Monday, July 19, 2010

The Utica City Amateur: Before, During, and After

The Utica City Amateur is my favorite golf tournament to play. I did it 3 straight years following the end of my college golf career and 8 years in a row late in grad school and early in my professorial career, but this year was my 1st in the last 6 to return to competitive golf and this past weekend the City Am was my debut. I had pretty high expectations coming into it, having made the 1st-day cut 3 of my previous 4 attempts, having good memories of the host course Valley View, and having gotten in about as much golf during the 1st 2 weeks of July as I had the previous 5 years. At the same time, I was also pretty worried, having gotten stuck in the high 70s on the Easiest Course in the World, having lost some confidence in both my swing and my short game in the process, and having to rely on 6-year-old memories of a course that requires a lot of local knowledge and ability to adjust to changing conditions.

So I was happy I was free to come to Clinton a couple of days before the best-ball portion of the event to practice and play with my dad (who was also my college golf team coach). It was my best chance to break out of the skills and scoring plateau I seemed to be stuck in. We decided to play Skenandoa before the City Am and Seven Oaks after it. It would be a good test of where my game stood a month before the qualifier for the NYSGA's Men's Mid-Amateur event. Skenandoa was where my college golf team did most of its practice rounds and Seven Oaks (Colgate University's home course) was not only the site of various competitions and qualifiers I had participated in since junior golf, but a course that I played virtually every summer weekend during my teen years.

All the problems that I moaned about at the end of the 1st week of July reared their ugly heads last Thursday evening and Friday morning, as I played the easier front side at Skenandoa twice in a row and utterly failed to take advantage of it. Although I hit 10 of those 18 greens, I made only 1 birdie, 3-putted 2 of the greens I hit, and had only 2 1-putts over the other 8 holes, so it should be no surprise I shot an 82 with 35 putts. But while my irons and short game were suffering, I started really feeling it with my woods and 3-hybrid. By the time I was finishing the front the 2nd time around, I was locked in with my driver, which I had really been struggling with the week before. All of a sudden, my mind was absolutely empty during my preshot routine; I was focused completely on my target and trusted my swing, so I didn't need to go through any kind of mental checklist or remind myself with either a swing thought or "feeling" (see Ruthless Golf for that very useful tip). It was just choose a target, picture the shot (including the trajectory--low-medium-high; fade-straight-draw--yup, I was that dialed in), take my stance, and go! By the time I played the tougher back 9 for the 1st time, my drives were going just as I pictured them, only longer. I was finally feeling the clubhead, keeping my tempo slow and smooth, and finding the sweet spot almost without exception. And at some point that day the good vibes translated over to my irons. Even though I hit only 4 greens on the back, I was in much better control of my distance and ball flight on my approaches. The result was real birdie opportunities (I stuck a 9-iron to a back-left pin position on the short par-4 10th which was guarded by a trap short left and a creek right behind and to the left of the elevated green; I faded a 4-iron just past the pin on the long par-3 12th; I faded a 3-hybrid to the long par-3 17th against the wind, holding it on the same quadrant as the pin; and made the 1st putt and missed the next 2), along with much easier chips to save par. As a result, I only had 2 bogeys (both caused in part by pulled drives, the 2nd of which forced me to punch out from the trees) for a 37 with 13 putts.

Why my swing clicked so well last Thursday is still a mystery to me. Probably the biggest factor was having my dad look it over, check my alignment, and offer observations on my game and tactics. There's nothing that beats a tune-up from the person who taught you the game, attended every lesson you ever took, and knows your swing inside and out. But almost as influential was just watching his swing and his approach to the game, both the parts I liked and the mistakes I saw him making (both physical and mental). He turns 70 next May, but since he had a lesson with a local assistant pro a little while ago, he's been hitting his drives farther than I've seen him hit them in years. He's been taking full advantage of his 3-, 4-, and 5-hybrids and while his wedge game isn't as consistent as I remember it being he still sticks a fair number of pitches and 3-quarter swings with them. We shot a net 65 at Skenandoa the day before the gross best-ball event in the City Am. We were ready!

