Yes I was there, standing along the 18th hole at Hazeltine National Golf Club during Sunday's final round of the PGA Championship, watching Y.E. Yang hit a miracle hybrid shot up and over a tree into a 3-club wind, to within feet of the hole to seal his historic win against (gulp) Tiger Woods. This was one of the toughest courses and setups the pros had ever seen, playing the longest of any other Tour event at just under 7,700 yards, and fraught with long, sticky rough, dubious topography, silly wind, and insidious pin placements. And I was there, watching Yang finished his historical coup with an admirably played round of 70 to finish the tournament at 8 under par, taking down perhaps the heaviest favorite of all time.
It was at that point of pure shock and sensory overload that I heard a nearby fan utter a statement that would abruptly jar me from my comfortable golf bemusement:
"Man, an 18-handicapper would have shot 140 today."
Say WHAT?! Unbeknownst to him, yours truly, a 16-handicapper, was slated to play that very course the next day. Same conditions as the pros. Same pin placements. And a dramatically different confidence level. Needless to say, I was rattled.
But, with Tiger having lost a 54-hole lead in a major, I figured Hell had officially frozen over and almost anything could happen... including me shooting a half-decent score at a major venue that I had absolutely no business playing. But, like we've seen in the Golf Digest Challenge at the U.S. Open, in which 10-handicappers or lower claw and scratch to break 100, we were looking to achieve the same level of glorious mediocrity on this beast of a layout.
At the start of our Monday round, we took advantage of our photo opp with the venerated Wanamaker Trophy (which was placed next to the forward tees to really make the statement that "you should be playing here"), we hiked back to the tournament tees and stared down the opening 490-yard par 4.
Here's some pressure: I, of course, ended up being the first in our foursome to tee off. At the forward tees, they hid the Wanamaker Trophy behind a podium to make sure those overzealous players on the tournament tee didn't snap-hook their first, nervy tee shot into this priceless relic. I was even announced by the starter as everyone on the practice green looked on. I took a deep breath, calmed my PGA Championship first tee jitters, and mustered up a decent tee shot. Just off the left edge of the fairway, rather than sending a low squirter into the lefthand lake or a slicing airball into the hospitality tents on the right. We were off.
This was the start of an absolutely incredible experience, which I continue to revel in on a daily basis. Based on my round at Hazeltine, here are some guidelines to getting the most out of playing a major venue (or Pro Am):
Slow Down, Take It All In
- Above all, the experience is there for you to enjoy. It's not about being stressed about your round or feeling pressure to perform. That's better left to the pros who make their living on the course. For you and me, it's still recreation, and the more you keep that in perspective, the more enjoyable your round will be.
- Look around and soak up the environment. Most of these courses have an incredibly rich history in golf. Soak it up and feel that you're truly a part of the game. We spent a bunch of time in the clubhouse halls and locker room... old, outdated, musty, and perfect. It actually was meaningful to surround ourselves with ghosts of greatness.
- Appreciate the novelty of walking in the pros' footsteps. You're taking on the same test that's thrown at the best players in the world, and that's just plain cool. It may seem odd, but I really believe that the more you walk the course like them, carry yourself like them (at least feigned confidence), and really treat it as your own major, the more you'll play like them.
- Take it slow. Don't rush through the round. It only lasts so long, and the 18th came all too quick. Along the same lines, don't rush through your shots. Take your time, think through your shots, and go through your normal routine. Keep your tempo relaxed, and don't try to overpower a course that simply won't allow it. You'll enjoy the results much more.
- Despite how penal such a course might be, take my advice and play from the championship tees. In retrospect, we would have really missed something special if we had played anything but the full test the course had offered the pros. At the very least, it's a badge of courage, and it gives you an excuse for why you didn't score well. But the key aspect is that it lets you have some common ground with the pros, if not immense appreciation for just how good they are.
Set Your Expectations Appropriately (Low)
- I went into the event with the full awareness that I'm no Francis Ouimet, nor Carl Spackler's "Cinderella Boy." The fact is that I normally play just a bit better than bogey golf, and I don't have the length to reach most of Hazeltine's greens in regulation from the tournament tees (not even some of the stretched out par 3s). I wasn't going to suddenly light it up and play this course in the 70s (or 80s, for that matter). So I may as well just get out there, play to the best of my ability, and have a good time. If I broke 100, great. If not, still great. Frankly, that took a big burden off of me and helped me settle into a comfortable game.
