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What I learned losing $63,700 playing professional golf

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Josh Thompson

It was the spring of 2007. After two years of college, I said goodbye to my golf scholarship and my great group of teammates. I was ready to chase my dream of playing golf on the PGA Tour.

I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew that in order to succeed I’d have to fully commit myself to golf with 100 percent focus.

I moved to Tampa from Indianapolis to start preparing for the upcoming 2008 season. During the day, I worked on my golf game and at night I worked at a restaurant bussing tables to save up extra money on the side. I grew up cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors in my family’s janitorial business, so working a side job was nothing new to me, but I did have some financial help from family and friends for my first full year on the Hooters Tour. I knew playing golf professionally wasn’t cheap, but little did I know at the time how quickly things add up, even for someone as tight with money as myself.

At the time, a membership on the Hooters Tour cost around $2,000 and the entry fee for each event was around $1,100. That was only to gain entry into the one event and compete against 155 other players for a $200,000 purse, with around $34,000 going to the winner. A typical week would cost me about $1,800. If there was host-housing for the week, it was cheaper — about $1,300. Host-housing is when a family offers its home to a golfer for the week and lets you stay in an extra room. I’ve met a lot of great people through hosting, many of whom I still stay in touch with and call friends to this day.

After shooting 68 and not qualifying for the Nationwide Tour stop in Atlanta — yes, 68’s get you a one-way ticket out of town for Monday qualifiers — I headed up to Greenville, N.C. for the Touchstone Energy Open on the Hooters Tour.

Overall, I felt like my game was going in the right direction in my first year as a professional. I started off the week well with a pair of 68’s in the first two rounds. I had just made my first cut as a pro, and after a one-under par 71 on Saturday I was tied for the lead going into the last day. The forecast didn’t look great for Sunday — cold, rain and some light hail. It seemed Mother Nature didn’t want the final round to be played, and it looked as though it would be canceled numerous times.

Driving to the course, the thought crept into my head that if today’s round was cancelled, I would split the $33,500 first-place check. I immediately stopped myself from thinking about that. You don’t play for second place or hope for a particular outcome. You go out there to win no matter the situation. “Don’t worry about the weather or the outcome, focus on what you can control,” I told myself. “The shot in front of you is all that matters.”

Ten hours and multiple rain delays later, I was standing in the fairway, in the rain, on the 71st hole. I was around 270 yards from the green, faced with a decision to lay up or go for the green — birdie to take the lead going into the last, or make a safe par and likely put myself into a playoff that likely wouldn’t happen because of darkness. I remembered what I said to myself in the car on the way to the golf course, so I pulled out the driver and hit it off the deck. The ball finished up by the green. After hitting the pitch shot to 10 feet, I cleared off the hail on the green that was in my line and rolled in the putt.

I now had a one-shot lead with one hole to play. After hitting the ball in the middle of the green and two-putting on the par-3 last hole, I realized I had won the golf tournament. I couldn’t believe it! Winning at the age of 21 was the jump-start to the season I was gunning for and the ideal start to my professional golfing career. Little did I know at the time that there were going to be many peaks and valleys in the years to come. This win would be the climax.

Coming off the win my confidence was high and my bank account benefited from the $33,500 check I just deposited. The remaining part of the year was a bit of a struggle. Mixed into my schedule were Hooters Tour events, Monday qualifiers, state opens and Q-School at the end of the season.

Come August, four months after my win, I had racked up 10 consecutive missed cuts and other near misses at Monday qualifiers. Not only that, a cyst on my left wrist started to grow throughout the season and wasn’t going away. Instead of playing in Q-School, I decided it would be best to have surgery to remove the cyst to alleviate the pain. I wasn’t worried. I was only 21 and it was just one surgery, so no big deal. The surgery would open the floodgates for many more off seasons spent rehabbing, however, opposed to improving my game and getting better.

