By BOB PEARCE
Mal Tongue spent his 47th birthday on the Taupo Golf Course this week and he will tell you that it was a happy one.
Despite quitting his job as national golf coach in a messy row with New Zealand Golf which saw five other coaches resign, Tongue insists that he has never been more excited about his future.
But the strain has taken its toll. He's slimmer and he's puffing on a small cigar - a habit he's promised his family he'll give up on May 1.
And it's different now when he visits the national championships. Gone are the black NZ Golf windbreaker and the golf cart. He is now part of a small gallery following one of his star pupils, 19-year-old Riki Kauika. The magic still works as Kauika shoots a course record.
So what is keeping Tongue excited about golf beyond his regular coaching commitments with some of the cream of New Zealand talent?
The six former New Zealand coaches, Tongue, Bob McDonald, Murray Macklin, Simon Thomas, Shane Scott and Brian Boys, have formed a company to promote a revolutionary virtual coaching system.
"Once the situation with New Zealand Golf was terminated we decided we wanted to continue to be a major part in what's happening in New Zealand golf," Tongue said. "What we want to be able to do is to help as many people as we possibly can in the right circumstances. So we set up a company called 9 Lines Golf.
"That is a coaching philosophy, which we've built up as a team, and a language and a way for people to learn to play the game much easier. It's totally unique. At the end of the day what we've set up is something that makes coaches more redundant.
"People are playing golf on their own all the time so we're only a small part of the puzzle. We have a format that let them help themselves. We've got a company called Silicon Coach from down in Dunedin, who've helped us with the software. I've personally done the written side of it and the positional side of it.
"Basically it's not to clone players but to give them reference points in a language that's simplistic and to allow them to use it wherever they're travelling in the world."
Not surprisingly, Tongue has been perfecting the system, using New Zealand's number one player, Brad Iles, who he coaches at his Manor Park base in the Hutt Valley.
"With Brad at the moment we're setting up a programme where he's got his own camera and laptop when he's going to America. He'll be able to send his information back to me on a weekly basis. He's wherever he is in the States and I'll be in New Zealand and still be his coach.
"We want to take this international. They wanted to be able to help players in their development from the youngest age "and get them used to the formats and get them used to understanding about their golf game right through to international amateurs and then right through to professionals".
Tongue said it would be ideal to have another 10 professionals throughout the country involved to learn how to work the system and apply it. It would be possible to combine that with work as a club pro. As members of the NZPGA the group hoped that body would see merit in their proposals.
New Zealand Golf had only recently seen the system - it was not a factor in the resignations - and Tongue believes they were impressed. But so far there had been no reaction.
"I want the players in the system to play for New Zealand. Definitely. It's our main goal. We're trying to develop something that we can share with as many people as we can - and not just in New Zealand.
"We're not trying to break away from everything and take over the game. There's a role that we want to play and there's a role that the PGA wants to play. I'm not sure what the role of New Zealand Golf's going to be. This wasn't one of the issues in the breakup. They didn't even know it existed.
"That was about the course of New Zealand golf and I categorically state it was never a personality clash. Not from me. There may have been other people within the organisation who had a personality clash but it certainly wasn't me."
Tongue is not about to put all his cards on the table about the bust up. He has a book coming out at Christmas and says it will make "very interesting reading".
So was it all just a publicity stunt? "I knew you'd think that. But I can tell you honestly that had nothing to do with it.
"New Zealand gives you the opportunity to become a world-class coach. But when you get there, people tend to get more and more scared of you. That's a New Zealand trait. I think that's been a problem in New Zealand Golf. There have been too many controlling factors instead of letting people have a free and open opinion.
"I've never been more excited about my future than I am right now. It's incredible. In some ways I'm really sad. But without what happened, I would never have seen the big picture."
But is it a final messy divorce with New Zealand Golf? It's hard to imagine the coaches reapplying for their jobs and there may need to be a cooling-off period. But you get the feeling Tongue misses his former role.
"I've turned up for this today," he said, "and I feel I'm not part of anything any more. I've got no role in golf in an official capacity. It's quite a strange sort of feeling but I'm not going to go away and hide."
By BOB PEARCE