Many recreational golfers often wonder if they should dip their toes into the waters of competitive golf. This article will give you an understanding of what it’s like to play under the pressure cooker of a stroke-play event, and offer some ideas on how to pursue an amateur career.
Make no mistake, competitive golf is an entirely different animal from a Sunday morning round with your buddies. There are no gimmies, X’s on the scorecard for bad holes, and certainly no breakfast balls. Every shot carries more significance, and in the back of your head you know that one errant swing could cost you any chances of success.
That being said, it can be extremely fun! Starting an amateur career can open up a whole new dimension of golf for you, and give you an intense focus on what you can do to improve your game.
I grew up playing high school golf, junior events, and a bit in college. I have lost count at this point, but I have played well over 100 rounds of tournament golf. Competition was always a mixed bag for me. I had the exhilaration of success, and the awful sinking feeling when I blew my chances of making the cut at the most important tournaments. I was never a standout player, but was good enough to stick around.
After college I took about a 10-year hiatus from tournaments and a couple of years ago I decided it was time to get back into it. I’d like to take you through the process I’ve gone through from finding events, setting goals, and dealing with just how different it is to play golf in a real competitive environment.
In 2014, my goal was to get my handicap below 1.4 so I could compete in the U.S. Open Qualifier the following year. I had started the year around a 4, so I had some serious work to do. Because my goal was extremely specific, and not completely far-fetched, it helped me focus on what I needed to do to get there.
I took a hard look at my game, and decided that in order to reach that level I needed to put some serious work into both my short game and fixing errant tee shots. More importantly, I needed to play more golf. There is no substitute for improving at this game other than live action.
Sixty rounds later and some serious time spent practicing on the range and in my backyard, I ended the year at a 0.7 handicap. It might not sound like a lot, but moving from a 4 handicap down to almost scratch is a huge jump. There were many bumps along the road, but I kept my focus on the goal and I was happy to get there.
Having the goal of playing in the U.S. Open qualifier is what kept me practicing hard all year, and I strongly believe that it was the main factor for my huge drop in scoring. If you are looking to get into competition I would recommend setting some goals for yourself based on the level of golf you’re looking to compete at. Not all tournaments have such a low handicap requirement, so it’s best to find one that represents a reasonable level that you can achieve. Don’t go thinking you can drop from a 13 handicap down to 2 in six months though!
The Tale of Two Tournaments
Now that I had spent 2014 getting my game in gear, I had registered for the 2015 U.S. Open Qualifier and another amateur event that I found through our local golf association. After a brutal winter that ended late, I only had a few weeks to prepare for the qualifier, which was in May. I continued my work on the range, and tried to play as much as possible leading up to the tournament, and I felt my game was as sharp as it could be.
Since this was my first competitive round in more than 10 years, I tried to be reasonable with my expectations, and I urge you to do the same if you are just starting out. You never really know how your game is going to react in a tournament situation. I told myself that if I broke 80 at the qualifier I would be happy with myself. If I’m being completely honest, all I really wanted to do was not make a fool of myself and get banned from ever trying to qualify again by the USGA!
The day of the tournament I was pretty nervous. I showed up to Bethpage State Park a few hours early, which was probably a huge mistake. After walking around the practice green and the range I could see that the field was a mixture of college players and seasoned pros.
What am I doing here?
My warm-up session was a bit terrifying to be honest with you. After going through my normal routine for about 20 minutes, all of a sudden I started shanking 8-irons. It was like a scene out of Tin Cup. I looked back at my friend who was caddying for me that day, and we both gave each other a look that clearly said, “uh oh.”
After watching player after player bomb 300-yard drives off the tee of the intimidating 450-yard opening hole, I was in full freak-out mode. I was about a 9 out of 10 on the nervous meter.
My first tee shot was horrific, a pathetic duck hook that landed in the worst part of the golf course. Luckily a marshal was able to find my ball in about 2 feet of rough. I pitched out, and somehow managed to make a bogey.
Then something funny happened. All of the nerves went away, and my routine took over. I went on to have a great round. Despite some shaky putting and a double on No. 18, I shot a 76 in difficult conditions. I ended up 63rd out of roughly 120 players. I had finished ahead of some great golfers, and felt pretty good about myself.
