July 22, 2021

The Tale of Two Rounds: The Inner Battle of Golf

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to walk you through two completely different tournament rounds – one where I dealt with extreme adversity and another where I dealt with a mind-blowing amount of early success. Naturally, their differences will be obvious. But I think it’s more interesting to explore the commonality that helped me deal with both (and can help you too).

To give you a quick background, I was a fairly mediocre junior golfer. I was the captain of a run-of-the-mill high school team and played one Division Three college golf tournament. I had zero competitive pedigree and acted like a borderline psychopath under pressure. Then 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 make a return to competition at a U.S. Open Qualifier. Over the past six years, I’ve played a lot of qualifiers and tournaments. There have been some nice successes, and I’ve been able to play myself into some of the biggest events against top amateurs and professionals in the New York Metro region and hold my own. I now feel comfortable enough to put my game on the line and not let nerves overtake me completely.

More importantly, there have been way more failures that have 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 pursuit. But the lows can hit you hard and make you question if you want to keep going.

Additionally, it’s given me an enhanced perspective on this game, and I try to use what I’ve learned to help all of you in your quest to improve. While many of you won’t play in events like these, the pressure you feel can be just as real. So I’m going to let you inside both of these rounds and be very honest about everything that went through my head. I don’t do this often, but it will be worth it if we can learn something from it.

Bethpage Black Does it to me Again

Growing up on Long Island, most golfers aspire to tame Bethpage Black. In reality, it’s much more difficult than anyone can imagine. The course is that hard.

But a few years ago, I did it. 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 about, the next day brought me swiftly back to earth. A closing quadruple-bogey ended a disappointing day where I shot an 88 and did a free-fall down the leaderboard.

However, I was undeterred. After missing the tournament for a couple of years due to scheduling conflicts, I was excited to tee it up again at Bethpage Black at the Hebron. My new driver changes have me hitting the ball farther and straighter than ever, so I couldn’t help but feel positive about playing well on a course that demands close to perfection off the tee. Certainly, I wasn’t thinking about quadruple bogeys.

Expect the Unexpected

If playing tournament golf has taught me anything, it’s that you never know what version of your game will show up. I smothered a pull-hook on the opening tee into the left fescue – a shot I had not seen much of lately, so it caught me a bit off guard. I was able to advance the ball near the green (albeit buried in the rough) and hit 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 noticed that the rough was incredibly thick, even for Bethpage Black standards. So in the back of my head, I knew that if I did miss fairways, it would be improbable I’d be able to advance the ball on the green.

After a bounce-back birdie on the second hole, I got a little pep back in my step. But another pulled drive into a bunker on the 4th had me wondering what was going on with my driver. After another par putt slid by the hole, I stepped up to the 5th tee knowing that I had a closed-face pattern with my driver and needed to adjust (something Adam Young and myself 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, which is one of the most demanding tee shots on the course. While I was only 140 yards from the hole, and it wasn’t that bad of a miss, the ball was so buried that the best I could do was advance it to a greenside bunker for another bogey.

Things did not improve on the 6th. I pulled another drive into the rough, barely advanced it, 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 was starting to melt away too. No matter how much I prepared to stay patient, the course was pushing me to the brink quickly.

I sat on the bench on the tee box with a towel draped over my head, trying to collect my thoughts and cool down, but it wasn’t easy. The 7th hole isn’t a piece of cake, but it is the last par 5 on the course that can be reached in two (the 13th would play over 600 yards).

Either way, I was not mentally committed to my tee shot. I made awful contact on the heel of the driver’s face, which turned my draw into a huge slice (thank you, gear effect), and sent it to the one place on the course you absolutely cannot go – the forest.

Frustrated that I couldn’t muster up a bounce-back tee shot, I hastily made a poor decision. I was deep in the woods, and while a sideways punchout was still tricky, I chose to gamble with a more aggressive line, and I lost BIG. The next few shots must have been funny to watch, as I was truly stuck in the trees with no way out.

