A revelation 25 years in the making: Feeling comfortable playing tournament golf
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A revelation 25 years in the making: Feeling comfortable playing tournament golf

It’s a rare thing for me to get nervous. There are few forces that make me feel anxiety, pressure and discomfort.

One of them is tournament golf. That was, for 25 years until Sunday.

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A long time ago, I came to the conclusion — rightly or wrongly —  that I just wasn’t cut out to play tournament golf. When I really got into golf toward the end of middle school, I would play in area tournaments and get the worst nerves on the first tee. Even with no one but my fellow competitors watching, I would get the worst feeling in my stomach. It’s a feeling I only get now when I first sit down at a blackjack table.

Being a successful tournament golfer requires an additional skill set as a golfer that I never really understood or cared much to learn. I’ve long been perfectly content putting up good scores in meaningless rounds during which I can play the aggressive style of golf a gambler like me loves. I am an all-world scramble player, but the feeling of vast loneliness I get in tournament golf isn’t something for which I have much appetite.

Despite myself, though, every once in a while I get the urge to try tournament golf again, longing to find some sense of validation in signing for a good number.

In the 2010s, I played in three, maybe four gross-score tournaments:

  1. I shot 85 in 2012 US Open local qualifying after flying home from covering The Players the night prior and arriving to the course practically unable to hit driver;
  2. When my son was maybe 2 or 3, I stunk it up in the first flight of my club championship, which we reduced from 36 holes to 18 holes because it was about 98 degrees when we played;
  3. In 2018, I played in the Myrtle Beach World Am, scoring horribly despite some good play.

I’ve never shot a tournament round in the 70s. Never.

But when I got the email that our stroke-play club championship would be played in September instead of its usual June dates, I felt an itch I had to scratch. I hardly ever get to play in this event because it typically conflicts with the US Open. I feel obligated to do my job, not play in something that isn’t going to change my life. However, in this bizarre year, I was willing to put me first and jam this tournament in the calendar parallel with what was happening at Winged Foot.

In the last year or so, I’ve grown as a player, trying to aim for smarter targets and picking spots to be more aggressive instead of going for every single shot, every single time, as I’ve done for my entire adult life. (I had a stint with course management in my high school years.) I’ve somehow managed to get back to scratch, eight years after last being there around the time of that disastrous Open qualifying attempt. I was hoping I could take some of this with-age-comes wisdom and maybe beat some guys in the Championship flight.

The problem with playing the Championship flight at Argyle Country Club is that it’s filled with sharks. We have guys who have qualified for multiple US Amateurs, top-ranked junior golfers, players who are competing or recently did compete at Division I golf schools. They’re all younger than me. They’re all more devoted to practicing and improving than me. They’re more flexible than me. They do this way more often than me.

Needless to say, I tempered my expectations.

I showed up early on Saturday morning for my 8:54 a.m. tee time. That was my first mistake, trying to demonstrate to myself that I was actually going to try. I hit some putts; the greens were faster than they had been in years at Argyle. I hit balls on the range, which I never do before a round. I felt I was prepared enough, even if the whole thing felt abnormal.

On the first tee, we were told we would be playing from the Blue/Black tees. The Black tees at Argyle are on three holes — the par-5 second, the par-4 sixth and the par-4 18th — to make them longer and nastier. I had played the one on the sixth hole once in a skip-around evening jaunt, and it wasn’t fun playing a 495-yard par 4. On this day, with a 10-15 mph wind blowing at us on all three holes, we would be playing two par 4s that were over 500 yards. I’m long, but that didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me.

Still, on the first hole, I nuked a drive about 330 down the right side. I was apparently excited. However, with a precarious pin on the right edge of the green, I mistakenly hit my wedge a little too long. I nervously failed to get up-and-down for par. And so it went like that. I was playing well enough, but I was getting nickel-and-bogeyed to death with each little mistake. On legitimately fast greens and in tough conditions, each mistake was amplified.

On the eighth hole, a straight-forward 360-yard par 4, I broke. I took six shots to get in the hole from 90 yards. I was upset. I looked at my phone to try to break concentration and then snap back into it. I saw my wife had texted me. She sent a picture of our children standing next to a sign saying “Good Luck, Dad” that they put on our fence just off the ninth green. I cried a few tears. They were proud of me — and me of them — regardless of how I did in something like this.

