Fighting off Golf's Demons in an 18-hole Qualifier
The horn blew as we walked off the 17th green at Fall River Country Club. We had been watching the dark thunder clouds roll in slowly, and I prayed after the first rumble that it might be far enough away that we could play the final hole before we were called off the course.
My prayers weren’t answered. They rarely are on the golf course.
I happened to be putting together my best round of the year during my Massachusetts Amateur Qualifier. I hadn’t played in one since 2019, and it has become my white whale. In 2019 at Brookline’s Putterham Golf Course I made the turn in even par and began dreaming of a berth into the MassAm, which was at The Country Club in 2019. Alas, a spotty back nine left me playing out the final few holes without anything but pride to play for.
Golf is all about growth and grabbing on to any positives possible. The game is like a greased watermelon bobbing around in the ocean, even when you think you’ve found it, getting any sort of grip on it is nearly impossible for anything more than a few seconds. At Putterham, I had a hold of that pesky watermelon for about nine holes. But it gave me the GPS settings to at least know where that damn watermelon was located.
No matter how many times I try to tell myself that I can get the ball around in enough shots to qualify, a little demon pops up on my shoulder and reminds me of this one shot that I hit years ago that’s going to cause major embarrassment and make me to run off the golf course after two holes. The days leading up to my qualifier at Fall River I’d have small pangs of anxiety pulse through my chest when I remembered I had to play a new course and keep score with total strangers who are going to be way better than me. It’s a cocktail of imposter syndrome and self-doubt that I have to mentally fight off with as many positive thoughts as possible.
Unfortunately, Fall River CC would not allow competitors a practice round. A practice round is usually included as part of the deal when a player signs up for a qualifier; it can be a huge help to erase some of the doubt and formulate a plan. So without a practice round, what did I do to fight off some of my demons? I did what any well adjusted person does, I took to the internet. The Fall River CC website had a pretty comprehensive set of pictures and even a little description of every hole, which was full of what NOT to do. The worst thing for any golfer to have planted in their mind.
(Examples: The par 4 11th: “A miss left or long will leave a difficult up and down, while leaving your shot on the wrong tier of the green can quickly lead to three and four putts!.” or
The par 3 12th: “However, an approach more than a little right means your ball is likely lost, or is better off that way.”).
My opening hole was the 10th, so that’s where I started my virtual tour (if they had VR I would have done that, too. I’m not well….). It’s an insanely intimidating tee shot. There’s the Taunton River down the left side. On the right, you can see that horrible white stake marking internal Out of Bounds, which basically means you can’t just aim at that bunker in the distance and avoid the water, because if the ball drifts right it would be a two shot penalty (thankfully, they eliminated the internal OB for the qualifier because Internal OB is the stupidest thing in the world).
As I continued to read more and more about the holes at Fall River CC, it appeared to me it was going to be a tight, quirky golf course with danger lurking in a lot of places. The type of danger that could destroy a round in one swing as a ball careens down a cliff and into the water. This type of danger buried itself into my brain and popped up every now in the days before the round, sending an electric shock through my body. But I continued to read the hole descriptions because I wanted to have some sense of the course.
A few weeks ago, I was standing on the 13th hole at Plymouth CC. It’s a short par 4, so I decided to hit an iron off the tee. Irons have a hosel on them, it’s the part of the club you never, ever want to use to strike the ball. When the hosel and the ball meet, a horrible thing happens. First, the ball shoots off at an angle that golf was not designed for. For a right-hander player, that means it’s going straight off to the right at a speed that doesn’t give you any time to speak to the ball. If you’re lucky, there aren’t trees or water in that direction and you can go and hit it again. In this case at PCC, it was wooded and the ball clanged around like a blind bird. The second thing that happens after hitting a hosel rocket is the shot take root way deep into your brain like a horrible weed. The mental energy it takes to pull the weed gets easier with every shot after the hosel-rocket that isn’t a hosel-rocket. Good shots make you slowly forget, but at some point, when you least expect it, that hosel hits the ball again and that weed pops back up.