I had achieved my goal, and all of the preparation before the tournament had paid off.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Here’s the thing about competition, and golf in general really: It has a way of humbling you pretty quickly if you get a little too conceited.
My next tournament was a qualifier for a pretty important local amateur event. I knew that I had to shoot roughly 5- or 6-over in order to make the cut, so there was a very specific number in my head beforehand. I had never played the course, but it was only 6,100 yards, and I assumed that it would be no problem to overpower it and make the cut.
Expectations are a funny thing in golf. At the U.S. Open Qualifier I knew I didn’t have a realistic chance of qualifying, and I really had nothing to lose. However, in this tournament I was fully expecting to make the cut.
When you play in a tournament all of your deepest fears as a golfer are exposed. Shots that you aren’t completely confident over all of sudden are magnified 100 times more than a normal round. On the third hole I was faced with a 30-yard bunker shot, which is by far and away the shot that terrifies me the most as a golfer. There was water over the back of the green, and all I could think about was not blading it into the drink.
Well that is exactly what I did, and I made a triple bogey.
It was completely embarrassing because my playing partners were all in line to make routine pars, and they had to wait for me to clean up my mess. There was a terrible sinking feeling walking off that green at 4-over par after only three holes. All of my momentum was completely gone, and the rest of the round was a blur of bogeys, self-doubt and embarrassment. I ended up shooting an 85, and was not even close to the cut line.
At the scorer’s table I couldn’t help but laugh at myself for the way I had felt before the round, and what transgressed on the course. It was only my second tournament back into competitive play, and I realized that I had gotten way ahead of myself. Lesson learned.
It’s a Mixed Bag
So what can you learn from my experience? Well, a few things hopefully. If you are interested in pursuing an amateur career in tournament golf you need to be prepared, and I mean that in a few ways.
- Planning: Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to select the tournaments you want to play in; it could be as much as a year in advance in some cases.
- Preparation: If you are serious about success, your game needs to be ready. Don’t expect to show up to a tournament without having played or practiced much and perform well. Set specific goals that are reasonable and measurable.
- Expectations: Your mind needs to be ready. Tournament golf is nothing like a normal round. There are no safety nets, and if this is a new experience, you need to expect the unexpected. Anything can happen out there, and it’s OK!
What Tournaments Can You Play In?
The first thing you have to do is find actual tournaments to play in. The best place to start is your local golf associations. For example, in the New York Metro area we have the MGA, Long Island Golf Association, and New Jersey Golf Association. They all run a bunch of tournaments for golfers at various levels.
There are also some national resources where you can find events like the Golf Channel Amateur Tour. Amateurgolf.com is also a fantastic resource because it has a searchable database of tournaments.
Each event will have registration guidelines such as age and handicap level. My advice is to pick two or three events on the calendar that you think you want to play in. It’s best to start off slowly if competitive golf is new for you.
Competition can be extremely fun and rewarding. It also can be terrifying and embarrassing. Everyone who has ever competed at any level can attest to this. Dealing with the highs and the lows is part of the deal, but there is no substitute for experience. The more tournaments you play, the better you will be at handling the pressure. Start off slowly, and try to have fun with it.
Ways to Win: Risk management – Cink uses experience to beat the young guns
In “Ways to Win,” we track the PGA Tour winner’s rounds using the V1 Game mobile app and then analyze how they got the job done using the same tools available to V1 Game users.
Following up his earlier victory this season at the Safeway Open, Stewart Cink did it again and ran away with the RBC Heritage this past weekend. This time, he essentially won the tournament by blitzing the field on Thursday and Friday with a pair of 63s to set the 36-hole scoring mark for the tournament. Cink made it look easy those first two days with his well rounded game, allowing him to coast down the finish. He was never truly challenged on Sunday and cruised to a four-stroke victory and his second of the season as a 47-year-old.
Using the Strokes Gained analysis from V1 Game, it is clear that Cink did the separating with all areas of his game on the first two days.
