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I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take you through two completely different rounds of tournaments – one in which I dealt with extreme adversity and another in which I dealt with a staggering amount of early success. Of course, their differences will be obvious. But I think it's more interesting to explore the commonality that helped me cope with both (and can help you too).
To give you a quick background, I was a fairly mediocre junior golfer. I captained a regular high school team and played a Division Three college golf tournament. I had no competitive heritage and acted like a borderline psychopath under pressure. After that I didn't play in a tournament for about 11 years.
After I started Practical Golf and got my handicap low enough, I chose to return to competition during a U.S. Open Qualifier. In the last six years I have played many qualifiers and tournaments. There have been some great successes and I've been able to play myself in some of the biggest events against top amateurs and professionals in the New York Metro area and hold my own. I now feel comfortable enough to put my game on the line and not let the nerves overwhelm me completely.
More importantly, there have been many more failures that taught me a lot about handling pressure and what it takes to become a better golfer. While tournament golf isn't for everyone, I genuinely enjoy the chase. But the lows can hit you hard and make you wonder if you want to continue.
Moreover, it has given me a better perspective on this game, and I am trying to use what I have learned to help you all in your quest for improvement. While many of you won't be playing in these types of events, the pressure you feel can be just as real. So I'm going to leave you in both rounds and be very honest about everything that was going through my head. I don't do this often, but it's worth it if we can learn something from it.
Bethpage Black does it to me again
Most golfers grew up on Long Island and aspire to tame Bethpage Black. In reality, it is much more difficult than anyone can imagine. The course is so difficult.
But I did it a few years ago. In the opening round of the Hebron Championship, I shot a 73, which put me in a tie for 4th place. But as I wrote, the next day quickly brought me back to Earth. A closing quadruple bogey ended a disappointing day where I shot an 88 and free-fall off the standings.
However, I was not deterred. After missing the tournament for a few years due to scheduling conflicts, I was excited to start it again at Bethpage Black in the Hebron. With my new driver changes I hit the ball further and straighter than ever so I couldn't help but feel positive about playing well on a course that requires near perfection from the tee. I certainly wasn't thinking of quadruple bogeys.
Expect the unexpected
If playing tournament golf has taught me anything, it's that you never know which version of your game will appear. I smothered a hitch on the opening tee in the left fescue—a shot I hadn't seen much of lately, so it caught me off guard a bit. I was able to advance the ball near the green (though buried in the rough) and get a stellar wedge shot to about 7 feet. But my par putt burned the right edge of the hole and I started with a bogey.
I found the raw material was incredibly thick, even by Bethpage Black standards. So in the back of my mind I knew that if I missed fairways it would be unlikely that I would be able to advance the ball on the green.
After a bounced birdie on the second hole, I got a little push. But on another tow truck ride in a bunker on the 4th, I wondered what was wrong with my driver. After another par putt slipped near the hole, I stepped to the 5th tee knowing I had a closed pattern with my driver and that I needed to adjust (something Adam Young and I talk about often on the Sweet Spot podcast ).
Unfortunately the adjustment went a little too far and I hit my drive right on the 5th hole, one of the most demanding tee shots on the course. Although I was only 140 yards from the hole, and it wasn't such a bad miss, the ball was so buried that it was best to move it to a greenside bunker for another bogey.
Things didn't improve on the 6th. I pulled another drive into the rough, barely bringing it forward and three-putted for a double bogey.
Hello darkness, my old friend
There was a long wait on the 7th tee and the heat index was approaching 100 degrees. My patience also began to melt. As much as I prepared to be patient, the course quickly pushed me to the brink.
I sat on the couch on the tee box with a towel draped over my head, trying to organize my thoughts and cool down, but it wasn't easy. The 7th hole is no piece of cake, but it is the last par 5 on the course that can be reached in half (the 13th would play over 600 yards).
Anyway, I wasn't mentally committed to my tee shot. I made terrible contact on the heel of the driver's face, turning my draw into a huge stretch (thanks, acceleration effect), and sent it to the one place on the track you absolutely cannot go – the woods.
Frustrated that I couldn't get a rebounding tee shot, I hurriedly made a bad decision. I was deep in the woods and while a side punchout was still tricky, I chose to gamble with a more aggressive line and lost BIG. The next few shots must have been funny to watch, because I was really stuck in the trees with no way out.
