Golf is a lot like boxing.
You get hit — hard — a lot. And, like Mike Tyson said, every golfer has a plan until they get hit.
Even when you have your wits about you, and you’re moving forward and punching, you can get too cocky and smacked in the face.
If you’re playing defense and have your hands up to block, it’s impossible to prevent a well-timed punch from finding its mark.
Golf beats you up.
When a golfer gets hurt enough times, they come up with a coping mechanism. Maybe they quit the game. Maybe they start giving putts outside the leather in hopes of returned mercy. Maybe they like to stop acting like they care about the results. Maybe they stop practicing, so as to have an excuse when things go awry. Maybe they stop playing competitively altogether, so they don’t have to attach their name to a potentially shameful number.
I stopped playing competitive golf after high school. I was on the varsity team at my high school all four years, though it was providence — at a Catholic school, no less — that landed me on the team freshman year. In the final nine-hole round of the tryout, I shot an improbable 39. I caught every good break, and I didn’t flinch. On the final hole, I had an easy wedge into a short-ish par 4. A par could be enough to get on the team. With the whole varsity team watching, I skulled the crap out of that wedge, but it was high enough to hit a branch on the lone tree behind the green. The ball dropped softly onto the putting surface, and I finished out the round.
I was a marginal high-school golfer. Our season was early Spring, and I always played timidly until the end of the season. I played from the No. 5 and No. 6 spot in our 12-hole match-play matches against other schools, and I wasn’t much good. I didn’t have a club where I could practice outside our after-school sessions. I had a lot of extracurricular activities, and I prefer to do a lot of things kind-of well than one thing really well. (Explains my life in a lot of ways.)
Whenever I played in a high-school match or a junior tournament, I would always get really nervous on the first tee. Not like lose-my-lunch nervous, but it was a discomfort I didn’t miss when I decided to chase girls and beer in college instead of a white ball. I skipped a good number of big lecture-hall classes in college to play golf, but I wasn’t trying to beat anyone.
I got better at golf when I joined a club. I wasn’t a dad yet, and I had just landed my dream job in golf, or so I thought. I had time on my hands, and I was filling that time with golf. I got down to a barely-plus handicap. I decided I’d go on the fool’s errand of trying to qualify for the US Open in 2012. It was a disaster of an 85. I had the driver yips, and I couldn’t manage them that day. I got a letter from the USGA, telling me I needed to provide evidence of some non-crappy scores the next time I wanted to qualify for the US Open. I have yet to need to produce that letter.
So, in the last six-plus years, I haven’t played real tournament golf. I’ve won the Greensburg Cup three times in nine years (every third year, actually) on my annual golf trip with my family, but I’m usually buzzed when we play and it’s net-match-play golf anyhow. I’ve played in some club championships here and there, but that’s on my home course with friends. Real tournament golf means playing somewhere unfamiliar with strangers and having the final scores posted in marker with nice calligraphy numbers (or on the Internet).
When I partnered with Golf Tourism Solutions to promote the Myrtle Beach World Amateur Handicap Championship this year, part of the deal was that I’d play. I didn’t know what to expect personally, but I knew I would be playing four courses in the Grand Strand area against fellow near-scratch or better golfers in a 72-hole, stroke-play competition. I was just planning to have fun, hoping to not finish DFL. And then I played golf the day before the tournament in a casual round, shooting a solid 75 in a hit-and-giggle. I got my hopes up. I started thinking dumb things, like I could contend, not thinking I was going to play against 40-some guys who play tournament golf most weekends.
And then came Monday morning at International Club. I got there with plenty of time to spare, which was my first mistake. I usually show up to my golf club seconds before my tee time, take a couple of practice cuts, guess on the first green and roll. It’s my routine, and it works. Instead, I spent time talking to friends, putting way too much and thinking. My best golf doesn’t involve a lot of thought, just instinct.
It came time to start the shotgun at 9 a.m., and our first hole was No. 6. A long drive out to the hole revealed it was a 185-yard par 3, all over water. Crap. And that’s when I remembered why I stopped playing competitive golf. The nerves. The churning of my stomach. The retrenchment into my body. I stood over the ball with a 6-iron that I just could not grip properly and tugged that ball so far left there was no chance I’d find the water. I was happy to make bogey.
I had committed to doing something unusual for me: employing a conservative strategy. I love to bang driver as far and straight as I can. I’d eliminate par 3s in whole if I had my way. But I figured the path to success was my utility 2-iron. And then I made double with a mudball from just off the fairway. Punched in the mouth, I decided to go back to what felt natural.
For the rest of the week, I drove the ball better for four consecutive rounds better than I ever had in my life — outside those four rounds at Sand Valley, which is too wide to count. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was driving it too good, through a fairway and into a tree or a hazard. That’s stuff I don’t care about when I play casually, but those are extra strokes that pile up when every one of them counts.
And that’s the thing separating tournament golf from recreational golf: The mistakes pile up, and they can’t be discarded in your memory. I never thought about a poor shot on the next hole, but I knew I had put a bad number on the card. And it happened again and again. In the first round, I eventually checked out. I tripled the last when I could have made an easy par. I had died a death of a thousand paper cuts, and it finally bugged me on the finisher. I had played really well, and my score just didn’t match up with how I felt. I shot 84, and it could have easily been 76.