After recovering from surgery, I spent the remaining part of the off season in Tampa. Even though I had struggled in the tournaments after my win, I had a positive outlook on the upcoming season. Following the surgery, I made another big decision to switch golf coaches. After spending nine years with the same instructor, it was a difficult decision to make. During this transition I decided that my entire game needed to change to reach the level where I wanted to be as a professional golfer. The goal was to have my golf swing revolve around my short game technique and have that technique be the central part that drove lower scores. I learned that you have to be willing to risk everything in order to reach the top. To me, it’s the same reason Tiger and Hogan always strived for perfection. They wanted more out of their game, even after being on top and considered the absolute best.

I was excited about the next season with the plan I had laid out and was anxious to get things going. The results on the golf course were up and down — not alarming considering some of the changes I was making, but the results needed to get better. There were many properly executed shots and rounds played, but then the exact opposite littered with “what-were-you-thinking” moments.

Once the 2009 season wrapped up, I was looking forward to the three-month offseason where I could continue working on the changes in my game and building a solid foundation for the future. About midway through the offseason that winter, things were moving in the right direction with my game. I felt as though 2010 was going to be the year to regain my form and make some real headway. At the time, I was working at a golf course in Tampa — not the best of gigs, but it had its perks.

One day while working in the bag room, things came crashing down, literally. A golf bag fell from the top stand of the bag rack, which was about head high, and I tried saving the bag from an awkward angle with my right arm. The bag made it out unscaved but my shoulder didn’t: a torn labrum that would require surgery. Another offseason and another surgery — not exactly what I had drawn up. Looking back on the situation, saving that 30-handicapper’s bag with iron headcovers and four dozen golf balls from falling wasn’t the best idea. Sometimes, it’s best to just cut your losses, especially if it means hurting yourself. This wasn’t exactly the best timing either, as funds were getting low.

After going through with the surgery, I had a short amount of time to get my game back into shape before the season. With the unlikely change of events, I decided to change up my schedule for the summer. I was still going to play in the state opens and Monday qualifiers, but this year I was going to take my game northwest to the plains and compete on the Dakotas Tour. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. “Sometimes you have to change things up to get different results,” I told myself. “Maybe the trip out west is what you need.”

I had heard nice things about the Dakotas Tour, and you were able to play a lot of tournament rounds in a short amount of time. The events started in Iowa and then we ventured into the Dakotas. The travel was all by vehicle from one small town to the next, trying to squeeze in as many tournaments as possible. Sometimes you’d finish playing in a tournament one day and drive through the night to tee it up in another tournament the next day. The yardage books that the proshops carried were often times my best friend. I never played the courses before, so I needed all the information I could get. The yardage books helped, no doubt, but my results were more or less the same as the past season; signs of good play devoid by head-shaking shots.

My last stop on the tour was in Rapid City, which is in western South Dakota. After the completion of my round, I decided to start the 16-hour drive back to Indianapolis where my parents live. The plan was to find a hotel about halfway, somewhere around Omaha, Neb. That didn’t happen because of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Iowa State Fair. All the hotel rooms were booked everywhere I drove. I had been up since 4:30 a.m. CST and it was 1 a.m. CST the next day. I decided to finally pull off in a hotel parking lot and try to catch some sleep in the back of my two-door Honda Civic.

It couldn’t be that bad… it was only the middle of the hottest summer in quite some time.

I finally fell asleep, and about two hours later my car started shaking. I didn’t know what was happening, but in my sea of sweat I thought someone was trying to break into my car. It turned out to be a couple making out on my hood. Out of the hundred vehicles in this parking lot, they choose mine to bump and grind on. The show they were putting on was cheap entertainment, but at this point I was too tired to even reach up to the steering wheel and honk the horn to get them to leave. Instead, I laid back down and tried to fall back to sleep.

That summer concluded with a few more near misses at Monday qualifiers and another trip down to Florida for the winter. My game was really starting to take shape with the changes I had made… until I hurt myself again. Shortly before I was scheduled to leave town, I was hitting balls when my club struck something under the ground. It stopped my club dead in its tracks, which had never happened before. Pain shot up my left wrist, and the result was a torn TFCC (Triangular Fibrocartiliage Complex). I tried playing through it for the next month, but the pain was just too much to stand. A third surgery in three years was in my future.

Another stint of physical therapy and practice would get my form back to a decent level, but the problem is that “decent” doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to play golf for a living. The commercials are telling the truth — these guys are good. After three surgeries, multiple missed cuts and several near misses, I decided I had enough. I put away the clubs and stopped chasing the dream.