Maybe insulated from what just happened, I rallied. I played the next six holes in even, including making our group’s first birdie of the day after intentionally running my ball along the ground from behind a tree, ramping through a bunker to about 10 feet. Of course it had to be that way.

Feeling like I had something going on the 15th tee, I tried to bang driver on a 375-yard hole with out of bounds all up the left. I wanted to make a move. Instead, I pulled the tee shot OB. The next one, I pushed out to the right and unluckily found a hazard. It was another triple. I gave up. I went bogey-double-bogey into the house on the back of two bad tee shot decisions on 16 and 17, then just succumbing to a really tough hole on 18 despite finding the fairway with my best drive of the day. 85. Even if I tacked on a few shots for the extra-long par 4s, I scored awful. I was tied for next to DFL.

Being a “good” golfer is kind of part of my public persona. It doesn’t define who I am deep down, but when I talk about good rounds, or great shots, or stuff like that, I feel a responsibility to back it up every time out. I don’t want to be accused of having a vanity handicap. I don’t want to be a reverse sandbagger. Even though I’ve seen myself do some pretty cool things on the golf course, a number like that made me doubt myself. Am I really just deceiving myself? Am I deceiving you? As I trudged home from the clubhouse, I was hoping I wasn’t.

Hope is not a strategy. It’s a coping tactic. And that’s true for tournament golf. I was disappointed in my performance, even though I probably shouldn’t have been. I don’t play tournaments. I have never learned to co-exist with the nerves I feel when I suddenly notice hazards and obstacles on the course I never consider in a casual round. I have never fully reckoned how to jam in 3- and 5-footers for par nor how to keep moving forward when I don’t execute on shots I could pull off in my sleep.

A few Twitter followers gave me some great pre-tournament advice, and I didn’t take it on Day 1. They told me to play like it didn’t matter; basically, compete like I would in a $5 Nassau or a game of Nines. Just putt everything out. With the first tee time on Day 2, I was determined to do what I should have done in the first place.

So, I showed up for my 8 a.m. tee time at 7:50. I didn’t hit any balls or any putts, just like I normally don’t.

For some reason, I didn’t feel a wave of nerves. My goal was to not further embarrass myself, so I felt a little tingly compared to normal, but that was manageable.

I hit an awful drive to start, and I made a decent 5 from behind a tree. I hit a low hook again on No. 2, making a clumsy bogey. I should have panicked. I didn’t. I got to work. I made two pars before making a 5 on the sixth, which was fine to me. I made comfortable pars on Nos. 7 and 8. I got a little squirrely on 9, but that was OK.

Most importantly, though, I felt in control. I nuked a drive 325 yards on No. 10. I bounced back from a bogey on 11 with a two-putt birdie on No. 12. On 15, I only made a bogey — someday, I’m going to figure out how to hit a cut on that hole. At the downhill par-3 17th, which plays all over junk and water, I hit my 5-iron into a stiff breeze from 190 yards and stuck it to 6 feet, converting the birdie for what I thought would surely win a skin (a fellow Ryan, who has qualified for multiple US Ams, cut me). I triumphantly smashed two good shots into the 18th to make a par. 74.

It took a quarter-century of playing golf, but I finally posted a tournament round in the 70s. I beat two-thirds of the field on Sunday. Just as cool, one the 17-year-old kids I played with the day prior shot 69, a nice round that had a chance to be something very special.

This was what I needed. I needed a great round to convince myself that I could play tournament golf. Through these two days, I discovered that I could mostly play my regular game in competitive rounds, but I had to occasionally make more conservative decisions. Bad choices in the first round — being too aggressive off the tee, for the most part — cost me seven, maybe nine shots. I could’ve been solidly in the upper-half of the middle of the field, but Sunday was a revelation.

Mistakes are inevitable in golf, but the best competitors know how to not let them linger and influence how you planned to play. I learned how to hang in there after a bad start. I realized I didn’t have to suddenly change my strategy to make back a shot here or there. I finally — finally! — finished off a good round instead of letting myself down.

For me, golf isn’t about proving anything to anybody other than myself. Getting better takes some work, some luck, support and the conviction to not be satisfied with good enough.

I’m constantly trying to convince myself that I can improve as a player, often attached to the hope that I can get better as a person, too. But hope isn’t a strategy. If you don’t put in the work, you don’t deserve better. If I want to prove to myself I have what it takes to contend in and win tournaments, then I’ll have to commit to testing myself more often. Is that something I’m willing to do? I’m still not sure.

About the author


Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

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