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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: In the Heat of the Moment, a Hard Lesson Learned

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The only anxiety I should've felt in Saturday's City Amateur was when my ball was in the air. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

PITTSBURGH — I’ll start with this: Last week was a lot of fun.

One of my regrets from the past 10 years or so is that I haven’t played a lot of meaningful golf. Like, the kind of golf that gives you the first-hole jitters and a little catch in your throat when you’re standing over a five-footer.

Of course, if you care at all about your score, there’s always a little of that performance anxiety whenever you tee it up. What I’m talking about is that competitive buzz that can sharpen your focus … or psyche you out if you’re not careful.

After a late start to golf season due to COVID-19, I jumped back into the ring last Thursday, competing in the Western Pennsylvania Amateur qualifier at Hill Crest Country Club in Lower Burrell. It was my first time trying to qualify for a state amateur tournament since 2006, when I gave it a (forgettable) go in my native West Virginia.

I wasn’t good enough this time around, either, with a few too many loose swings and a few too many pushed putts leaving me at six-over 77, five strokes shy of the West Penn Am field. But what a feeling to get back into it and battle for something.

Since I carried one of the highest handicaps (4.1) in the 64-player qualifier, I considered it a feather in my cap to finish dead smack in the middle of the leaderboard. I left the course with the usual golfer’s gripes after a 6-over total — shoulda made this, shoulda done that — but overall the drive back home was very pleasant.

I didn’t just play; I belonged out there. I hadn’t felt that in what I would call a ‘big’ event since my last event for the Weirton Madonna High School golf team. So, almost 20 years.

There was a different sensation Saturday, as I teed it up in the Pittsburgh City Amateur at the historic Bob O’Connor Golf Course in Schenley Park.

Oh, the nerves were there, for sure. Perhaps even more, because I knew coming in I had a legit chance to challenge for the trophy, and even more so when defending champ Sean Knapp pulled out due to injury. However, the pit in my stomach Saturday came not from excitement, but from angst — angst about not knowing the rules.

To be clear, I know the basic rules of the game. How to take a proper drop, where you earn free relief, etc. The stuff you need to know to play a competitive round.

What I didn’t know was how to deal with this particular situation. See if you would’ve known better …

After a player in my group endured two lost-ball searches on the third hole, we fell significantly behind our target pace of play and began holding up the groups behind us. An official alerted us that we needed to speed it up.

We got to the eighth hole, where my other fellow competitor whacked a drive that he thought was fine. Turns out, it sailed into a bush and we couldn’t find it. Since he didn’t hit a provisional ball, he had to sprint back to the tee, where the group behind us was already standing.

Having never been put ‘on the clock’ before in a tournament, I was on edge, as was the rest of our group. As our unfortunate playing partner tested his cardio fitness, I talked with my other partner about what we could do to avoid a slow-play penalty. He suggested we at least tee off on the ninth as we waited for the other player to hastily finish No. 8.

Better to keep it moving somehow, right? We decided to hit up No. 9 fairway and at least walk to our tee balls.

It felt like the right thing to do, but once our other partner caught up, he said he didn’t think it was legal for some members of a group to start the next hole before the whole group completed the previous hole. Admittedly, I had no idea, but it sounded like something that could lead to either a penalty or (gulp) disqualification.

So we played the final 10 holes with the specter of a DQ hanging over our heads, and I’m not talking soft serve. As any golfer or competitor might imagine, maintaining focus was a struggle until we got to the clubhouse.

Turns out, there’s nothing in the rules that expressly prohibits what we did, which I eventually discovered while thumbing through my dog-earned USGA rulebook between shots. After a post-round confirmation from an official, our scores were completely kosher.

On one of the windiest days I’ve encountered on a golf course, my 4-over 71 was good enough for a fifth-place tie. Still gotta figure out that putter, but considering that I was fearing the worst-case scenario in the middle of the round, I’ll gladly take that result.

A couple of days later, I’m still thinking about how I could’ve prevented the anxiety that got in the way of one of my few competitive rounds in recent years. I keep coming back to the fact that I could’ve saved myself a lot of stress if I only had known the rules a little better.

I can’t rewind to Saturday morning, but I can resolve to never put myself in that position again. No excuse to not know the rules, arcane as some of them might be.

They’ve been playing golf at the Bob O’Connor since the 19th Century. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• If you missed our coverage of the historic Pittsburgh City Amateur over the weekend, here’s Zac Weiss’ story on a windswept win for Peters Township product Jon Ross.

