Want to get better in 2017? Sign up for a top amateur golf tournament

As we enter the new year, many of us consider getting in shape by signing up for a marathon or triathlon or other activity to jumpstart a training regimen.

But what if your goals in 2017 include stepping up your golf game?

In that case, there may be no more effective strategy to stay committed to your game than to sign up for a top amateur golf tournament. While many golfers who are members of private clubs have a full season of events, often culminating with the club championship, if you're a public golfer, there is no shortage of tournaments to compete in, regardless of your handicap.

And by that, I'm not talking about Monday charity scrambles, Pro-Ams or corporate events. These are pressure-packed, tournament golf experiences.

Here's what you need to know, and some events and tours to consider in 2017:

First, establish a handicap

If you're in the United States, that would be a USGA handicap. If you're in Canada (and I can't address much of what goes on north of the Continental 48), you're looking at getting it from the Royal & Ancient. In either event, you generally can't play in serious amateur competition without one, even the scratch events. Because even tournaments that don't flight or figure strokes, there's usually a minimum handicap required to compete. For example, to play in a U.S. Open qualifier, you are required to have stroke index of 1.4 or better, which generally means that you shoot close to par on about half your rounds. But don't worry, most events don't require you to be scratch. There are events for players of all levels.

There are many ways to get a handicap. If you belong to a club, the pros there can set you up, or you can go to your local golf association (state or city) and get more information. In my case, my handicap is through my home course, Memorial Park in Houston. I submit scores through the GHIN (Golf Handicap and Information Network) site, and it calculates it for me. You need a minimum of five scores to establish a handicap, but the USGA prefers at least 20.

USGA, local and state associations

For serious amateurs, the USGA is tournament headquarters. There is so much more than the U.S. Open or U.S. Women's Open thankfully, because really only elite amateurs have a chance in competing in those events. Also for really good players, there's also the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Senior Amateur, U.S. Women's U.S. Public Links Championship and nine other national championships run by the USGA. Most recently, the USGA added team events with the men's and women's U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. The third annual women's will be at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach May 27-31 and the men's will be at Pinehurst No. 2 on the same dates.

For most amateurs who aren't already exempt through previous accomplishments, there are qualifiers you must play in first before getting to those events. The qualifiers themselves are good tests for your game, so if you don't qualify, keep trying. U.S. Open local and regional qualifiers are particularly famous for offering a chance for nonmembers to play at many prestigious private clubs from coast-to-coast.

If you haven't played in these high-level am events, a good place to start would be your city amateur championships. Big cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston have a series of qualifiers for both the regular and senior events, but many cities simply have a handicap requirement (usually single digit), to get into the field.

Golf Channel Am Tour National Championship

While most of the USGA's events are catered to near-scratch players, there are tours that allow golfers of all ability to compete against one another. In 2016, I joined the Golf Channel Am Tour in 2016, which culminated by competing in the National Championships at Innisbrook Resort.

Am Tour has six flights based on handicap, so golfers of any ability can join. It's not uncommon for golfers to join the tour early into their golf careers in the Snead flight (20+ handicaps) and quickly rise several flights into single-digit flights over a couple seasons as their game improves.

All major markets have local tours, and there is a regular schedule of two-day major championships held at many of the top resort courses in the country, like Kiawah Island, Pinehurst and more. If you place high enough in an event or earn enough points during the season on your local tour, you qualify for the four-day National Championship or Senior National Championship. Within each flight, scores are played to gross. It's serious competition, as flights can have up to 150 players. But the the chance to beat such a deep field of qualifiers is rare.

This year's National Championships are at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Sept. 10-19. You can read more about my journey on the tour here, as well as articles from the event on GolfChannel.com.

