Back in April, I had a chance to play a course that was just days away from hosting a U.S. Open qualifier. This course was already a long and difficult course but after the staff had set the greens and the rough up it became a monster.
The University of New Mexico Championship Course in Albuquerque, New Mexico was my venue. The course was designed by Red Lawrence and opened in 1967. When it was built the natural rolling desert landscape was not flattened or bulldozed instead the course was put right on top of it. This makes getting a flat lie even in the fairway a rare occurrence. From the tips or the Lobo tees, the course plays at 7,555 yards. You get a little bit of relief only because Albuquerque is a mile high and the ball will go a little further off the tee. It has hosted numerous NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments as well as being the home to the University of New Mexico Lobos golf teams.
I wanted to play this course and see what kind of twisted things the USGA would require a course to have in order to host such an event. I had no idea what kind of surprise I was in for. The Bent and Poa Annua greens were set at a 13 – 13.5 on the stimp meter and that was just the start. As many people know Poa Annua greens are tough to read and make holding your line tough. In addition to that, the rough just off the fairways and greens had been allowed to grow out to a length of 3 -4 inches if not more in some places. This meant that if you got in there your ball would sink into that grass and disappear and getting a club on it was going to be extremely tough.
OK, so that’s just the parts of the course you can see, now we will add in the weather. The course is on the west side of the Sandia Mountains and the wind often blows out of the south with nothing to stop it. It adds an extra factor and or headache into playing this course. If you are teeing off into the wind it can make a two or three club difference. On the par-3 8th hole, I have seen guys take drivers to this elevated tee elevated green hole and still come up short. The wind on this course can be an X factor that can change the outcome of a tournament in a moment’s notice.
As a case and point in my round, I had a 36 on the front nine holes with three birdies and three bogeys. I made the turn and it was like God himself flipped a switch and the wind started. On the back I had a brutal 45 that included two doubles and only two pars. I think that because the U.S. Open was at Pebble Beach this year it was a wise choice to choose the UNM Championship course for a qualifier.
I have played this course many times over the years and have always considered it a fantastic test of where my game is really at. This time it was a test of my physical game and my mental game, shot placement was everything. Sure I might be able to get to that par 5 in two, but if it rolls off the back of the green I would be asking for a double bogey.
As the round went on, it began to hit me that as hard as this course was set up it was only a first-round qualifier how much harder would the sectionals be? My hats off to the four guys that made it the best score only being a two under 70. It gave me a new appreciation of how hard it is to qualify and how hard these courses the pros play on are. It also magnified how good the best of the best really are. We have watched Tiger and Brooks shoot amazing scores on courses that would chew up and spit out the rest of us mortals. It proves that the old PGA slogan of “These guys are good” is true.
If anyone gets a chance to play one of these courses when they are set up like the championship course was setup I encourage you to do it. Its something you will never forget.
The Wedge Guy: The Red Zone
For those of you who are big football fans, we are lost in the off-season, waiting a few more months before we get to watch our favorite pro or college teams duke it out on the gridiron. Living in Texas, of course, football is a very big deal, from the NFL Cowboys and Texans, through our broad college network representing multiple conferences and into the bedrock of Friday nights – high school football, which drives fans and entire towns into a frenzy.
In almost every football conversation on TV, you hear talk about “the red zone”. How a team performs inside the 20-yard line is a real measure of their offensive prowess, and usually a pretty good indicator of their win/loss record, too. It breaks down to what percentage of the time a team scores a touchdown or field goal, and how often they come away empty.
I like to think we golfers have our own “red zone”. It’s that distance from the green where we should be able to go on the offensive and think about pars and birdies, ensure no worse than bogey . . . and rarely put a double or worse on the card. Your own particular set of red zone goals should be based on your handicap. If you are a low single digit, this is your “go zone”, where you feel like you can take it right at the flag and give yourself a decent birdie putt, with bogeys being an unpleasant surprise. For mid-handicap players, it’s where you should feel confident you’ll guarantee a par and rarely make bogey, and for higher handicap players, it’s where you will ensure a bogey at least, give yourself a good chance at par, and maybe even a birdie.
But regardless of your handicap, your own “red zone” should begin when you can put a high loft club in your hands – one with over 40 degrees of loft. Of course, that has changed a lot with the continual strengthening of irons. In my early days that was an eight iron, then it migrated to a nine. But regardless of your handicap or the make and model of irons you play, my contention is that golf is relatively “defensive” with all the other clubs in your bag. With those lower lofted irons, your goal should be to just keep it out of trouble and moving closer to the goal line . . . er, the flag. Even the PGA Tour pros make a very small percentage of their birdies with their middle irons.
When you can put a high loft club in your bag – whether that’s from 150 yards or 105 – that’s when you should feel like you can put your offense into high gear and raise your expectations. It’s no longer about power, because this isn’t about raw distance, but rather distance control and precision. From the red zone, it’s about trusting your technique and your equipment and taking it to the golf course a little bit.
As most of us are in the early stages of the 2021 golf season, one of the best things you can do for your golf improvement is to begin tracking your “red zone” performance. Put the numbers down as to how you are scoring the golf course from your 9-iron range on into the flag. My guess is that you’ll see this is where you can make the most improvement if you’ll give that part of your game some additional time and focus. Any golfer can learn to hit crisp and accurate short range approach shots. And so you should.
Pay attention to your own red zone stats, and work to improve them. I guarantee you that you’ll see your scores come down quickly.
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