After making my way through the thick forest and finally hollowing out, I counted my strokes.
It was a score I was (unfortunately) familiar with, a quadruple bogey. I felt my ball should be returned to its rightful place, so I threw it back into the trees in disgust. mr. Practical Golf didn't follow his own advice and was in a deep hole!
Submit for the only thing you can
It was hot, I was angry, and the wind started to pick up with the threat of thunderstorms for the rest of the round. Plus, I hadn't reached the hardest part of the course. I tried not to focus too much on my score, but when I was 10 left after seven holes it felt like the wheels really came off, and if I didn't pull it together the round could be an outright disaster. My confidence that had been built up through the year officially began to wane. Maybe my piece of great riding was over? What now?
That's a rough scorecard to look at
These are the dark thoughts that a job like this can entail under tournament conditions. Competition golf can be an island. There is no fair shot control and your friends can't give you a putt. If you make a 14, it will be visible to everyone on the card.
Part of me hoped the thunder would come and spare me the shame of ending. But I tried to do what I always do – don't give up and give every shot the attention it deserves . And no matter how hard the course played, I knew there was still a chance from the outside that I could make the cut. Anyway, I put my cap on routine and grit, and I knew I'd feel a bit like a con artist if I gave up.
What do you know, it came back
Sometimes you can't save a round no matter how hard you try. But in this case I was able to get things going again.
I drove the ball beautifully on the most demanding tee shots for the rest of the round, missing only one remaining fairway (barely). I could find a "feeling" that corrected the big left misses. Unfortunately my putter didn't behave very well, but playing the remaining 11 holes at 4-over was a fun fight.
OK, that looks a bit better after the rough start
Shooting an 84 wasn't the score I wanted when I closed it, but after the disastrous start, I was proud to be able to stay involved and, most importantly, enjoy myself for the rest of the day. Interestingly enough, I only missed the cut (40 places and draw) by three strokes because the course played so hard that day.
Anyway, I stared into the abyss with the club plaguing my game and came back strong. Even though that day may have been a "failure" in terms of not making the cut, it was important to get my driver back on track. More importantly, I kept my habit of staying involved where it would have been very easy to give up.
If there's one thing this game has taught me, especially in competition, you never know what's around the corner. If you let go of good habits when the going gets tough, you reduce the chances of something good waiting for you.
However, I want to be careful about preaching perfection. I'm not perfect at this. None of us are, no matter how committed we are. What I always strive for is step-by-step progress. It's okay to make mistakes – maybe even important, so you can think about it to move forward.
Dealing with too much success
It doesn't matter what level of golfer you are, you're more likely to get a round that starts off bad rather than one where you come out a little hot, but it does happen.
I think early successes are just as hard to deal with as blow-ups. Instead of being upset about ruining it, start worrying when the other shoe will fall and whether a big mistake will ruin your vision of greatness.
Some years ago this happened to me during the U.S. Mid-Amateur Qualifier. I was candid about the ridiculous thoughts that ran through my mind after I made the bend below par.
Well, I was in a very similar situation recently – four days after the 'Bethpage Black incident'. I tried to qualify for the 119th Met Amateur Championship. It is one of the most prestigious (and hard to qualify) events in the New York metro area.
Normally there are only about four places (and draw) available on each qualifier site. With over 100 talented golfers competing for those spots, you usually need a red score to qualify – something I've never done in competition before. Qualifying was at my house, so there was plenty of comfort. However, sometimes I wonder if home field advantage can be a curse, because expectations can be a little high, and you know your golf community is watching what you're going to do.
Anyway, I released it that Monday morning in an attempt to get the thoughts of Bethpage out of my head and tried not to strain myself too much.
I opened the round with a very sloppy three putt for bogey. I tried not to berate myself, knowing that this was not a day when bogeys would hatch, and remained patient that there were plenty of opportunities to make up for it.
After a nerve-wracking search for my tee shot on the third hole, I came out with a par. And then it happened…
I emptied a 40-footer on the 4th hole to level up again. On the 5th hole, I had a 50-footer that broke in two directions. I was hoping to make just two putts for a stress free par. It went with perfect speed in the middle of the cup.
