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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: On a Year That Requires Golf Therapy

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The new-look laboratory got a workout Sunday evening. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

WEST VIEW, Pa. — Even when golf ticks me off, golf can still make me feel better.

Part of the reason I’ve been slowly assembling items for a makeshift ‘practice center’ in my tiny backyard is the power of a few Good Swings.

There weren’t many to be had for me in Round 2 of the Moon Open, which I entered with high expectations. After I scribbled many more high numbers on the scorecard than I’d like, I required golf therapy.

Fortunately, our three-year-old Lukas stays with my parents most Sunday evenings, so there was an opening before dusk to get out there and figure things out.

This year, there’s been plenty of reason to look inward for answers. Candidly, this site wouldn’t exist if much of the world wasn’t put on hold by COVID-19, because I suddenly had reason to look for other sources of income.

Not that Pittsburgh Golf Now is printing money (yet!), but with most of my freelance media work on hold or cancelled, why not give it a shot?

Like many of you, I’ve struggled with 2020 and all the strife that’s come with it. There have been more dark days than light, and I’ve had it easier than a lot of people out there. I still have shelter, food, my health and loved ones around me. Things could be a lot worse.

But I’m not going to lie and say that I’m in a great place, mentally or spiritually. Feelings of worthlessness and helplessness are my frequent companions. On top of that, emotions are high because we just brought a new baby home last month. What a time for a family expansion, in both positive and negative ways.

All of which makes me grateful for another friend along life’s journey: Golf.

As noted by a couple of the astute Isaly’s Junior Tour players I talked to a couple of weeks ago, this is a sport of self-reliance. Of perseverance. Of finding a way and getting on with it.

For all the travails of this memorable year, I’ve never been more grateful for the ability to escape to the fairways and greens and apply myself to a task that’s challenging, but still much more pleasant than most.

Actually, ‘escape’ isn’t the right word, because there’s no getting away from what’s going on. But amidst all this, golf has given the gift of fresh air, exercise, and a healthy distance while also allowing for much-needed doses of socialization and competition.

There’s something to be said for solitude, too. I enjoy interacting with people very much, but I’m an introvert at heart. I’d bet that’s part of the reason why golf captured my heart in the first place, because of the ease with which you can lose yourself in it.

So there I was, standing in my driveway, thinking thoughts of swing plane, hip turn and easy rhythm while banging balls off my new turf mat and into the net my brother-in-law handed down to me a month ago. Bliss … and it didn’t hurt that I was flushing it. (Sure, now I do it!)

We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, but our only chance to make it through intact is keeping a level head. For all its ups and downs, golf puts me in a better spot to get through.

For that, I am grateful.

That means I’m working hard, right? Bet this never happens to Tiger. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• First out of the gate, thanks to Moon Golf Club GM Josh DeNinno and his friendly, high-quality staff for putting on an event that’s quickly become one of the highlights of my year. (ICYMI, here’s PGN’s Course Review of Moon GC.)

If you missed the Moon Open this time around, rest assured it’ll be back better than ever next August. It’s the most easygoing, light-spirited club championship you’ll ever play in, a well-balanced combination of competition and camaraderie.

Case in point: The twosome I was paired with — Juan and James — for both tourney rounds became fast friends. We all staggered to the finish line Sunday, but nothing bonds you like shared suffering, right? Here’s to new golf buddies and striving for better next year.

It wasn’t a total loss on the scorecard, either. I managed to capture a couple of Saturday skins that I parlayed into a pandemic present to myself. Wearing MLB caps on the course is kind of my thing, and that new brown Padres lid is crisp.

• All due respect to Jim Herman, who lit the Wyndham Championship on fire to win for the third time in his late-blooming PGA Tour career, but the U.S. Amateur final was the highlight of my (limited) golf viewing this weekend.

Playing at revered Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on Oregon’s Pacific coast, which was blanketed in marine-layer fog over the final nine holes, Georgia Tech’s Tyler Strafaci and Ollie Osborne of SMU battled through 36 holes of match play.

In what had to have been an exhausting day, the 41st-seeded Strafaci outlasted the 27th-seeded Osborne by striping a long-iron approach on the par-5 18th and two-putting for birdie.

Osborne had built a 5-up lead on the front nine of the morning 18, but Strafaci closed to just 1-down by lunch.

On the afternoon 18, Strafaci pushed ahead by two holes, only to watch Osborne win Nos. 16 and 17 to push the final to its full length. It was some kind of theater if you missed it.

• OK, back to Herman, who is the first player in 15 years (hello, Bart Bryant!) to win his first three PGA Tour events after the age of 38. There’s hope for all of us yet.

In all seriousness, Herman’s weekend was incredible, as he shot 9-under 61 on Saturday to jump into contention, followed by a 7-under 63 on Sunday to edge Billy Horschel by a stroke. Herman, 42, had missed the cut in 27 of his past 40 PGA Tour starts.

Like I said, hope for us all. He’ll play in the FedEx Cup playoffs, which start their three-week trek this Thursday at TPC Boston with the Northern Trust.

• Local golf competition continued to roll along as well. While dozens of us hackers gave it a go at the Moon Open, the real players took to Oakmont Country Club for the Pennsylvania Open.

In a continuation of a strong summer, 33-year-old amateur and Peters Township grad Jimmy Ellis shot three tough rounds of even-par golf to take the title.

More on Ellis’ victory at the famed ‘Brute on Hulton Road’ later in the week on PGN!

• Also coming up on the site: Two more Course Reviews, one public and another private, plus a Game Improvement feature that pinpoints exactly the weaknesses you need to work on if you want to play better.

I know I could use that help after a few weeks of score stagnation! Let’s get analytical.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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