Interview: Ricky Ponting, Australian cricket captain

Come this Thursday, Australia's cricket captain is going to have a lot less time for a spot of golf, what with the start of the Ashes series against England and all.

Then again, you never know with this guy. Don't underestimate Ricky Ponting's capacity for multi-tasking. As well as being one of the world's best batsmen, the one-handicapper is also, in his own words, "a total golf tragic", Aussie lingo for fanatic.

"When the tour golf comes on at night in Australia I'm there," he says. "I watch everything going on around the world, whether it is the European Tour or the PGA Tour. I buy every magazine the day they come out. And I follow the equipment scene. I like to stay up with what's out there and who is using what."

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The northern hemisphere summer just past, in fact, gave the 35-year old Tasmanian ample opportunity to satisfy his lust for the sport he loves to talk about even more than cricket, the highlight being a trip to St Andrews just before the Open Championship.

"We started our 2010 tour in Ireland and played Portmarnock - which was fantastic," he says, the enthusiasm still obvious in his voice. "Then we played the Island, which was difficult in the wind we had that day. But the best was yet to come. In Scotland I went up to St Andrews and played the Duke's Course (above). I loved that place. It's a monster off the back tees, so we didn't go back that far (in the company of compatriot Scott Arnold, the No 1 ranked amateur in the world during 2009, Ponting shot two over par from the white tees - 6,130-yards].

"St Andrews is such a great place to be. We stayed in the Old Course Hotel. I arrived at 9pm on a Sunday night and the first thing I did when I got to my room was open the curtains. What a sight! I was looking down on the 17th fairway with the famous Road Hole green to my right. I left them open until the sun went down at about 11pm.

"I was up extra early the next morning and had breakfast in my room looking out over the golf course. It was awesome. I can't wait to get back there and play the Old Course for the first time. So far, I've only played the New Course next door, which is a terrific test.

"I'm invited to play every year in the Dunhill Links Championship. But it always clashes with the start of the cricket season back home. Shane Warne loves that event and has filled my head with all his stories about how good it is. Once cricket is over I'll be there."

Just how good a golfer Ponting actually is - or could be - has long been a subject of conjecture Down Under. But there is no doubt he can play to a more than decent standard. As long ago as 2005, former Aussie Test captain Mark Taylor was enthusing about his successor's prowess on the links.

"I played a fair bit of golf with Ricky when we were both in the Australian side," said Taylor. "I never want to play against him for money. He's a very fine player.He's long off the tee, which is no surprise. You can see how well he hits a cricket ball. He's such a good timer, and he's the same with a driver off the tee."

Talk like that has inevitably led to speculation that Ponting may be good enough to make money as a professional golfer once his cricketing days are over. But don't hold your breath on that one. As others have discovered - tennis players Scott Draper and Ivan Lendl, to name but two - there is a massive difference between low-handicap golf played essentially for fun and the pressures of life on tour.

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"Like so many of the leading cricketers who are good at golf, Ricky has great hands," says former USPGA champion Wayne Grady, who has played with Ponting on numerous occasions. "He creates a huge amount of clubhead speed and has no problem hitting the ball solidly. His short game isn't as impressive as his long game, but that will come if and when he plays more. He's a really good player though."

To his credit, Ponting makes no outlandish claims as to how well he may or may not do come the time when his priority is making threes rather than hitting fours. He knows that, for all the similarities in the two swinging motions, batting and golf represent two different disciplines.

"The two swings are not the same," he acknowledges. "Not really. I know when I've been playing a lot of golf it takes me a while to get back into cricket again. It's not so much the different shape of the swings, more the fact that you are stationary when you hit a golf ball. In cricket you have to move forward or back, which is an instinctive timing thing.

"The basics are the same though. The hand-eye coordination that is such a part of cricket is similar to golf. Any 'bat/ball' games require that. I think most cricketers can make a decent fist of tennis too, especially when it comes to judging the bounce of the ball on the court. But, although not too many of the current Aussie team play a lot of golf, if you gave them a ball and a club most of them could figure it out pretty well."

For the moment, however, Ponting's biggest golfing problem is that he hardly plays at all when cricket understandably takes over his life. Although, despite protestations of rustiness, he does seem to get in as much time with the clubs as is humanly possible. And like all proud Tasmanian golfers, he is hugely enthusiastic both about the emergence of Barnbougle Dunes as one of Australia's best courses and also the imminent opening of Barnbougle's new neighbour, Lost Farm.

"How much golf I actually play depends on whom you ask," he says with a smile. "My wife says I'm out there every day. If you ask me, the cricket is getting in the way of the golf. So I play a fair bit. Whenever I'm home I play two or three times a week. And on tour I take my clubs with me for the occasional day off.I'm always looking for those to sneak in a game or two.

"I'll play more and more seriously when I'm done with the cricket. But I've probably only played six competitive rounds in the last five years. That's how it is for me. Last year I had an eight-week break from cricket and played a couple of comps. I shot five under at my home club. Then I was even par at Royal Sydney. So they both helped get my handicap down. But I need to devote more time to it to know how good I can be.

"I'll do it properly though. I'll give it the time it deserves. I'll get some coaching. I love the game and would play every day if I could. And one day I will."

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