There I stood, on the back of the 10th tee at Longleaf Golf Club on that crisp May morning. It was my third time here in the State Championship, and as they say “third time’s a charm”. As I approached the tee that morning preparing my mind for the day ahead, I hadn’t any regards for such superstitious thoughts, but only of getting in rhythm to start the round.
I now waited patiently with my group on that 10th tee for the second day in a row, allowing the fairway to clear so we could begin the final day of the Championship. Little did I know, that the number 3 had already begun to etch a unique meaning in my life that day, that would prove to solidify itself in the day’s results.
I started in the last group going off the back nine that day, as our team went in order by score. I’d fashioned together an even par 71 in the previous day’s first round, followed by my senior teammate’s 73 that left us both in good position amongst the field of 84 players. Our experiences in the years before at Longleaf had, unfortunately, yielded nervous scores in the 80s, that had neither left us near thoughts of victory at the halfway mark nor reflected the talents we were coined with by our families and the newspapers.
The mental and pride-wrenching beatings we took from this golf course had finally taught us how to handle the pressure this year. Finally, someone from our “middle-of-nowhere” high school had a chance to do something special on the State Championship’s last day. With my teammate in front of me being 4 shots back of the leader’s Round 1 69, and I just 2 back, a new excitement stirred in us and our spectators alike that had followed us through high school golf.
Needless to say, I wasn’t the favorite atop the leader board when things began that morning, and my name probably hadn’t caused any concerns for the experienced leaders. Given these facts, however, what went on in front of me, across the golf course, or amongst the leaders I was technically competing against had been cleared from my conscious at that point.
Yes, I knew that I would be playing for the State Championship (with 2 years left on that bucket list, time was running out) and that to everyone surrounding our team and all the spectators there, that was the point. However, these thoughts of such a common and material goal had left me, as I centered this experience on what I would really be taking on that day as so much more.
I made my goal to not let it be about just winning a trophy, that fans come to see players play for, but for all that I’d worked for to reach this point. The long hours spent in my high school’s weight room working to become athletic enough, the tough classes I’d taken on as a junior to strengthen my mind in order to take on days such as this, and those late nights spent on the putting green hitting that last putt over and over again that was to “win the State Championship”.
All that I had done to put myself in that spot I now stood was the reason I was there. I was determined to go out and play my hardest, to truly see if the struggles I’d faced and the few triumphs I’d flourished through in these moments had been enough to lead me to success that day.
Whether I came away that afternoon with a trophy or not, my success would purely be judged based on the heart I put into this round and how I felt I handled myself- and indeed, it was a day I’d go out and put my heart into every shot.
It was the most calm I had ever felt channeled inside of me, some of it being carried over from the previous day’s successes of landing myself in such a position to play for the Championship. But a part of this feeling was completely new, a combination of confidence and calmness I can’t even describe. As my playing partners and I were warmly greeted by the starter on the 10th, she announced my name as I pegged my tee into the ground, gently setting my Titleist #3* ball atop the tee.
“Swoosh, Swoosh” as I took my two practice swings. Then “CLINK” as I solidly struck the tee shot on the club’s third* go around to finally begin this day.
“Here we go,” I thought, as I strode off the tee in what felt like a glide down that first fairway to my next shot.
162 was left to the flag. This was normally a 6-iron for me, but I decided to hit 7-iron factoring in the adrenaline I had as I was atop the hill, at an elevation a touch above the green below which would make it play shorter. Again, “Swish, Swish” as I took my two practice swings readying my rhythm for the approach. As I felt the club reach the top of its arch, I turned my body through aggressively and started that 7-iron on top of the flagstick.
It came down some 8 feet behind the hole directly in line with the stick. I’d just hit 7-iron 164 on my second swing of the day (a little unusual for me).
“Good start” I noted inside my conscious.
I read the 8 footer for birdie twice, then once more for a third time behind the ball as it was my turn to putt. One of my competitors had already made his putt for birdie from just outside of mine, which took him what felt like forever, but I refused to let the wait throw me out of rhythm.
I matched my eyes with the line between my ball and the hole, taking two practice strokes, before readying my Nike Method putter behind it. I started the putt right on my intended line, just outside the right edge of the cup, good speed, as it finally began to turn left towards the hole. A foot before the hole it wanted to stay out right, seeming like it wasn’t going to take the last bit of break I saw. Still watching it intently, it curved sharply down the last bit of that hill to the left, hitting the back of the cup and dropping, for Birdie.
