My Dip Into Tournament Golf: A Whole New World

For years I’ve been playing a game called golf. Only now do I embark on something completely different: competitive golf. Boy do I have a long way to go.

Thrash TalkLast 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.

13 thoughts on “My Dip Into Tournament Golf: A Whole New World”

  1. I know what you mean. I’ve done several state am qualifiers (only qualified for 2, and 0-3 this year) But after everyone you do, it does get easier.

    It took 5 chances for me to qualify for one, and when i got to the actual tournament it seemed all of the things you mentioned just started over again. I badly missed the cut in the 08 state am with scores of 84-86. It was really embarrassing.

    After experience you do adjust and it just becomes about playing good golf, rather than being paralyzed by your own expectations and the judgements of others.

  2. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like jitters or nerves or just a complete collapse of my swing due to it being an “official” tournament or due to “pressure.”

    If anything, I tend to play a little better under pressure. I know a few tricks, but you seem to know them too – slow down, deep breaths, good visualization, one clear swing thought (even if it’s just “target” or a picture of the ball flight). I can play decent golf when my swing is off.

    I think it would be interesting to let a psychologist who specializes in sports or something question and observe us both under pressure and tell us what they discover. My hunch is that it won’t be anything too large.

    I also think that it’s something you do end up learning. After all, if you have to tell yourself “take a deep breath” then you’re out of the moment. Heck, look at all the prep work you did, even reminding yourself where water coolers were? I don’t know too many successful competitive golfers who have to do those sorts of things. Maybe it’s like what I just said – you’re taking yourself out of the moment. The “tricks” I said I know later are things I sometimes observe myself doing, not things I consciously think about.

    If I had to give one tip for playing tournament golf, it would be “simplify.” Simplify anything and everything. Simplify.

  3. It took me years before I could make a reasonable showing in any MGA events.

    Bobby Jones: “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears.”

    Keep at it, it’ll get easier and more enjoyable.


  4. Very good take on playing competitive golf. It comes easier for some than others for sure. I am currently a 2 hcp but have been as good as a plus 2. I was self taught until I became a single digit hcp and never really learned how to play tournament golf. I’ve played in everything from local events to a US Open qualifier and your words have never rung truer.

    I laughed at your comments because I have been right there. I played lots of other sports but nothing seems to compare to the pressure of tournament golf…..and it’s a great feeling the first time you break through! My breakthrough was a final round 71 in which I 3 putted the last hole in my club championship. Not only did I win my flight but I broke par for the first time!

    Keep at it and enjoy the ride!

  5. We’ve all been there, I’m pretty convinced there’s two types of golfers 1) the type that can’t play unless there’s something on the line 2) the type that can’t play if there’s something on the line.

    If you think you’re a #2, just keep playing tournaments. It takes time and yeah, it gets embarrassing, but everyone is there at some point or another.

    My problem is I play way too conservatively in tournaments because I’m always scared of making a big number but it completely takes me out of my normal game.

    Another thing I’d add, treat your preparation, warm up, practice sessions the same as you would a normal golf round. If you over-prepare and things don’t start out going according to plan, you’ll find yourself pressing and get even further away from how you normally play golf.

  6. The answer to Eric’s question is rather simple. People are insecure about nearly everything, especially on the golf course. Those who practice and practice work to eliminate the insecurity that shows up over a three foot putt. The mistake people make is thinking that a good shot, or a great shot, will secure the insecurity feelings – it never does as there is another shot just around the corner which brings them right back up again. The recurrence of the insecurity is what frustrates folks, not the misses.

    Self doubt is simply another word for insecurity. You’ll note that Tiger was never insecure about his shots – until lately. The idea behind practicing over and over is to eliminate what we call self doubt, which is really major insecurity. When one can simply get comfortable with the insecurity and NOT try to quell it via a great shot, one will enjoy the round.

  7. Good Article. In order to play competitive golf well, you have to play some competitive golf. I just played in my first competitive round of the year yesterday. Held up well until #18. There were just three of us left (it was a Derby) and I had made a great chip on #17 to save par and continue to #18. But had another tough chip on 18 due to a bad approach and tried to get cute instead of just leaving my self a putt. Ended up being third in the event. Dumb and due to not playing competitive golf since last summer. But one of the great things about golf is no matter how good you play you always feel you left a few strokes on the course.

  8. great write up
    was there at the beginning of the year to in our club match and stroke play tourneys
    best i shot was a 76 on day two, but it wasnt enought to edge out a 12 index who shot 78 that day…my ass.

    i am looking forward to our open and club championship in a few weeks as well.

    its weird what tournament golf does to your head.
    nothing is really different….except its a tournament!! haha!

  9. There simply is no substitute for experience. As the saying goes, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ You will improve.

  10. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like jitters or nerves or just a complete collapse of my swing due to it being an “official” tournament or due to “pressure.”If anything, I tend to play a little better under pressure. I know a few tricks… I can play decent golf when my swing is off.

    That was hard to read Erik… a bit boastful. You will eat those words one day, and that shot of arrogance won’t taste very good going back down. If you haven’t experienced a breakdown due to tournament pressure, then you’re not playing big enough tournaments. EVERYONE can break down, no one is immune.

    Ron, I completely understand and it will come in a matter of about 5-10 more tournamnts. No one does anything great the first time out, especially tournament play. It will get to the point that you actually figure it out and hate it. Competitive stroke play at a high level of competition can become quite monotonous… especially the 4-day events. Try shooting 68-66-67-69 for a (-10) and see that you’ve finished T-16th with 7 other guys… it will make you want to quit.

  11. I appreciate all the feedback and encouragement. Like I mentioned, I was actually quite pleased with the day and knew it was a learning experience. And just to prove that I’m capable of playing awful golf, I followed it up with another 92 this weekend. How I go from my best scores of the year to the worst in three weeks is amazing. It’s easy to see why though. The putter is definitely in my head and it’s time to devote more time to getting my stroke and alignment straight (forgive the pun).

    As for Erik’s comments, Joe, I didn’t read them the same way you did. It was refreshing to hear that some people thrive on the pressure, since I’ve always figured there are some out there. I used to play with a guy whose swing was awful, hit it all over the place, but always seemed to make that 12 footer to push or win a hole whenever he needed it. Or found the magic swing to put away a match on the 18th. He was a great overall athlete and could summon his best when he needed it.

    Definitely the most important thing I have to do is make sure i don’t get discouraged and let the bad round snowball. Need to banish the bad thoughts and get back into the mindset of hitting good shots.

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