AMONG the socks and handkerchiefs in my Christmas stocking last year there was a few bobs worth of book tokens.
In the bookshop a week or so later, I easily resisted buying the autobiography of a footballer half my age, positively shunned the DIY How To shelf, but went straight to the Classics section and picked up three of Charles Dickens works I hadn't previously read.
They were a joy from beginning to end, made a nice change from playing golf in the mud, and were far more edifying than the usual pulp a thousand paperback writers churn out every year. His works must be good, because they're still on the bookshelves 132 years after he died.
Another nice change recently was to get out on the practice range for the first time since the end of last season.
I've been hitting the ball quite well since recovering from a broken hand, but as each round has progressed my hand feels increasingly sore, and a gentle, controlled draw becomes a rampant, uncontrollable hook.
There doesn't appear to be a need to radically change the way I play, although I'm sure we'd all like to play better, but rather a need to strengthen my hand. This means playing through pain barriers, as anybody who's been out injured for any length of time will know.
Aiming between two markers 150 yards or so up the practice ground, I used my eight iron to hit every practice ball I've got, sometimes-with stunning accuracy, sometimes not, and all but a handful fell within my expectations, i.e. I think, playing off four, I should be able to hit the green nine times out of ten using any club from six iron to sand wedge.
I refute suggestions that this is setting too high a standard, because I believe that by working incredibly hard at any particular aspect of the game will ultimately raise the level of consistency at that particular shot.
We all aspire to hit that one perfect shot when it really matters - too often we fail miserably, and during every round we watch others fail miserably too - until someone hits an absolute beauty, and that's the shot which keeps bringing us back for more.
An hour after hitting the 130-odd practice balls, my hand was lumpy and swollen and had stiffened up quite nicely. Two ice-packs and 24 hours later, I was back on the practice ground with a wedge and the same bag of balls, with perhaps a slight improvement on the previous day.
By day three, I felt I could make the ball talk , and was shaping it left to right, right to left, high, low, straight and long. There is a saying, coined by I know not whom, that you should only go on the practice ground when you re playing well. Of course, there are arguments for and against, but I d say that a bad session on the practice ground is mentally less damaging than a nightmare round with a card in your hand.
Personally, I feel that the hard times and hard work off the course are never a waste of effort, no matter how well or otherwise I struck the ball.
However, the new season is now upon us and there s no point in trying make major changes to my swing, other than to slow it down slightly, alter my grip a smidgen, extend the follow through, keep my feet still, learn not to cup my wrists, watch the clubhead into the ball, and countless other niggling faults I didn't know I had!
Nevertheless, there's nothing more heartening than the prospect of playing with the sun on your back, sans umbrella, sans waterproofs and sans thermal jumper. Have a good season.
Next month I'll be writing on the pleasures of society golf trips to Ireland and a series of course reviews including the wonderful Druid's Glen.