Unlike my playing competitor who’d shown his surprised excitement in his birdie, I calmly picked up my Titleist #3 out of the hole and eased off the back of the green toward the tunnel leading to the 11th hole, nodding to my parents and the other spectators who clapped.
This was the first time I had ever birdied my first hole of the State Championship, or the 10th at Longleaf in all the times I had faced it. Significantly, the birdie on this par 4 meant I had started the day with a “3”, which couldn’t have been more perfect.
(Already 1 back of the lead was in my head, but didn’t focus on this and kept plugging along).
The next two holes, 11 being a par 4 and 12 one of Longleaf’s known par 3’s, I remained steady making par on both of them with good swings and good 2-putts on each hole to remain -1 par on the start.
Holes 12 and 13 were back-to-back par 3’s, as the last leg of the two would prove to be very important to how my day would start. As I reached 13 tee box, I tried to hit a 5-iron up to the green perched 180 yards from the tee, with a bunker guarding right in front of the pin.
I was never quite comfortable with the shot and bailed out to the right away from the hazardous bunker, not striking it completely solid. It ended up just short of the green, leaving me with my first chip shot of the day. I was so far below the raised green I couldn’t see the bottom of the hole, only the top of the flagstick as the hole was cut just a few feet on top of the ridge that ran along the middle of this tough green.
With chipping being the strong point of my game, the touch I have around the greens is what my teammates and coaches had always known me for. This little pitch would take all of the skill and creativity I had to get it close, as I reached in the bag for my sand wedge. Brushing the grass a few times before as I felt the touch I would need for such a delicate shot, I eyed my intended landing spot, before taking the club back to play it.
“Nip” as the ball came out flush off the grooves of the face, landing on the front of the green as it skipped up the ridge, spinning to stop 5 feet behind the hole for par.
The putt this left me with was straight down the hill, all I had to do was tap it in order to start it down towards the cup. I really needed this putt to remain under par for the tournament and keep my momentum from being erased.
Once I had carefully aligned it just on the left center of the cup, I rocked the putter head back just enough to give my ball a solid little stroke that got it tracking down the hill and spiraling towards the destination. The putt caught the left edge of the hole with as little speed as I could give it down the slope, and curled all the way around the back edge, circling the cup 360 degrees for a victory lap!
It fell in. Par. I’d made three 3’s* on those first 4 holes of the day, keeping me at -1 for the Championship and propelling the confidence I had forward.
On the next hole, I made an acceptable par, burning the edge of the cup from some 15 feet away with my birdie putt.
Then came Longleaf’s 15th, their signature hole, which was a beauty of a 170-yard par 3 with a huge pond lurking to the left of the green and taunting you in front of the tee box. Of course, the pin was tucked close to the water far on the left edge of the green, but with 175 to the flagstick, I wasn’t going to be afraid of it today.
I took 5-iron again, but this time committed to it, hitting one of my best iron shots of the tournament that painted the flagstick. It came down directly behind the hole, crossing over all the hazard presented by the water and land with a “thud” no more than 4 feet from the flagstick. This dangerous shot had grabbed the attention of my spectators and playing competitors alike and made a statement that I was in another gear so far that day.
I got so caught up in the line of the putt that I left it short just on the lip of the cup… disappointing of course, but nonetheless, another good “3” on the par 3’s that the course was known for. This missed opportunity felt like a bump in the road for sure, but I couldn’t get down about it I told myself. It was still a par, and an easy one at that on such a difficult hole that certainly played over par to the rest of the field.
"Just keep playing like this, and keep your head up. You’ll make another birdie somewhere," my conscience told me. Still -1, I was still in the hunt.
Par at the par 4 16th, a tough hole that 4 was a good score on. Then, sure enough, that birdie did come. It was on the next hole, as I nailed a 17 footer curling right-to-left that came from a stroke right out of the middle of my putter face. It was good to pick up this timely birdie on the 17th, as birdieing par 5’s are expected when you know you’re on your game. Now that the day’s energy had really begun to thrive, I hoped this birdie meant that perhaps I was too.
Now -2, heading to the 18th, the last of my first nine.