And then the rains came, both overnight and most of the morning before our shotgun start at Valley View Friday afternoon. Because it was pouring in the late morning, my dad and I had no chance to hit balls or work on our wedges at the Skenandoa driving range; plus, we only had a half hour on the Valley View putting green before heading out to the 2nd tee (a reachable par-5 and the last easy birdie hole until the medium-length par-4 15th). Like Seven Oaks, Valley View is a Robert Trent Jones course, so it has a good number of long par 4s and short par 5s, and it's filled with big, long greens with lots of undulations. But unlike Seven Oaks it also has sharply uphill holes (the long par-4 3rd, the short par-4 10th, and the medium par-3 14th) and downhill ones (the long par-4 7th, the short par-4 11th, the short par-5 17th). There's hardly a level area on any fairway, what with the elevation changes and the tilts, hills, and bumps on almost every hole. And the greens are tricky and grainy: everything is faster when you're putting in the direction of the reservoir and slower when you're putting away from it; wherever you are on the course, everything breaks toward the reservoir. The rains introduced 4 problems for me: (1) less roll off the tee (so the course wouldn't play as short as it usually did); (2) more uncertainty on what kind of approach shot to hit (punch it to land short of the green and bounce on or hit it high in an attempt to hold the usually very hard greens?); (3) more difficulty in judging the speed of each green (as they retain and drain water at different rates); and (4) lots more gear to be ready to deal with any more rain that might decide to come on down (and which would exacerbate problems 1-3).

While our playing partners handled all this well--they made 8 birdies and tied for 2nd with a 65 on the par-71 course--my dad and I kept putting ourselves in position and failed to convert. Over and over again, we were leaving uphill and against-the-grain birdie putts woefully short. I wasn't hitting my irons as pure as I had been that 2nd day at Skenandoa, but I still hit 12 greens and had at least decent birdie chances on most every one. On the day, I had 14 pars, a bogey, and only 1 birdie (and not on the 1st par 5--a 3-hybrid went all the way to the back of the 125-foot 2nd green when the pin was in front and I 3-putted for par when my 1st putt got hung up on the very top of the last undulation I needed to traverse--20 feet short of and higher than the pin!--but on the 2nd one, when I got up and down from just behind the back fringe in 2). And even on the 2 holes I was completely out of (I tripled the 7th when I pulled my drive into the creek running down the left side of the hole and tripled the 14th when I skulled a bunker shot into the woods behind the green), my dad made a great par save and an awesome birdie on those holes. Although he got off to a slow start, he carried us from the 14th through 1st holes (even though he missed a short birdie putt on 17, he was -1 over his last 6 holes--and it was raining pretty hard for the 1st 2 of them). So in the end, even though I only shot a 77 with 33 putts, we ended up with a respectable 70.

Heading into the 1st day of the individual competition, then, I was feeling pretty good. The weather forecast was better and I figured my putting was due to come around, given how many times I had played Valley View and the time the greens had had to dry off. Although I was no longer in the zone with my irons, my driving was strong and I hadn't missed a putt of 6 feet or less all week. All I had to do was play it safe at the start of my round, get it going in the middle, and finish strong. My foursome was starting on the par-3 6th, so the easy stretch from 14 through 2 would come in the heart of my round, and I figured my momentum and accuracy off the tee would carry me through the tough last 3 holes going up the big hill and into the woods. I knew the course would be set up short and easy the 1st day (and long and tricky the 2nd), so my goal was simply to break out of the high 70s and see how low I could go from there. My previous low was a 73 in 2001 and I didn't see any reason why I couldn't beat that this year.

