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The Purest Examination

I don’t mind in the least admitting that it’s pretty cool to see your name on a scorecard and a scoreboard with the USGA logo printed on it. That is, until they write your score beside your name, and that’s what the rest of this story is all about.

I entered qualifying for the U.S. Senior Amateur at Old Tabby Links on Spring Island near Hilton Head Island, S.C. We’ll jump to the end and tell you that I didn’t make it and now we’ll fill in the blanks without taking you hole-by-hole, for which you’d need a cart or caddie fees.

I walked into my friend and club repair guru John Gamble’s shop one afternoon and said, “You might think I’m crazy, but I’ve entered U.S. Senior Am qualifying.”

“Not crazy at all,” he replied, even though he’s seen me play. “It’s the purest examination of you as a player and as a person.”

And I knew that he was absolutely right. I didn’t enter because I thought I could get in the tournament. I did it because I wanted to stretch and test myself. My USGA Handicap Index is 1.5 and, believe it or not, that’s not good enough to compete at a national level. I’ve determined that you need to be a plus-handicap to qualify for national events.

Here’s why: A career day for me is something in the 60s, which I’ve only done a handful of times. A good day is a score from 70-73. An ordinary day is 74-77 and a lousy day is 78 and higher. Competition adds about four shots to your normal score, so you can do the math and it would take a career day to get me into a national championship or even into Carolinas Golf Association events, but more about that later. It’s no secret that in golf, we’re selling hope as much as anything else.

We had 60 players for four spots at Old Tabby Links and a score of 74 played off for the final spot. I threw a smooth 80 at them and they didn’t even flinch. In other words, I had an ordinary day when you add the extra shots for competition.

The course was set up at just over 6,700 yards (we’re seniors, for goodness’ sake) and the fairways were soft, so it was playing about 7,000 yards. The par-5s weren’t reachable and there was only one driver-and-wedge hole. I don’t make many birdies with 6- or 7-irons and I didn’t make any that day. Two double-bogeys and no birdies and sooner or later it adds up to 80.

Even at that, I finished in about the middle third of the pack so I didn’t completely embarrass myself. But I did find out some of what I needed to know about me. I don’t mind saying that I had difficulty controlling my 56-year-old nerves.

Even though I was in a twosome with my new friend Al and no one else was watching, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been. That cost me a stretch of four holes late in the front nine with two doubles and two bogeys, which took me right out of the running.

I also discovered why they’re referred to as elite amateurs. It’s because of their ability but, in addition, it’s because they can afford it. Playing in this qualifier was not cheap. Entry fee is $125 and I stayed in a Bluffton hotel the night before because Hilton Head is not in driving distance to make a 9:30 a.m. starting time. That cost another $100. Mandatory cart fees for the practice round and the competition round was $25 per day. And the 500-mile round trip cost me a little more than a tank of gas, which runs about $65.

So, all told my qualifying experience totaled just under $350. That’s some expensive golf and I can’t afford to do that very often. I did get two rounds at a really good golf course and an experience that I can’t duplicate anywhere else.

Three days later, I was playing in the qualifier for the Carolinas Senior Amateur. It was dramatically cheaper. The entry fee was $80 and the cart fee was $25 for the practice round, which I didn’t play, and for the qualifying round.

I didn’t make that one, either, shooting 77 to miss by three. I hit 11 of 13 fairways and hit 15 greens but took 38 putts, which left me looking for a pistol. But given my accuracy at short range, I would have missed me and hit someone else.

If I am going to keep trying this, I am going to have to find a way to feel comfortable in competition. Bobby Jones once said, “There’s golf and then there’s competitive golf, and the two have nothing to do with one another.” Most golfers have trouble taking their driving range game to the course. I have trouble taking my casual golf to competition.

But I did play with my new friends Jimmy and Bill at the Carolinas Senior Am qualifying. And I came to find out later that Bill is actually Father Bill, a Catholic priest. The good news is that I didn’t swear the entire round, at least not where he could hear me.


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