BEALLSVILLE, Md. – All I wanted to do was prove to myself that I could hit blades.
A simple journey that began this past winter with a set of Mizuno MP-69s turned into a quest to qualify for the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco (pictured above). That adventure ended Tuesday when I played in a local qualifying tournament at the Members Club at Four Streams.
Long story short, I didn't make it. I shot 85. It wasn't even close. In another way it was a lot closer than I first thought.
Last fall, my wife and I joined Argyle Country Club in Silver Spring, Md. I had never belonged to a club but joined Argyle so I could get in nine holes here and there. When I played a nine-hole preview round, I loved the course but loved the pace even more. I was done in 1 hour, 10 minutes. Sign me up. A 70-minute, nine-hole round sounded like an amazing lunch break.
I took advantage – and I learned – a lot.
With the blades in hand, I realized what a good shot felt like and how to overcome bad ones. As the repertoire grew, my handicap index shrank from 12 to 6, then from 6 to 3. Then I began to threaten par.
At first, it was breaking par for nine holes. In one round, I was under par for 16 holes until succumbing.
One day, though, it all clicked. I birdied four of the last five holes to break par by a shot. My 1-under 70 was a lifetime best, beating the 71 I carded when I was 16 – and had the summers to play 36 holes per day.
I punched in the number into the handicap computer. Bam! My index was down to 1.4. I could empathize with that scene in 'The Social Network' where the Facebook user counter tops a million. Who knew it would happen, or so quickly.
I signed up to qualify for the U.S. Open. They ask you to plunk down $150 and to start dreaming. They also ask you to pick a local qualifying site. I picked May 15 near my Virginia home, because I figured I could return from covering The Players Championship with a day to pretend I was Vijay Singh and practice until my hands bled. Then they ask you to pick a sectional site.
More than 9,000 people sign up to qualify for the Open. Maybe 5 percent get to sectionals. About 1.7 percent make it all the way. The odds are long.
I told people, proudly, I was going to try to qualify. They wished me luck. I even got Sergio Garcia to give me advice from his experience last year. What he said was essentially to not focus on each shot as though your life depended on it – a very Spanish attitude.
As the week progressed at The Players my chances to practice grew less frequent. I had lost my touch with the driver almost immediately after sending in my application. I needed work. Learning by osmosis watching the world's best at TPC Sawgrass was not going to work.
Perhaps the indication of doom came when I arrived home on Monday to pouring rain. A last-minute revelation from the dirt was not in the cards. It had turned to mud.
On Tuesday, I woke up, showered, dressed the part and headed for a course I had never seen.
I walked into a light-filled dining room in the clubhouse, whose windows were blocked with long sheets bearing the names of the 90-plus people in the tournament. I recognized a guy who was a freshman on my high school golf team in my senior year and a guy from my club who plays on the Canadian Tour. Both, I knew for a fact, were better than me.
As I was completing a decent warm-up, I noticed a lot of competitors shaking hands and acknowledging each other. In a sense, this was like a fraternity in futility. They had all chased the same dream so long, it had become like the Breakfast Club.
The on-site U.S. Golf Association official announced that the afternoon tee times were backed up 20 minutes. Lovely. Was it a malfunction with the electric chair or an 11th-hour reprieve from Mike Davis?
I got to the par-3 10th tee, introduced myself to my playing partners and took a look at the yardage book I had bought for $10. The shot was simple – 165 yards to a fairly tucked right pin. With the honor, I pulled 7-iron. As nervous as the day I saw my wife walk down the aisle, I had no problem pulling the trigger. Green in regulation. Easy par.
The real moment of truth came with the fourth shot of the day. It was a blind, downhill tee shot to a 496-yard par 4. I hooked my driver. The ball landed in deep rough, requiring two massive hacks to get out. That was going to be all, and I knew it in six shots.
Sergio, I didn't have to worry anymore.
Perhaps most indicative of my day was my 10th hole, the first on the course. I cracked my best drive of the day about 310 yards down the middle to a 570-yard par 5. With 260 to go, I took out 3-iron. Thinking of a 3, I fanned my shot like Dustin Johnson did at the Open Championship last summer. Since we both are sporting beards these days, we now have two things in common.
For every good shot I hit, I could not piece together more than five in a row. At this level, on a course of that length, there is no faking it. Bad shots can rarely be struck in isolation. They lead to what I'd call 'subsequent strokes' – the ones that happen because of the first error. I tacked on a dozen shots that way.
Even still, that would have left me three shots out of a likely playoff for one of the nine spots allotted to the field. It sounds like a lot to overcome, but it wasn't. A half-dozen mistakes could mostly be attributed to one 460cc problem. Fix that and I still would have been a couple of shots short of qualifying.
One guy in my group had a real chance. Bryan Jackson is a regional rep for Cobra-Puma. He's a PGA member, but rarely practices or plays many tournaments.
With two holes to go he was even. As we walked to our 17th hole, he said he needed one more birdie to make it. Having qualified for sectionals on three other occasions, I believed his Spidey Senses.
He short-sided himself with his approach, 20 yards away and 10 feet below the green. Par would have been an outstanding save. As he chipped, the ball seemed to fly in slow motion. It was a well-executed shot – low and lots of spin to an uphill pin. The ball clipped grass, skipped once and fell into the cup. There was his birdie.
All Bryan needed was a par at the 440-yard finisher. He hit the fairway with his tee shot and the green with his approach. The uphill first putt from 40 feet, however, did not have enough muscle. He needed a 6-footer to shoot what he thought he needed.
He missed. It was good enough for a playoff for one spot, but Jackson would not prevail.
That's the difference at this level. A shot. One putt.
A process like this can either destroy or inspire. In my case, it was the latter.
Next time – and there will be one – I'll have a plan. I'll know how to prepare. I'll know what to expect. It'll seem somewhat familiar. Maybe there's room for one more in the club.