You’re probably thinking this is all leading to me hitting a horrible shot at Fall River CC that struck someone in the head, and I’m quitting the game. Thankfully, that’s not the case. However, I did find myself peaking to off the right before some irons shots to mentally prepare for where a hosel-rocket might end up. It’s a horrible thought to have while playing tournament golf.
I’m writing this because I want you to know if you think these things, you’re not alone.
I managed to get my golf ball around safely for 17 holes at Fall River. The night before my qualifier, I counted out my ten golf balls for the round and showed them to my wife and said to her, “If I lose all these and have to walk off the course. I promise you, I’m done with golf” (I could write an entire post about golf ball anxiety, too).
So back to that horn and the lightning. I had played 17 holes in +2, a score that felt like it might have a chance to grant me berth into the MassAm. I had played well and managed my demons. I played 36 holes on Saturday and felt really good following that long walk, but as we walked off the 17th hole at FRCC I was more tired than I was walking off the 36 hole at Captains in Brewster. My body and mind were worn out from thinking through each shot, grinding over putts, pushing the positive and negative thoughts aside, and just focusing on the shot in front of me.
Focusing on my shots instead of qualifying was made tougher by MassGolf’s new scoring system which was on our phone. Instead of the old school paper and pencil, we used an app to keep our partner’s score after each hole. The app also provided a live leaderboard that we could check if we wanted to. I never checked it, but my two playing partners had been looking at the leaders as we played the back nine, as their chances to qualify slipped away. I had a sense that I was close to the cut line and +2 was going to get in but a bogey on the last might cost me a spot at Brae Burn.
“It’s the hardest hole on the course,” one of my partners said. He was right, it was a long par 4 into the wind. Considering how I was hitting the ball on the back nine, I felt good about playing the hole within the flow of the round. However, now I’d have to wait out a thunderstorm.
The wait was a long one, about 90 minutes. As the wait grew longer and longer, many of the players that hadn’t finished and knew they couldn’t qualify decided to pack it in and go home, including my partners Ryan and Jake (who were fantastic to play with.). I stuck my phone in my bag and went in search of water and a place to sit and stretch so I could stay lose.
30 minutes turned into 60. I pulled my phone out because I had dinner plans on the North Shore after the round and suddenly it was 2:45 without any end in sight. When I opened up my text messages, i had a few from the friends I was meeting, but a few other messages popped up, too. The live scoring isn’t just for the players, it’s on the MassGolf website. So friends were following along and texted me wondering why everyone’s scores had been stuck. My wife even texted, “I saw you posted +2!” I answered her explaining the situation, but I avoided answering anyone else, trying not to get caught up in the moment. I couldn’t control the weather, and I wasn’t going to spend energy worrying about it and sitting on my phone. I stuffed it back in my bag, sat quietly listening to some guys in earshot talk through the strategy of their round and how to navigate some of the holes. I knew my hole had no strategy other than hit driver straight, hit it on the green and two putt. I told myself that two good shots would likely leave me with a putt to qualify for the MassAm. At 3:00 they announced we’d be back on the course at 3:15. There was no range, so I just tried to loosen up and get into the headspace I was in during the round. I drove the ball really well all day and needed one more ball in the fairway.
The ninth green, sitting right next to the clubhouse, had been staring me in the face the entire weather delay. It sloped back to front with a massive, steep hill behind it covered in fescue waving in the wind. When it was time to head back out to the ninth tee, I hitched a ride out with Kevin, who I’d be finishing the hole with. He had hit his tee shot as the horn sounded, “I smothered the fucking thing,” he lamented. The timing sucked. The lefty was +3 and his ball was in the trees on the right side of the hole. The tee box was a lonely affair. After a day with two partners who I could feel were cheering me on as I collected pars on the back nine, it felt odd to be standing my myself. But I was excited to be out here with this chance. It’s all anyone can ask for when they tee it up in a qualifier. The goal is to just extend your chance to qualify for as long as you can. in 2019 at Putterham, I had extended my chances to about the 14th hole. At Fall River I’d done four holes better, I had made it to 18.
