A tournament setback and some lessons to learn

I have been replaying this one scene in my mind for the past 18 hours.  It was the pivotal point in the most important round of my fledgling career and I can’t figure out if I made the right call or bungled the decision by trying to do too much and reacting rather than stepping back and thinking.  I can’t get it out of my head, which means that it’s important and something I can learn from.

What I am talking about was my second shot on the 13th hole of yesterday’s Oregon Am qualifier, but let’s back it up a bit and start from the beginning.

I had family visit for the five days leading up the tourney and didn’t get out to the course during that stay as we went to the coast and I took some time away from practice.  I wasn’t sure how this would affect my game, but when I went out to warm up yesterday morning I felt fresh and clear headed so I knew it was not going to have any negative affect.  This was a relief as sometimes when I step away from the game for a bit it takes a day to get back into the groove.  Yesterday I felt ready to go and my body was ache free, so all was well.

I was nervous, of course.  This was the biggest tournament I had played in and I knew I could make the cut if I had a decent round.  Also, I have wanted to play in the Am for two years but this year was the first time where my handicap was low enough to get into the qualifier.  To top that, a bunch of friends were following my scores online and I knew plenty of people in the field so there was extra incentive to perform well.  I really wanted this and was excited to get the chance to play.  It felt like a reward, or something that I had earned, to be in the field and my goal was to appreciate that I GOT to play, not to assume anything or take it for granted.

With that mindset I headed out on the first hole of Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City.  It was a perfect golfing day: overcast with temperatures hitting 70 and a light wind.  The greens were firm and the course was in pretty good shape all-in-all.  Pins were setup in some interesting and tough locations, but everyone played the same course so fair was fair.  I had played the course once about 3 weeks ago and wasn’t too familiar with the layout, but there were only a couple tee shots that were blind or didn’t seem obvious from the box.  I was a little worried about reading the greens well, but that didn’t turn out to be the breaking point of the round and I only misread one green all day.

The first hole is wide open and I hit a great drive right down the middle to position A.  Then after hitting the green from 150 out I made a downhill putt for birdie.  Perfect way to start: one under through one.  On the second hole, par 3, I missed the green with a little pull and ended up exactly where you don’t want to be on the hole.  The ball bounced down a hill and came to rest 30 yards out to a short-sided pin well above my head.  I pitched on and lipped out the par putt tapping in for bogey.

The third hole has a hazard down the left side and is wide open on the right.  I tried to aim a hair down the right side of the fairway AND hit a draw to go more right, but blocked the shot and it went left hitting a tree, falling on the cart path and then bouncing into a red staked hazard.  This is a crucial moment as I had to make a tough decision whether to punch out or to take a drop.  There was a rules official standing there (he found my ball) and he gave me the ruling as to where I could take relief.  The relief point did not have a clear shot at the green so if I dropped I would then have to punched out and be hitting my fourth shot to get up to the green.  The alternative was to try and punch out from the hazard to the middle of the fairway and then hit on with my third shot.  Seemed like an obvious choice to punch out, but my ball was sitting against a half-inch thick blackberry root jutting out of the ground and over the ball.  My mind thought of a friend, Chan Song, who broke his hand trying to hit off of a root and who told me it was never worth it, even in competition.

I thought about it for a couple of minutes weighing the pros and cons of the situation and for better or worse decided to hit my 50 degree and punch out of the hazard.  I cut through the root and caught the ball clean.  It bounded out over the fairway and ended up propped up in the rough with a clean-ish shot to the green 150 yards away.  It was a gamble that had paid off.  That said, I hit an 8-iron and the next shot hit a branch and fell down 97 yards short of the green.  I managed a good up and down to save bogey, but it had been a tough hole brought on by a big miss with the driver.

The next hole was a par 5 and much cleaner.  I hit a drive and then laid up to 100 yards with a short iron as the green is very protected by bunkers and the one thing I learned from my only other time playing the course this year is that those are not the bunkers you want to mess with.  Unfortunately I thinned a gap wedge and the ball went over the green; chipped back up and two putted for another bogey.  I was 2 over through 4 and my goal had been to be one over, but not too bad all things considered and I was ready to move on to the next group of four holes.

The fifth hole is pretty wide open, but you don’t want to miss right as you get blocked by the trees.  So, I pushed the ball again and ended up hitting a tree down the left side dropping it 225 yards short of the green.  I hit a hybrid that landed a foot off the green and then hit a good putt distance-wise but misread the slope and ended up with a 6 footer for par.  Missed that to bogey the hole.

6  is a par 3 with water then bunkers protecting the green.  It was playing 164 yards and the green visual appears small from the tee box.  My memory was telling me not to miss it long, but short is in the bunkers or water.  I really didn’t know whether I should hit a full 7-iron or try and go with a cut 6-iron.  The wind didn’t seem to be a factor and the guy I was playing with hit first and went long left.  I decided to go with a 6 to not be short, but my last thought before hitting was “don’t be long”.   I hit it fat and sent the ball into the water.  There wasn’t a drop zone so I had to re-tee and hit that one fat too but it just barely made it over the water landing in a hazard with a short sided pin.  I had to hit over a bunker with tall grass in my backswing to a green that slopes away from me and I also couldn’t ground the club as I was in the hazard, but I made a good swing and got it on the green.  I two-putted for a triple.

This was not how I had imagined the first 6 holes of the round going.  I started with a birdie and felt pretty good, but then immediately after hit some off shots and got tight and nervous.  I was now 6 over through 6 holes and knew that I needed to finish around 6 over so had to start playing some good golf.  I loosened up and let go a bit and began to swing more freely.  The next three holes I shot par so turned at 6-over 42.