I had no regrets and didn’t second guess myself, but what was next? When your identity is built around being a golfer, and it’s all you’ve know and all you’ve done, what do you do?

I started to reflect on what I learned and where to go from there. I took some time to see old friends and share my experiences with others. By talking out loud and telling my story, I started looking at the bigger picture. I started asking more questions about the game of golf and what can be learned from it. After spending time thinking, I decided to go back to school and finish my degree. I realized that there’s more to my life than just golf. I took what I had learned and put it on paper. You’d be surprised what people will say when they see things like, “professional golfer” on a resume. It catches them off guard — in a good way.

Since junior golf, I had a clear picture of how everything was going to pan out on my way to being a PGA Tour player. Some said that leaving college after two years to turn professional was a bad decision.

They’d say, “What if golf doesn’t work out?”

What I ultimately learned was that when some dreams end, it’s only an opportunity for new ones. It wasn’t long after graduating that I started a job at a digital marketing agency in New York City. That was hard even for me to believe.

I still love golf and follow it closely week to week — I like to see how my friends are playing on the various tours. I find myself constantly looking back at my experiences and none of them are negative. I’m at peace with the rewards the game have given me, which are much more valuable than the $63,700 my time on tour cost me. You just can’t put a price on what professional golf taught me.

The thing that keeps popping into my mind these days is to always do what feels right. As long as you’re 100 percent committed, you give yourself the best opportunity to not only succeed, but to be at peace with your decision. You only get one chance a lot of times, so don’t do it like someone else. Go your own way and don’t doubt your path.

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Josh is a retired professional golfer who won the Hooters Tour Touchstone Energy Open at age 21. He has played competitive golf all across the U.S. and holds four courses records. He now has his amateur status back, and works at a digital marketing agency in NYC. Josh is also the Co-Founder of My Golf Tutor, an online golf instructional website.

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Dan Diel

    May 29, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    My son is giving pro golf a try for the second time! He has some sponsor money, which will help! Tough out there on the mini tours but life time dreams are within his grasp! Thanks for the great read!

  2. derek

    Jan 1, 2015 at 1:06 am

    Thanks, sorry bout all the injuries.
    What was your take on what the good players were doing that helped them the most make cuts ($)? was it the best putters, longest hitters, ball striking, wedge play, short game, course management? a combo of two?
    Curios as to what sticks out at in your mind at that high level of competition. TIA
    Derek

  3. azorean

    Dec 31, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    You at least chased your dreams and for this I admire you. I’m sure you are a better person because of this.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Mike

    Dec 31, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Great story. Do you have a communication degree? I was wondering why you selected digital marketing as a career and considering your invaluable experience as a pro golfer, whether or not you work on online marketing campaigns for golf companies?

  5. moses

    Dec 31, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Nice read. Thanks for sharing. This just goes to show how much talent there is out there and how hard it is to make it to the big show.

  6. warrenpeace

    Dec 31, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    nice article….it really tells it like it is, and not as glamorous as people think.
    When you play amateur events you now give the younger and older hot shots a chance to say they beat a tour winner if they can!! I wonder if the wannabes gun for you now that you are an am again?

  7. Gary

    Dec 31, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Great story. Bummer about the bad breaks but kudos on keeping up a good attitude.

  8. 3rdgroove

    Dec 31, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Great write up! Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure when you have a corporate golf day you’ll be everybody’s favorite team partner 🙂

  9. LY

    Dec 31, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Great story. I would love to see more articles like this. Maybe some articles from PGA tour caddies on what that experience is like.

  10. Geoffrey Holland

    Dec 31, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    “signs of good play devoid by head-shaking shots.”

    Incorrect use of devoid.

    Aside from that, an interesting look at how tough it really is to be a successful pro golfer.

  11. Kelly

    Dec 31, 2014 at 12:32 am

    Great article! Did you win the Hooters Tour event at Brook Valley CC?

  12. mark d

    Dec 30, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Terrific article, thank you for letting us all see a bit of what the grind is like. And, congratulations on your career. Best of luck!