After clanking my way around the dense forest and eventually holing out, I counted up my strokes.

counting

It was a score I was (unfortunately) familiar with, a quadruple-bogey. I figured my ball should go back to its rightful place, so I tossed it back into the trees in disgust. Mr. Practical Golf did not follow his own advice and was in a deep hole!

Commit to the Only Thing You Can

It was hot, I was angry, and the wind was starting to kick up with the threat of thunderstorms for the rest of the round. On top of that, I hadn’t actually reached the hardest part of the course. I tried not to focus on my score too much, but being 10 over after seven holes felt like the wheels were truly coming off, and if I didn’t pull it together, the round could be an outright disaster. My confidence that was built up throughout the year was officially starting to wane. Maybe my stretch of great driving was over? Now what?

bethpage
That is a rough scorecard to look at

 

These are the dark thoughts that a course like this under tournament conditions can bring. Competitive golf can be an island. There’s no equitable stroke control, and your buddies can’t give you a putt. If you make a 14, it goes on the card for everyone to see.

Part of me was hoping for the thunder to arrive and save me the embarrassment from finishing. But I tried to do what I always do – not give up and give each shot the attention it deserves. And as hard as the course was playing, I knew there still was an outside chance I could make the cut. Either way, I’ve hung my hat on routine and grit, and I knew I’d feel like a bit of a fraud 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 instance, I was able to get things headed back in the right direction.

I drove the ball beautifully for the rest of the round on the most demanding tee shots and missed only one remaining fairway (barely). I was able to find a “feel” 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 battle.

OK, that looks a little better after the rough start

Shooting an 84 was not the score I wanted when I teed it up, but after the disastrous start, I felt proud that I could stay engaged, and more importantly, enjoy myself for the rest of the day. Interestingly, I only missed the cut (40 spots and ties) by three strokes because the course played so difficult that day.

Either way, I stared at the abyss with the club that used to plague my game and came back strong. Even though that day might have been a “failure” in terms of not making the cut, being able to get my driver back on track was important. Even more crucial, I kept my habit of staying engaged 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 is around the corner. If you abandon good habits when the going gets tough, you’ll decrease your chances that something good is waiting for you. 

I want to be careful about preaching perfection, though. I am not perfect at this. None of us are, no matter how committed we are. What I am always striving for is incremental progress. It’s OK to make mistakes – perhaps even important so you can reflect on them to move forward.

Dealing With Too Much Success

No matter what level of golfer you are, it’s more likely that you’ll deal with a round that starts poorly rather than one where you come out of the gates a bit hot, but it does happen.

I find that early success can be just as difficult to deal with as blowups. Instead of being upset about blowing it, you start to worry when the other shoe will drop and if a big mistake will ruin your vision of grandeur.

Several years ago, this happened to me at the U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier. I was candid about the ridiculous thoughts going through my head after making the turn under par.

Well, I recently found myself in a very similar situation – four days after the Bethpage Black “incident.” I was trying to qualify for the 119th Met Amateur championship. It’s one of the most prestigious (and difficult to qualify for) events in the New York Metro region.

Typically, there are only around four spots (and ties) available at each qualifying site. With more than 100 talented golfers vying for those spots, it usually requires a score in red figures to qualify – something I have never done before in competition. The qualifier was at my home course, so there was plenty of comfort. However, sometimes I wonder if the home-course advantage can be a curse because expectations can be a bit high, and you know you have your golf community watching what you will do.

Either way, I teed it up that Monday morning trying to put the thoughts of Bethpage out of my head and trying not to place too much burden on myself.

Scorching Hot

I opened the round with a very sloppy three-putt for bogey. I tried not to scold myself, knowing that this wasn’t a day where bogeys would jive, and remain patient that there were plenty of opportunities to make it up.

