Another US Am, another missed match play cut. Compared to previous Ams however, this time I was closer and definitely felt like I had the game to compete — as long as I was near or at the top mentally and physically of course. The first round I had both, shot one under 69, and was only beat by one other player that day. The second round I was slightly off on both and the course beat me, ending with +9 80, and ending up missing the match play cut by 3. That number may sound like a lot, but after getting through 17 holes, I had a pitching wedge into the 18th, pictured below, where up and down would get me in.
In the following, I’ll go through all different aspects of my game and what I did to get ready in order to give myself the best chance of playing well. In past writeups (links below), I went more of a fun writing-route, considering my game wasn’t good enough to even be talked about. After 2022, I want to get better.
You’ll see frequently me talk about the differences between the two courses, Ridgewood and Arcola. Having two courses for the practice and tournament rounds was a really great learning experience overall for trying to find differences between them, which would allow me to come up with smarter plays. Examples of differences that I’ll talk about further below are things like grass types on the greens and the differences in speed, bunker firmness, and fairway lies. Knowing that these are different for each course can teach someone which questions to ask and get answers to at any course they play.
Past USGA Writeups:
- 2017 US Four Ball — Pinehurst #2 and #8
- 2017 US Am — Riviera and Bel Air
- 2018 US Am — Pebble Beach and Spyglass
Ball striking is King
Though it rhymes, I’m pretty much against the phrase “drive for show, putt for dough”. Look at the PGA Tour Strokes Gains lists for Approach vs Putting and tell me which list you consider better players at the top. The phrase might be reasonable to say at courses we play in the state with easy rough and without super tucked pins. But at championship level courses, if you want to legitimately compete, ball striking is king.
Let’s start with talking about off the tee. For both courses, the difference between rough and fairway was absurd. At some of the US Ams I’ve played in, recently at Riv and Pebble, the rough wasn’t particularly long there either. At Ridgewood and Arcola, the length of rough and sit-down lies where a huge part of the defense of the course. Miss the fairway, and your mind shifts to trying to see how far up you can advance towards the green, or even just chopping out to the fairway to the side. The first day at Arcola, I was hitting it great off the tee, missing only two fairways. One of those misses was a miss on a short hole with my 5 wood where I got lucky and caught a down grain lie and with a pin on the back portion of the green, hit a 60 degree to a foot and a half. Second day at Ridgewood I was slightly off where I missed 5 of the first 6 fairways, including a shot two steps out of bounds where those OB stakes were a mere ten steps left of the fairway edge. That was a small difference that made a huge impact.
A second point off the tee is that on the holes that had fairway bunkers, they were mostly in the landing area of my drives. Due to my distance and the age of courses in Wisconsin, many times I don’t have to bother thinking about fairway bunkers. Only a couple times in New Jersey did the fairway bunkers cause me to not hit driver. It was a case of rather being further up in a bunker (see the bunker section about the firmness) than having a longer approach in the fairway, let alone a longer rough approach. Holes #3 and #10 at Arcola, were short enough and had bunkers far enough out that I hit my 5 wood off the tee. Hole #4 made me hit a bunt driver to keep it short of the one there. Ridgewood was long enough that all par 4s and 5s were driver holes.Read more: 2022 US Am — Some good, some bad, can always get better
Now to approach shots, where the main theme was longer holes meaning longer irons into the greens. The courses played at pars of 71 and 70 for Ridgewood and Arcola respectively, where for normal play they’re both 72s. This meant three converted par 5s where we either played up a tee box, or they said screw it, tee off from the back boxes anyway. Besides those holes, Ridgewood had multiple par 4s in the 470 – 500+ range by themselves. What this meant for me is that I can’t remember having as many irons as approaches as I did in those two rounds.
At Arcola and their two converted par 5s, I hit 4 iron and 6 irons for approaches from over 200 yards away. On their normal par 4s, I had so many 9s, 8s, and 7s into the greens, compared to consistent wedges at home courses.
To have a chance to finish high on the scoreboard, you had to be right on with ball striking. Slightly off means bogeys regardless of how good your short game is. Is the importance of ball striking considered good for tournament golf? I’d say so.
