Sweetwater Country Club in Sugar Land, Texas, was a good choice for what turned out to be my first Golf Channel Am Tour Major. After all, this place used to be the headquarters of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (from 1982-’88 until it moved to Daytona Beach, Fla.) and it was the host site for the LPGA Hall of Fame Classic in 1985 and 1986, won by Nancy Lopez and Amy Alcott respectively, so it has a pedigree of championship golf.
Not that our brand of golf was Hall of Fame worthy, by any stretch, but out of the field of 180 players last weekend, there were some pretty good sticks. Overall winner Scott Waltrip of Montgomery, Texas, for example, was just 4-over-par over his two days of competition. The winner of my flight (Senior Palmer) was Traylor Sells, who lives in nearby Cypress, Texas. He put up a very respectable 75-79-154 to hold off Nick Linde of Keller, Texas, by a single stroke.
That’s good shootin’, fellas, at a tournament that’s twice as important as regular events since point totals are doubled and a top-three finish means you automatically qualify for Nationals, which will be conducted Sept. 13-16 (Regular) and Sept. 19-22 (Seniors) at Innisbrook Golf Resort near Tampa, Fla. The Senior National is still my goal, and I inched a little bit closer to qualifying, though I still have a long way to go.
Starting to feel more comfortable
Although it was my first major, I felt good about my chances, despite my less-than-stellar performances in my first few events. After all, it was still golf, and I didn’t feel like I let the pressure get to me. But looking back on it now, though, I’m not so sure.
The tell-tale sign that I didn’t handle it as well as I could have were my finishes. On the last few holes of both rounds, I spit the bit. Four doubles down the stretch during Round 1 resulted in an 85. Doubles on 16 and 18 in Round 2 turned a promising second round into an 81.
My 166 netted me a ninth-place finish in the Senior Palmer flight (T-48 overall). Still, I rationalized that I caught a bad break when I hit what I thought was a perfect drive through the fairway on my final hole only to find a hazard I didn’t know about. Or that the two tee shots I hit out-of-bounds down the stretch of Round 1 were just an anomaly. But after recalling a conversation I had with my cart partner on Sunday, I know that I’m still very much a work in progress, no matter how good I’m feeling about my game.
“This is different than playing with your buddies,” Tim Kozlowsk told me. “The first couple years I played out here, I was shooting five or six strokes above my handicap every time. There’s just no substitute for tournament experience.”
Kozlowski, who lives in nearby Humble and has the uncanny ability to hit every shot with a premium cigar in his mouth, is a great role model for me. The 52-year-old was turning in scores mostly in the 80s and even a few 90s those first couple of years, then qualified for Nationals last year at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. Three rounds in the 70s helped him win (in a playoff) a national title in the Senior Hogan division. It also earned him an automatic promotion to the Senior Palmer flight for this year and a lifetime exemption to Nationals.
“I feel like I’m in the flight I should be in now,” Kozlowski said. But it took a while to get there.
Hoping for a good second half of the season
I don’t have that much time since my goal is to qualify for Nationals this year, my first year, but I do get where he’s coming from. There is no substitute for tournament golf.
Right now, my tournament handicap is just under 9, which is almost two strokes higher than my GHIN handicap index. But that only takes into account my two lowest scores out of six tournament rounds. Overall, my scoring in tournaments has been more like six shots higher than my overall handicap, and that’s typical.
Did I feel the pressure coming down the stretch of both rounds? Looking back on it, you bet I did. Was I nervous? No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t start playing somewhat tentatively. After all, those double bogeys on 16 and 18 did come after missing very makeable four-footers for bogey, and I was making those putts earlier in the round. And in review, those two OBs in the first round were no doubt a result of trying to steer the ball off the tee (the provisionals were perfect, by the way).
Still, there’s no doubt I’m feeling more and more comfortable playing tournament golf, simply because I’m playing way more tournament golf that ever before. There are no Mulligans, no gimmes, and I understand that at the end, you are what you shoot, and that will be on display for everyone to see.
With each tournament round, I feel like I’m becoming a better player, which might be the most valuable part about playing the Golf Channel Am Tour. It’s about getting comfortable in the situation and staying in the moment.
Sure, you can improve your swing and technique through lessons, but to truly get better at playing the game (i.e., scoring), you have to play golf with something more significant on the line than a $5 Nassau. And while this isn’t the PGA Tour, it is our Tour, and we are measuring ourselves against our peers. I wouldn’t want it any other way.