On the 6th hole I had perhaps my best drive of the year, putting an iron on the short par 5. I played more yardage to the back of the green to avoid the cluster of bunkers up front and left myself an 8-footer for birdie center of the cup. Three birdies in a row gave me 2 under.
I barely missed a 10 foot birdie putt on the 7th hole, and after a prodigious par-save on the 8th, I went to the par-3 9th feeling pretty good about myself. After a stellar pitching wedge to about 12 feet, I stared at another birdie putt. Another dead center of the cup!
I made the turn on three-under. This was nothing new to me on my course, as I usually score well on the first nine, but I had never been so underpowered in competition.
Don't fly too close to the sun, Icarus
What should you think about?
It is difficult to control your brain in these situations. If I'm being honest, I simulated just about every outcome. I had visions of shooting a 63. Then I thought how disappointing it would be to make the turn at three-under and then return it to the back nine to miss my big chance. How would I explain that to friends on the course?
In the past I would probably berate myself for these thoughts, but I tried to accept them . I reminded myself that I had been in similar situations before. I knew the pressure to have a good start and then screw it up. I also knew what it was like to keep it together.
Anyway, I was convinced that I would be OK with both results.
The back nine always seems to fall away on my great starts on my course, but I did the same after making the quadruple bogey on Bethpage; I tried to stay focused on every shot and live with every result . I knew my mind would wander between positive and negative. So I hummed songs in my head in between shots, struck up a conversation with my playing partners, and gave each shot the focus it deserved when it came.
The cumulative experience of the past six years of competition gave me comfort. Looking back, it's an important reminder of how important it is in this game to go through success and failure and try to learn from each scenario.
Hold, but not really
I know that when you play well it is a big mistake to step on the brakes and feel like you have to play defensively. I stuck to my strategy of hitting the driver just about anywhere on the back nine. In the past, I may have felt the burden of my success and acted as if the score was something to protect. But there were far too many holes left; the script was only half written!
Unfortunately I have some mental demons on the back nine. They crawled around in the back of my mind. But I have chosen to accept them again and shrug my shoulders because they are foolish fears that do not necessarily have to manifest.
I reached the 16th hole at one under. The journey from 10 to 15 is not easy, and I played it well. Two three-putts had brought me back to one under. I chose not to check the scoreboard on my phone because it was so early in the day, but I knew that as the track was relatively easy I had to stay there to give myself a chance.
The 16th hole is a great risk-reward par 4 of only about 310 yards. I also seem to mess up whether I choose to sit back or hit my driver. Everyone has a hole that seems to get in their head, and it's my nemesis. But I stayed with my guns and hit my driver about 30 yards from the green in a perfect spot.
The green has a huge false front that will reject any bad wedge shot that hits the first 20% of the putting surface. Trying not to think about all the pitch shots I've thrown off the tight fairway in the past, I confidently threw the ball about 10 feet away. My birdie putt barely missed, but I was just as happy with a par.
The 17th hole is only 120 yards, but a small target. If you hit the ball 1/3 of the way down the green, your ball will roll back into deep bunkers, way below the hole. If you miss left, right or long you will also have big problems because the green is small. It's another great hole that rewards a great wigshot and makes you tremble at the slightest miss. Well, I did what I usually do and played it safe along the gap, trying not to flirt with the false front. I just missed my birdie attempt again, but I was perfectly happy with my stress-free par.
The Grand Final
It's easy to assume that your last hole is the most important of any round going well. But it really isn't. Every shot you've made up to that point is a series of independent events, not unlike what happens on the last hole. But right now it's REALLY hard to think that way.
The 18th hole is an attainable par-5 (wind dependent) that is the feast-or-famine finale that closes three holes. If you can get a good tee shot and dodge the bunkers, you'll have a manageable second. But a huge pitched green with a false front always seems to create nervous wedge shots at the finish. It's a great hole that can produce an "easy birdie" or a disaster that will leave you scratching your head about what could have been.
After a great drive, I was just outside the yardage, so I knew I could make it on the green (I believe I was 245 yards). Unfortunately I was a little skeptical. I knew it was the right way to hit my hybrid as close to the green as possible. In the back of my mind I was concerned about the area around the green where they cut the grass even tighter, and you get a gritty wedge that's so easy to chop.
