The Longest Day Golf Challenge has been running since 2009 and, in that time, has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Macmillan Cancer Support. The concept is simple: play four rounds in one day on or around the summer solstice and encourage your family, friends and colleagues to sponsor you, with all money raised going to the hard-working cancer charity. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Eager to find out if that really was the case, our man Michael McEwan took on the challenge this year at Gleneagles. Here's his account of the gruelling event...
BARELY 36 hours after three of my mates and I completed the Longest Day Challenge, there are many words I could use to describe how I'm feeling this morning. Sore. Stiff. Uncomfortable. Exhausted. Bushed. Battered. The list goes on and on.However, above all of these, one word in particular stands out: exhilarated. I might currently have the same range of movement as a tree and a headache that refuses to budge but I am absolutely, completely exhilarated to have not just taken on the Longest Day Challenge but conquered it.
Everyone who takes on a stamina-sapping feat of endurance such as this has their own reasons for doing so and I'm no different so, if you'll indulge me, here's a bit of my back-story.
First and foremost, I love a challenge. Over the past couple of years, I've run two marathons, have completed more half-marathons and 10km runs than I care to remember, have cycled from Glasgow to Edinburgh in the annual 'Pedal For Scotland' bike race and, as recently as last year, was contemplating swimming the English Channel before I turn 30. That happens in February, so that one's out the window now, but it gives you an idea of what I'm about.
Plus, my family is no different to any other family in so much as it has been affected by cancer in the past. It took my grandfather in 1994, for example. It has also intruded on the lives of many other people close to me. It is, without question, the most evil and unwelcome of illnesses. It's also becoming more widespread. Sure, the prevention rates are improving and the number of people beating the disease are getting better - but it's not going away. Not by a long shot. In fact, it is reckoned that by the year 2020, one in two of us will be expected to contract some form of cancer in our lifetimes. It's currently one in three.
That's why charities like Macmillan Cancer Support are so important. Not only do they fund and undertake vital research into preventing and curing the 'Big C', they also provide invaluable care for those afflicted with the illness and their families. Their work is humbling and inspirational - but it costs money. Money to fund the research, money to keep the nurses in work and so on.
That's where they are so reliant on us folk. You and me. They need us to help underwrite some of their considerable costs - and that's where events like the Longest Day Golf Challenge come in.
My love of a challenge and golf, and equally my hatred of cancer, made the Longest Day a rather attractive proposition. All I needed was to rope in three mates and find a venue for it...
I HAVE a big group of mates who play golf but Stuart Greig, Finlay Morrison and Stevie Reffin were the first to answer the call. We're all good mates and play golf together regularly.
The good folk at Gleneagles then kindly allowed us to use their three courses - the PGA Centenary, King's and Queen's - for the challenge. We decided to play the longest, the PGA, first to get it out of the way, followed by the King's and then the Queen's before rounding off our epic day with another round on the King's, above.
Why the King's twice and not the shortest of the layouts, the Queen's? Simple. The King's is one of my favourite courses in the world. It is a brilliant test but, most importantly, it's fun. So many courses today have forgotten that golf, for the grassroots player at least, should be enjoyable first and foremost. The King's could never be accused of that. Raised greens, blind shots, tumbling fairways, awesome par-3s, reachable par-4s ... it's got the lot. I absolutely love it.
With the team, venue and date assembled, it was then just a matter of trying to rally as many people in our contacts book as possible to sponsor us. Turns out, we know some pretty generous folk. In fact, as I write this, we've raised over £1,400 with more donations coming in all the time. That might not seem like much to some people but consider this: it costs £191 to employ a Macmillan nurse for one day. Every penny makes a difference.
THE weeks leading up to the challenge were consumed with trying to get the game as sharp as possible. After all, playing like a donkey for 18 holes is bad enough, but 72? No thanks.
We also became hooked on the weather forecast. Thing is, I'm a bit of a fair-weather golfer. All four of us are. So, the prospect of spending upwards of 16 hours in pouring rain didn't exactly appeal. Unfortunately, according to the good folk at the MET Office, that was exactly what we were meant to get.
"Long periods of rain, with thundery outbreaks" was how they summed up Saturday, June 22. Not what any of us wanted to hear. Time was going to be tight even if the weather was good. But rain would make it heavier going and make the courses play longer. And thunder? Well, that comes with the risk of lightning and an enforced suspension of play which we could ill afford.
We would just have to wait, see and hope for the best.
AND so the morning of the challenge dawned. Or rather didn't. I got out of bed at 2.30am whilst it was still pitch black outside. I've seen 2.30am on a Saturday many times before but, typically, it has been towards the end of a night out rather than at the start of a new day.
Feeling a bit weary and sorry for ourselves, Stuart, Finlay and I drove the 45 minutes from Glasgow to Gleneagles where Stevie, who was coming from Perth, met us.
The car park was empty. There was nobody to be seen anywhere. It was hard not to feel a bit jealous of the folks sound asleep in their luxurious rooms in the hotel whilst we pulled on our golf shoes as the skies threatened to burst.
Still, we were all in good spirits and excited to get going with the challenge. After months of a build-up, we were here and ready to go.
At exactly 4.25am, I knocked away the first shot of the day on the opening hole of the PGA Centenary Course. Predictably, it found one of the bunkers down the right hand side but no matter - we were off and running. After bogeying the first thee holes, I rattled in my first par of the day on the par-3 fourth. I looked at my watch and saw it was just after 5am. This, I concluded, was probably the earliest I'd ever had a par.