But the winds that came up that morning and stuck around all day played havoc with my game plan. Although they made the 3 closing par 4s on the front shorter, they made my approach shots to front pins tougher. And although I focused on my short irons in my warm-up at Skenandoa that morning, I was focusing on 115-to-135 yard shots, whereas my 1st 2 drives put me about 100 yards out, 1st sharply downhill and then sharply uphill. So after a weak birdie attempt on the opening par 3 made me settle for par, I then fluffed 1 wedge and chunked the other--and could get up and down with my recovery pitches only once. From there, I pushed a drive way right and didn't handle my recovery punches well, missed a great birdie opportunity on 10, chunk-pulled a punch 7-iron with the ball well above my feet on 11 that led to my 3rd bogey of the day, hit a grounder instead of a punch 9-iron into 12 and was lucky to come away with a green in regulation and a 2 putt, and pushed my 3-hybrid almost into the right bunker on the long par-4 13th, forcing myself to make a great par save after a tentative and pulled pitch-chip with my 58-degree wedge.

Then things went from bad to worse. I shanked a 5-iron under a pine tree on the par-3 14th and could barely chip out sideways, pulled another short pitch, got a bad bounce, and doubled the hole. Then I pulled my drive on the medium par-4 15th almost into the trees, quit so bad on a punch 8-iron I had to draw into the green that I got another lucky GIR via a grounder, then proceeded to 3-putt for a bogey that left me at +6 through my 1st 10 holes, zero confidence in my irons, and an absolutely terrible mood heading into the 3 short finishing holes and 2 short opening holes that I now needed several birdies on to give myself enough of a cushion to still shoot a 75. My mood wasn't improved when I pulled a wedge on the 16th and needed to sink a tough 4-footer to save par after being surprised by how slow the downhill, with-the-grain 20-footer actually turned out to be.

But at least that was the low point of my round. Because when we got to the 17th tee, there were 3 teams waiting there, 1 just teeing off, and another on the green. During the 45-minute wait before we teed off, I calmed down, tried to nap, chatted with some people I knew, ate some food, stretched, and decided to play my last 8 holes as if they were part of a new round. Even though I eventually pushed my drive a little into the right rough 190 yards above the green, I actually hit a great 4-iron fade that even stayed on the green instead of rolling over the back, gave my 25-foot eagle putt a good run (but still left it a foot short), and tapped in for birdie when all 3 of my playing partners (who all ended up making the cut) missed out on their chances. So I had the honors on the short par-3 18th and the pin was exactly where I had envisioned it, front left on the sunken green that would funnel a push to the left and act as a backstop if you were to go a little long. With a right-to-left wind slightly at our backs, I planned to bring a 7-iron in from the right edge of the green, figuring that if it didn't draw as planned it would bounce left to the pin anyway. Instead I hung it out further right than expected, it failed to draw, the wind didn't move it, and it got stuck in an elevated yet blind bunker I had not only never come close to hitting but had even forgotten was there! A skulled sand shot and a terrible 3-putt later and I was +7 with only 2 birdie holes left to go. I figured the highest the cut would go maybe to +5 and probably would end up at +4 (I had shot a 76 and missed the cut back in 1991). So somehow I had to play the 1st 5 holes in at least -2 when my best start ever was E--including the time I had birdied 16, eagled 17, birdied 18, 1, and 2, and just missed a birdie on 3 in a best-ball with my dad at an early-2000s City Am. If I couldn't do it with that kind of momentum, how could I do it when my irons were a huge question mark and putts longer than 6 feet looked impossible to sink?

