PALM HARBOUR, Fla. – The best way to get better at golf is to compete as much as you can, at least that’s what many Golf Channel Am Tour competitors learn each year. In 2016, many of the golfers who competed in the largest amount of events qualified for Nationals with prolific seasons and are in this week's field.
When you buy an annual membership in the Golf Channel Amateur Tour, it gains you access to all of your local events and also a full season of two-day major championships around North America. But you can also compete on any other local tour. It’s a vast network with hundreds of events to compete in all year long.
So it shouldn't be much surprise that golfers who play in a lot of these events – in different regions and on different styles of championship courses – improve their games in a big way.
This year, Jonny Lee, 40 from Los Angeles, made the decision to play as many competitive rounds as he could. He picked up golf just three years ago when he was invited out to round out a foursome of co-workers. But he soon realized that he wasn’t improving at the rate he wanted.
“I didn’t want to be a 20-handicap five years from now,” he said. “A lot of guys I play with, they’re just happy to break 90 or 100.”
So Lee, who played in 16 events on Am Tour in 2015, ramped up his tournament schedule, sometimes playing in two events over a weekend throughout Southern California. His 2016 Am Tour campaign consisted of 36 events, including three majors (two of which he placed int he top three) and the two-day SoCal Tour Championship. But perhaps even greater than his many results was the fact he improved his handicap by about ten shots, from 27 to 17, and jumped from the Snead flight (20-plus handicaps) to the Jones (16.0-19.9)
"Playing in all these events gave me an opportunity to get better," he said. "It’s a tournament. It counts. There’s trophies and points involved. I have incentive to get better."
Lee’s first round 104 has him in 57th place in the Jones flight, but he’s confident he can improve over the course of the national championship, as he’s done before, rallying from poor first rounds in Am Tour's two-day majors. But Lee’s goals are far loftier than competing in the Jones flight. He hopes to compete someday soon as a near-scratch golfer.
"My goal is within a year or two, try out for a U.S. Open," he said. "It’s a lofty goal."
Lee isn't the only golfer at Innisbrook this week who has competed in 30-plus events in 2016. Donald Owens (Championship flight) and Steve Eureste (Jones flight) also played in 30-plus events. And next week, when the Senior Nationals take place, several competitors blessed with the good fortune of retirement, will have competed in over 40 events.
But this week, another player who reaped the benefits of lots of competition was Scott Striegel (pictured), from Southlake, Texas. His 33-event Am Tour season has had plenty of high moments, including his first ever hole-in-one, occurring at Stonebridge Ranch Country Club's 8th hole in March. And when he was moved up a flight to Hogan (8.0-11.9 handicap), he took the challenge against better competition dead-on and won the Kingsmill Classic, a two-day major in April.
Striegel, 49, found that competing on the tour has helped rekindle the competitive spirit he’d been missing since being a three-sport athlete in high school.
"It's addicting," said Striegel. "It makes you want to travel, go to different events and compete. It takes you back to the high school days, that’s what I was missing."
Striegel admits he may have been a little too jacked up for this week's championship, playing four practice rounds in three days, which may have worn on him Tuesday. He finds himself in 143rd place in the Hogan flight after the first round.
"It’s an adrenaline rush like no other to get on a tee box and know that it counts," he said. "Competing against people is what brings me out here."