So I thought about laying down a little further back to give myself a bulkhead of about 60-70 yards, which I'm very comfortable with. Then I went back to my original strategy, which I thought was the right one, and drew my 3-hybrid (I'm out of fairway wood).
Of course I hit a very thin shot that barely got into the air. Fortunately, it shot down the fairway, away from all the trouble, and it left me with the 70-yard wedge shot I initially wanted. What a funny game this is!
Then another interesting twist took place. The fairway was still wet from the heavy rain earlier this week, and I hit my lob wedge a few inches behind the ball. It hit the top of the false front and rolled all the way back down. I went from a routine par (maybe another birdie) to now the shot I initially dreaded, the in-the-grain uphill wedge!
My immediate reaction was a mixture of realizing the irony of these events and fear that I would ruin it. Anyway, I focused on the wedge shot and hit it to about 10 feet.
I could have hemmed and crocheted the putt and spent a lot more time than usual because I knew that missing it would probably be the end of this little Cinderella story. But I tried to go through my routine the same way I did the first hole and every other hole that day. It was an uphill putt from right to left and I determined my line was half a cup to the right. I stepped up, hit the putt and watched him crawl into the low end of the hole. Fist pump!
So there it was my first undersized round in competition. I was 90% confident I would make it, but spent the rest of the day looking nervously at the scoreboard. And by noon it was a foregone conclusion. I had made my first Met Amateur Championship, easily the greatest achievement of my burgeoning competitive career.
I never thought I'd see my name so high on the leaderboard!
What have I learned, what can you learn?
That last putt could have easily missed the cup and created a very different context for the story because the outcome could have been so different. If I had shot 70 I would have missed it by one and I was probably a little disappointed with what happened on the 18th hole.
But I've come to accept that one stroke doesn't matter as much as I think it does. Your score is the sum of everything that happened, and I'm trying not to let every situation influence the other because they're all different, independent circumstances. The birdie putts on the 4th and 5th holes had less than a 1% chance of going in, but they both did. That's just the randomness of this game.
There is only so much you can control in golf, especially if you play competitively. I don't know when I will lose my confidence, and my swing is starting to feel different. I also don't know when things will click and go on a birdie binge. But I do know that I have to accept any scenario equally and do my best not to let it affect my decision-making or my approach to each shot. If I go through all these results under pressure, I have at least valued consistency.
I know I will never have the focus of a golfer like Collin Morikawa, and I will continue to go through mental roller coasters. But as I witnessed the adversity on Bethpage and a great triumph four days later, I realized that each round had a common thread that I was proud of. Both days started with extremes and I had to deal with all the thoughts and emotions that came up in me. I know all of you reading this know exactly what that feels like in the context of your own game.
What I think I've learned at this point is that golf is about acceptance and consistency. I have to accept that I can make a quadruple bogey, and it will make me ashamed, angry and anxious. I also have to accept that at some point I will have a series of unlikely birdies (obviously that's more fun to deal with) – and then I have to struggle with, "wow, how good can this day be??!!!
More importantly, this kind of wisdom has to be earned in this game. And it is perhaps one of the biggest challenges. It's easy for me to write something like this after a good result, but I've had so many blunders that I'm sure they will return. And that's okay. I'll probably have to go through this process repeatedly, but to be honest, that's what I love about the version of golf I've chosen to pursue.
Moreover, it is easy for many of you to read these words and feel that the wisdom has been transmitted. But I am sure you will have your struggles too.
Staying in the moment, valuing routine, making smart decisions – these are perhaps the most used clichés in golf. You've heard Tiger say them in plenty of post-round interviews and just about every other great time. While most of you pursue golf as a recreational endeavor, these words cannot be ignored if you want to get better. They seem so simple that most will overlook them. And that is exactly why I wanted to share these experiences with you. You need to work on this part of the game, just like your swing.
Therefore reflection, analysis and commitment are words that I often repeat on this site. It's not to say you should approach the game with the same vigor as an aspiring pro, but they should be part of your toolkit in pursuit of a better game. Just know that you are not alone with your crazy thoughts; I will always have them too!