  13. J

    Dec 30, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Great and inspiring story. It also underscores how great Tiger and many other pros are who never had the pleasure of coming through the minor ranks.

  14. Jafar

    Dec 30, 2014 at 9:34 am

    If you could do it again, would you have finished college first before trying to go pro?

    Would that have lessened the weekly stress any, knowing you had other opportunities in life, and every golf shot wasnt a make or break for you?

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Josh

      Dec 31, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Hi Jafar — thanks for the question. Looking back on it I would still have left college early. I didn’t look at it that I didn’t have other opportunities in life since I didn’t finish school. I was still very young in age and knew I could always go back to finish school. Thanks again for the question.

  15. Brad Ingarfield

    Dec 30, 2014 at 8:37 am

    great story. Thanks for sharing. – Brad Ingarfield

  16. Cody

    Dec 30, 2014 at 8:31 am

    This article is too negative for me, but it was an interesting read.

  17. bradford

    Dec 30, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Congrats on the WIN! I’d love to check “Win a professional golf tournament” off the life-list. Cool that you did it so early. Nice article.

  18. charles

    Dec 30, 2014 at 2:37 am

    one of the best things ive ever read!

  19. Jesse graham

    Dec 30, 2014 at 1:49 am

    Awesome article, i wish people that were not or did not know all the hard times mini tour players go theough just to chase their dream. Most people just think its all just easy big $$$. My old golf coach who was a damn good golfer used to say he was “the Canadian Tours leading money spender”

  20. Timbleking

    Dec 30, 2014 at 1:28 am

    By far the best article I’ve ever read on there. Thanks for sharing, Josh.

  21. damian s

    Dec 29, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree with the last paragraph. And it is with that attitude I will be commencing a business in the new year full of hope, belief and passion.
    Thanks for sharing your story!

  22. Justin O'Neil

    Dec 29, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can understand the disappointment that comes from injury having had two knee surgeries while still in high school.

    I am curious about your time on the Dakota Tour and the yardage books you used there. My dad made yardage books for quite a few courses in that area in the early 90’s and I am curious if any of his books may have still been in use when you played? His name is Jack O’Neil and he specifically marked off books for the courses played on that tour as well as the course for the Quad Cities Classic and John Deere tournament.

    • Josh

      Dec 31, 2014 at 10:49 am

      Hi Justin — thanks for the question. Not sure who made the books I used on the Dakotas Tour. They could have been the books your Dad made, but not sure though.

  23. Golfwrxer

    Dec 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I played on the mini tours for a year. I kept hitting my approaches so pure they’d literally get stuck in the flag so I’d have to take drops. Then I realigned my trag and kept landing the ball on top of the pin. More unplayables.

  24. 3putts

    Dec 29, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Good article. I played a year on the mini tour for a season 5 years ago and it was an amazing experience that has been best enjoyed a couple years down the road when the pressure of week to week high stress has passed. I would relate it to a girlfriend that you really loved but it just wasn’t working out. Still think about the what if’s but knowing at your core that I just wasn’t going to last. Haha. There was a lot of guys I ran into that were just burnt out and had drinking habits to accompany the lifestyle. ‘Happy hour’ drunk was a term I heard one guy nearing 40 labeled himself. Too long out there and no real shot at moving to the PGA tour can take its tole. Maybe it’s better we both moved on to something else. You play much anymore and is it the same for you now that’s there’s nothing on the line?

    • Josh

      Dec 31, 2014 at 10:52 am

      Hi 3putts — thanks for the question. I don’t play as much now that I live in NYC, but did play occasionally for fun while finishing school in Indianapolis on the weekends with my friends.

  25. Tom

    Dec 29, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Great read! Where were you in Tampa? This is my hometown.

    • Josh

      Dec 31, 2014 at 10:55 am

      Hi Tom — thanks for your question. When I was in the Tampa Bay area I lived in the Clearwater area, but was in Tampa often working with my coach (Rich Abele). Check him out if you need some help with your game, great person and instructor.

  26. Jeff B

    Dec 29, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    very good story. Pleasure reading

  27. Neige

    Dec 29, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing. Good luck!