The importance of ball striking was clear, but Ridgewood and Arcola had different kind of fairways than I’m used to, which lead to a couple more changes I needed in my swing.
Tightly mowed fairways means hit it thin
Every once in a while you play a course that thinks it’s fancy if they cut one half of the fairway bright and shiny and down grain from tee to green, and the other half dull, dark, and into the grain. I’m hoping there’s a reason for doing that other than optics, because if you’re on the dull and dark side, you’re going to have a legitimate much tougher time making good contact. At Arcola, the left side was the dull and dark side of the fairway, and hitting it there meant having to focus on perfect contact.
A great example of this issue was on the 3rd hole, my 12th of the day, a short, uphill par 4. I hit a good 5 wood directly down the middle to the point where my walk was spent hoping I had the down grain right side. That’s how big of an issue the fairway grain was. Unfortunately, that ball sat into the grain. I was left with 112 yards, ~5 yards uphill.
My first mistake was hitting a 54 wedge rather than a slightly shorter swing with a 50. Something deep in my head might have been trying to tell me I was standing over the ball with the wrong club, because stand over it I did for a good 10 seconds not pulling the backswing trigger. This lead to me forgetting about the grain and how I needed to slightly blade it to ensure nothing short and heavy. The green has a big rolloff the front, and the grain affected the contact and the ball rolled down and away. Right after the heavy contact I knew that me forgetting about the grain was going to cost me. I ended up with a bogey on the hole from middle of the fairway, just over 100 yards.
Ridgewood didn’t have the grain issue. Instead, it felt like the entire fairway played into the grain considering how tight the grass was mowed. To hit good shots, I’d needed to hit them a groove low wherever in the fairway I was.
The biggest pain for this was on hole #18. I had gotten to +6 overall since the 10th hole, and knew I needed to get to +5 for what would have been a larger playoff for match play. After missing a 10 footer for birdie on the par 5 17th where I was in a greenside bunker in two, I hit a perfect cut drive on 18 leaving ~145 yards to the pin. With the greens firming up, I felt that landing the ball about 140 would be perfect. Dumb me was too focused on starting the ball out on the correct line and I forgot about needing to be that groove low. I caught too much dirt, and the ball came up a few steps short of the green. That led to a missed chip that I made sure not to leave short, and the end of the tournament.
Even though the reason for needing to make thin contact with a ball in the fairway was different at Ridgewood compared to Arcola, the technique to do so was similar. And luckily, Ridgewood’s range had the same type of short grass with lots of dirt where so I could practice good ways to avoid heavy contact. The main technique I ended up using to avoid the slight heaviness that would cost 5-15 yards was choking up and having a feeling of my elbows staying bent through impact. It was fairly similar to how you hit a fairway bunker shot.
On par 3s I tended to tee the ball up much more than I do at local courses, to completely avoid the possibility of heaviness. For normal play, many times the grass is so long I don’t even bother using a tee; I can pick a lie that makes it seem teed up enough. But from picking lies on the range, it was clear that I needed to do whatever I could avoid slightly heavy mishits, and that meant using a tee.
It’s been interesting to come back to the longer grass where I don’t have this need to blade experience. Overall, I learned that slight thin contact is better than slight heavy contact in most all cases, and I think I’ll choke up slightly more often and more clearly look at what it requires to make as good of contact as I can.
Greens, and the importance of speed
Ball striking is what you need to compete at tougher courses, but by no means does that mean you can forget about putting, specifically, the speed of the green. And in the case of having two courses, the differences in the speeds between the two.
Arcola had greens there were of the type of grass I’m used to. Bent, with roll of 13 on the stimp. I was told they weren’t as fast as they sometimes put them for member play, but they didn’t seem unreasonable. Ridgewood on the other hand was poa annua, which I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced, or maybe I wasn’t smart enough to see the difference in the past. They were similar speed during the start of a putt, but for some reason there seemed to be less friction and the ball kept rolling around the hole, even on uphill putts. It was like wanting a ball, figuring it’d start decelerating, but decided not to and kept going some five feet past rather than the desired two.
There are many things to do in the two and a half day prep for a tournament like this, and the important thing I learned right away during the first hole I played was how important having green speed ingrained in my head was, and that I didn’t do a good enough job during the practice rounds.