The 18th at Longleaf had always given me trouble. It was a small green to hit that I had watched many miss in all sorts of places over the years when finishing the championship. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest of tee shots either, with a large bunker right of the narrow fairway that was death to be in, and out of bounds lurking in the left trees. Luckily, I stuck with my rhythm here and notched one right down the middle, leaving me only 133 yards into a front pin.
The pin was on the smallest little slither of green they could possibly put it on that day, with no more than 20 feet of width surrounding it, and another un-inviting greenside bunker just to its right. To add to the difficulty, it was also into the wind. I ended up choking down on a 7-iron as I tried to steer it into the wind toward the hole.
I never liked the shot to begin with and missed it a good bit left of the green, barely staying out from under the overhanging trees. I had immediately wished I would’ve gone back and grabbed 8-iron there, and waited for a lull in the wind and made a smoother swing. I wouldn’t make that same mistake again today.
“Next time, you’ll think it through and not rush anything. You’re in control today, stay in control”, I told myself.
As I approached my ball beside the green, I faintly blinked at what a terrible lie it had come to rest in. On one of the course’s few patchy spots of sand and pine straw, my ball now sat with a clump of weeds behind it and sand all around. This was going to be one of the toughest up-and-downs for par I had ever faced in my career, I knew.
I took out that same sand wedge I’d used to navigate up the the ridge at the 13th and started making little practice swings down into the sand. I took as many were necessary to get a feel for this unfamiliar turf, and committed with all I had to the back of that Titleist#3 logo that had begun to mean so much.
As I struck through the back of the ball and into the sandiness, the club’s leading edge glided purely through the turf as pure could be, sending the ball just over the edge of the fringe towards the cup, before nipping up some 8 feet past it. This was the best I could do from such a dicey little lie with so little green to work with, as I grabbed my putter with determination and walked up to finish the job.
No easy putt by any means, but I had the break figured out. The huge sloping mound that was planted in the middle of this green would force the putt to break dramatically to the left. It was so much break that I just had to feel how far out to aim it. I began to align the critical little putt out to the right, and just as I was about to give it a go, I noticed my coach pull up abruptly behind the green in his golf cart. I backed off the putt.
He was coming up to give me a shuttle over to the first tee after our group finished the 18th. The way he had flown up the hill as if his pulse was propelling the electric EZ-go as fast as it would take him, I could see the nervous excitement in his body.
He had probably heard how I was playing, and judging from the anxiousness in his face, he probably was one of the few who knew the score I had reached through those first 8 holes had put me near even with the leaders. I could tell he didn’t know what this putt was for, whether it was for a birdie that would have filled this scenario with more excitement than I could imagine at this point, or if he assumed correctly that it was for the critical par that I needed to keep everyone’s stomach from dropping with a bogey.
Bogey here to drop me back to where I started at -1 after that promising birdie to open the day 2 hours earlier would have felt like such a setback coming off this green, as I and the others around me knew I had played better on this side than -1.
As I aligned the putter-face behind my ball this time, the setting fell silent. I gave two good looks at the hole, balancing my eyes in the 8 foot of green between my ball and its destiny, before taking the putter back.
As my shoulders rocked the face of the putter back and through, the ball was struck solidly and started a ways outside to the right of the cup, just as I had determined it to. It took the break from the slope’s influence immediately, me now watching it intently, telling it to hang on and not break left too fast. Continuing towards the hole, the ball never lost its momentum, and broke just one last roll to the left, before slamming into the back of the hole for the par.
I fist pumped this one and let out a “YEAH” to follow halfway kept inside, and half of it coming out to join the other “WOO’s” and “YES’s” from the audience cheering me on loving that putt going in almost as much as I did. I grabbed that Titleist#3 out of 18’s cup after making the best up-and-down of my life with it, that couldn’t have happened in a better setting than the one hole that had usually finished me off in our previous meetings in this championship.
Today’s scenery at 18 was a little different, and it was far from over. My fist pump to the incredulous par I’d just made had now been painted in my memory forever, and that moment only led to the excitement that now enthralled the new setting that would take place on the other side of the golf course, Longleaf’s front nine.
After getting out of the golf cart to take on the 1st hole, I immediately let the nervous energy from my coach who still had to remain inside of it leave my body. Instead of filling my head with the fact that I was probably tied for the lead in the State Championship after my -2, 33 (I don’t think he could have stomached telling me those words) he had tried to console me with the old “King Cole” folktale rhyme during our ride over.