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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

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The West Coast Swing kicks off this week with the CareerBuilder Challenge in Southern California. Last year, Hudson Swafford survived the difficult weather conditions and prevailed to win the event by one shot at 20-under par, one stroke ahead of Canadian Adam Hadwin who shot a 59 in the third round.

For fantasy players and gamblers, the CareerBuilder Challenge is one of the most frustrating events of the year. The event is played over three courses… and only one provides Shotlink. That is the PGA West Stadium Course, which will host two of the four rounds. Along with the frustration of not knowing how your picks are faring on each hole, there is also the added frustration of only having stats available from one course, which makes things tricky in identifying the key categories for scoring on the other two.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Jon Rahm 10/1
  • Brian Harman 14/1
  • Patrick Reed 18/1
  • Webb Simpson 18/1
  • Kevin Kisner 20/1
  • Phil Mickelson 22/1
  • Zach Johnson 28/1

The best player in the field by some distance is Jon Rahm. The Spaniard has had a phenomenal rise since holing an improbable monster eagle putt to win The Farmers Insurance 12 months ago. He’s added two big wins on the European Tour since then, and he’s now No. 3 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Odds of 10/1 are certainly attractive, and if he plays his best or near to it then he’ll win the tournament. But the CareerBuilder Challenge is an event in which his immense driving ability will be nullified slightly; you can’t simply grip it and rip it. Instead, placement in the correct portion of the fairways offering the best angle of attack on the many short par 4’s is often the key here. Last year, Rahm managed a modest T34. At 10/1 he’s likely to be the most popular DraftKings pick, but I feel there may be better value down the line with Rahm — particularly on courses where he can showcase his dominant driving.

As I noted, hunting the value in this event is not an easy task. Fan favorite Phil Mickelson (22/1, DK Price $10,000) offers appeal at a time of year where he seems to always play well. Over the last three years, Mickelson has finished inside the top-25 each time. His best performance came in 2016 when he finished T3. Likely to have plenty of scoring clubs in hand from the fairway, Mickelson’s precise iron play should pay dividends this week. Last season, he finished 14th in Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. Through eight rounds in this new season he sits T2. In his last 10 rounds, he has averaged positive numbers on all the key statistics (Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, Off the Tee, Approaching the Green, Around the Green and Putting), which suggests his game is in very solid shape. After the media attention surrounding his split from long-term caddy Jim Mackay, I expect a doubly determined Phil Mickelson this year.

Kevin Na (80/1, DK Price $7,400) has had a disappointing 10 months on the golf course. Despite his lack of scoring, his statistics are indicating that he still has the game. Kevin enjoyed a brilliant stretch before 2017,  where he seemed to always be there or thereabouts on the leaderboard. But his inconsistent results of late have driven his price back to where I consider it value for a quality player. Kevin Na’s iron play is lethal, and on a course that demands aggressive approaches to the green he should be able to give himself lots of looks for birdie. In his last 12 rounds, Na sits second in this field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. This should come as no surprise; in 2017, he finished 8th in the statistic for the season. His course form is solid if not spectacular, a T3 in 2016 being the highlight. He missed the cut at the Sony Open last week, but it’s not something I’d be overly concerned about. It came down to a brutal two days on the greens, where he dropped 7.6 strokes to the field.

At the same price and in the same mold in terms of a disappointing 2017, Scott Piercy (80/1, DK Price $7,400) looks like a value play. Piercy suffered injuries last season that caused a disruptive and frustrating season for him. But the three-time PGA Tour winner is showing signs of turning things around in this wraparound season. He recorded a top-20 at the Safeway Open back in October, and last week at the Sony Open he played well. He finished T25 despite dropping 4.4 strokes to the field on the greens for the four days. Piercy is seventh in this field for his last 12 rounds for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green; he sits 9th in ball striking over the same period. The main concern is his putting. He does struggle with the flatstick at times, but on these pure greens he may be able to give himself enough chances to improve on last year’s performance where he finished T41.

