Last week, I competed in my first USGA event, the U.S. Mid Amateur at Stonewall Links in Elverson, Pennsylvania. After years of heartbreaking misses in qualifying rounds for various USGA events, I was able to breakthrough, shooting a 3-under-par 69 to get out of a Chicago area qualifying site. Stonewall is about an hour outside of Philadelphia and has 36 beautiful holes of championship golf designed by Tom Doak.
For those of you unfamiliar with the U.S. Mid-Amateur, it’s the amateur championship for men over the age of 25. The working man’s championship came about because of the rise of the college golfer, which made the chances of an older amateur winning the U.S. Amateur slim. Besides being crowned the best working golfer in the country, the U.S. Mid Amateur comes with the coveted prize of an invitation to compete in the Masters. Thus, after qualifying for the U.S. Mid Amateur, you are a mere 7 rounds away from playing at Augusta.
The format for the Mid-Am starts with 256 contenders playing 36 holes of stroke play. The top 64 players advance to the match play portion, which mirrors the NCAA Basketball tournament. The championship used both Stonewall courses (the Old Course and the North Course) during qualifying before moving to just the Old Course for the match play portion. The 36-hole final will go back to using both courses.
Earning a trip to a USGA event makes you never want to miss qualifying again as they run a 1st class event. Everything is taken care of to the finest detail from registration to the championship. Each day, players are provided with complimentary breakfast and lunch, player-only sections, brand new Pro-V1 range balls and excellent service all around. The best part about the Mid-Am Championship is the laid-back atmosphere as 95% of the players are regular working guys whose number one priority is to have a good time. The bar is always full, and most are enjoying a couple days away from real life.
After playing practice rounds on Thursday and Friday at each course, one thing was clear, hitting the ball in the correct places on the greens at Stonewall was extremely important. I will be doing a more detailed architectural writeup of each course, but here’s a quick rundown.The Old Course was a more traditional course that was challenging tee-to-green. The thing that stood out to me the most about the Old Course was the premium placed on accuracy both off the tee and to its tiny green complexes, which featured a lot of tilt. The course played very firm and fast, which made hitting the greens from the rough extremely difficult.
The North Course is a less traditional course that has much more of a links feel. The landing areas off the tee are much more generous, but the green complexes are extremely severe and tricky. Doak designed the course to be extremely playable for the average player but still challenging for a great one, and he did this through the greens. In order to score at the North course, precise iron shots are needed to avoid extremely challenging putts. Doak designed it with the intention of rewarding players for great shots while making average ones a challenging two putt.
For the event, I was lucky enough to have my longtime swing coach Kiel Alderink fly out and caddie for me during the event. It was really great having someone that knows your game and tendencies well on the bag in a high-pressure situation. I drew the starting times of Saturday at 2:05pm off of 10 on the Old Course and Sunday at 9:05 off of 1 on the North Course. While I would have preferred not have to sit around all day on Saturday and think about my upcoming first tee shot, I do love to get an afternoon-morning slot because if you play well in the first round, you don’t have to wait long to get back out there.
I managed to overcome some of the worst nerves I have ever had to pipe a tee shot on the first hole of Saturday’s action. After hitting my approach to 20’, I drained the putt for birdie to get off to about as good of a start as you could ask for. It continued as I made my way through 5 holes at even par on the tough Old Course, feeling in complete control of my game.
On the par-3 15th, I hit my approach just short of the green and hit a fantastic chip shot to inside 3’, what seemed to be an easy par save. Unfortunately, I didn’t commit to my line and missed my putt, resulting in a dropped shot heading into the difficult closing stretch of 16-18. Sure enough, a poor drive followed, leading to a double bogey, followed by a missed green at 17 and another bogey. My drive on the 18th caught the fairway bunker and another bogey ensued… things were slipping away quickly. The turn came at just the right time as we headed over to the reachable par-5 1st hole at the Old Course after a disappointing opening 9 of 40 (5-over).