World Invitational Father & Son (and daughter)

If you're planning a golf trip to Scotland or Ireland, many of the finest links courses have open competitions that your group can apply for. One of the more established events that caters primarily to travelers is in Ireland is the World Invitational Father & Son. This is one cool event (former quarterback Dan Marino and his son Joey as well as other celebrities play in this) and a great excuse to make a trip to Ireland with your son or father. The 28th World Invitational Father & Son Golf Tournament is Aug. 9-13 at the venerable Waterville Golf Links in County Kerry, Ireland. Created by Ireland's golf family, the Carrs, the tournament is not stroke play, but rather a Stableford format, which means you accumulate points determined by your performance on each hole. You still have to have a legitimate handicap, and Waterville, which was renovated in 2006 by Tom Fazio, is great test of golf, especially in the wind. The entry fee is around $2,500, depending on where you stay, but includes plenty of off-the course hospitality opportunities as well.

There's also the 10th annual Father & Daughter Tournament, which will be July 24-26 at Waterville Golf Links. In either case, go to Carrgolf.com for more information or to fill out an application.

Myrtle Beach World Amateur

Billing itself as the largest single site amateur golf tournament in the world, the 33rd Myrtle Beach World Amateur will be Aug. 28-Sept 1 on 60 (yep, that's right) golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area. The downside is that you don't know exactly which courses you'll play when you sign up; that's set up by gender, age and flight because more than 3,100 players are participating. The event promises an innovative handicap monitoring system to keep the competition equitable. The format is 72 holes of net stroke play each day (there's a new gross flight this year) on a different course with the opportunity to compete in a fifth championship round. Registration for this year's event opens in March.

Kiawah Island Friendship Cup

There are few better ways to strengthen a bond than to slug it out together as teammates on an infamously tough golf course. Such is the allure of the Kiawah Island Friendship Cup. Now in its 11th year, the two-day, two-person, best ball event takes place on the Ocean Course and Turtle Point. It's a handicapped event with net, senior and gross divisions. And whether or not your team can effectively ham-and-egg it on the course, the food & beverage, as well as accommodations, are second to none among U.S. events.

Scottsdale Open, Arizona

Held each January, the 2017 version of the Scottsdale Open has already passed. It's conducted a couple weeks before the Waste Management Phoenix Open (Feb. 2-5), but you can already start planning for the 2018 event.

I played in this two-person event a few years ago and had a blast, although we battled frost delays every day. Still, it's on some of the best golf courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale. The lineup includes the recently renovated Cholla Course at We-Ko-Pa, the Raptor Course at Grayhawk and the TPC Stadium Scottsdale Stadium Course. What's really cool about playing the Stadium Course is that it's in tournament condition and the grandstands are on their way up, including the famous par-3 16th, which is golf's most raucous hole with its thousands of enthusiastic fans.

The format is a two-person teams competing in four-ball each of the first two days and total score of stroke play the last day at the TPC Scottsdale. There are gross, net and senior net divisions.

U.S. Golf Classic, Las Vegas

There's a new tournament in Las Vegas and you can play as an amateur or take a chance and give up your amateur status for an opportunity to win $50,000. The inaugural USGC Championship presented by Pitchfix will be at Aliante Golf Club on Aug. 26. It's a two-person better ball, handicaps 0-18, low net tournament for men and women 21 years of age and older. Golfers looking to retain their amateur status can waive their right to the cash prize before entering the tournament (Yes, that's right; you have to do it before the tournament). For more information, visit http://usgolfclassic.com/.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Several years ago Nature Valley Granola Bars held Amateur Tournaments all over the country at top resort courses and I teed it up at TPC Scottsdale. It was just like a PGA Tour event that was the best thing I have ever done golf wise.  It was very competitive. Golfers came from Texas, New Mexico, Colorado.  I traveled from Oakland to compete in this event. The next year I didn't have to travel that far. I entered the Nature Valley Granola Bars Amateur event at TPC Stonebrae  (San Francisco East Bay). I will never forget the times I had.

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I am interested in joining the World Invitational Father & Son golf tournament. Where can I learn more about Stableford format? Thanks.- Ben https://www.TheGolfProf.com

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Pretty good explanation on Wikipedia really. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stableford

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Want to get better in 2017? Sign up for a top amateur golf tournament