My golf game is consistently inconsistent.
My swing gets a little armsy at the top, and the two-way miss is not uncommon. I played D1 college golf. However, I didn’t play at a top-tier institution, my team never came close to qualifying for the NCAAs and no one would be intimidated seeing me step to the first tee. Needless to say, I was never going to be in the same zip code of the All-American conversation (at least not the type of All-American that everyone talks about).
My name is Will Knights, and I was a middle of the road college golfer. If I’m being honest, I was probably a bottom-tier D1 golfer. I graduated two years ago, I live in Chicago, I’m allergic to wasps and I hate guacamole. But, I was lucky enough to play all four years at school and see what being a student athlete was like.
College golf remains largely unacknowledged by the golfing community. Those who do follow it usually only know the top-tier talent. Why care about random guys and gals at mid-major schools unless you’re related to them?
Take me for instance. During my four years of college golf, I was never mentioned by national golf media, and I have no idea what it is like to play in any sort of national spotlight.
My best round in college was a bogey-free 67, and my worst was a smooth 90. I wasn’t kidding about the inconsistent part. Anyway, due to these factors, I needed to have different goals than the top-level college golfers. This is where the Cleveland Golf/Srixon All-America Scholar (Academic All-American) comes into play. To qualify for this, you need to be a junior or senior, have a scoring average below 76 and a GPA over 3.2 at a Division I school. This is the story of my battle to achieve just that. (Not the GPA part; I’m a closet nerd.)
Flash back to 2015, my junior year at the University of Evansville, a small school in southern Indiana. With only 2,300 students we were among the smallest D1 schools in the country. My season had consisted of some good, some bad, and left me hovering around a 76 scoring average at the end of the season.
The final event of the year was at The Club at Porto Cima, a Nicklaus design tucked into Lake of the Ozarks (shout-out Marty Byrde). It is April 28th, and I am playing the final round of the Missouri Valley Conference Championship.
The tournament is three rounds over two days; 36 on Monday and 18 on Tuesday. During the 36-hole day, I shot a 79 in the morning and followed it with a 73 in the afternoon. I ended the first day on a birdie and left myself in a great position to get the 76 scoring average I was aiming for. All I needed to do was shoot a pedestrian 78. The funny thing about golf is when you have a number in your head, it becomes remarkably more difficult. It’s why you see thousands of aspiring club professionals fail to pass the PAT year in and out. Sure enough, I looked down the hill from the 10th tee at +6 and saw the dream of becoming an Academic All-American slipping away.
Some more color on my golf game; my short game is the only thing I can consistently rely on. My long game comes and goes, but I can usually scrape it together around the green. This style of play is frustrating to say the least. It made every round interesting, but at the end of the day, I would usually put something together. Not on this day though. I had made 4 bogies on the front nine despite having wedges in my hand. My walk from the 9th green to the 10th tee was full of soul searching.
Tenth tee, six-over, par 72. For those of you keeping score at home, I needed to play the back nine at even par to shoot 78 and earn Academic All-American honors. Let’s cook.
10th Hole: Fairway, missed green, up-and-down for par. Remember two paragraphs ago where I said my short game wasn’t there? Well it came back just in time for this story to begin, how convenient.
11th Hole: Fairway, green, putt, birdie, 7 holes to go.
Isn’t this fun? Unfortunately, it can’t continue. No one likes the guy that staggers on about every shot of their round, but I needed to let you guys know that I made a birdie . Anyway, it was my first birdie of the day, and it gave me a one-shot cushion and breathing room.
Let’s fast forward to the final hole. That’s where the real fun begins anyway.
Standing on the last tee, I can confidently say I had never been more nervous on the golf course. I had made a series of good pars since my birdie on the 11th to maintain my one-shot cushion. The 18th at Porto Cima is classic Nicklaus design. It is a dramatic downhill tee shot with water right, bunkers left and plenty of fairway in between. As you can probably guess, I couldn’t take my eyes off the water. It seemed inevitable that it would end my chances of achieving my goal.
My only swing thought was “don’t make double”. It was an obvious yet ominous thought, and one that I would not recommend to any of you. Thankfully, I was able to stop the jitters just long enough to hit a cut off the bunkers, and my ball stopped on the right side of the fairway. Many would tell you they meant to hit the cut but that is far from the truth. I am a natural drawer of the golf ball, and that cut was just something that happened during my blackout on the tee. The ball wasn’t in the water, and that was all that mattered to me.
Heart pounding, I walked down the hill knowing I had done half of the work. That whole “good walk spoiled” cliche definitely applied. Jack may not design courses that appeal to golf purists, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t appealing to the eye. I tried to find a way to enjoy the beautiful scene, but the stress of the situation and thoughts of making a double bogey were too much.
My drive left 167 yards to a back pin, tucked on a shelf. Not surprisingly, the water came into play to the right of the green, and anything left was a very tough up-and-down. I hit a good one. My ball landed perfectly on top of the shelf and settled pin-high. I will never twirl a 7-iron harder than that one.
I’ll tell you this, knowing you can 3-putt from 10 feet takes the pressure off. The walk to the green was one I could enjoy. I let out a smirk and looked around the green at my dad, coach, teammates and others who were watching. My dad was the only person who knew that I was teetering on the edge of the 76 scoring average.
I know you are all jumping up and down at the moment, and I really appreciate it. Unfortunately, I missed the birdie putt (bad things happen to good people). I bumped in my par, signed for 77 (42-35) and finished the year with a 75.96 scoring average. Given the circumstances, it was the best nine holes I will ever play.
I honestly felt like I had just won the tournament, and that’s what makes golf special. The majority of people would see a kid that shot 77 and finished in an uninspired 22nd place. Honestly, I like it that way. Everyone has their own goals, and I had finally achieved mine.
Over the 26 competitive rounds that season, I hit 1,975 shots. I needed 1,976 or fewer. My 75.96 scoring average was .04 below the 76 criteria, and I earned the Academic All-American honor I had been working towards for three years.
Ironically, I had so much fun being stressed out of my mind that year, I did the exact same thing the next year. I bogied the final hole of the 2016 conference tournament and finished the year with a 75.96 scoring average, 1 shot inside the Academic All-American criteria.