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Back in the golf saddle? Not quite…

Last October, I wrote a blog post about the possible “beginning of the end” of my amateur golf career. To paraphrase, I was lamenting my lack of practice and tournament play, which puts me at a significant disadvantage relative to my younger, fitter, childless competition.

This past weekend I teamed with a buddy to play in our state Fourball (2 man team) championship. We won this event way back in 2011, when I didn’t yet have children and was not only one of the best amateur golfers in the state of Colorado, but also one of the better amateur players in the country. Things have changed now, but with our Top 10 finish (a tie for 6th place out of 60 really good teams) it got me wondering if I should make an attempt to play more tournaments in 2019. Here’s what I found out this past weekend…

I still don’t hit it very far: Most of the guys I played with hit it farther than I did. Some hit A LOT farther than I did. Distance has really changed the game of golf, at all levels of competition, and my lack of it puts me at a disadvantage.

I can still chip and putt with the best of them: Though I didn’t make very many putts outside of 10 feet, I’m still very good with my wedges and putter. I need to be, because item # 1 isn’t going to change anytime soon.

It’s nice having a partner to help carry the load: Fourball events, where you write down the best score on each hole of the two-man team, are a lot of fun. Not only do you get to play with a friend, but you get a lot of help out there too. In my case, my partner made quite a few more birdies this weekend than I did. I was solid and steady, shooting 73-73-72 on my own ball and making 7 birdies in 3 days, but he probably doubled that total. And in fourball events, birdies are king. As you get older, it’s nice to have a partner to help shoulder the burden.

I still love to compete: The great Bobby Jones once said that golf and tournament golf are two very different things, and have almost nothing to do with one another. He was completely right. Pressure and nerves change everything. When you’re playing with your buddies on your home course and you miss that 3 footer, most of the time you give it to yourself. But when you’re in a state championship, there are no gimmes, and every shot counts. The butterflies in your stomach will be no doubt be flying. The trick is getting them to fly in formation when everything is on the line. But I still enjoy those nerves, and I still enjoy competing under pressure. This weekend showed me that.

So does all of this mean I’ll be playing more tournament golf in 2019? No. I’m still not planning to play but 2, perhaps 3, tournaments this year. 1 of which has already transpired. I still love golf and I still love to compete, but with the demands of work and kids on my daily schedule, it’s going to be mostly casual golf for the time being. Still, it was nice to see that I still had a little gas left in the proverbial tank. And winning a little pro shop credit for our Top 10 finish didn’t hurt either…

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The US Amateur at Pebble Beach. Times sure have changed…

19 years ago this month, I was fortunate to play in the biggest and most important amateur golf tournament in the world; the US Amateur. That year it was held at iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links, which is as familiar as any course in the world to anyone who plays golf.

The previous year I had qualified and competed-in the US Amateur at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, so I was no stranger to the event. But there was just something so special about playing a national championship at Pebble Beach. Even the way I qualified was special.

I had torn a tendon in my finger about a month prior to the qualifier, and hadn’t touched a club in the weeks leading up to the event. I was something like 7 over par in the first 9 holes, hitting it everywhere and showing everyone just how rusty I was. Then the switch flipped, and I played my last 27 holes in something like 10 under par to get myself into a 3-man playoff for the last spot in the US Amateur. The playoff consisted of myself, another college aged player, and by far the best amateur golfer ever to come out of the state of Maryland (I’ll call him “the legend”). The other college player bogeyed the first playoff hole and was promptly eliminated, leaving myself and the legend for the last spot.

The second playoff hole was a tough par 3 over water. The legend went first, hitting the green safely. I did the same. His 30 foot putt missed, and somehow, my 20 foot putt found the bottom of the cup. Despite not playing for a month before the qualifier, I had somehow earned a place in the biggest amateur event in the world, at perhaps it’s most famous American venue.

The cut for match play that week was 152, the highest it had ever been in the history of the US Amateur. This time around, 19 years later, the cut for match play was 147, a full 5 shots lower than it was when I played. Perhaps the rough wasn’t as thick or deep this time around, and perhaps the greens weren’t quite so firm and fast. But I suspect the reason the scores were so much better involves the quality of golfer and the improvement in technology. College and pro golfers are much longer hitters these days, and as a result, they shoot much lower scores. They’re better athletes and they play better equipment, allowing them to do things on a golf course that the previous generation (my generation) just couldn’t do.

It makes me glad that I played my college and professional golf when I did.

 

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The US Open. My favorite golf tournament.

This week is US Open week in the golf world. Since I began playing golf at 11 or 12 years old the US Open has always been my favorite golf tournament.

Aside from the fact that it’s my national championship, no other tournament provides for such a thorough examination of a player’s game. With deep rough and firm, slick greens, driving accuracy is at a premium, which is rare for professional golf these days. With the exception of the 2011 and 2017 events (when rains softened the courses), you simply cannot hold US Open greens when you’re playing out of the deep rough. You must keep the ball in play, which often necessitates taking less club off the tee and thinking your way around the course. The current “bomb and gouge” philosophy that is so prevalent on the PGA Tour each week is not a strategy that works during the US Open.

And then there is the typical US Open venue. Steeped in tradition and history, most US Opens are played at old, top-of-the-pinnacle clubs like Shinnecock Hills (this year’s venue), Oakmont, Winged Foot, and Olympic Club. Throw in world-renowned public venues like Pebble Beach (next year’s host) and Pinehurst No. 2 and you have the perfect canvas with which to paint a major championship. Recently the USGA (the organization that conducts the US Open) has ventured off the beaten path to public courses such as Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, and the results have been less-than-stellar. That has diminished some of the luster of the US Open, but now that we’re back to a world-class venue like Shinnecock Hills I expect the good times to roll once more.