- Playing a ridiculously long course really puts things in perspective. On most holes, I simply adjusted my par to bogey, knowing I couldn't reach a green in regulation. There was probably no better example than the overbearing12th hole, a 518-yard par 4. Given that I normally play par 5s at this length, I played the hole as such. My tee shot was about as straight as I've ever hit it, and pretty solid as well. Where did my ball end up? On the walking path dead center two yards in front of the fairway. Thanks to a two-club wind, I didn't even REACH the short grass. (Which leads to the next point.) But, that's OK. I got on in three for a bogey, which for me, is a great par on that course.
- Key piece of advice: club up. It's no coincidence that major venues aren't just long with tricky layouts and deep rough. They're also almost always irritatingly windy, adding a level of unpredictability and significantly greater difficulty. We all have distances we believe we hit with our clubs. But it's usually only when we hit them perfectly in relatively normal conditions. Major venues seriously require you to take more club to play it safe, especially with a wind in your face. Most holes we played in the afternoon had a two-club wind, and if we didn't take the club, we didn't clear the hazards. Do yourself a favor, put your ego in check, and take as much club as you'd normally need to hit the back of the green. Maybe, just maybe, you'll get on (and stay on).
- Hazeltine was simply not the place for miracle shots. You really have to play a simple, deliberate game. If you're in the rough, take your medicine and get it back onto the short grass. In a greenside bunker? Just get it on the putting surface. Take the bogey or even the double, but avoid the quad. The guys in our foursome who really "went for it" tended to end up with the short end of the stick.
Have a Knowledgeable Caddie
One of the things that really excited me about the event was that we'd have caddies. Given how tough the course was going to play, and how fast and tricky the greens would be, the prospect of having local knowledge at my fingertips was a welcome feeling. Unfortunately, I was paired with a volunteer caddie who wasn't familiar with the course, so I couldn't take full advantage of this benefit.
This wasn't too much of an issue as I was OK getting around the course without the expertise of a knowledgeable local caddie. Until I got on the greens. Trust me, you want someone helping you read the unique breaks, the major undulations, and mind-bending speed. I can safely say that those 6 strokes I had over 100 could have easily disappeared if I had someone with experience on the bag. By all means, get a good caddie. They're easily worth the tip you'll pay out, based on the strokes you'll save.
Enjoy Small Victories
- In the absence of having your dream round (which the pros rarely have at a major venue), it will help your mindset to have appreciation for the little things you do well around such a challenging course. The center cut drives, the approaches that actually stick, the long lag puts that wind down the green to snuggle up to the hole. Even if the score on a hole isn't great, you can still get a lot of confidence from the things you do well on them.
- If you watched the final round of the PGA Championship, you saw defending champ Padraig Harrington strongly in contention. Right until he got to the par 3 8th hole. While not a long hole at 175 yards, the green is bordered by water in front and to the right , socked in by bunkers on the left, and hampered by heavy, swirling winds. Harrington absolutely melted down. First shot in the water. Third, a drop-zone pull directed at playing partner Henrik Stenson's head. Fourth, a Shankapottamus back into the water. Sixth, a lousy pitch. Harrington shot a quintuple-bogey 8 and rapidly exited from the leaderboard. After I watched each of my playing partners either dunk their tee shots in the water or mis-hit over it to another hole, I was determined not to suffer their fates, or Harrington's. I clubbed up for the wind and to ensure I cleared the water, aimed to the left of the green, and fired away. I actually ended up overclubbing and hit it long-left, but I was dry. Now, getting it from the rough to the green and the green to the hole was another story, but I still beat Harrington by two strokes. I'm going to be giving him lessons starting next week.
- The signature 16th hole at Hazeltine (par 4, 402 yards) has been described by Johnny Miller as "probably the hardest four-par I ever played." He wasn't kidding. With Lake Hazeltine stretching out in front and to the right of the fairway with a forced carry of about 220 yards, as well as a creek to the left, this hole was absolutely daunting from the tee. After one of our playing partners put his first two shots off the tee into the drink (long and right), it became even more of a cause for concern. I got up and hit my driver with an unanticipated fade, and it was questionable whether I made it over the hazard, as the fescue-lined edge obscured our view. I never thought I'd be so thankful to see my ball in the deep rough, just 2 yards from the water. This was a true accomplishment. I was dry. Not all the pros were so lucky. Score one for the rookie.
So, the final score? I didn't break 100. I came close, however, shooting a 106, which was a far cry from the prophesied 140. I came away feeling good about that score, however, considering my handicap and knowing that I simply didn't have the length to reach many of the greens in regulation. I hit a lot of fairways, got out of the rough and sand with relative success, and navigated my way around the course with some signs of ability and intelligence. More importantly, I enjoyed one of the truly amazing experiences I (and likely anyone) could ever have in a golf career. Take the advice above and you'll not only play relatively well, but you'll enjoy your round immensely, regardless of the number you put up.