Playing the USGA Mid-Am

Many of us have played in important golf tournaments.  Our club championship, the city or county open, a junior event, a senior event.  Fewer have played in any USGA qualifying, sanctioned events.

And fewer still have actually played in a USGA National Championship.

This story is about the USGA Mid-Am. It is also for the Baby Boomer Golfer, or anyone who may choose to try and qualify for either the men’s or women’s Mid-Am.  We all have anxieties before an important event, and we all get nervous before an important tournament.  Nervousness doesn’t know, or care, how old you are.

The 2017 USGA Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship

In a previous job, I was fortunate to have Erin Back as one of my employees.  Erin works at the Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Kentucky.  Kearney Hill is a Pete and P.B. Dye design which has hosted, among other important events, the 2007 USGA Women’s Public Links Championship.

When I learned that Erin had qualified for this year’s Women’s Mid-Am, I asked her if she would be willing to share some of her thoughts and experiences, and if so, to take some notes.  Not a hole-by-hole description of the shots she played, but the preparation, thoughts, planning, and emotions leading up to, and participating in, a USGA National Tournament.

She was willing.  This is her story.

“I Had Trouble Sleeping…”

I had trouble getting to sleep. Each night I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve.  Excited about the next day to come, trying like heck to get to sleep so morning will arrive sooner, and having great difficulty in finding that “off switch” for my brain.

Each night I was there, I spent a lot of time laying in bed going through the course in my mind, gathering a plan of attack.  And then trying to talk myself into going to sleep….

In the Beginning:  Qualifying

The Women’s Mid-Am holds qualifying events throughout the country.  I elected one in Indianapolis at the Broadmoor Country Club.  For the Women’s Mid-Am,  you need a handicap index of 9.4 or below to get into a qualifier.  USGA announces at each qualifier how many spots are available, based on the number of participants.  We were playing for 3 spots at Broadmoor.  I was in the first group with one other golfer.  I shot 36-42 and definitely thought I had played myself out of it on the back side.  So I went for a drive after I finished; came back, and watched as the scores came in.  Only 2 other 78s came in, so I shared Medalist and all 3 of us qualified.

Arrival

My caddie Mike and I left Lexington on Tuesday, November 7th and drove straight through to Houston.  Registration at The Champions Club was at 1 pm on Wednesday, and we were allowed to walk the course that afternoon.  We also were given the opportunity to play two practice rounds, one on Thursday and one on Friday.

We arrived early at the course, and there was really no one around except course staff and a few USGA representatives. So we did what every golfer does when he or she visits a new golf course- we walked around the pro shop and did some shopping!  Mike purchased a book written by Jackie Burke, Jr. (one of the founders of the Champions Club and the winner of the 1956 Masters and PGA Championships) and the staff offered to have him sign it.  A few moments after returning the book, Mr. Burke himself walked into the shop. We introduced ourselves, thanked him for hosting the event and expressed how impressed we were that they were able to get prepared in such a short time span [Note:  The Women’s Mid-Am was moved from Naples to Houston due to the hurricanes that hit Naples in September].  He replied, “We are always ready here.”

Once registration opened, I entered the Women’s Locker Room and began the process, which included visiting over a half-dozen different tables, starting with getting my official photo taken.  The first volunteers/staff I met asked how many USGA events I had played in.  I felt like I was in over my head when I answered, “This is my first.”  But once they heard that, they took special interest in walking me through the whole process and making me feel welcome.  I walked out of the registration process feeling much better and calmer and with a tremendous respect for the USGA and their commitment to every participant- including a newbie like me.

We visited the practice range after registration- as much to allow me to work off some nervous energy as anything, but instead my nervousness was intensified.  There is no way to hide in a corner and practice.  I gave my name and they brought my practice balls and a placard with my name on it to my station.  I’ve seen that on t.v. a hundred times, but it felt strange and uneasy to have my name on that placard, plus so many watching just when warming up.

Erin on the range

At registration I learned that the practice areas would be open from daylight until dark, with snacks and drinks available for players and caddies at every turn (I could get used to that!).   I had played in a few AJGA national events as a junior golfer with incredible competition – some of whom have since been playing professionally for years.  But the Mid-Am still had a different feel, and that feel was translating to nerves.  I knew I had to settle down and focus.

The Practice Rounds

We were able to book our practice rounds online prior to arriving in  Houston.  That allowed those who knew each other to coordinate times and play together.  I discovered that there were clusters of ladies who have become close friends traveling and playing in USGA events.  It reminded me of my junior golf and college golf days– those of us who played in many of the same events gravitated together back then also.

The practice rounds gave Mike and I a chance to practice what we had earlier discussed:  What were my expectations of him as a caddie?  Did I just want the company of my friend packing the bag or did I want general input or specific detailed thoughts on each stroke?  I told him I wanted steady input.  We have played together enough to know each other’s games well and I trust and value his insight.   Even with two practice rounds before the tournament began, it was very helpful to have an extra set of eyes when it came to strategy for each hole.  I knew what tee shots or approaches made me uncomfortable right off the bat.  But to have someone else there to confirm that I was making smart choices was great.   I also learned that when I have a rough hole or make a poor shot, I tend to rush to the next one.  I think somehow I’m in a hurry to “fix” what I had just messed up.  In doing so I tend to make another poor shot.  Having someone that knows you well enough to call you out on that was quite helpful and we worked on that both Thursday and Friday.