After a nervy search for my tee shot on the third hole, I got out with a par. And then it happened…

I drained a 40-footer on the 4th hole to get back to even. On the 5th hole, I had a 50-footer that broke in two directions. I was hoping to just two-putt for a stress-free par. It went in the center of the cup with perfect speed.

On the 6th hole, I hit perhaps my best drive of the year, setting up an iron into the short-ish par 5. I played more yardage to the back of the green to avoid the cluster of bunkers in front and left myself an 8-footer for birdie—Center of the cup. Three birdies in a row had me at 2 under.

I barely missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 7th hole, and after a miraculous par save on the 8th, I went to the par-3 9th feeling quite good about myself. After a stellar pitching wedge to about 12 feet, I stared down another birdie putt. Dead center of the cup again!

I made the turn at three-under. This was nothing new for me at my course as I usually score well on the front nine, but I had never been that far under par in competition.

Don’t fly too close to the sun, Icarus

What to Think About?

It’s hard to control your brain in these situations. If I’m totally honest, I was simulating just about every outcome. I had visions of shooting a 63. Then I thought about how disappointing it would be to make the turn at three-under and then give it back on the back nine to miss my big opportunity. How would I explain that to friends at the course?

In the past, I’d probably scold myself for these thoughts, but I tried to accept them. I reminded myself that I had been in plenty of similar situations like this before. I knew the pressure of having a good start and then blowing it. I also knew what it was like to keep it together.

Either way, I was confident that I’d be OK with either outcome.

The back nine always seems to chip away at my great starts at my course, but I did the same thing after making the quadruple-bogey at Bethpage; I tried to stay focused on each shot and live with each result. I knew my thoughts would wander between positive and negative. So I hummed songs in my head between shots, struck up some conversation with my playing partners, and gave each shot the focus it deserved when it came.

The cumulative experience of the last six years of competition gave me comfort. Looking back, it is an important reminder of just how important it is to go through success and failure in this game and try to learn from each scenario.

Holding On, But Not Really

I know when you’re playing well that it is a huge mistake to tap the brakes and feel like you have to play defensively. I stuck with my strategy, which relied on hitting driver just about everywhere I could on the back nine. In the past, I might feel the burden of my success and act as the score was something to protect. But there were way too many holes left; the script was only half-written!

Unfortunately, I have some mental demons on the back nine. They were creeping around in the back of my head. But I chose to accept them again and shrug my shoulders at them because they are silly fears that don’t necessarily have to manifest themselves.

I made it to the 16th hole at one under. The stretch 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 leaderboard on my phone because it was so early in the day, but I knew since the course was playing relatively easy, I had to remain there to give myself a chance.

The 16th hole is a great risk-reward par 4 that is only about 310 yards. I also seem to screw it up whether I choose to lay back or hit my driver. Everyone has a hole that seems to get in their heads, and it is my nemesis. But I stuck with my guns and hit my driver about 30 yards short of the green in a perfect spot.

The green features a massive false front that will reject any poor wedge shot that makes it to the first 20% of the putting surface. I tried not to think about all the pitch shots I’ve chunked in the past off the tight fairway and confidently pitched the ball to 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 tiny target. If you hit it on the front 1/3rd of the green, your ball rolls back into deep bunkers well below the hole. If you miss left, right, or long, you are also in big trouble since the green is small. It’s another great hole that rewards a wonderful wedge shot and makes you tremble at the slightest miss. Well, I did what I mostly do and played safely past the hole, trying not to flirt with the false front. I just missed my birdie attempt again, but I was again perfectly content with my stress-free par.

The Grand Finale

It’s easy to assume that your last hole is the most important of any round that’s going well. But it really isn’t. Every shot you’ve hit up until that point is a series of independent events, no different than what occurs on the last hole. But it is REALLY hard to think that way at the moment.