If you have a little time this weekend, watch the best players in the world try and navigate what should be the toughest set-up they’ll face all year. If nothing else, watching them struggle will show you that golf is a tough game for everyone, even if you play it for a living.

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My top 10 golf courses

I’ve been very fortunate to have played a lot of great golf courses in my 38 years, and I get asked quite often what some of those golf courses are.  With the end of the golf season upon us I thought it might be a good time to share my Top 10.  Here goes…

10.  Congressional Country Club Blue Course (Washington, DC area)

9.  Castle Pines Golf Club (Denver area)

8.  Olympic Club Lake Course (San Francisco area)

7.  Olympia Fields Country Club North Course (Chicago area)

6.  Muirfield Village Golf Club (Columbus area)

5.  Los Angeles Country Club North Course (Los Angeles area)

4.  Shoreacres Golf Club (Chicago area)

3.  Chicago Golf Club (Chicago area)

2.  Oak Hill Country Club East Course (Rochester, NY area)

And my # 1 course?  That would be Pebble Beach Golf Links, in the Monterrey, California area.  I was fortunate to play there three times in a week while I was in college (for the grand sum of $110 total), all during a national championship (the US Amateur).  You can’t really beat that…

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Getting ready to play golf again.

Masters week is upon us, and for those of you who play golf, this is a very special time of the year.  It’s also springtime, which means the golf season is just getting underway in many parts of the country.  It’s been a long winter for a lot of people, and I thought I might share a few tips that I use to get my game ready to go.

I played my college golf in Chicago, and professionally for 6 years thereafter.  And we currently live in the Denver area, so I know a thing or two about shaking off the winter rust.  Here are some pointers…

First, I like to focus the majority of my early-season practice on short game (wedge shots, chips, bunker shots, etc) and putting (particularly on those nerve-wracking short putts).  I have always felt that the best way to get your game back on solid footing is to spend the majority of your time getting the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible.  That isn’t likely to happen on the driving range, but rather the short shots and the putts.  That’s what will really lower your scores this year.

Work and young children take up most of my life, but when I do have the ability to practice I like to spend 75% of my time on and around the green.  I like to really focus on getting the ball into the hole, which means I typically putt and chip with only a few golf balls at a time, rather than hitting 50 straight chip shots at the same target.  Try that, especially early in the year, and it will really help to get your game back on track.

When I do my driving range work, I like to focus on target and tempo.  I always make sure I’m hitting to a specific target (you’d be surprised how many golfers simply aim at the middle of the range and swing away) and I always make sure I lay a club or alignment stick down at my feet for proper aim.  And I work on hitting shots at 3/4 speed, so that my swing is in-sync and balanced.  That is especially important after a long winter away from the game.

Lastly, I try and commit myself to being patient, and trusting that my game will come around with some effort and practice.  That first month back at the course is pretty damaging to anyone’s ego and confidence, so you’ll want to commit to accepting your bad shots, and resolve to work on your deficiencies as the season progresses.  This is the most difficult aspect of improvement, as we all tend to be our toughest critics.  But you will never reach your potential in this game if you aren’t being your best friend.  Golf is a tough sport, and you need to continually pump yourself up, not tear yourself down.

Try these tips and see if they help your golf game.  They have certainly helped mine, especially now that I sit behind a desk for a living.

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The best golf course in Colorado is…

We have a lot of good golf courses out here in Colorado.  Some are private, some are public.  Some are in the Denver metro area, and some are up in the mountains.  But there is one course that consistently ranks as the best in Colorado (and in the top 30 or 40 in the United States), and that is Castle Pines Golf Club.

Castle Pines GC is located south of Denver, and was built by Jack Nicklaus in the early 1980s.  It hosted the PGA Tour’s International tournament from 1986 until 2006, and while that event no longer exists the club is still going strong.  I’ve been fortunate to play Castle Pines a couple of times, including this summer on my birthday.

The golf course is situated about 6,400 feet above sea level, which is a full 1,000 feet higher than most courses in the Denver area.  At that altitude the ball flies much further and straighter than it does at lower elevations.  So while Castle Pines measures a full 7,700 yards from the tips, it doesn’t play nearly that long.  So what’s it like?

Well, for starters you can expect perfect playing conditions (the course is only open from early May through mid October), fast greens, and beautiful flowers throughout the property.  The only club that I’ve seen with prettier flowers is Augusta National, the home of The Masters.  The par 3s are tremendous (the photo above is the downhill, par 3 11th hole), the par 4s are stout but many are scoreable, and the par 5s offer a great chance for birdies.  The golf course provides plenty of risk/reward opportunities, while offering a great mix of easy and difficult holes.  Good shots are rewarded, and poor shots are penalized.  But unlike many top 100 courses, you can make birdies at Castle Pines.  It’s a lot of fun to play.

The staff at Castle Pines GC defines gracious hospitality.  On many occasions I’ve heard the club referred to as “the land of yes”, because almost all requests are granted.  The clubhouse is modest, but comfortable.  There are no tennis courts or swimming pools.  It’s all about the golf and making the experience of the members and guests as pleasant as possible.  Roughly two-thirds of the members live out of state, so the golf course is never crowded.

If you get a chance to play Castle Pines Golf Club make sure you take it.  There are other great courses in Colorado, including Cherry Hills Country Club and The Broadmoor East, but none offer quite the experience that Castle Pines GC does.