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.
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The Wedge Guy: Have a ‘Plan B’
One of the things that I think is very interesting and fun about this game is that there are a number of ways to play every hole you encounter. And sometimes a hole offers “better” ways to play it than you might think. Let me explain with a couple of experiences from my own golf life.
ONE. In my thirties and forties, I played at a club outside of San Antonio – Fair Oaks Ranch. The 18th hole was a tough par 4 with a very small landing area and a gaping bunker at about 175 out. The skinny fairway left of that bunker wasn’t more than 15 yards wide, and there was a little mott of trees on the green side of the bunker that you would have to carry with your mid-iron bunker approach. Tough, to say the least.
That hole drove most of us nuts, and double bogeys were more common than birdies, for sure. Par was always a great score and bogey wasn’t “bad” at all.
So, one day it hit me that if I hit 4-wood off the tee, I would have an elevated fairway look at the green from about 200-210, giving me another soft 4-wood or 3-iron to the green, and the fairway was about 40 yards wide back there. Being a good long club player, I began to play the hole that way. Doubles disappeared entirely, pars became the norm and I even made the occasional birdie. Hmm.
TWO. At my recent club, the ninth hole just didn’t fit my eye or my game. I play a fade off the tee most of the time and turning over a draw was just not reliable for me at the time. That ninth is a dogleg left, with a bunker on the right side of the fairway that runs from about 160-125 from the green, right where the prime driving area is. What makes this hole so tough for me is that the prevailing wind is left to right, and trees just 60-100 yards off the tee keep me from starting the ball out left and letting it ride the breeze. This is another one where birdies are rare for me there, and bogies and doubles way too frequent. So, it dawned on me one day, finally, that I could hit 4-wood right at that bunker and not get to it, leaving me a 5- or 6-iron into the green, rather than the short iron the rare proper drive would leave me. So, that became my new strategy on that hole. I’m a good mid-iron player, so I’m fine with that, and that damn fairway bunker never caught me again.
THREE. My new club puts a premium on accurate wedge play. Most of the shorter holes have the smallest greens I’ve ever seen, so distance control with your wedge approaches is critical. And I find that reasonably full-swing wedges are easier to control distance than those awkward 60- to 80-yard partial swings. So, I’ve learned to put a premium on club selection off the tee on those holes to leave my approach shots in the 85-115 range, so that I can “dial in” my approach shotmaking.
My point in all this is that sometimes a hole gets under your skin or just doesn’t set up well for your game. When that happens, design yourself a Plan ‘B,’ and change the way you play it, at least for a while. Quite often you will find a solution to a problem and your scores and attitude will improve.
Club Junkie: Mizuno T-22 wedge and Cuater Moneymaker shoes review!
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The Cuater Moneymaker shoes might be some of the most comfortable I have worn in years. Tons of cushioning, exceptional traction all over the course, and they are even waterproof!
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