It is worth a reminder that this is an event where there are three days of action before there is a cut, and I certainly feel that it’s worth adding an extra long shot to your DraftKings teams as an extra round is opens a lot of possibilities. My long shot for the week is Hunter Mahan (300/1, DK Price $6,800). Mahan’s drop from the top echelons of the game is a reminder of how quickly it can all fall apart… but Mahan’s story might be turning around. He had his best stretch in some time at the back end of last year, where he managed to put a run of three-consecutive top-20 finishes together. He holds a positive Strokes Gained Total of 4.2 over his last 5 events, particularly showing promise off the tee and on the greens. At his price, there’s not much to lose in hoping Hunter can put together four rounds like he did at the back end of last year.

Recommended Plays

  • Phil Mickelson 22/1, DK Price $10,000
  • Kevin Na 80/1, DK Price $7,400
  • Scott Piercy 80/1, DK Price $7,400
  • Hunter Mahan 300/1, DK Price $6,800
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Courses

The Long and Winding Road to The Old Course

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St. Andrews holds a special and historic place in every golfer’s imagination. Anyone who has the faintest chance to play St. Andrews should do whatever it takes to get there. My journey to The Home of Golf was a circuitous one, filled with random twists and colorful characters along the way. It all started with a wedding. This is my story.

Palm Desert, California 2006. I was living the charmed and unglamorous life of a club professional. My soul was slowly being crushed by too many Couples Twilights and Ladies’ Guest Days. The love I once had for the game was waning and I needed something authentic to rekindle the passion. One day my friend Aaron called from Minneapolis with some exciting news: “Dude, my cousin Paul is getting married in a castle in England next month and we…” I cut him off with a quickness. “Forget the castle. We have to go play St. Andrews.” My response didn’t surprise Aaron one bit. His mind was already heading in the same direction, and he knew what I was going to say before he picked up the phone. We started forging a plan for the trip.

Aaron and I were both fairly seasoned travelers, but we weren’t without our limitations. There were family and work obligations to consider, as well as Aaron’s recently rebuilt knee. He was going to be a game-time decision for every round. I’m not saying Aaron is Brett Favre, but he’s a pretty tough guy so I felt good about our chances.

Our limited itinerary called for a Friday arrival, a Saturday groom’s dinner and a Sunday night wedding — all in the company of the wildly entertaining Reid and McIllrick clans. After that, if we survived, there would be golf: Monday at 7 a.m. on the Old Course, Tuesday at Carnoustie and Wednesday’s game at Loch Lomond before heading home. The difficult feat was going to be leaving from the wedding on the outskirts of Leeds, England around midnight and getting to the first tee at St. Andrews by 7 a.m. the next morning. Make no mistake; this was going to be intricate work.

You should know a little bit about the cousin/groom Paul Reid. A successful aviation executive and a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, he is perhaps best known for being the older brother of former Hibernian Football Club Goalkeeper Chris Reid. As teenagers the Reid brothers would visit their Minnesota cousins, and we all became fast friends. Paul and his bride-to-be Kay didn’t actually invite me to their wedding, but they knew I was coming as a guest; albeit a guest with ulterior motives.

We landed in Glasgow and drove to York, England (mistake) to meet up with the rest of the wedding party. The first two days was a boisterous blur of pints and greasy fish ‘n’ chips. I don’t remember much, but I do recall a few things; most notably, the groom’s dinner that featured a James Bond soundtrack. Not James Brown: James Bond. I’m a pretty solid dancer, but there’s only so much you can do with “A View to a Kill.” But it’s the groom’s night; if it’s Duran Duran he wants, then it’s Duran Duran he’ll get.

When Paul and Kay’s wedding finally came, it was a beautiful and lavish affair. Truth be told, I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. When the clock struck midnight, Aaron and I hit the road. We were stone-cold sober and in front of us lay a cold, wet, five-hour drive through the dark Northern night. There was no place else in the universe I would have rather been.

The road less traveled

It didn’t take long for doubt to start creeping in. Keep in mind, back in 2006 the car rental GPS systems were suspect. We were rolling through the rural countryside with MapQuest print-outs on the left side of the road in the driving rain. And don’t forget we were powering through a 3-day hangover fueled solely by adrenaline. This was nothing short of a herculean challenge.

