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Family man Rory ready to get into the swing again with Ulster

By Adam McKendry

Published 30/07/2016

Driving ahead: Rory Best tees off at the first hole at Belvoir Park Golf Club
Driving ahead: Rory Best tees off at the first hole at Belvoir Park Golf Club
Rory having a chat with our man Adam McKendry

For someone who has made a living out of hooking a ball, it's rather ironic that Rory Best fades it on the golf course.

Stepping on to the fifth tee at Belvoir Park Golf Club - a par-five that doglegs to the right - the Ulster and Ireland captain lines up his shot, then hits a beautiful left to right cut that lands just short of the fairway bunker.

Once we get to the green, however, his putting lets him down, his birdie attempt shaving the edge of the hole and staying above ground. He settles for a par.

It is a gloriously sunny Wednesday morning and we are at the scenic south Belfast course for a demonstration of Tag Heuer's new Connected smartwatch, modelled by the rugby star who wore it on Ireland's tour of South Africa last month, and IS exclusively available in Northern Ireland from Lunn's in Victoria Square.

Best shows the £1,100 watch off as we sit down at a table in the clubhouse restaurant overlooking the course prior to our round. The 33-year-old is clearly taken by its many intriguing features.

You can sync the watch to your phone, allowing you to access your messages and e-mails from your wrist - a handy device to have, explains Rory, except for when Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss asks him to do some extra hours in the gym!

Best plays off an 18 handicap. That figure would be lower if he had the chance to play more but for this Ulster sporting hero called Rory, rugby comes first.

His short game is what impresses most, a deft touch around the greens enabling him to get within close range of the hole from difficult positions.

Between shots there is plenty of time for a chat, which ranges from obscure topics such as Brexit and shark watching while on tour to the more obvious rugby and farming.

They are two of Best's greatest loves, but it's his family which tops the list.

Husband to Jodie and father of Ben, Penny and Richie, Rory tries to split his free time between looking after his prized cattle on his farm outside Banbridge and spending as many hours as possible with his young family, which he had the chance to do in South Africa.

He smiles warmly as he recalls eldest son Ben's delight at getting to go to his first Test match in the southern hemisphere, even though it was a defeat in the third Test in Port Elizabeth.

Ben didn't seem to mind too much about the result.

"He's rugby mad," Rory beams, clearly proud of the influence he has had on his oldest son.

"We couldn't pass up an opportunity to take him to his first Test match in South Africa.

"He loved it. He loves the Super Rugby in South Africa too so it was good to watch some of that when we were away."

While those moments with Ben are now treasured memories, Best admits being away so much can make family life challenging.

Wandering down the ninth fairway, he describes how difficult it's been to bond with his youngest, Richie, who he's barely seen since he was born having spent the last year playing regular rugby with Ireland at the World Cup and the Six Nations, and also with Ulster.

Rory reveals: "It's only recently that I've actually been able to hold him without him crying! But since then we've got on really well together."

As we reach the 16th hole, an extremely difficult par-three, the conversation takes a light-hearted turn as Best laughs, remembering the last time he faced this tee-shot.

"Myself, Ruan (Pienaar) and Stephen Ferris came down here to do a piece for television," he recalls.

"We thought it was just going to be an interview, but they threw us in a buggy, drove us down to this hole and told us to start hitting golf balls! I think we hit about a hundred before one of us actually put it on the green!

"If I'd known that's what we'd be doing I probably would have gone to the driving range the night before and practiced a bit!"

It's at this stage of the year that Best is concerning himself with getting back into the swing of things with Ulster, now that his Ireland duties are squared away until the Autumn Internationals.

Best is only just back to training with his province having returned from his extended stay in South Africa, and will miss at least the first two games of the season as he is eased back into club duty.

Despite the disappointment of Ulster losing in the PRO12 semi-final to Leinster last season, there is a renewed sense of optimism when Best speaks about the coming campaign.

Listening to him, you feel that Kiss' men can make a big impact this year after so many close calls and heartbreaks.

Best explains how having Kiss in for a full season will be more beneficial than last year's mid-season arrival due to the World Cup.

During our round he singled out another reason why this season will be different - Charles Piutau, the All Black full-back Ulster fans have been waiting almost two years for.

"Nobody wants to tackle him in training!" Best laughs.

"Speaking to some of the Leinster boys (who faced him in the Champions' Cup last season), they said he's a brilliant player.

"If he doesn't want to be brought down, he won't be."

Ulster head for Portugal on Monday for a week-long retreat and some tough training in the sweltering Algarve heat, before moving towards a competitive mindset.

Although he won't feature until around round three of the Guinness PRO12, the hooker leaves immediately after our round to lift weights in the gym at the Kingspan Stadium, electing to spend his part day off working up a sweat ahead of the new campaign.

We didn't keep score at Belvoir Park, so an honourable draw it was.

With Ulster and Ireland, Rory Best will be looking for more than that in the weeks and months ahead.

Tag Heuer's new Connected smartwatch is exclusively available in Northern Ireland from Lunn's in Victoria Square, Belfast. Prices start at £1,100.

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