The 18th hole is a reachable par-5 (depending on the wind) that is the finale of the feast-or-famine closing three holes. If you can manage a good tee shot and avoid the bunkers, it leaves you with a manageable second. But a massively sloped green with a false front always seems to create nervy wedge shots at the finish. It’s a great hole that can produce an “easy birdie” or a disaster that leaves you scratching your head at what could have been.

After a great drive, I was just outside of yardage, so I knew I could make it on the green (I believe I was 245 yards). Unfortunately,  I did a little second-guessing. I knew the right play was to hit my hybrid as close to the green as possible. In the back of my head, I was worried about the area around the green where they shave the grass even tighter, and it leaves you a grainy wedge shot that’s so easy to chunk.

So I thought about laying a little further back to give myself an intermediate wedge shot of about 60-70 yards, which I am very comfortable with. Then I went back to my original strategy, which I believed was the correct one, and pulled my 3-hybrid (I don’t carry a fairway wood anymore).

Of course, I hit a very thin shot that barely got airborne. Luckily, it scooted down the fairway away from all the trouble, and it did leave me the 70-yard wedge shot I initially wanted. What a funny game this is!

Another interesting twist then occurred. The fairway was still wet from some heavy rain earlier in the 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 (perhaps another birdie) to now having the shot that I initially feared, the into-the-grain uphill wedge!

My instant reaction was a mixture of realizing the irony of these events and fearing that I was blowing it. Either way, I focused myself on the wedge shot and knocked it to about 10 feet.

I could have hemmed and hawed over the putt and spent way more time than usual because I knew that if I missed it, that was likely the end of this little Cinderella story. But I tried to go through my routine the same way I did on the first hole and every other hole that day. It was an uphill right-to-left putt, and I determined my line was half a cup out to the right. I stepped up, hit the putt, and watched it creep into the low side of the hole. Fist pump!

So there it was my first under-par round in competition. I was 90% confident I would make it but nervously watched the scoreboard the rest of the day. And by the afternoon, it was a done deal. I had made my first Met Amateur Championship, easily the biggest accomplishment of my budding competitive career.

I never thought I’d see my name that far up the leaderboard!

What Did I Learn, What Can You Learn?

That last putt could have easily missed the cup and created an entirely different context to the story because the outcome could have been so different. Had I shot 70, I would’ve missed it by one and probably been a bit disappointed by what occurred 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 total of everything that’s occurred, and I try not to let each situation influence the other because they are all different, independent circumstances. The birdie putts on the 4th and 5th hole 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 when you play competitively. I don’t know when I will lose my confidence, and my swing starts 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 equally accept each scenario and try my best not to let it change my decision-making or how I approach each shot. If anything, going through all of these outcomes under pressure has made me value consistency.

I know I’ll never have the focus of a golfer like Collin Morikawa, and I’ll continue to go through mental rollercoasters. But experiencing the adversity at Bethpage and then a great triumph four days later made me realize that each round had a common thread that I was proud of. Both days started with extremes, and I had to deal with all of the thoughts and emotions brought out 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 feel embarrassed, angry, and anxious. I also have to accept that at some point, I’m going to have a string of unlikely birdies (obviously, that’s more fun to deal with) – and then have to wrestle with, “wow, how good can this day be???!!!”

More importantly, this kind of wisdom has to be earned in this game. And it’s perhaps one of its 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 confident they will return. And that’s OK. 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.

Additionally, it’s easy for many of you to read these words and feel as though the wisdom has been transferred. But I’m confident you will have your struggles too.

Staying in the moment, valuing routine, making smart decisions – these are perhaps the most overused cliches in golf. You’ve heard Tiger say them in plenty of post-round interviews and just about every other all-time great. While most of you are pursuing 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’s exactly why I wanted to share these experiences with you. You need to work on this part of the game, just like your swing.

This is why reflection, analysis, and commitment are words I often repeat on this site. It’s not to say you have to approach the game with the same vigor as an aspiring professional, but they should be part of your toolkit in the pursuit of a better game. Just know that you’re not alone with your crazy thoughts; I will always have them too!

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