An effort to qualify for the U.S. Open

By May 17, 2012, 1:54 pm

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.

U.S. Open local qualifying results

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.

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McIlroy pleased with opening 67 at BMW PGA

By Will GrayMay 24, 2018, 4:47 pm

While a short miss on the final green denied him a share of the clubhouse lead, Rory McIlroy had plenty of reason to smile after opening the BMW PGA Championship with a 5-under 67.

McIlroy won the European Tour's flagship event in memorable fashion in 2014, erasing a seven-shot deficit on the final day. But the West Course at Wentworth has otherwise been a house of horrors for the Ulsterman, as he missed the cut in his three other appearances since 2012 and has played the course in a combined 10 over in his eight career appearances.

This marks his first return to the event since 2015, and he's now one shot off the early pace after a round that at times offered glimpses of his commanding form from recent years.

"I think I did everything pretty well," McIlroy said. "I drove the ball much better, put the ball in play off the tee a lot more than I've done the last couple weeks, so that's been really good. I thought I gave myself a lot of chances, and I took most of them."

McIlroy started slowly, and a bogey on No. 9 after a poor approach from the middle of the fairway meant he made the turn in just 1 under. But he got that dropped shot back on the next hole, then added birdies on Nos. 14 and 16 to climb up the leaderboard. He appeared poised to add at least one more tally, but was unable to birdie either of the two closing par-5s at Wentworth including a miss from inside 4 feet on No. 18.

"A little frustrated that I couldn't get a birdie or two out of the last couple holes, but overall a really good start," he said.

Making his first start since a missed cut at The Players Championship, McIlroy sits one shot behind Darren Fichardt, Dean Burmester and Lucas Bjerregaard with hopes for "more of the same" from his game over the weekend on a course that has often had his number.

"If I can hit the ball like I did today over the next three days, I think I'll be right there," McIlroy said.

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NCAA Women's takeaways: Heartwarming for Haley

By Ryan LavnerMay 24, 2018, 4:33 pm

STILLWATER, Okla. – Before Karsten Creek is officially handed over to the men, here are some parting thoughts from the NCAA Women’s Championship, which saw Arizona defeat Alabama in an extra-holes thriller:

• A team of destiny, maybe not, but there was an unmistakable sense from speaking to other coaches that they wanted no part of Arizona after Bianca Pagdanganan buried that 30-footer for eagle on the final hole of stroke play. The Wildcats played with an edge, and without fear, after barely sneaking into the match-play field – and that’s a dangerous combination for opposing teams.

• It was heartwarming to watch Arizona’s Haley Moore sink the clinching putt, a 4-footer for birdie that gave the Wildcats their third NCAA title (and first since 2000). She’s had an interesting career, from making the cut at the ANA Inspiration at 16 years old to dealing with some less-than-welcoming teammates in Tucson. Her coaches refer to her as a “gentle giant,” but her wild swings in emotion on the course are difficult to manage; she so desperately wants to play well for her team that she puts undue pressure on herself to perform. That’s why Wednesday’s result was so important. “It gives them a little extra belief in themselves that they didn’t have before,” Arizona coach Laura Ianello said.

• That Alabama’s Lakareber Abe even pushed the anchor match into extras was somewhat of a surprise. She missed a 5-footer on 16 that would have given her a 1-up lead with two holes to play, and she also hit a pair of shanks (or semi-shanks) on both Nos. 13 and 17 that would have destroyed most players’ confidence. Instead, she stepped up on the par-5 18th and hit the second-most impressive shot of the championship, a roasted 3-wood to 12 feet to set up a two-putt birdie and sudden-death playoff.

• The pace of play at the NCAA Championship was, in a word, dreadful. Yes, the final day of stroke-play qualifying is the most intense day of the season, and it’s staged on the most difficult course they’ll play all year. But rounds can’t take six hours to complete, nor should the championship match go for 4 hours and 45 minutes in regulation. (They had time for maybe two more playoff holes before sunset.) In most cases, there was way too much over-coaching, and it’s something that needs to be addressed by the NCAA.

• The curse of the medalist continues. UCLA extended a run of misery for the top seeds after stroke play, as the Bruins made it 0-for-13 for both the men and women. If there’s any team that can snap the streak, winning both the stroke- and match-play portions, it’s Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are the prohibitive favorites at nationals this week, and not just because they’re playing on their home turf. Don’t be surprised if they take the stroke-play portion by as many as 20 strokes, which will only ratchet up the pressure in match play.