Being a former English teacher and super literary for a high school golf coach, he often would repeat it to me when he rode by on his golf cart during our regular season matches. The fact that he had turned to this now while I was in the heat of such a situation simply put me a little beside myself while riding over to the 1st tee, and how nervous I could tell he truly was for me humored me a little. Nonetheless, it put my mind at ease for a second, but now it was time to reconnect with the moment as I stepped out onto the first tee.
Nothing on earth could have taken me out of the zone I was in after closing out the first nine at 18 the way I had, as I had begun to harness something that up to that point I never knew existed within me. My mind had reached a focus that I didn’t know possible, and though in the back of it I was aware of the closeness now between myself and the leaders, my heart chased all that I was really playing for as I thought of all the hard work and the experience I’d earned that my good play had been the product of up to this point.
I completely released every rationale of me competing against the leaders for a score that all the people following me now could only think of and focused on the moment I had finally put myself in. I was in my own little reality of entering the last nine of the State Championship, with a chance.
Par at 1. Good solid start, that kept my momentum going after playing a 6-iron to the middle of the green and 2-putting for a good par.
Now on to #2, another one of the daunting par 3’s that was probably Longleaf’s toughest. It was 198 to the pin, and the wind wasn’t much of a factor thankfully. I went with my 3-hybrid trying to hoist it up into the air and take a little off of it. It landed 198 exactly, no more than 10 feet to the right of the hole. Easily one of the best shots I’d hit on the par 3’s in the tournament, next to the 5-iron I’d stuffed behind the hole on #15 an hour earlier.
I missed the putt for birdie, and took par there and went on. It was a great opportunity to reach -3 and gain a shot on the field no doubt, but I knew par there would likely be better than most of them anyway. It would be another 3* I’d add to the card for the day, and my fourth of the five par 3’s.
Five holes later I would reach the last of them on hole 8, knowing that par there would be good too. But there were still great opportunities left in the holes between, with two of them being par 5’s. “Keep digging,” I told myself as I crossed the street over to the third tee.
Still -2, through 11 holes.
The third hole had always sort of fit my eye, and with my natural shot being a draw, its tee shot was tailor-made for my shot shape. However, a strategically placed bunker guarded the shortcut you could take to the left side of the fairway about 245 yards from the tee, which was a risky carry for me with a driver.
I’d never carried one over it in the Championships before and had hooked it a bit too far left the previous day when I tried to reach back and hit one far enough to clear, just lucky enough that it stayed in bounds.
That day was something different though. The moment I was in told me to go for it, that I was ready now to take it on. Aiming just a touch right of the bunker allowing for my draw to turn left, I clenched my jaw and swung through it just like I’d practiced in trying to get to this moment.
The ball took off right where I aimed as I felt the release of the club naturally turn over in my hands, knowing I’d given that Titleist #3 just the amount of force that I wanted. I watched it through the air as it began to turn over towards the bunker. When I saw it come down over that obstacle and take a high hop down the fairway I immediately snatched my tee out of the ground and took off down the hole after such a swing.
“Game on”, my actions had expressed.
122 is all that was left to the flag, tucked in the back left corner of the green. I loved the way it looked being this close-up, with another greenside bunker guarding short-left of the hole that usually posed a threat when approaching from further back, but now merely added to the scenery of the little target I was staring at.
I pulled a 9-iron and decided to punch it back there, taking a little more compact swing than usual, then accelerating through at the bottom to control the flight and distance of the shot. I loved every second of it, as it hummed off the grooves of the clubface, and never left the flagstick.
My eyes were going up and down the ball in the air and the hole it was falling on. “Thump”, as it came down firmly behind the hole and spun back to within 4 feet. There was something about the way it landed there so perfectly, with an aggressive “thud” to follow up the statement I’d made with my driver swing, that made me come alive with the realization that I was actually playing for the Championship now.
Two smooth little practice strokes, before knocking this 4 footer right in the middle of the hole on the third stroke. Birdie at the third, making it the second day in a row I’d birdied it (yes, I did birdie it in Round 1 after hooking the tee shot into the pine needles).
Both of these birdies that came at this hole had been critical points in my round both days, and today’s had suddenly lit a spark of confidence. I was now at -3, oddly enough, after coming off that third hole with another “3”.