JUST over three hours later, around 8.15am, we were coming up the 18th. The weather had, in the main, stayed reasonably good and the course had been in great nick. Everybody has their own opinions about the PGA Centenary but, for me, it's absolutely top drawer, particularly following the changes made to it last year. Mark my words, it's going to be an immense Ryder Cup venue.
It was walking up the 18th that a chap in a buggy drove up to us. We'd seen a few greenkeepers out on the course during the round and more or less every single one did a double-take when they noticed us. Guess they're not used to having much other company at that time of the day.
Anyway, the guy in the buggy. "Have you guys skipped a few holes or something?" he asked. "No," I replied. "We've been all the way round." He looked confused so I added: "Don't worry, we're doing the Longest Day Challenge." "Ah right," he said, suddenly realising what was going on. He asked "What do you still have to do after this?" "Only another 54 holes," I said. He just shook his head in disbelief and drove off.
FROM the PGA, it was straight onto the King's in time for our 8.30am start and, again, we lucked out with the weather. We made good time getting round - fuelled by a dubious diet of Mars Bars and Lucozade - and finished up at 12.30pm.
We agreed that we'd go for a quick shower, change of clothes and bite to eat before starting our third round of the day on the Queen's.
We were in the changing rooms when a locker attendant came up and asked how our game had been. "Which one?" replied Stuart. We explained that we had already played twice and had two more games to go. "Really?" replied the attendant. "Good for you! You're all mental but good for you."
Having a shower and changing into our IJP Design tops had the desired effect. We felt like new men and were eager to get going again so decided not to stop for food and risk muscle fatigue setting in. We would, we decided, just get something to eat at the halfway hut after the tenth. That, as it turned out, was a monumental blunder.
With next to no energy in reserve and completely depleted glycogen stores, we all toiled in that third round. We were expecting that to be the case. The first two rounds would be reasonably straightforward and the last we reckoned we could get through on the adrenaline of being nearly finished if nothing else. But the third was always destined to be the toughest, both mentally and physically.
I struggled particularly badly. On the front nine, I could barely swing the club, let alone get the ball in the air. For about seven holes, every time I took the club back, I experienced the most excruciating cramp at the top of my backswing all the way down my left side. My back, my legs, my neck - everything cramped up. After eight holes on the Queen's, and with 28 still to play, I was beginning to wonder if I was going to finish.
As if that wasn't enough, there was the fact that, to a man, our feet were gubbed. Running marathons makes your soles burn. So too does trampling up hill and down dale on a golf course. Or, in this case, multiple courses. It was all we could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other and stretching between shots - as demonstrated by Stuart, above - became necessary rather than recommended.
Luckily, the halfway house came to the rescue. We stopped for 15 minutes to scoff down hot dogs, pies, juice, sweets, the works. I also popped a couple of paracetamol and, within a hole's time, was back swinging the club properly again.
We walked off the 18th of the Queen's at 5.30pm. Just in time to start our final round on the King's.
NOW, here's the thing about adrenaline. It'll only take you as far as it lasts, which in our case, was the first five holes of our fourth and final round of the day. We set off all lively, jokey and full of beans. By the time we reached the sixth, we were seriously beginning to flag. Finlay and Stuart had been going through the same wretched struggles as I had on the front nine of the Queen's and, just as they started to get their games back, Stevie's began to go. We reached the tenth tee around 8pm and all praying for the halfway house to be open. Luckily, it was.
Again, we stopped for around ten minutes or so, this time grabbing a quick beer to toast our nearly-accomplished challenge. We justified the drink to each other as perhaps being something that would take the edge of the aches and pains that we were all feeling. Privately, I think we all knew we were just gasping for a beer.
The girl running the halfway house must have seen our weariness because she kindly gave us some free sausage rolls and pasties, which she said would be getting chucked out otherwise. It was a cracking gesture and a very well-timed one, too, as it helped fuel us for the final leg of our challenge.
We walked off the 18th green - Stuart having canned an improbable 30-foot putt - at 9.35pm.
We were knackered, shattered and battered. But we'd done it. We'd taken on the Longest Day Challenge and conquered it.
THE pain is slowly subsiding and the body is beginning to get back to normal. I'm even toying with the idea of going for a game this weekend, which I didn't expect to want to do.
Looking back, it's funny to think that we played golf for over 17 hours. In some ways, it feels like we did. Other ways it doesn't. Fact remains that we did, though. We also raised a helluva lot of money for Macmillan and that's something the four of us are particularly proud of.
We couldn't, however, have done any of this without the support of a great number of people to whom thanks are due.
Firstly, to Billy Murray and the team at Gleneagles for their hospitality and support. From the off, they were right behind us and went out of their way to make the day go as smoothly as possible for us.
To Richard Atthey and the guys at IJP Design for sorting us out with polo shirts for the challenge. We might have felt rubbish towards the end but at least we looked the part!
And last but not least, to everyone who has sponsored us or offered us words of encouragement. Yes, you helped us complete the challenge but, more to the point, you've helped Macmillan continue to do their awesome work, which was the whole point of this.
Having read this, if you still want to donate, you can do so at www.justgiving.com/fantasticfore. Anything you can give would be much appreciated and gratefully received.
And to anyone intrigued about taking on the challenge next year, I have only this to say. Do it. It is way more than worth it.