Every good road trip has a soundtrack, right? Somehow, somehow, the only CD we had was by a band called Granddaddy. “Rear View Mirror” was their only jam. Late night/early morning Scottish radio offered little relief as “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley was on every time we sought refuge on the FM dial. There was no Belle and Sebastian, no Big Country, no Simple Minds (thank God) and not even Teenage Fan Club. Just Gnarls Barkley every single time. I’m not making this up.

Three hours into our journey, we were starting to fade hard. Luckily, we came across a roundabout that had a 24-hour gas station/convenience store. Stepping out of the car I realized that what I thought was a light drizzle was actually rain. It wasn’t enough to keep you from playing golf, but it was a legitimate stop-a-Little-League-game type of rain. And it was cold. I bought a few extra-large coffees that tasted about as bad as you would expect rural Scottish gas station coffee to taste at 3 a.m. and headed back to the car.

Then it happened. As I hastily scrambled to get back into the car and away from the freezing rain, I fumbled the coffee. Not in the parking lot, not the side of the car, not even in the floor of the car. I ham-fisted all 32 ounces of java directly into Aaron’s lap. Talk about furious. Aaron was sleep deprived, had a right knee as swollen as Frank Gore’s and was freshly soaked with a gallon of lukewarm coffee. To rub salt on the wound, the only MapQuest sheet that we needed was also ruined. We would have to make the last two hours to the Old Course on feel, and I wasn’t sure our friendship would last that long.

We found our way to town around 5:30 a.m. We had rented a few rooms in a house about 10 minutes from the course and the plan was to change clothes and go play. The schedule was all working out, but the weather wasn’t. It was still raining, windy and maybe 40 degrees. But we changed and headed to the Old Course, hoping at least one of the elements would relent.

It’s not easy getting the 7 a.m. tee time at The Old Course. As the saying goes, “It’s who you know that counts,” and a friend of mine who was a member of an exclusive club that somewhat guarantees members tee times at courses all over the world had set it up for us. I had no confirmation or booking number — just an email from my friend telling me to be at the first tee by 6:45 a.m. If you knew this guy, you’d realize this wasn’t as risky as it sounds. So as we parked the car and started to walk to the historic first tee, only two things were going through my mind:

  1. It is still lightly raining, windy and cold
  2. Considering it’s 6:45 a.m., there are a lot of people here

As we approach the first tee and the Ellis Island-like crowd that surrounded it, the sense of place really started to sink in. Then suddenly, like Moses parting the Red Sea, two men split the crowd and walked toward us.

“The professionals from California, I assume?” said the shorter dark-haired fellow named Robert.

“Yes sir,” I replied.

We stumbled through introductions and Robert went on to say that everything had been handled. There would be no need to pay for anything. Then he asked if we’d take a few singles to play along in our tee time. We happily agreed.

As I went to put my peg in the ground, I could hear whispers from the de facto gallery: “Look! He’s the pro from California!” I wanted to turn and tell them, “No! Look away! I’m just a hack club professional and I haven’t slept in two days! Look away!

Instead, feeling every ounce of the onlooker’s expectations, I pulled driver because it had the greatest chance of getting airborne. I swung as hard as I could and snap-hooked a line drive about 230 yards (85 yards of carry) into the 18th fairway. I was strangely content with the result. Just as we were about to walk off the tee, Robert approached and we shook hands as if to say thanks and good bye. He suddenly pulled me in closely and whispered, “At the conclusion of your round, there will be a silver Range Rover parked behind the green. Get in that vehicle.” Then he just turned and left. It was weird. The whole thing felt very covert. There was something about Robert and his sidekick that had my radar up. I wondered if the James Bond soundtrack from the groom’s dinner was a premonition of things to come.

We were paired with an Englishman who was a very solid player and another man from Houston, Texas, who was far less capable. The Texan, as we came to know him, probably shot over 150. To call him eccentric would be a gross understatement; he made Bill Murray look like Tom Kite. He sported a big, bushy gray beard and a flannel button-down shirt. The only thing guarding him from the elements was a picnic blanket he wrapped around his husky frame. My guess is he slept on that same blanket the night before, probably on the first tee. Whether The Texan was entirely there mentally was a topic of hot debate. “Nice shot,” I untruthfully said to him once. He looked back at me (through me?) for about 10 seconds before uttering, “They all are.” Curious words for a man who just shot about 150.