Here’s Mike Darnay’s awesome photo gallery to give you a sense of the emotion and atmosphere at the Bob.

And thanks to Mike for giving me my first action photos since high school. If you played, click the gallery and you might find yourself hitting a shot … or reacting to it. I know the photogs out there are junkies for a good ‘reax.’

• Zac mentioned in his story that turnout was up for the 2020 City Am, much to the pleasure of Bob O’Connor director of golf Eric Kulinna and staff, but I had at least one person reach out this weekend to say they would’ve loved to play in it, but were unaware.

After gently reminding the reader that I did in fact write about it last week, I started to think that it could be a good idea to post a competition directory on the site. Consider it being worked upon!

• Speaking of competition, the beat goes on locally this week, starting with today’s WPGA Stroke Play Championship at Westmoreland Country Club in Export. It’s an 18-hole event this year, but should produce some choice drama.

Look for coverage of that — and the upcoming WPGA Amateur on July 6-7 — right here on PGN!

• The Tri-State PGA took a week off from its adult competition schedule last week, but one of its premier events is on the doorstep. The Pittsburgh Field Club in Fox Chapel will host the 72-hole Frank B. Fuhrer Jr. Invitational, or the FBF, over the next three days.

The field is comprised of local PGA pros, mini-tour players and a handful of notable amateurs. Names of interest to the casual golf fan include Mario Lemieux’s son Austin, who plays to a plus-handicap these days, and former NHL sniper Jeremy Roenick.

The Pittsburgh golf hardcores out there will recognize the local names of Steve Wheatcroft (two-time winner on what’s now called the Korn Ferry Tour) and Beau Titsworth (2019 WPGA Open champion) as well.

Click here for more info on the tourney, which will start with 36 holes today, then conclude with 18 each Tuesday and Wednesday.

• The Tri-State juniors will also stay active, with two tournaments this week. Hannastown Golf Club in Greensburg hosts an 18-hole event Monday, then Cedarbrook in Belle Vernon follows suit Wednesday.

• Anybody else ever experience this?

At least I found something, I guess …

• Golf is hard, but if there’s anyone who can make the opposite seem true, it’s Dustin Johnson. His languid walk, smooth athleticism and towering stature give the impression of a swaggering college golfer playing in a junior event.

Although he was a little errant off the tee on a stormy Sunday at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, Johnson shot a final-round 3-under 67 to edge a charging Kevin Streelman by one. DJ has now won at least once in 13 straight seasons, the third-longest streak to start a career in PGA Tour history.

Johnson’s first win in more than a calendar year ripped the lead away from Pittsburgh-born Brendon Todd, who shot 5-over 75 to miss out on his third victory of the 2019-20 season.

When Johnson striped a driver 350 yards on Sunday’s last hole at TPC River Highlands, then clinched the win with a tidy approach, I had flashbacks to that perfect 18th hole he played at Oakmont in the U.S. Open four years ago.

Much like he did at Oakmont, with a likely penalty hanging over his head as he pursued his first major, Johnson had to overcome an out-of-bounds drive and another to the edge of a pond during Sunday’s homestretch.

But he persevered, ending up at 19 under to continue the PGA’s sizzling scoring restart. The winners of the first three post-COVID events have been a combined 56 under par, with another fan-free event — the Rocket Mortgage Classic — coming up next at Detroit Country Club.

• In terms of COVID-19, the PGA Tour has had its share of positive tests. After seven players sat out this week due to either testing positive or being in close contact with people who had, South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli will miss the Rocket Mortgage after testing positive.

I don’t know if we’ve reached ‘cluster’ stage yet with some of these infections, but it’s good news that those affected don’t appear to have suffered severe symptoms, at least as of yet.

• Late breaking Sunday night from the Associated Press’ Doug Ferguson: Fox and the USGA have parted ways in the middle of a 12-year, $1 billion broadcast contract. NBC steps in to fulfill the rest of the deal, which includes rights to the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur.

This deserves a big ‘wow.’ Fox’s coverage was growing on me, but I grew up watching the Open on NBC and the two entities are still linked in my mind. Apparently, Fox balked at putting the rescheduled September U.S. Open opposite its NFL coverage and was mulling moving at least part of the event to FS1.

• Hit ’em straight this week! As always, if you have ideas or suggestions about feature stories, course reviews, equipment reviews, or anything else about our coverage, leave a comment or reach me at matt.gajtka@gmail.com.

Also, check out our course and practice facility directories to make sure we’ve included your favorite places to get your swings in!

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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