My final was a 410 yard par 4 into the wind. It was straight away, with a road down the left side and trees lining the right side.
My tee shot felt good, but stayed up in the wind a little too long and drifted slowly toward the road. I hadn’t missed left all day, My heart wedged itself in my throat as the ball hung in the air and got lost in the clouds; I and never saw it bounce and began assuming the worst. The best thing I had done all day was breath and slow down. I really tried to channel Phil Mickelson at Kiawah: Slow breathing, slow walking (I tend to walk quickly to my ball). It was tough to walk slowly when the fate of your golf ball is in doubt. A tee shot on the road would have shot my chances of qualifying clean out of the sky. Thankfully, I avoided the road by about 20 feet, but my ball sat in a bad patch of grass with a big old tree between me and the green. The wind shifted three times as I tried to figure out what club to hit. It was into me, then behind me, then into me again. The pin was tucked way back in the right corner, and the wispy grass on the back of the green swayed back and forth as I tried to pick my club. Long of the green would have been completely dead. A bunker short right was also not ideal. I had to find a way to keep my ball below the tree limbs and scoot my ball up the opening in the front of the green. I pulled six iron and it came out a little too far left and the rough swallow up its momentum about 30 yards short of the green, leaving me with a pitch shot for my third shot.
A pitch and a putt to qualify.
You know how at the end of a baseball game, the ball always seems to find its way to the least confident fielder. Well, this felt the same. The weakest part of my game is my pitching and chipping. I laughed to myself as I walked to my ball. It wasn’t a hard shot by any means. Nothing but grass stood between me and the pin. I tried to channel the short-game lesson I had last month, but sadly my ball came off the face like a marshmallow and sauntered it’s way onto the front of the green. I had a putt to qualify for the MassAm, but it was a little longer than I imaged while sitting in the clubhouse an hour earlier.
I slapped my 50 foot putt up the hill and it came to rest about 4 feet short. A pretty good effort because I had no idea where I officially stood. For all I knew, +3 could get in. But my gut said the chance was gone. However, this four footer was still important to me. First, it would mean I didn’t make a score higher than a 5 all day. That was a mini goal I had set before the round. The putt also meant I shot a 73. And if 73 didn’t get in, it would most likely mean I’d be an alternate.
I nailed the putt.
It wasn’t enough.
72 qualified. 73 did not. So I’ll sit on the alternate list with a slim chance to play Brae Burn next month.
(Note: I’m number 22 on the alternate list, but can be on the grounds as a stand-by the morning the MassAm starts if someone suddenly drops out.)
During the lightning delay I thought about guys that live a life of qualifiers and try to make a living playing this silly game. There are many things in our control when we’re out there playing, but there endless others that aren’t. We can’t control the weather or our tee time or how the ball bounces once it’s left the club face. Pros can’t control their travel and airplanes and traffic and what the rest of the players shoot. All they can do is hope things work out and they take care of what they can control. That sometimes isn’t even enough.
I knew it was an exhausting life, but I always leave my high intensity rounds with more respect for guys grinding to make a living playing golf. Or even for a Louis Oosthuizen who never seems rattled (externally) after so many close calls in major tournaments. The ability to put things aside and move on is a skill. I thought about a guy like Matthew Wolff who has openly talked about not wanting to get out of bed and head to the golf course because the pressure he feels to perform and the anxiety it creates for him.
On the golf course, the lack of control we have intensifies our feelings about the things we can control. If we try too hard and worry too much about those things, they slip through our hands like that greased up watermelon, yet we continue to grasp at it, hoping for that rare moment when we have a firm hold of it for a little bit longer than usual before it pops out of the water and we start again.