I decided for the final three rounds, I would approach it more like normal golf. Get there close to the tee time, hit a few putts and go. For seven holes in Round 2 at Arrowhead Country Club, it felt like it was working. I was a couple over after a bogey at the first and some solid play thereafter. Then the skies opened up. We kept playing, never hearing a horn or a stoppage in play. I played three shots worse into the house than I would have were it dry. And then we saw three groups waiting on the 10th tee. They’d halted, unfairly or not, and we’d have to wait almost an hour to get going again. Under casual circumstances, I’d go home with a raincheck in hand. But we had to finish, and I wasn’t willing to battle after the rain stopped. Casual water was pervasive, and once the sun came back out, my clubs started to slip — including three times on No. 17, leading to three water balls and an 11. I shot 90 with an apathetic double at the last. I was wet and a little bitter.
OK, the tournament is over. I’m not going to contend. I’m not going to turn it around to get in the top half of the draw. But I was damn sure not going to finish last.
The Wednesday third round was over the border in North Carolina at Meadowlands Golf Club. The greens were in between the slow, replanted greens at International and the glassy greens at Arrowhead Country Club. An ideal speed. The holes were repetitive, kind of the nature of being in a region with 65 golf courses. Lots of doglegs, hitting over or around or short of some junk, hazard, water or O.B. Out the gate, I was doing all of that pretty well, but I just could not finish off holes. I was on the bogey train. Tee shots were crisp enough, but they wound up in bad spots. The putts were good but not good enough to go in the hole.
At 9 over through nine holes, I was frustrated. On No. 10, I hit a drive way right and had to punch out. My third shot was a simple wedge which I completely shanked. I do it with Poulter-like frequency at times, and it was the third time this week I had done it. Triple. Not what I needed or wanted. And then I hit a great drive on the subsequent par 5, leaving a 6-iron into the green. The club slipped in my gloveless hand (I forgot it in the room, where it was drying off with my normal golf shoes), and the ball went into a hazard. I went 7-7 in two holes, and I was defeated.
Then a miracle happened. I rallied. I played the final seven holes in 1 over, and they could have easily been under par. It was pretty much flawless golf. To shoot 87.
I looked at the leaderboard on Wednesday night for the first time all week. I was beating maybe five people. OK, fine. Maybe a good one on Thursday would get me closer to the middle of the pack.
The final round was at Grande Dunes’ Resort Course. I’d been staying all week at the amazing Marina Inn, across the Intercoastal Waterway from the course. I’d get up each morning and look at the holes I could see, which were totally different than what I was playing that day and had played any day prior. There were rolling hills, no obvious out of bounds and plenty of strategy. I was excited — to get up at 8:30 and go over the bridge, to play my kind of golf course, to finish strong.
After three bogeys out the gate, I was worried 90 was in play again. I was nervous about finishing last, and I was playing tentatively. But then I got up-and-down from long of the green, making a winding 10-foot putt for par. Everything changed. I went on a run, and I made birdies and saves and played like I knew I could. After starting on No. 7, I played the back nine in even. I seriously thought maybe — maybe — I could get into the 60s.
And I was wrong. I went OB by 3 yards on No. 1, and I hit my fourth shot from the dead middle of the fairway too aggressively. I made a soul-crushing triple. Then I made three absolutely dumb bogeys into the house. Despite the disappointing finish, I shot 81, and I knew I left 74 or 75 out there.
In the end, I beat something like 12 people. I only glanced at the final leaderboard. But I was proud to play with 75 percent of the holes I played. It was the 25 percent of holes where I made a frustrating bogey, demoralizing double, the occasional triple or the unique sextuple that ruined it. Tournament golf is as much about avoiding scoring poorly as it is pouring in birdies and eagles, putting circles on the card. It’s about managing where your mind goes when your body fails you. It’s about knowing what you do when you’re under pressure. Do you walk faster? Do you break your routine? Do you forget to breath? Do you just get angry and forget the task at hand? By the time Sunday rolled around, I knew, and I accounted for it — not perfectly, but I did.
It was instructive to watch guys who play a lot of tournament golf going alongside me. They had the same struggles I did, but they kept away from the big number. I know I can do that. I know I can put up a good number, and I can handle pressure. I work every day under pressure, knowing what I can provide for my family is directly tied to how many of you I can get to read my work. Golf is nothing.
The whole experience made me want to play tournament golf again. There aren’t many places on Earth where a regular guy like me can compete in four tournament rounds without having to qualify or put in a lot of time. The World Am was well-managed, and the golfers regulated themselves well for the most part. Best of all, they were largely friendly and encouraging. We wanted each other to do well. It’s not always like that.
I’m back in on tournament golf. I want to compete again. I have this desire to show what I’ve never really showed anyone outside the comfort of my friendly pairings, Friday games and in the occasional pro-am or scramble. The tournaments won’t be for money, and hardly anyone is going to read the results. But that’s not the point. I want to prove I can do my best, when it counts.
I’m ready to get back in the ring.