Other than the odd team scramble for charity, I had given up playing competitive golf for the last 20 to 25 years but decided to come out of retirement this Fall. When I was in my 20s and 30s playing club championships at some of the local Montgomery County courses, I actually managed to win a few and basically competed reasonably well in each. I was more curious than anything to see if my game could still hold up in competition, and felt my current performance was slipping because I was missing the pressure that serious competition can put on you to help your focus improve.
Northwest Golf Course offered a 36-hole two-day championship with three flights; Championship, Open, and Senior. There were prizes for gross and net in each flight. I spoke with the staff about entering using a fairwayfiles.com handicap in-lieu of a formal USGA handicap and they said they’d honor it as long as they could verify it. It’s been my experience that clubs are not that concerned with single-digit handicaps but rather with folks playing in the 10-20 range that make sandbagging a habit. I can also safely say, that I’ve never won a dollar of net prize money playing on a single-digit handicap. They accepted me with an index of 5.5. (My index had risen over the summer from a low of 4.2 due to the slump I was in, which was another impetus for the competition.)
In previous championships, I’d always enter the top flight, but that was when I was younger, and at 58, I didn’t feel like playing against guys hitting 200 yard 6-irons from tees at 7,376 yards. The seniors were competing from the white tees at 6,200 which I felt gave me a more reasonable chance. I since came to learn that the senior division (23 contestants) had at least 10 single-digit players so this would be an excellent test against quality competition.
I didn’t feel nervous on the first tee, but made a triple bogey on #1 after skulling a greenside bunker shot into a lost ball. Not the start I envisioned but I had told myself whether I birdied the first three holes or started horribly, to expect anything. This type of thinking sort of calmed me and I managed to make the turn at 5-over. Oddly enough, one of my fellow competitors hit the same skulled bunker shot on #1 and also made triple. But I sensed from his comments and demeanor the rest of the way around, that he thought he may have shot himself out of the championship after the first hole.
For round one, my game plan was to aim for the fat part of the greens and subsequently, I hit 12 in regulation. I knew you couldn’t win the tournament on the first day but you could sure lose it and I just wanted to be in the mix, hence the conservative approach. I steadied to a two-over back nine and finished at 7-over (79). I took 35 putts, had two three-jacks, and left a lot of my long birdie attempts short. Yet I didn’t feel too uncomfortable because I had been shooting away from a lot of flags. Incidentally, my fellow triple-bogey competitor also shot 79.
Beforehand on the practice range, I worked exclusively on hitting high, medium, and low shots with lob wedge through 7-iron because these were the majority of the shots I played into the greens in round one. I hit very few balls with the longer clubs and tried to focus on dialing in my irons. My game plan was to shoot directly at pins with anything less than a 6-iron, but only if I had a good yardage. If I was between clubs, I’d play for the middle of the green. I also set a goal to make five birdies because I figured someone would go low.
For the round, they re-paired us and sent us out in reverse order of the scores we shot in round one. I was in the second-to-last group with the same fellow competitor from day one and two other players that had shot 79. The final group had three players at 78 and one at 79. There was an 80 and an 81 in the group in front of us and I figured the tournament would be won by anyone in this group of 10 players.
I started poorly again and made a double bogey on #1 after losing my tee shot into the tall grass left. My fellow competitor from day one made bogey and we joked with each other that our starts were better than day one, but neither of us was very happy.
I was three over after four holes but birdied the par-5 5th which got my head in the game. From there I played well until a stretch from 8 through 11 when I pulled six out of eight full swing shots. Just when I thought my swing was coming unglued, I made an adjustment that worked great and rode it all the way to the finish. One critical point was reached on the 10th hole. One playing partner had experienced a meltdown on the front and the remaining two both triple-bogeyed #10 effectively shooting themselves out of the contest. I figured if I could stay close to even par the rest of the round, these guys couldn’t catch me and it would be between me and the group behind me.
After my swing adjustment on #11, I entered a little bit of “The Zone” which was cool. I loved the feeling of not missing any shots and playing with complete confidence. I sensed something was different when my playing partners started rooting for me. I finished the back nine in even-par to shoot 75 and win the tournament by two. I didn’t make five birdies (only two) and was most excited about the 13 GIR and zero three putts, and that I had made zero mental mistakes. The way the course was playing, two putts were a great outcome on most greens, and par was a great score. I was seeing the lines great and feeling very comfortable with my distance control. I also learned that when other players are falling apart around you, it’s best to maintain your current routine, your current pace, and your current demeanor and don’t get caught up in all their drama.
I am thrilled that I proved to myself that I can focus and play my best under pressure. It was a great experience and the staff at Northwest put on a great competition. I need to take a little time off to let it sink in, and then get ramped up for one final push to my November eastern shore trip.