"Don't embarrass yourself."
That's the thought I had, standing on the first tee at Southern Dunes Golf Club on a windy Arizona Thursday for the U.S. Open qualifier. It's the thought I always have. I'm sure mental gurus like Dr. Bob Rotella would have a field day with that being my only thought, but it's true. It's the same thought I had when I was 16, teeing it up in my first AJGA tournament, and the same thought I had at Talking Stick, when I went after my first professional event. It isn’t exactly Padraig-like focus, but it’s what my mind says to me.
"Don't screw this up."
And I didn't. Paired with two guys I'd never seen and probably never will again, my tee ball launched off my shiny white driver and into a wind blowing in my face straight off of Dorothy's doorstep. I didn't want to hit driver there, and have never done so at the desert-lined golf course, but off I went, chasing my ball and my dream of being a U.S. Open participant.
Someone once said that playing golf and playing tournament golf are as similar as tennis and figure skating, and I agree. There is no way to prepare for tournament golf except for playing in tournaments. It's a skill one must attain to be competitive in these events. You go out and your mind takes over and quickly, instead of thinking about sticking this 8-iron to five feet like you would when you were out with your buddies, you're looking at bunkers you never noticed and ponds you didn't even know existed. Your mind turns on you more quickly than a bandwagon fan, and unless you can control that, you're hopeless.
After a good drive and a poor second shot, I was faced with a difficult pitch shot. I got it to about 12 feet, rolled in a slippery right-to-left par putt, and gently smiled at my competitors.
"Nice par," one of them said.
"No, that was an incredible par, given the Indy 500 my mind is running right now," I wanted to reply, but I simply smiled and opened my yardage book to the second hole.
"This won’t be that bad," I thought. And it wasn't, despite playing in a wind never intended for Arizona's famous desert golf. See, if you’ve never teed it up in a course outlined by rock and cactus, you need to understand one thing; wind and desert don’t mix. I’ve played golf in the midwest and I’ve played golf on the coast, and some golf courses are wind-friendly. No, it’s never easy, but at some golf courses, you can play around the wind. The best example of this is the famed Old Course at St. Andrews, which gives you multiple options for shots when the wind is howling in your face like a F-4.
On desert courses, that’s not the case. It's target golf, and every shot has to fly in the air to a certain point before hopefully dropping near the pin. There’s nothing quite like being 100 yards out on a par-5 and thinking to yourself, “How in the world am I going to get this on the green?” But that’s what the wind was doing to us on Wednesday.
But I held on. We all tried to hold on.
A day away from the computer and on the links, with men the same age as my father, professionals trying to make May's rent, and college kids that don't know the first thing about real life -- it's always an experience I enjoy, even if it always ends cruelly.
Eighteen holes later and I was one of the 75 golfers out of 83 that wouldn't make it to the next round of qualifying. I didn't embarrass myself, and I held it together after a bad hole. I had survived, and shook hands with one kid that beat me and one that didn't.
Shooting 78 in 30 mile per hour winds probably doesn't sound like something you'd brag about, but one must understand exactly what qualifying is like.
When you're not battling that inner beast, you're battling the toughest conditions, with the toughest pins, out there. The USGA doesn’t want some inadequate player getting through their rigorous test, and they make it so that doesn’t happen. One bad swing or one bad putt and you’re facing a big number. In my group on Wednesday we had a triple-bogey and a quintuple-bogey, and it wasn’t like this was the first time any one of had touched a club.
It’s just ... different.
But I feel like every time I’m out there I learn something about myself. After a stupid bogey on my 10th hole, I had a sneaky 18-footer for par on the 11th, and I felt this was it for me. If I could get this in, I’d still have a chance. If I couldn’t, I might as well write this off as a loss. But I hit it where I wanted, the ball did a little dance on the way to the hole, and kindly dropped in the center.
"Nice par," the other player said. Yep, it was. A very nice par.
I’m sure years to come I’ll keep sending in my money and trying my hand at making the U.S. Open. If it never happens, that’s fine. If it does, all the better. But that one day each summer, when everyone else is slaving away at their job, I get to go out and play the game I’ve always loved. And on Wednesday, I played it just fine. Was it good enough? Nope, it wasn’t. But it was good enough for me.