That hole was #10 at Arcola, where I was ~30-40 feet away after the approach and nuked it with a misread to 10 feet past on the low side and missed the comebacker. On my second hole I was 50 feet past to avoid the water in front and left the putt 6 feet short. I was able to convert and make for par, but I kind of slapped myself in the face at how important the speed was. That start made me focus more on that and the rest of the round I was pretty consistent.
During the practice rounds, when getting to the green, I was kind of in a zone of “just hit some putts to make it seem like you’re doing cool practice things” rather than “hit some putts with mental focus on getting the speed right”. What I really needed to do, and something I do practice regularly, and now I’ll be better at, is a two ball drill. From any distance, hit the first putt with the mental focus as if it’s an actual putt on a course, with more time spent reading the speed and break. Goal is to have a tap in. With the second putt, you need to do better. If the first putt as bad, make the adjustments and learn what you missed, either the break or elevation change. If the first putt was good, do it again.
After the 69 at Arcola, we went over to Ridgewood in the afternoon to hit putts doing this to adjust to the green differences. Before the second round Tuesday morning, I went over a couple hours early and did the same thing. Actually trying on the longer lag practice putts rather than just hitting as a routine. My speed was dialed in with that. Experience here proved I can get back to that fairly quickly with what I did mentally, and showed the importance of that in general practice and before rounds.
I think I ended up being in only one bunker during play, but I sure hit a bunch of them in practice rounds to be ready. Getting up and down from the sand can be incredibly important, and found them interesting enough to mention here.
At Arcola, the sand was incredibly firm, to where I had to be careful with the 10 degree bounce of my 60. Ridgewood was also on the firm side, but they had both slightly more sand at the top level, and a little more cushion sand at the bottom. The perfect sand in my opinion. I’m very much against those poofy sand bunkers, those which the ball will be sitting down slightly, with just enough grains of sand behind the ball where you’re going to have to hack out with zero spin opportunity. To me that takes bunker skill away.
The only bunker I was in was the par 5 17th green at Ridgewood on a big upslope that I got to in two where I knew if I could get up and down I’d get back to the +5 number needed for what would be the playoff. I judged the distance perfectly, but I played it 10 feet to the left of the pin with the thought that misses from bunkers, with the club face open, scoot to the right. In this case, it didn’t, and it cost me.
Short game practice areas are my jam. A realistic putting green, and chipping area with holes that allow me to hit putts along with chips to practice the mentality of getting up and down, are things that are high up on what I use to judge the overall qualify of a golf course. These two places definitely had what was needed.
Arcola’s practice area had a great green behind the range with fairway, rough, and bunkers, where we could hit up to 50 yard pitch shots (assuming nobody else was in front of you) with the ability to recreate shots that I’d get on the course. I was able to use this pitching practice on 7 at Ridgewood in the second round to get up and down after having to wedge out from the fairway bunker I was a foot from clearing (talk about slight misses).
Ridgewood has a main chipping green, which wasn’t particularly great for legit shot recreation, as it was super sloped, had different tiers, and the condition of the green wasn’t matching the on course conditions. However, because they have 27 holes, they converted the 9th hole of the east into a practice area for us too. That green had real conditions of firmness and speed where we could judge the amount of rollout and spin that we’d be seeing for real. That green was used by so many people, with so many steps, that by the third day the rough was packed down in most places. I was able to find a few still that had expected length for the course and could practice shots with those just fine.
Key to this practice, as with the kind at any green, is to really make it feel like you need to get it close, like you need to get up and down. With this mindset, you can convert it to the course.
At the first hole at Ridgewood, I hit a good drive just off the fairway, then fluffed the 90 yard second shot where it ended up over the bunker but short of the green. (I didn’t practice those shots enough). From all the practice with the grass at both courses, I was able to read the lie. It was sitting down in the grass, but slightly elevated. I knew the shot could be open the club, keep the grooves square to the line I read, and accelerate under. It rolled out nicely it to 3 feet because of a slight misread where it didn’t break the first part of the roll. Still an up and down, and purely because of practice.