• In one of the tightest races in recent memory, your trusty correspondent voted for Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho for the Annika Award, given to the top player in the country. Kupcho didn’t have the most wins – that was Arkansas’ Maria Fassi, with six. She didn’t have the most consistency, either – that was UCLA’s Lilia Vu, who didn’t finish outside the top 6 in the regular season. But Kupcho earned my vote for one simple reason: No player went into this season with the specter of having blown an NCAA title a year ago. In 2017, Kupcho had a two-shot lead heading into the 71st hole and made triple bogey to lose by one. All she did this year was rip off three wins in her last four starts – including regionals, where she set a school scoring record and sank the clinching birdie to push Wake into nationals, and then went wire-to-wire at Karsten Creek.

• Depending on your rooting interests, Arizona either won a thriller … or top-ranked ’Bama lost it in gut-wrenching fashion. The 18th green afterward is always a surreal scene: One team chanting and dancing and crying, while a few feet away the other five players are absolutely devastated. The trophy presentations are difficult to watch, with the five losing players and two coaches enduring a 20-minute ceremony. While Arizona whooped it up beside them, the Tide stood silently, holding their NCAA runner-up trophies, politely clapping and generally looking as though they’d rather be anywhere in the world but there.

• UCLA’s Patty Tavatanakit and Arizona’s Pagnanganan were the two most impressive players this observer watched last week in Oklahoma. The sound coming off their clubfaces was just different. They look like not just future LPGA winners, but possibly major champions.

• Alabama junior Cheyenne Knight is turning pro, and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Sure, she was a first-team All-American once again, but she also was the third-best player on her squad this season (and it wasn’t particularly close). It leaves a hole in the middle of coach Mic Potter’s lineup, and the void could grow even wider with standout Lauren Stephenson (fresh off recording the lowest single-season scoring average in NCAA Division I history, 69.5) expected to enter the LPGA’s new qualifying series in the fall. It could be the Kristen Gillman Show in 2018-19, and she’s ready.

• Duke senior Leona Maguire capped her remarkable college career with a quarterfinal exit in match play. She leaves as one of the best players not just in Duke history but in all of college golf, a two-time Player of the Year and the owner (at least for now) of the lowest scoring average in NCAA history. The only thing she didn’t do? Win a NCAA title, either with her team or as an individual, despite staying in school all four years. She’ll be an intriguing player to watch at the pro level, because Duke coach Dan Brooks believes she can be a future Hall of Famer.

• If you’re still griping that match play doesn’t crown the best team all season … well … just stop. The nonstop drama of Arizona-Alabama is exactly why the NCAA switched to head-to-head match play. It’s not going anywhere.

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Bifurcate to make game easier for amateurs

By Phil BlackmarMay 24, 2018, 1:01 pm

In January of 2017, Golf Digest ran a story about the average driving distance of amateurs. If you missed the article (click here to read it), the numbers may surprise you. It conveniently breaks down the results, both by handicap and by age, to provide a more detailed view of what golf is really like for the majority of players.

I recently ran across the post again and couldn’t help myself; hence this article. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour is around 295 yards, with the leader in the 320-plus range. Per the article, low handicap players top the list at 250 yards, while the 10-19 handicapper – average player – drives it around 215. That’s a big difference.

Bifurcation, the hotbed topic which ignites division among golfers at a level nearly on par with our nation’s current political weather, keeps banging at my door. Frank Nobilo recently said something to the effect that “the average player has never been further removed from the professional game.” I agree.

The most common argument against splitting the rules is that golf is one game – where amateurs and professionals, alike, play the same game. But, do they really?

The “regular” tees on many courses today have been stretched to around 6,500 yards, while the PGA Tour average is over 7,400. Most courses keep greens soft and running around 10 on a stimpmeter (I know, you’re course prides itself on 14’s) while the average on Tour is 12 1/2. Even with the Tour’s comparative lack of rough, it’s still deeper and more penal than most courses opt for, day in and day out.

Tour players also compete under the watchful eye of a staff keen on strict adherence to the rules, while a large percentage of average players are unfamiliar with many of the rules (Me, too; they keep changing). One other thing: Tour players have to count every shot they hit, finish every hole and there are no gimmes nor mulligans.

