Last week, for the first time in a decade, I dipped my toe into a round of golf where every swing mattered, every three-foot putt had to fall, and I needed to sign my scorecard (and attest someone else’s) at the clubhouse. A week later, my head is still spinning. Yet I can’t wait to dive into more stroke-play tournaments, to feed that thirst for golf that really matters.
Back in my heyday as a complete golf nut, I was a college student with a part-time job in the cart barn, and a full-time obsession with the game. So much so that friends still laugh about how I famously – maybe infamously – broke up with a girlfriend by explaining, “right now, golf is here (hand up around my jaw), and unfortunately you’re here (hand around my ribs).”
I had a goal to play golf well, win a few bucks in the money game after the area pro shops let out, and impress anyone watching with how far I could hit a 5-iron. I accomplished all of that, but mistakenly missed one critical item on my to-do list: learn how to play competitive golf. If only I knew then what I know now.
Let me rewind a bit, to offer a little timeline.
As a high school senior I’d barely made the golf team, and in the few matches I made the lineup, my nine-hole 47s were all that was expected and were enough to help the team win. We actually went undefeated that year, but I chalk it up to the fact our home course was brutally difficult, rather than that fact the back of our lineup wasn’t even playing bogey golf.
Sure, I was playing competitive golf, but I was 17, didn’t realize what pressure was, and more importantly, wasn’t good enough to have any expectations. I knew I’d shoot 45 on a good day, 52 on a bad day. So my introduction into tournament golf wasn’t really anything of the sort. It was more like a hobby I did after school for a few months. But it helped me land the job at the local golf club, and as a 17-year-old, man did that beat a part-time gig making pizza every Friday and Saturday night.
Jump ahead to the summer before my junior year of college. It was my summer of golf (and no girlfriend, since who would want to be ranked an entire torso below a stupid game). I had the perfect routine: work four mornings a week, done by 2 p.m. Head to the range, maybe go home for a nap. With several clubs in the area, by 5:30, the pro shops would have emptied out onto our first tee. Always a team game, where birdies are key, and bogeys might as well be quads. I was a popular pick because I’d be a C or D player but could rack up two to three birdies in nine holes at that point, and my eights didn’t mean a thing. The fact I could pick up at six with an X, meant the mental image of writing seven, eight, or nine never entered the equation. In hindsight, this was unfortunate.
It was such a fun summer playing six, sometimes seven, days a week, and by August, all the time on course and at the range had me regularly shooting within a stroke or two of par for nine holes (rarely did I play 18 since I normally hit the first tee around 5:30). I discovered that I could try out for my college golf team and it would only require three straight rounds breaking 80. Heck, I figured, their home course is a piece of cake compared to where I’ve been playing. Confidence was high, nerves low as I took my first giant leap into the world of tournament golf.
That first morning, everything went as planned. I’d hit lots of 2-irons off tees, racked up par after par, until I got to the ninth green. I’ll never forget this feeling. I was about three yards off the green, and it was a simple bump and run that I’d practiced thousands of times that summer. But I had never practiced it with the thought of “wow, we’re about to card an even par front nine, breaking 80 will be no sweat.” And that’s when my hands turned to cinder blocks. One chunked chip and a three-putt later and it was straight downhill from there. The back nine was a horror show and there was no point showing up for the rest of the tryout after a 90 on day one.
Determined to keep active in competitive golf, I entered a state amateur qualifier the following spring. I had the required handicap (anyone under 8.0 could enter), but this time I felt like I’d gotten in way over my head. Everything was so official, so formal. And when I spent my first few holes looking for balls in the woods off the tee, knowing someone was timing me, it was clear this wasn’t our afternoon skins game.
It broke my heart to play so poorly, especially with my kid brother caddying for me. I felt like the guy that day that no one should have to play with and felt so bad about wasting time looking for balls, I was doing my best to get out of the way on the greens. I carded something near 100, but was determined to post a score, figuring it would be cowardly to submit a No Card or to withdraw. I played awfully, and I better face the world and let them draw that 98 next to my name, beautifully drawn in calligraphy on the big clubhouse scoreboard.
Fast forward a decade. Last year I dropped my handicap from 14 to 8 thanks to lots more practice, turning doubles into bogeys and bogeys into pars, and most importantly a wife who understands how much happier I am after a day on the course. In the latest revision, my index had dipped below 7.0, making me a tidy 6.7. One of the reasons I joined a club was to get back into competitive golf and the club championship was my first chance. Plus, I was playing by far the best golf of my adult life. A week early I’d carded a 77 from the tips, which is good, but could have been so much better since I was 1-over after 15 holes.
This time I would be mentally prepared. I’ve read all of Dr. Bob Rotella’s books. I knew I’d need to shoot in the low 80s to qualify for match play, which I’ve done regularly this year. The night before, I drew up my notes, decided what clubs to hit off each tee, with an emphasis on keeping the ball in play and decided I’d play a lot of 5-woods and long irons. I included notes like, “breath deep … take it back slow … take dead aim.” Even reminded myself where the water jugs would be since the heat index would reach 105 that day.
Let’s just say that if the qualifier was based on following Dr. Bob’s advice, I would have been the medalist. I took one shot at a time, I lived in the present, I never veered from my game plan and I envisioned every shot before hitting it. Whenever the nerves came up on the tee, a few deep breaths settled them down.
But as much as an awesome ball striker can be doomed by no mental game, on this day, I learned again what it feels like to putt with cinder block hands. I guess all my nerves manifest themselves on the greens as I never made anything beyond three feet, and even missed or lipped out five or six times from inside a putter length. It was agonizing and only fed upon itself. By the back nine, I was just trying to two putt from 10 feet, never mind trying to make them. I’ll never know if it was bad mechanics, bad alignment, or simply the weight of the tournament that turned me into the worst putter to walk the face of the earth for those four hours.
I tried grinding until the end, thinking I could put up a run of pars to finish and maybe sneak in with an upper 80s score. Instead, my mistakes were magnified. I hit one of my three drivers on the day OB on 14, knocked my approach in the water on 15 (first time in 30-plus rounds this year I found that hazard), doubled 16 from a fairway trap, four-putted 17, and wrapped up the day with a quad on 18. I got to watch the assistant pro cringe as he wrote my 96 on the clubhouse wall for all to see.
Oddly, I got home and I was in a great mood. I had followed my plan all along. From the 90-minute short game practice session the night before to the warm-up in the morning. I felt great, hit my irons as well as I have all year, kept myself hydrated and my blood sugar in check all day. I never felt overwhelmed or in over my head, and my playing partners never made me feel like I didn’t belong. Both qualified, and with one guy being a +1 handicap shooting 82, I felt better about my score, especially after he offered some encouragement.
“It’s a whole different game and you have to learn how to play competitive golf,” he said. “I didn’t get to this point overnight, it’s taken years.” Of course hearing that from a guy in his mid-20s is funny, but knowing he’s won some of the most prestigious local events gave it weight. And the fact he asked to exchange contact info so we could play again soon was good and a nice chance to play with a great golfer.
Now I just need to figure out what to do with these cinder block hands on the greens. My guess is the next time I have a three-footer that matters, it won’t be my first in a decade, it’ll be the 15th. And it will only get easier from there.