Tournament golf is my personal favorite form of the game. I've spent quality hours of my life honing my skills and there's nothing more rewarding and humbling (often the latter more than the former) than periodically checking to see how I've been doing by teeing it up and counting 'em all.
I'm currently in preparation mode for my first USGA qualifier in six years: for the U.S. Mid-Amateur, which is the premier amateur championship for golfers 25 years and older. In the summers since heat exhaustion got the better of me in a 2016 qualifier in Florida, I haven't felt like my game was quite up to giving it another go. What's more, the idea of walking 18 holes in the oppressive Florida August heat and humidity has not been appealing enough to get me to plunk down $180 and give it another go.
This year is different. Due to some fortuitous travel scheduling, I'm going to attempt to qualify some 1,500 miles from my home, trading out Florida for Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha, Nebraska. The prize: a chance to play in my first-ever USGA championship, held this year at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wisc., which hosted the 2017 U.S. Open. I couldn't be more excited.
I'm also nervous. I have played fairly well at times this year, but decent rounds and range sessions at home are not always predictors of tournament success. And because the qualifier is 18 holes, there is little to no margin for error. I need to answer the bell and shoot something around even par or perhaps one or two under in order to have a chance at one of the three spots in the 78-man field next Tuesday, August 16.
Here's what I'm doing to prepare:
Preparing for a golf tournament takes self-knowledge and a plan
Even though I didn't sign up for the qualifier until July, my preparation started in May in two ways. First, with some pro shop credit burning a hole in my pocket, I got fitted for a driver for the first time ever. Todd Setsma, my home region's PING rep, met me at the range at Sandridge Golf Club and set me up with a G425 LST driver with a KBS Tour shaft that weighs 10 grams less than the one that had been in my previous gamer.
Once the new club arrived, the difference was profound. PING drivers are known for their forgiveness, and between the new head and a shaft that I don't need to work so hard to square up, my dispersion has gotten tighter than I could have hoped before my fitting. I haven't gained more than a small handful of yards overall, but the confidence that the ball is not going to wander too far left or right makes me feel like I can put the ball in play more effectively than I have in years - and reach for an extra few yards when I want. The proof is in my fairways-hit rate, which is up more than 10% over last year.
Second, soon after my driver arrived, I installed a set of Arccos sensors and downloaded the app in order to glean some more data-driven insights about my game than I had already sensed: that I am so-so off the tee, that my biggest strength is my iron play and that my short game is streaky at best.
The subsequent dozen rounds with Arccos confirmed my suspicions. Now that I'm driving it better, my tee-to-green game is that of someone with a handicap two to three strokes better than my current +1 index. If I can score, I might be dangerous.
Anyone know where I can find a vast library of golf instruction wisdom from the best teachers in the world? Oh, yeah, it's right here at GolfPass.
Because I'll need to shoot something in the neighborhood of one- or two-under par (possibly even deeper, if conditions are calm) in order to survive the qualifier, I'm in luck that GolfPass just remade its acclaimed Breaking... series, including Breaking Par, hosted by Devan Bonebrake.
In addition to practicing as much as possible in the lead-up to the qualifier, here is what I'll be focusing on in particular:
I've never been what I'd consider a great putter, but I can be streaky, and historically I'm pretty good from six feet and in. Lately, though, I've been in a bit of a slump. In a recent round, I shot 75 while missing four putts inside of five feet. Take care of those and I'll be competitive.
This tip from Breaking Par served as a great reminder for me to avoid getting handsy on short putts. Feeling like I'm hitting the ball with my sternum (2:46) will help me be a little more consistent and keep nerves or pressure from eroding my natural rhythm on those crucial shorties.
Staying mentally tough
Bonebrake's Breaking Par is actually the second such series available on GolfPass. The first comes from Revolution Golf and is led by Jordan Spieth's longtime coach, Cameron McCormick. It is structured as a 9-"hole" guide. This segment lays out three mental strategies not just for going low, but staying there. The third, which McCormick calls a "highlight reel" (3:35), really resonates with me. The idea is to build a memory bank of great shots you have hit on whatever hole you're playing, and refer to them during your round in order to buoy your confidence.
Even though I will be playing an unfamiliar course and won't have any real history on its individual holes, I will still plan to lean on memories of quality shots I've hit in the past in order to stay positive and aggressive. My qualifying round in 2016 for the Florida Open - a bogey-free 69 - stands out in my memory, and I will be using it as fuel next week.
Cramming for a test is typically a losing strategy. So is back-loading your practice right before a tournament. Grinding hard and then freaking out when not every shot turns out perfectly is a great way to kill your positive frame of mind.
Because I tend to rush when I practice, I'll be heeding some advice GolfPass instructor Martin Chuck gave me when I interviewed him late last year. His recommendation is to go through your typical pre-shot routine before you hit each range ball. The idea is to simulate the rhythms of each shot on the course when you're on the range. It's one of those recommendations that sounds so obvious that every golfer should be doing it, yet how many of us default to the hurry-rake-and-hit routine when we practice? I'm one of the worst offenders, but you can bet I'll be putting quality of range time over quantity of balls struck as I get ready for my qualifier.
Finally, there's course-based preparation. With Shadow Ridge charging a very steep $75 for practice rounds, I'm not sure I'll be partaking. So I'll be leaning on Google Earth to map things out before the 16th. The Nebraska Golf Association, which is running the qualifier, has posted the yardages for each hole, so that will help greatly. In a few early looks, it seems the course is a nice match for my driving distance, which sits in the 265 to 285 range depending on conditions. Expecting it to be hot and dry in Omaha (which sits at 1,000 feet above sea level), I'm inclined to use the upper end of that range to plan my way around the course. I won't know the pin positions until the morning of the qualifier, but I will play a flagstick or two wide of them if they are tucked into corners of the greens.
If I can successfully bring all of these elements together, I will stand a solid chance of grabbing one of the qualifying spots next week.