Cink was hitting it close and making putts, a time-honored recipe for success. Interestingly enough, his putting started to wane over the weekend despite his irons staying relatively hot on Saturday. He actually lost over a stroke to the field on each weekend day with his putter. Still, by that point, Cink just needed to avoid mistakes and force someone to make a big run to catch him. That big run never came and the leader did an excellent job of avoiding mistakes over the course of four rounds. Part of minimizing mistakes is a newly-implemented risk system created by Cink and his son, now caddie. Cink simply takes environmental and course condition factors into play and grades the shot as red, yellow, or green. This helps him pick conservative targets that he can be aggressive to and prevents costly errors.
In fact, using V1 Game’s Virtual Coach, Cink had zero three-putts, zero two-chips, and only a single penalty on the week. He played nearly to his potential and maximized his return on the excellent ball striking.
If there was anything to improve on for Cink, V1 Game tells us it would be driving, followed by putting. However, that would just further elevate him above the field. He led the week in Strokes Gained Tee2Green and in Greens in Regulation (GIR).
Not only was Cink hitting greens (almost 80 percent of them), he was also hitting iron and wedge shots close. Using the V1 Game proximity view, Cink averaged six feet for shots inside 75 yards and just 24 feet for shots from 175-200 yards. Talk about stuffing it! This takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of his putter where he was not challenged to lag from great distances.
The histogram view from V1 Game shows Cink gained significant strokes on the field from each yardage bucket under 200 yards. While he lost strokes off the tee and with mid-range putts, Stewart was solid throughout the bag with no real weakness. When he did miss the rare green, his short game was up to the task and made it easy for him to scramble for those crucial par saves.
Most 47-year-old PGA Tour players have more of an eye towards the PGA Tour Champions, which becomes available at 50 years of age, however Cink has found a way to compete with the young guns. Consistent golf and solid ball striking is always rewarded. His golf was impressive and the change to his son as caddie seems to be paying dividends. If you need your own caddie that can help you choose the right targets and pull the right club, download the free V1 Game app today and take advantage of the Virtual Caddie. Virtual Caddie learns from your golf and helps give specific advice tuned to your game, much like a seasoned caddie on the PGA Tour. Whether you are learning the game or a seasoned veteran like Stewart Cink, V1 Game can help you play your best golf at any age.
Best irons of 2021 Part 1 on GolfWRX Radio
What are the best irons of 2021? GolfWRX Staffers Brian Knudson and Ryan Barath break down the 2021 Best Irons lists that were published this week.
The Wedge Guy: Playing your best
No matter what our experience, ability and handicap, all of us golfers have one thing in common–we want to play the best we can every time we tee it up. But unfortunately, that is not always the case. Having a bad day on the course is just part of the game, it seems, regardless of your skill level. But there are things we can do to make that happen less often, and other ways to get back on track when a round begins to go awry.
Let’s start with giving ourselves the best chance of a good round every time.
Setting up a good round
It all starts on your drive to the course, or even when you are getting dressed to go play. Think about good shots you’ve been hitting recently, and good swings you’ve made. Picture drives that were long and straight, iron shots that just hunted the flag, recovery shots that saved par and putts that dropped. I know it’s a cliché, but there really is no substitute for positive thoughts when it comes to golf.
When you get to the course, whether you change shoes in the parking lot or the locker room, S-L-O-W….D-O-W-N. Savor the fact that you have a round of golf in front of you —not work, not yard or house chores. It is time for F-U-N!
Give yourself a chance to perform your best golf right from the first tee
If it’s worth taking a few hours out of your day, it’s darn sure worth taking an extra 10-15 minutes to give yourself a chance. Stretch your legs and back/shoulder muscles that have shortened up from a few days or a week at the office and/or even a few hours of sleep. This is crucial to performing your best. Take a dozen or two back and forth horizontal swings with your sand wedge to get the blood flowing. These aren’t “practice swings” but more like baseball swings to further stretch out your shoulders and back and upper arms and get the feel of the club in your hands.
And for Pete’s sake, hit at least a dozen or so shots before you go to the first tee. At least a few chips and/or pitches and some putts. You have to get the feel of impact refreshed to have a chance.
