PALM HARBOR, Fla. – My goal this year was simply to quality for the Golf Channel Am Tour Senior Nationals. After playing last week, if I get the opportunity again, my goal will be to have a top 10 finish.
Last week, I received a dose of humility and perhaps reality as I cratered in the middle rounds at Innisbrook Resort. The second round was especially painful as I shot my highest score ever. In all fairness, it came after a short night’s sleep and a radio appearance right before tee time. I never could find a rhythm and certainly didn’t feel centered. And the course I was playing – the Copperhead, home of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship – isn’t exactly forgiving.
Anyway, after opening with what was actually a disappointing 83 on the Fox Hollow Course, Round 2 turned out to be much worse – 20 strokes worse, and I’ll let you do the math. Round 3’s 95 on the Island Course wasn’t much better, but I settled down somewhat to shoot a respectable 85 on the North Course. The bottom line? I was happy to get there, but I didn’t prepare enough to do well.
Lessons learned from the winners
I actually had double duty while I was at nationals last week. Not only did I play, but I also covered the event for GolfChannel.com, which meant I got to interview all the winners. The common theme? At every level – from Championship to Snead flights, the winners prepared beforehand. Some had stringent practice routines, usually focused on the short game. Others prepared themselves physically to deal with the grueling four days. And some even worked on their mental approaches. In other words, the winners went to nationals to win, not just to enjoy the week. I admit, I didn’t work very hard on my game going in.
I also got some feedback from some of my golf pro friends. My good friend Doug Weaver, who is not only the director of instruction at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort on Hilton Head Island, but also played on the PGA Tour, wondered if I thought a little too much about my golf swing out there. He suggested I undergo some training on how to play in tournaments.
Despite the difficult middle rounds, my time at Innisbrook last week was a most memorable experience, from the welcome dinner featuring the Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner, Tim Rosaforte and Martin Hall to Gene Johnson’ birdie in sudden death to win the Hogan Flight. The best part, however, was all the great folks I played with while I was there, from the practice round with my Texas friends to the folks from around the country all week.
New friends on tour
I wound up playing with so many great guys. Vincent DePinto of La Quinta, Calif., with whom I played with in Round 3, had one of the best attitudes ever. A year ago, Dr. Vinny (he’s a retired surgeon) won the Senior Sarazen Flight at nationals. That meant an automatic promotion to the Hogan Flight, then he fired a 74 in his local tour championship and wound up getting promoted to the Palmer Flight right before this year’s nationals. To his credit, DePinto never complained. He merely enjoyed the experience.
During my final round, I played with Richard Stein of Cheektowaga, N.Y., and Peter Kaufman of Bolingbrook, Ill., outside of Chicago on the North Course. I actually played with Kaufman on Day 1, too, so we had 36 holes together. A big Blackhawks fan, Kaufman couldn’t have been nicer. Most importantly, none of us lost our cool after a bad hole. In fact, Kaufman had an 11 on Day 1 and still managed to break 90. Quite an accomplishment.
Stein, whom I was paired with at the Turing Stone major in Vernon, N.Y., in July was a joy to play with, too. He actually won the Senior Hogan Flight national championship in 2013, so he knows what it’s like to have success. But better than that, he was also great company. We all encouraged each other to do our best, and Stein’s wife Debbie was there for every hole, walking ahead of us and helping us find any errant tee shots. Best of all, and Debbie who wasn’t the only spouse out there supporting her player, was our biggest fan. Now, that’s a special feeling.
I probably met more than a dozen guys I can now play golf with during my travels in the coming years. It’s what makes golf great – the camaraderie and new friendships. I intend to look them up. I hope they’ll do the same if they come to Houston.
Of course, it’s also about competition, and next year, if I make, I will be better prepared.
Now that I know what to do.