The back nine is supposed to be the tough nine at Stone Creek and everyone told me that to be safe you need to turn around 38 or 39.  I was a bit behind and needed some catching up.

I hit a good drive on 10 as it was a wide open hole (something after the round I realized: every wide open tee shot I hit really well, whenever there was trouble down a side I barely managed to get out of the box.  This is something I need to address as it killed me yesterday) and hit the middle of the green on my approach.  I had a long putt for birdie with a double break, but dropped it in the middle of the cup.  On the next two holes I hit the green in regulation and almost dropped a bird both times, but at least managed to get it back to just 5 over through 12 holes.  This was very close to what I was shooting for and I was happy to be back in it with a shot to qualify.

13 was where it all changed.

The 13th hole is a blind tee shot over a hill that has OB down the left side and a creek running through the green around 280 yards from the box.  A driver and even 3-wood will get to the creek as once you hit it over the hill the ball runs hard towards the water.  The guy I was playing with (who was a 2 handicap and a member of the men’s club at Stone Creek who says he regularly shoots 74-75 out there) hit his hybrid a little left of center.  I remembered when I last played that the ball can kick towards that left OB and you want to be more towards the center or right side of the fairway so aimed for the middle and tried to hit a little draw with my hybrid.  On a related note, for the past few weeks I have really struggled with hitting tee shots with my hybrid again and my confidence level was very low with that club.  But, driver and 3-wood were too much and I didn’t think 4-iron would get over the hill and the next shot is very long and up a huge hill unless you get down towards the creek.  So, I hit a hybrid and ended up pulling it a little down the right side.

He said I would be fine and maybe just have to punch out at worst and I wasn’t too disappointed with the shot.  I had made good contact, just pulled it some.  When we got to the top of the hill I saw the rules official walking down towards the creek and started to get worried.  Normally there wouldn’t be any way that ball made it through the trees and through all of the rough and all the way to the creek, but it must have hit cart path or hard pan as the official said it just kept going.  We found the ball about a foot into the hazard lying in marsh grass 2 feet tall.  It looked like it would be possible to punch out as it was an easier lie than the one I had on the third hole and I could stand on top of a couple of rocks which gave me decent leverage.  There wasn’t any clean look at the pin and if I had taken a drop I would have had to punch out to the fairway leaving me in the same situation as the 3rd hole where I would have had to hit my fourth shot onto the green.  This approach was up a huge hill and hard enough as it was so I didn’t want to take the extra stroke and decided to punch out the same as I had before.

I should have asked the official what the ruling was and at least thought about what my shot would have been from a drop.  Instead I went for the punch out.  This time, though, there was a hazard across the fairway and my last thought before hitting the ball was to not send it across into the other hazard.  I swung at it and popped the ball up but it somehow managed to go backwards deeper into the thick rough.  I again decided not to take the drop and then hacked at it again with the same result.  At this point I had to take an unplayable and drop four and punch out with my fifth shot.  I hit a 6-iron up the hill just long of the green with my sixth shot then got an up-and-down for a quad bogey 8.

I had just gone from being in the hunt at 5 over to 2-shots off the cut line at 9 over in one hole.  I can’t remember the last time I was 4 over on one hole and was a bit in shock from the entire experience.  I have played it over and over in my head since then and just don’t know what I should have done.  Normally I would have taken the drop and punched out then hit on the green, but I think I was being overly aggressive as I knew I needed to shoot as low as possible to make the cut.  It was an all-or-nothing scenario and I walked away with nothing.

The next hole was a par 3 over a hazard which was playing slow due to the number of balls not hit on the green.  It’s a short hole playing 135 and we had about 15 minutes to sit on the box and wait for our turn.  The entire time I was trying to rationalize my decision on the previous hole while also trying to get back into the game and tell myself that I still had a shot.  When our turn came up my playing partner hit his in the hazard and I hit a 9-iron just over the green to a backstop but the ball din’t roll back to the green how it seems like it should.  I had another 5 minute delay on the green while the rules official decided on where my partner could drop and then I had a chance to chip on.  I hit a good one and the ball looked like it was going to hit the cup the entire way but turned just before it and ended up 5 feet past the hole.  I think my mind had wandered as I missed the 5-footer and came off with a silly bogey to now be 10 over through 14.

I was 4 off of what would make the cut and had 4 holes remaining.  The last shot was to birdie out.  There was a hazard on the left side of the 15th hole and I tried to relax, aim for the center and hit my normal draw, but blocked it left and sent the ball into the hazard.  I had to drop at a point where I didn’t have a clear shot at the green and knew I was out of it for good.  It just wasn’t my day and a few bad shots really added up and I compounded my mistakes on the 13th hole.

There is a ton to learn from the experience and simply by playing in the tournament I learned a lot about the state of my game and what I need to work on.  Two things jump out immediately:  hitting tee shots when there is a hazard in play and knowing when to take medicine and when to be aggressive.  I think the latter comes with experience and I gained some of that yesterday; the former can be worked on with deliberate practice and is exactly where my focus needs to be right now.

Luckily, I was just invited to play the Royal Oaks Invitational Tournament this weekend.  It’s a 3-day event this Friday through Sunday on one of the best tracks in the area.  I’m excited to have three more tournament rounds already on the books and coming so soon and will be thinking about and adjusting my game accordingly after yesterday’s setback.

It was in no means one of my better tournament rounds to date and I know I could have made the cut, but when you hit 4 balls into hazards in 18 holes it’s hard to shoot a good score.

I am very bummed, and even somewhat mad at myself, about yesterday, but am going to take that energy and bring it to practice today.  There is a lot to work on and now I have a better idea of exactly what that is.

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