Getting the derailed train back on track
We all are going to hit bad shots, no matter what kind of game you have, but what wrecks a round is when you get it going sideways for more than one hole. When that happens, the round can still be saved, but the key is to remove the stress caused by the bad shots or holes and build on something you can believe in. It is normal to find yourself tightening up as a result of a bad hole or two, so take an extra minute to “step outside”. Walk away from your group (since you are probably last to hit now anyway), and take some deep breaths. Get your tension down and get positive thoughts back into your head. Take some practice swings with those positive thoughts back in mind.
Here are what I find to be four keys to getting the train back on track
Reach for the 3-wood. If you have hit a couple of bad drives, drop back to the 3-wood, and get one in the fairway. It won’t be all that much shorter than your driver, and it will build some confidence. If the driver is the problem, in fact, bench it for the rest of the round.
Play to the “safe” side. If your iron shots are not sharp, play to the safe side of the greens and give yourself a chance to avoid the big number and put a par or two on the card. When you get your “mojo” back, you can fire at the flags again.
Play the fault. If you are blocking shots right, or a hook has raised its ugly head, play it! That is, if you can’t find the fault and fix it quickly. The range is the place to fix things, the course is for scoring. Unless you can find the fix quickly, just “dance with who brung you.”
Loosen up. A few bad shots will cause us to build body tension, and the first place that manifests is in our grip pressure. You cannot hold a golf club lightly enough, in my opinion–your body won’t let you. But you sure can get into a death grip quickly when the tension mounts. Run a mental check on your grip pressure and lighten up, particularly in the right thumb and forefingers. It will change things immediately.
So, there are my thoughts on playing your best. I’ll bet the readers have their own suggestions, too, so let’s all share our ideas, OK? This should be fun and informative for all of us.
And as always, if you have a topic you would like me to address in a future column, just shoot me an email to [email protected].
Best driver 2021: By club fitters for you!
Rickie Fowler makes dramatic iron change
Lee Westwood WITB 2021 (The Players)
Best fairway woods of 2021: By club fitters for you!
Justin Thomas’ winning WITB: 2021 Players Championship
Sergio Garcia WITB 2021 (The Players)
‘Shut it!’ – Paul Casey puts disrespectful spectator in his place
Lee Westwood won’t have ‘secret weapon’ caddie on the bag for 2021 Masters
Billy Horschel’s winning WITB: 2021 WGC-Dell Match Play
WGC Match Play Tour Truck Report: New putters for Kuchar, McIlroy, Poulter
Matthew Wolff WITB 2021 (April)
Driver: TaylorMade M1 460 (10.5 degrees @ 9 degrees) Shaft: Graphite Design Tour AD HD 7 X 3-wood: TaylorMade SIM2 Titanium...
Tony Finau WITB 2021 (April)
Driver: Ping G425 LST (9 degrees @7, Big -) Shaft: Mitsubishi Diamana D+ Limited 70 TX (45.25 inches, tipped 1.5 inch)...
Collin Morikawa WITB 2021 (April)
Driver: TaylorMade SIM (8 degrees @8.5) Shaft: Mitsubishi Diamana D+ Limited 70 TX 3-wood: TaylorMade SIM Titanium (15 degrees @13.5) Shaft: Mitsubishi Diamana...
Madelene Sagström WITB 2021 (April)
Driver: Callaway Epic Speed Triple Diamond LS (10.5 degrees) Shaft: Fujikura Evolution II 665 Tour Spec S 3-wood: Callaway Epic Speed (15...
Whats in the Bag3 weeks ago
Jordan Spieth’s winning WITB 2021 Valero Texas Open
Opinion & Analysis3 weeks ago
The 23 players who can win the Masters
19th Hole2 weeks ago
Bryson leaves Vijay mesmerized in unmissable video from the Masters
Whats in the Bag2 weeks ago
Dustin Johnson WITB 2021 Masters
Whats in the Bag3 weeks ago
Patty Tavatanakit’s winning WITB: 2021 ANA Inspiration
Equipment3 weeks ago
Equipment rewind: A deep dive into the Cleveland HiBore driver legacy
19th Hole2 weeks ago
Gary Player’s son ‘banned from the Masters’ for perceived guerrilla marketing
19th Hole3 weeks ago
Brooks Koepka set to play the Masters; takes cryptic shot at Brad Faxon