It being desperation time and all, I figured I had to go for broke. I would fire at every pin and force my irons and putter to respond. So of course I pushed my drive right on the 1st hole. Although they had removed the tree that guarded the right side of the green, it was still a downhill, right-to-left sloping fairway to a green protected by 2 big mounds on each side and a pin tucked back right behind the 2nd mound on the right. And I was in the right rough, about 105 yards from the pin. Normally I might hit a hard wedge to the middle of the green to protect against going over in case I caught a flyer, but this time I decided to try to land a 9-iron past the pin and to the left to avoid any kind of big kick from the mound or the right edge of the green--and somehow I executed the shot, sucking it back a little to be right below the hole with a 5-foot uphill barely left-to-right putt to get back to +6, which I canned. On 2 I hit a decent drive, but because the wind had picked up and I landed in a soft spot on the fairway, I had a 3-wood in to a pin that was about 10 feet from where my 3-hybrid the previous day had ended up. If I could get that 3-wood anywhere on the green, I would have a great chance to claw back to +5, just as I had when I hit a good approach on the other par-5 on the course, the 17th hole. Unfortunately, instead of hitting a slight draw I pushed it well right of my target. Still, I expected to be in the right bunker or even past or to the right of it, pin high or so in the right rough. Instead, I ended up next to a tree 30 yards or so short of the very front of the green. Probably my ball had hit it and dropped straight down. But at least it was a great lie, sitting up in the light rough right next to a cart path, so I decided not to take relief from it, even though I would be standing on it when I took my stance. Unfortunately, I swung a little too hard at it right at the bottom of my swing and flew it too far--way too far! It kicked off the back left fringe and bounded over the back of the green, down a hill, ending up near a tree just a few feet short of a service road that separated the 2nd green from the 3rd tee (and 7th green). It was an impossible up and down, even after a great 58-degree wedge that ended up only 12 feet past the pin on the correct tier.

And from there my chances were basically nil. I kept firing at pins, hitting a 3-hybrid 20 feet to the right of and a little past the front-left pin on #3, punching a 7-iron 35 feet short of the back-left pin on #4, and taking a driver on the narrow 5th hole, leaving myself 105 yards to the pin on #5 and 20 feet short left when I pulled my approach and it got trapped on the wrong tier. 2 2-putts and 1 3-putt later--which included my 1st miss from 6 feet or less and a donated ball to the golf gods of the woods in response--and my 1st individual tournament in 6 years was over: a 79 with 36 putts. I was simply unable to recover from my slow start, my AWOL irons, my disastrous par 3s on the back. Despite hitting 7 of my last 9 greens (after hitting only 3 in my 1st 9 holes) and making 2 birdies, I played those holes in +3 and took 20 putts (including a 2-putt birdie)--not nearly sharp enough. I hadn't been able to adjust to the speed and the grain of Valley View's greens, much less the wind or the pressure of playing with golfers who were longer and better than me. The young guy from Rome Country Club with whom I shared a cart shot a 70 and could easily have made it a 66 (or a 76, if his short putting hadn't been so solid); the 5-time champion who had tried the Senior Tour, injured his wrist, and gotten reinstated as an amateur scraped it around for a 74 (he would come back with a 69 on Sunday when the course was set up tougher and finish T3); the recent college grad had a bad day and still held it together for a 75. As it turned out, if I had only played the last 9 holes in E, I would have made the cut. Instead, I had the moral victory of overcoming the shame and humiliation I was feeling over my 1st 10 holes, the thrill of almost making every shot matter in a do-or-die situation, and the frustration of all my preparation coming down to 1 pushed 7-iron and 1 too-strong half-wedge. Oh, and we ate a great meal at a good Japanese restaurant and saw a good movie (Inception) afterwards that Saturday night, so the day wasn't a total loss. Just a deep deep disappointment.

When it was clear that Louis Oosthuizen had the Open Championship in hand, my mom and dad and I decided to take another shot at the front at Skenandoa before I would leave on Tuesday morning. My dad's swing had imploded the day before and he hadn't even broken 90, despite having hung right with me in all our preparatory play. I was even after 2 and thinking about how much more calm and serene normal rounds were than tournament golf when my irons and my equanimity disappeared over the last 7 holes, when I only hit 1 green and got 1 up and down and lost to my dad by 1 shot with my 3rd-straight round where I failed to break 40 on that stupid side. So I was in no condition, in my head or with my game, to handle the challenges of Seven Oaks today. We got lucky in 1 sense, as we never got rained on and all the lighting in the area avoided Hamilton, NY. But when you're +16 after 11 holes when you've only hit 2 greens and where everything that could go wrong did, you're not exactly in the frame of mind to count your blessings. Fortunately, I hit 6 of my last 7 greens and managed to 3-putt only 2 of them for a 49-42-91, my worst round since my 1st time playing Turning Stone's Kaluhyat course in August 2003 (a 93) and most demoralizing since I shot a 91 in the 2002 Mid-Am, the only time I ever made it through qualifying in my life.