Dancin’, and Singin’, and Movin’ to the Groovin’

Thursday night, after the first practice round, a welcome party was hosted at Champions.  A fellow Lexington golfer who has played in many USGA events highly recommended I attend both this, and the formal dinner scheduled for the following night.

I am glad I did!

The welcome party included an open bar, live music and buffet dinner.  It was a great way to not only meet fellow players and their caddies, but also the USGA/Champions Golf Club staff and volunteers.  The relaxed atmosphere helped calm my nerves (a little).  What struck me most at this event, however was watching course owner Jackie Burke, Jr and wife Robin.  They were both the most gracious and welcoming hosts, eager to meet and converse with all in attendance.  They eventually made their way onto the dance floor.  Everyone was cheering at the sight of such a legend in golf cutting a rug well into his 90’s!  You could actually see and feel the love the Champions Club staff have for this couple.  The formal dinner the following night showed much of the same.  USGA speakers welcomed all, and shared accomplishments of repeat participants and winners of the Women’s Mid-Am.  The 2016 Champion shared advice for fellow players. The evening concluded with Hal Sutton and Jackie Burke sharing stories and taking questions.

Hal Sutton and Jackie Burke at dinner

Speaking of Mr. Burke, he seemed to remember Mike and I from our first encounter with him in the Pro Shop.  During Thursday’s lunch, we had gone through the buffet line and were seated, and here came Mr. Burke and asked if he could sit with us!  That is a memory I will always cherish!

 

It Gets Real

The first round of play re-introduced all those nerves that had settled down a bit.  I had an 8:40 tee time, and being a morning person, that was good for me- it was time to get down to business.  I met my playing partners and their caddies (and of course sized them up a little).  Each group had a marker walking along to post the live scoring online.  Some had family members walking along, and even a few club members followed our group throughout play.

I had assumed that the first tee shot would be the most difficult, but for me that wasn’t the case at all.  Once my name was announced, I stepped up with pure determination to set myself up to score.  This actually stuck with me for the first few holes.  But with each “imperfect” shot I hit,  more doubt crept into my mind.   Every golfer knows that each time you step up to the ball and make a stroke with doubt, you are setting yourself up for disaster.  Both stroke play rounds started out fairly well for me, but as I continued through the round I began playing to “not miss”.  I wasn’t committed to my shots or putts- I tried to guide the ball both off the tee and on the greens.  These are all things that don’t happen when you and I are out playing with friends at home- with familiar players and on courses where you know you can score well.  However, those doubts appear in no time on the national stage- at least they did for me!

Another lesson I learned was how much playing partners can influence your game.  We played in threesomes.  One participant was laid back and rarely bothered by outside factors, as am I (my biggest battles are internally with myself).  The third member was very particular- about where I stood, or even the size of the ball marker I used. She was also preoccupied with the USGA’s strict pace of play policy, even though our group spent time waiting on the group in front of us and was never on the clock.  These factors are not something you or I deal with when it comes to a Saturday morning foursome.  It was, or should have been, minor, but in a high-stress situation like a national championship, every extra thing is a big extra thing.

 

Trunk Slamming and Looking Ahead

I missed the cut, the cut being the low 64 who move on to match play.  I only missed by two shots, and I shot four strokes better on Sunday than I did Saturday, so if I  had just matched my Sunday’s score on Saturday, I would have easily moved on to match play, which was my goal going in.

There were several ladies in their forties and fifties who participated, so I have several more competitive years left.   My plan is to play in the Mid-Am again, and this time make it to match play.  Next year’s Championship will be at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis,  and that’s certainly within driving distance from Lexington!   I am going to start preparing now- to put myself in more of those uncomfortable positions and learn to swing free even when I want it badly.  I’ve already registered for the Harder Hall Women’s Invitational in January.  It’s a women’s Amateur tournament in it’s 62nd year hosted in Sebring FL.

 

Shooting Your Age‘s Takeaways

Erin is too modest to say this, but she is obviously an accomplished golfer.  No one gets to the national championship level without superb talent.  She battled nerves.  She had trouble sleeping at night.  Frankly, it was a little reassuring to me to learn that, regardless of your talent level, you are going to get nervous.

She started steering and guiding the ball.  She started putting tentatively.  Haven’t we all?  She let bad shots affect her next shots.  Haven’t we all?

Golf is golf, regardless of the level.  Good luck next year Erin, I have no doubt you’ll be in St. Louis.  And that you’ll make it to Match Play.  And once that happens, remember this:  John Daly came out of nowhere to win the PGA at Crooked Stick!

 

Thanks for reading, and enjoy Shooting Your Age!

 

 

 

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