I’ll give a shoutout to the Ridgewood range as well. Besides the similarity that the turf had to the actual fairway turf that I mentioned above, the range had multiple green structures in the 90-110 yard range. We could laser the pins, and with the Pro V1s we hit, I could finally tune in those wedge distances, something I hadn’t been able to do this year.
A great example of this practice came on the frequently pictured Five and Dime hole, which was our #12. Some people, including all in the groups in front of us, hit woods or drivers to the greens. I laid up with a 6 iron to 112 out. +4 according to the yardage book, I could convert that to the feeling I had on the range. I hit a great shot to 6 feet below the hole on the tight green. No chance I could have done that before practicing on the range. I missed the putt because of a misread hindered by the green being in the shadows, but still, wedges gave me a chance to have that attempt.
Things I’ve done better than in the past
Now is the time for some introspection, where I list off things that I’ve done badly in the past, acknowledged the badness, tried to get better, and succeeded in doing so.
Birdie putts, par putts are all the same.
With the somewhat soft greens from early tee time and good ball striking at Arcola during the first round, I gave myself multiple putts in the 5-10 foot range for birdies. In the past at hard courses, I’d be happy to have what’s considered an easy par. Past me would give a sigh of relief I’m on the green, glad that no big number was in play from wayward shots, and being more ok with a two putt par. New me knows the importance of each shot when looking back on scores, and that making these birdies are just as important as making pars.
The best example of this was when I was coming in on the front 9. I birdied holes 5 and 6 with 5 footers which I stood over and wanted to drain. I then three putted the par 3 7th for bogey, which wasn’t bad because of the pond to the right of the green which forced us to aim left side of the green with a 5 iron to begin with, leaving a 50 footer where if I hit it too firm I could have putted it into said water. Hole #8, a converted par 5, I put a 6 iron to I had a 40 feet above the hole. A great case of being happy to be on the green and going for the two putt, but here I felt I had the speed and read down perfectly so I told Mike that I was going to drain it. I missed by half a ball and left it a foot and a half tap in away.
Finally, on #9, I gave myself a super downhill 8 footer for birdie. The two guys in my group had putts from both sides of my line so I was able to see two putts roll by. One slowly rolled 5 feet past and gave me the fall line, and the other from a slightly lower angle which showed it didn’t break as much as I thought initially. Using these, I could adjust my read from half ball outside with trickling speed to on the edge. Even though it was 8 feet super downhill, I had zero excuse to miss. I could have had comfort that I’d got on the green and could lag a par, but this was a putt and every stroke counts. That’s the mental energy I’ve tried to give myself this year, and it definitely showed up.
Lack of nervousness.
I’ll have more to write about this later, but meditation has been the best thing I’ve done for life and my golf game this year. In previous USGA experiences, and golf in general, I’ve let nervousness get to me. I can make a giant list of all the times being nervous has affected me, but in terms of USGA events, a quick list will work for now. The 2005 US Junior where hit my first shot ever OB, the 2011 Pub Links at Bandon, where on the first hole of Trails I made quad (only to finish the rest of the 35 holes in +1 to easily cruise to match play), 2017 Four Ball, where at Pinehurst #2 I hooked a 3 wood almost into the road (which I made an easy par after because I found a hole in the trees. It’s a great story — Mike, who hit the fairway, saw that I found my ball in bounds and told Andy, who was caddying for him, that I was going to make a par given how good I got at recovery shots), 2017 at Riv, where the first group off on facebook live stream, I hit a wood left but in play because that whole landing area is enormous, or the 2018 US Am at Pebble, where on the 10th hole I hit two balls on the beach and had to get up and down from 40 to save double. I can go on, but let’s say I got nervous off tees.
Except this time! A great practical use of mindfulness is how emotions are made up, and acknowledgement of them can make them go away. What good does nervousness do when on the first tee of a golf event? If you practice noticing them, you can learn to watch those feelings and how they go away. At Arcola, 10 is a downhill shortish par 4 where it was a 5 wood, very similar to all those other opening holes I listed above. This time though, I didn’t feel nervous with all the people watching and the big trouble areas on both sides of the fairways. I hit the fairway with what Mike said was “better than any of the 5 woods I hit on the range during warmup”. I still made bogey, but that was my fault for bad speed on the greens which I mentioned above. Overall, nervousness was so low compared to many of my USGA rounds in past years.