People will often tell you how great the caddies are at The Old Course, but they didn’t have my man Stevie. Again and again, I asked Stevie not to read the greens for me because I wanted to figure them out myself. I also asked him not to club me, but rather to just give me yardages. As we approached the 10th green, I was pleading: “Stevie… please, for the last time, please don’t give me a read unless I ask for it, OK? I really want to read the greens myself.” His reply: “You got it, sir. Sorry, sir… You got it.. This one’s right to left, sir. About half a foot.” He hands me a putter, walks away and grabs the pin.

By the time we reached the historic Road Hole, my relationship with Stevie (not his real name) was beyond frayed. A good drive left me in the middle of the fairway. I asked Stevie for a distance and he clubbed me. “Just the raw distance, please, Stevie.” He clubed me again. And then again. I asked one more time and he finally relented. I took 8-iron — one more club than Stevie recommended — and hit it pure leaving a ball mark about five feet past a middle pin. The problem was the ball ended up well over the green on gravel. Triple-bogey seven. Stevie was right. The shot called for a 9-iron hit short and right of the sucker’s line I had played.

As we reached the 18th green, we all shook hands and gave our thanks, good lucks and goodbyes. I embraced Stevie as if asking for his forgiveness. I looked up and there it was, the silver Range Rover. Robert and his accomplice jogged out to meet us, grabbed our bags and loaded them in the back. “Off to the castle for lunch now,” Robert said. It was not a request, but a requirement. Our golf bags were like hostages so we followed orders.

The Mysterious Castle

Again, we didn’t know these guys from Adam and the whole scene was just a little north of uncomfortable. Defenses were slightly up. I knew Robert and his cohort wanted something from us, but I wasn’t sure what. Robert told us we were about five miles away from “the castle” where we could “have lunch and discuss a proposition.” When we got there, it was more clubhouse than castle. There was a garden, a pool and stables. It reminded me of an Oasis video. I was half-expecting Liam Gallagher to be passed out on a billiards table in the parlor.

As it turns out, Robert was just trying to sell us memberships into the club, which would be like joining all of the world’s finest clubs. It would guarantee us tee times “anywhere but Augusta National” as Robert reiterated half a dozen times. Instead of calling him to the carpet on the false promise of global tee times, I explained that I wasn’t in the market to join any club and thanked him for his hospitality. After a nice lunch and few beers, they drove us back to our car.

Aaron and I hadn’t slept in well over 24 hours and we were spent. We had plenty of daylight to play more golf, but we just didn’t have the energy. Kingsbarn, The Jubilee, maybe even a replay of The Old Course; it was all right there in front of us. But instead we went back to our rooms to warm up, dry up and rest; a decision I’ve regretted ever since.

After recharging, we dragged ourselves back into town and drank half a dozen pints as we recounted the day. There were so many surreal quirks that we had to take a mental inventory. Was that the hardest five-hour drive ever? Did we almost crash into a few roundabouts? How horrible does a lap full of coffee feel at 3:30 a.m.? Did that scene at the first tee really happen? Is The Texan is still alive? Was he even real? Was being shuttled away from The Old Course by strangers in a silver Range Rover to a castle for lunch with two kind of strange guys we didn’t know the most James Bond move ever… or the least James Bond move ever? Who knows.

But I know one thing: I’ll be back at St. Andrews someday, hopefully with my daughter if she chooses to play. I’ll show her where my smother-hook on the opening hole ended up. We’ll laugh at stories about The Texan. Maybe I’ll birdie the 18th again. As we’re standing on the green hugging, I’ll pull her close and whisper: “If you see a silver Range Rover behind the green, don’t get in. They’re just trying to sell you something.”

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Opinion & Analysis

Let’s Talk Fitting: Length, Lie and Loft

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With club fitting and club building, there are a lot of factors that can be measured and taken into account. When it comes down to it, though, there are three critical factors that will create the biggest effect on your ball flight. They are known as the 3 L’s: length, lie and loft.

In this video, I explain why the three L’s are important and why you should always ask for your measured specs.

 

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19th Hole

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