Add the distance pros hit the ball and it’s easy to see they play a different game. If you disagree, take the time to play a “Tour” course from the tournament tees right after a competition and see what you can shoot.

Putting that argument aside, it occurred to me that I’ve been looking at this from the wrong angle. My reasons for bifurcation have had more to do with protecting my view of the integrity of the game rather than what would be best for the average player.

The guys on the PGA Tour and Tour (LPGA and PGA Tour Champions, too) can really, really play. Last week, I watched a 36-year-old unknown player who had never won on either tour shoot 27 (with a bogey on the front-nine, par 35) in route to a 60. Then he came back two days later with a 28 on the same nine. He won on the Tour.

Science has unlocked many of the mysteries of the game. Club and ball technology have prompted a benefit for athleticism like never before. Biomechanics, video, launch monitors and force plates have combined to create a huge pool of players with very good swings. Did I mention that they can really play?

However, taking advantage of all this technology requires hours in the gym every day, hours on the range every day, hours on the course every day, and hours in the laboratory on a consistent basis. How many amateur players have the time and money to do all this? That’s right, not most. That’s why the median 10-19 handicap player averages 215 off the tee. They just don’t receive nearly as much benefit from today’s technological advancements as does the touring pro.

So, instead of penalizing the professional player for working hard and taking advantage of all that is available today, my argument has shifted to wanting bifurcation in order to make the game easier, less costly and quicker for the average player.

My idea for the average player begins with distance; the game is too darn long. Think about it: If a player gives up 80 yards off the tee and 45 yards on a 7-iron (180-135), it makes sense that this player should play from 7,400 – ((80 X 14) + (45 X 14) + (4 X 50)) = 5,450 yards to relate to the tour game. Even for the player who averages 250 off the tee and 160 with a 7-iron, the same reasoning yields a 6,400-yard course, give or take a little. But I’m not stopping there, equipment rules need to be relaxed as well.

For instance, the allowable trampoline effect for amateurs should be increased with a focus to fit slower club-head speeds. The limit on the size of the club head needs to be removed and larger grooves for more control and spin should be allowed. Ball limits should be relaxed so the player with lower club-head speed gets more benefit from new ball technologies.

Courses also need to quit watering so much, which would yield a more natural look as opposed to playing in the botanical gardens. This will allow the ball to run out more, effectively shorten the course and open up more options for how to play a shot or hole. Running the ball up on a green or down a fairway needs to return to the game. Rough needs to be eliminated; it’s supposed to be a game rewarding angles not just penalizing off the mark shots. It would also be great to see tree branches trimmed up, when possible, to allow for windows of opportunity and artistry instead of simply creating pitch-out masters.

There will always be the faction that consider themselves purists, which is great. Let major amateur championships stick to the stricter set of rules.

Wait, you could even go as far as to make it a different game altogether and give it a different name, flog for example. That way you don’t need different sets of rules for the same game; each game can have its own set of rules. Tennis is seeing a shift to include pickle ball, maybe golf embraces flog. You could go to the flog course instead of the golf course.

You could even have the USFA, United States Flogging Association, established for the advancement and preservation of flogging, tasked with protecting the game’s original vision of a fun, cheap game which plays quick and embraces imagination and artistry. I think you would be surprised how much you would like flog.

Anyone care to go flogging Saturday?

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LPGA Korean event gets sponsor, new venue

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 24, 2018, 12:21 pm

BMW Group Korea will be the title sponsor of the LPGA’s new South Korean event scheduled for next year. 

The event will be played at LPGA International Busan in the port city of Busan in October of 2019. It’s the first LPGA golf facility to be opened outside the United States, with the golf course scheduled to be ready for play in the summer of next year. The LPGA announced in a news conference in Busan in March that the course would host a new event with the title sponsor to be named at a later date.

BMW Group Korea will give South Korea two LPGA events in the fall Asian swing. The KEB Hana Bank Championship is played in Incheon in October.

The Busan event will feature a $2 million purse with a first-place check of $300,000.

Formerly Asiad Country Club, LPGA International Busan is a renovation being managed by Rees Jones. The golf facility’s opening will mark the first of several projects the LPGA plans in the region, including the opening of an LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Center and the establishment of an LPGA regional qualifying school.