Ricky Fowler and Bubba Watson to play through as they were moving much faster than either Graeme or I, thankfully most of the crowd went with them.  I find it a little exhausting playing in-front of so many people.  I also noticed they never sign anything between green and tee, but they both spend a lot of time around the clubhouse fencing signing things for the kids.  It certainly makes the practice round more focused and it's something I'll try from now on.  GMAC has played there a number of times and shared some of tips with me.  When the greens are as fast as they are you just can't hit beyond the pin, it was best to try and leave all putts being uphill.

I had a great draw early without being too early on Thursday morning and I was paired with the young Englishman Tom Lewis.  He's also been making swing changes over the last few months; a bit like me he's finding it difficult to have any consistency at the moment.  We didn't drive the ball well enough, and the rough punished us.  We both carded 78s.  I also changed nationality for the day, the PGA tour had me on the website and score board as Irish but James had the NIR flag on his shirt beside my name so I was a little confused.  Bev politely informed the Tour that I was the same as Rory, GMAC and Darren.  I think they got the message as I had a NIR flag on the board on Friday much to Richard Gough's (former Rangers Captain and Jamie's older brother) satisfaction!  I was dejected after the round, but after 45 minutes in the air con and a bite of lunch I was good to go to the range with Jamie.  An hour later I was in better spirits as we headed home at the end of the day, happy with the practice session we'd just completed.  That evening we discovered a new restaurant right on one of the lakes, definitely one of the better places to eat in the area.  It was called the Old Harbour Inn set on Portage Lake, with a little dock to tie up the boats.  It had great steak and sea food.  The food was great and in huge portions and we could people watch taking in the beautiful scenery.

Friday was a later tee-time, 1pm.  I was happier with the round as I showed some improvement; I hit a lot more fairways.  The highlight being the iron shot I played into the 3rd even though I pulled t a little, it had to sail high over a tree and land within 5 feet of the pin and the birdie on 14, my first in America, requested by Bev's Dad.  It was even hotter on Friday, and I struggled a bit in the heat, but it generally feels hotter the worse you're playing.  When I finished at 5 pm it was still 97 Fahrenheit (36 Celsius) and humid.

Saturday was an early time with Robert Allenby.  It's good to see players who've made millions from the game still make poor shots, you realise you're not the only one struggling a little.  I was playing much better than the previous 2 days; I was 2 under after 12 holes.  Unfortunately I 3 putted the 16th after 2 quality shots and again on the 18th for bogey to finish on level.  70 is a good score around Firestone and I was happy with the improvements in my game.  It was also the first time I've ever had to call a physic onto the course, I pulled something in my neck and Shane came out to see me on the 10th fairway.  I had to lie down on the ground on the side of the fairway while he manipulated my neck, much to the crowd's bemusement.  As we were leaving Lee Westwood was finishing up.  He shot 81 just so he could play with me early Sunday morning! We went back to the same restaurant on Saturday night, the third night in a row.  It was quality again and the staff were quite bemused when we arrived.
Sunday was a later start as there was bad weather forecast; I was second to last group out as the tour had made a U-draw and sent us out in 3 balls from 2 tees.  The tee-time was delayed by 3 hours by a thunder storm and we eventually got out at 12:45.  Thankfully the delay meant we could see the men's tennis final at the Olympics.  Go Murray!  We had the game on, with commentary in the dining room.  The atmosphere was great as everyone watched him play. 

I'd been a little concerned that we may not get to play.  I'd never played with Lee before and I was hoping we wouldn't get cancelled.  He was a little disappointing; he missed a lot of fairways on Sunday, his game not quite in the top spot.  It was good to see how he reacted to each of the poor shots, and it gives me hope that the World number 3 is struggling a little here too.  I was 1 under after 11 holes, only to finish on plus 2.  Thankfully I got a lot more good swings in before next week's event at the US PGA.  I was the second last man in!  It was a quick shower and then straight to the airport for our flight to Chicago.  We were held on the runway as all the private jets left Akron headed direct to Charleston, South Carolina for the PGA.  How the other half travel!  Bev and I were on a small commercial flight back to Chicago for an overnight stay in a hotel close to the airport and then an early morning flight to Charleston.  On arrival in Chicago we were surprised to see Simon Dyson collecting his luggage from our flight; we hadn't even seen him get on the plane!

It was a great week and a huge learning experience for me, hopefully I can take the experience from this week into next week as I play in my second major as a pro!  What a season its turning out to be!