My back 9 didn’t start out so hot. I hit a snap hook off the first tee that went over the roadway that you drive in on. Sure that it was out of bounds, I hit a provisional tee shot. Walking up, I didn’t see any out of bounds signs… hope. I got a great break that the road wasn’t OB. I got ready to play my layup, at this point my mind was going a million miles an hour unsure of how this slide happened so quickly. As I was about to hit my shot, a shuttle bus came barreling down the road. I waved my arms to try and get him to stop so I could hit, but the driver thought I wanted a ride and rolled up ready to open his door. Kiel and I couldn’t help but laugh as the bus pulled away, giving my mind a valuable break from the disaster that was occuring on my scorecard. With a fresh mindset, I hit a good recovery shot and wedged it close, narrowly missing birdie. I got the steadiness back I had earlier in the round and made a few more pars through the next few holes to stem the tide, cruising through the closing stretch. My last hole of the day was the difficult par-3 9th hole, which I was able to birdie to cap off a 1-under-par back-9 34, putting me at 74( +4) for the championship, in a tie for 74th and in great position to make the match play portion of the championship.
After a nice meal with my family at a local bar, I went right to sleep, eager for the next day, feeling like I had escaped a near disaster on day 1 and knowing I belonged at this level.
Day 2 (Sunday) was a much earlier start as Kiel and I decided to get to the course early to do more short game work and eat breakfast at the clubhouse. The scorching hot temperatures had left, and it was a cool and breezy morning. I felt great. I had one of the best range sessions of my life and felt really good heading to the first tee. Unfortunately, the driving range swing didn’t make it to the first tee on time, and I found myself way left after a big hook. In deep rough, I had to hit the ball short of the green, leaving a delicate downhill pitch with a strong wind at my back. I hit a great pitch that settled inside of 3’ on the right side of the hole and felt like I had escaped a disaster. The wind was really blowing and it put doubt in my read. I didn’t factor in the wind enough, and I missed the short par putt. Frustrated, I went to brush in my bogey and missed again, a disastrous double bogey start. Unlike the day before, I was able to right the ship quickly and managed to close out the front 9 only surrendering one more shot. I made the turn at +3 on the day and +7 on the championship, I felt good knowing that the wind was making the golf course extremely tough.
The back 9 started with a bang as I nearly holed my second shot on the short par-4 10th. A tap-in birdie got me a shot back and a much needed jolt of positive energy. At +6 for the championship, I knew I was in a great spot to make the match play portion. I had two birdie opportunities ahead, but I let my mind leave the present for the future, a big no-no. I fanned my next tee shot right into the tall grass, leaving an awkward downwind second to the 11th, which I didn’t hit well. A tough chip that ran over the green followed, and I quickly turned a birdie hole into a double bogey and moved back to +8. I made pars on the next two holes before hitting a good tee shot down the right fairway on the 14th. The problem was it went too far and ran up on the back lip of a bunker. I had a good lie in the rough but a very bad stance, only 80 yards out and one yard off the fairway, I was screwed… championship golf. My wedge shot hit the back of the green, and I hit a really good pitch shot. Unfortunately, the slope didn’t take it the way I thought it would, and... another bogey, +9 for the championship. I headed to the 15th tee knowing I needed to make something happen, and a moderate length uphill par 4 with a huge fairway was a good place to start. The only place that can get you in trouble is a tiny pot bunker in the middle of the giant fairway. I took dead aim at the bunker planning to draw the ball off of it. You guessed it, the ball didn’t draw and I ended up right in it. Another bogey (+10). Some loose swings came after that, and I struggled coming in, making a double on 16, a bogey on 17 and narrowly missing a closing birdie, settling for par on the 18th and finishing up at 79. Just like that, the tournament was done.
It was disappointing. After I qualified for the event, a friend and I talked about how cruel the game of golf can be and how you have to savor the 1% moments it gives you. This weekend, I once again saw the cruel side of the game, feeling like I blew a golden chance to qualify for match play.
After a few cold ones and some reflection, the feeling of disappointment turned bittersweet. I am proud of my first showing at a national level and learned that I belong in the competition. Had a few shots bounced the other way, I could have been moving on to match play and that much closer to the Masters.
So for now, I am thinking about my next USGA qualifier and how I can get better so that next time, things go the right way.