Importance of weights
Back at home, I enjoy going to the gym, either in my apartment or at the climbing gym (where I popped my ankle before the mid am). This means when I play golf at home, my muscles are always a little sore, but more importantly, tighter and connected. That connectedness is what I’d say is the most important part of a golf swing. Gyms are easy at home, but whenever I’d go on trips for events, or even non-Milwaukee state events, my muscles start to get too loose and my body and arms disconnect.
For my practice round at Ridgewood on Sunday morning, I hit the ball like crap and I could feel the connection was off. Getting back to the Hampton Inn, I went to their “Fitness” Center and did whatever I could to mimic the usual exercises I do at home gyms. Legs, core, arms, anything to get that feeling back. Turns out it was well worth it and I could tell the next morning when I was up at 5:00 for my 7:10 tee time and felt the soreness. I used that to hit the 16 greens at Arcola.
I used the gym Tuesday morning before Ridgewood, but didn’t do quite as much. Did that cause my slight misses on ball striking that caused my bad result? Maybe, but I know I did better than I have in the past.
Problems I still have, and were confirmed by being out there:
Now is the time where I list things I still can’t do well, but know about them.
I can’t start rounds off well.
Above I talked about how I wasn’t nervous off the first tees like in the past. That said, I still don’t start off rounds very well. Judging how this works, there were a couple different reasons this time.
In one case, the USGA won again with their over demanding and unfair at times pace of play rules. As the second group off, we didn’t wait for the group in front until the turns, when they ran into the group in front of them. That meant the entire time, we were walking fast and I wasn’t exactly able to get into much of a focus on hitting good shots. It was more like hitting shots to keep the ball in play which, sure, helps the score, but really the goal was to not spend the time looking for a lost ball or hitting a difficult chip that required thinking and slowing down. In fact, at one of the checkpoints, we had two birdie putts inside of five feed an the other was a 20 footer. If two of us had missed the green and had to mark our par putts, we’d have been put on the clock. If being behind is always in our heads, that doesn’t allow for good scores.
The other bigger issue for my poor starts is I don’t quite know my swing well enough to know where shots are going. During the warm up, I definitely try to how the swing is feeling, where misses are, if they’re normal misses or not. But in my career I still haven’t managed to figure out how best to use range time to figure out those issues. Once the round is in progress, I’ll usually see enough shots to get a feel and also get warmed up enough to know where shots are going to go. My back 9s are almost always better than my fronts. This seems like an issue I can work and find a solution for that will be a noticeable help.
Importance of green reading books
The rules regarding green reading books have gone through a cultural and rules of golf legal change in the past couple years. In a spectrum where one side is no information at all and having to judge distance by eyes only combined with no such thing as pin sheets, to the other side giving players as intricate information in books and using phones to get exact wind measurements, I’m very much on the side of more information the fairer the results will be. Alas, for the ’22 Am, I didn’t expect the USGA to go as far as they did with removing information from the book they provided, to the point where I was hit with unexpected blandness of the green information.
In the past events post college, meaning the ’17 and ’18 US Ams, the drawings of the greens had many more arrows showing slopes and different sections of the greens. This time, those were left as blank whiteness.
An example here is the 9th green at Ridgewood, which shows a five yard false front and a completely flat rest of the green. Turns out though, the green has a couple different waves where if you weren’t on the correct level, you’re not going to make the putt.
I’ll call garbage on people saying that green reading books slow down pace of play. I’d find it more likely it would speed up play where, after learning how to read the books, you won’t spend as much time walking around and staring. More importantly however, I want more information to know where to aim approaches. It’s true I could spend time during the single practice round and draw where there are ridges, but if you want fairness, you’d give us that info at the start.
I learned I needed more info for USGA events, and so I made sure to get the books for Erin and Blue Mound for the Mid-Am a month later. Standing in the fairway (or mostly rough due to how I hit so few fairways due to my ankle), I could look at the books and see the pins, and know where safe spot were. That info would have been helpful at Ridgewood and Arcola.