It's not that I hit the ball that much worse than I had at the Easiest Course in the World, Skenandoa, or Valley View. In fact, I was driving the ball great today. It's just that Seven Oaks puts more pressure on your approach shots, makes your recovery shots more difficult (even if you miss the fringe just by a foot), and exposes every weakness you may have in your putting stroke and ability to read greens. 2 triples, 3 doubles, and 39 putts were my welcome back to a course that had changed so much since I had last played it in 2003. Tons of trees had been removed, especially around the 1st and 2nd greens and the left side of the 13th hole; the fairways were almost as short as the greens on the Easiest Course in the World but were so overwatered my drives were practically plugging in them; and the greens were probably the fastest I had ever putted (definitely faster than the Locust Hill putting green for the LPGA Championship). For awhile, I was afraid I wouldn't break 100; even when I started clubbing myself better, picking better targets, and missing my irons slightly less badly down the stretch, bad putting prevented me from breaking 90. But I'm not kidding that with the game I brought that day I could have broken 75 at the Easiest Course in the World and at Valley View and broken 80 at Skenandoa.

And even at one of the low points of my life in golf, there were still some cool moments. On the short par-5 7th, which has a creek meandering through the entire landing area, even if you want to cut off the dogleg from off the tee, I hit 2 solid 3 hybrids and chunked my punch 8-iron 25 feet short-left of the pin for my 2nd GIR of the day. After my dad made a 40-footer from the fringe for birdie, and our 2 rivals in the 6-hole high-low net match we were playing made birdies, too (the 1st by banging a 25-foot chip into the flagstick and the 2nd by sinking a 30-foot putt on a line almost directly opposite mine), I had no choice but to sink my birdie putt on top of them. Plus I almost hit the par-5 18th in 2, threading the needle to leave my 3-wood in a neck of fairway much smaller than the huge green--to the left of the pond, short of the trap, past the trees short left, and to the right of the rough (and the road) all along the left--in an effort to put pressure on my dad and his playing partner in the last 6-hole match (they both got strokes and my partner and I didn't).

So even though the bottom line is that even after all my preparation and practice, I plunged off the high-70s plateau instead of climbing beyond it this past week, I'm still in a good position to make this one of my best seasons ever. I have a month to start getting used to going low again (only 5 of my 39 9-hole scores have been 37 or lower and my low of 36 is 1 worse than 2009, 1999, 1998, and 1991; 2 worse than 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1992; 3 worse than 2003, 2001, 1997, and 1993; and 4 worse than 2002), get my feel back with my irons and wedges, and improve my putting on faster greens. It's only a matter of time before I start taking advantage of the opportunities my driver is giving me this season, gain the same confidence with my short irons and wedges that I have with my fairway woods and 3-hybrid, and feel the same way about 10- and 20-foot putts as I do about 5-footers. The better my game is, the better I'll be able to handle the pressure and the emotions that make tournament golf so different from playing a match against yourself virtually alone on an easy 9-hole course. But it's back to that for the time being.

[Update 1 (7/20/10, 9:33 pm): Yup, shot a 76 at the Easiest Course in the World this evening. Lots of bogeys, but an eagle and 3 birdies almost made up for them. Just had to slow down and relax on my irons--started hitting them much better!]


Average Golfer said...

Sorry to hear of your tribulations.
On another note, strangely, I used to work for West End Brewing and distinctly remember a Christmas party at FX Matt's mansion, a million years ago. Your Utica reference brought it all home.

The Constructivist said...

Wow, I still remember the Matt brewery tour I did as a kid! Good times....