I teed up that same Titleist at the fourth hole, as I had begun to develop a certain trust in this ball. The wind had picked up now, blowing straight into me, but I was determined not to let it stop my momentum I was coming full steam with. I wasted no time hitting the tee shot, as I tried to squeeze into the back of the ball leading my hands forward in the swing to keep it a little lower, but didn’t quite get back around on it and pushed it out right into the hole’s only fairway bunker.
I’d find myself with 140 yards to the pin this time, my ball trapped in the sand that I couldn’t ground my club in to test its surface, and the wind howling straight into my face. It probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea to take a lofted club here and just play safely out to the fairway where I could approach the green with a wedge and still try to make par.
But in the heat of the moment, being -3 par and fighting so hard to get to this point, I was determined to keep it there, and that wouldn’t be by playing scared. So I grabbed my 6-iron and started making aggressive swings above the sand after stepping down into the bunker.
I usually could hit an 8-iron from this distance, but I knew I’d have to take at least 2 clubs more to factor in playing out of the sand that could weaken the blow, and of course the swirling wind. This pin was just over the widest array of sand a bunker contained on the whole course, that stretched as far across in front of the green as you could park two cars. Short was sure to land you in it. I’d really have to make a shot here, no doubt.
I stepped into my setup and planted my feet in the sand so I wouldn’t slip, stabilizing my lower-body for the hit. Hovering the club now just behind the ball, I remember clenching my teeth before this one as if to feel the grit of the sand before “WOOSH!” I. Went. At. It.
That 6-iron glided through the sand so purely that all I felt was the solid strike I’d put on the ball. It was so well struck after leaving the clubface that it sailed over the lip of the bunker in front of me and never even looked at the long trap below the green, airmailing it and continuing through the air. Piercing through most of the wind, it finally came down on the back of the green, plunking to a stop some 30 feet long and left of the hole.
This shot was easily one of the best of the tournament under such risky circumstance, and at just the right time. It kept my momentum moving, as I sprung up out of the bunker so pumped with the 6-iron in hand that I’d just flushed onto that green. I relished in the joy of pulling off this shot as I approached my ball resting on the back of that green that I’d put through such excitement in the 12 holes and heart-racing shot prior to getting it there.
As I began to study the long birdie try I was left with I had to calm myself some to be smooth and steady with the stroke I’d need for this snaking putt. Although the adrenaline flowing through me at this point was a positive, I wouldn’t quite need the aggressiveness I’d unleashed from the fairway bunker just moments before with this putt.
I would need to start it well out to the right for the first half of its journey, as the hump created by the back lip of the greenside bunker would gradually swing it left once started. Once it made its cross with the slope it would travel down into the little swell in which the hole was cut. I didn’t exactly know what it would do from there to the hole, but I had already more than enough info flooding my conscious than I needed.
With so much going on between me and the hole, I just needed to put a good free stroke on this one and let it trickle down the swell with good speed and hopefully have it nudge close to the hole. I had been stroking the putter smoothly for both days of the tournament which was part of the reason I was in contention, as that was now my only thought, as I readied my Method putter-face behind the ball.
Two rhythmic practice strokes. I glanced up and down the path between the Titleist #3 below me and the end of the swell I tried to feel a connection between and gave it a free-spirited stroke that left purely. I stood up and watched it as it began breaking left off of the bunker’s slope, traveling on toward the swell. “Good speed,” I thought as I watched it continue off the slope and ease over the little hill that leads to the bottom of the green.
It was just left of the hole, about 10 feet now left of its journey, as I waited to see if it would move right any as I would have guessed if forced to read this last half of the putt. I was eager. As it began to lose its roll across the flat part in the bottom of the swell, it moved just a little right. Right towards the hole. “Bliccup.”
It fell in. Adrenaline: back up.
I couldn’t believe I had just watched that putt disappear across the green from me but was reassured in the reality of it by mom’s scream from the cart path. The connection I felt between that Titleist #3 and myself now after somehow moving it from the tee box 400 yards back in the fairway to the bottom of the hole in the fashion it had unfolded was astonishing. Those 3 shots blended together to be one special birdie on that 4th hole, that had now propelled me to -4 par for the Championship, with just 5 holes to play.
The hair on my arms was standing up now as I jolted up to the 5th tee. There was no doubt now that I was either leading or neck-and-neck with the leaders for the Championship, as I could sense the tension and excitement around me in the faces of the spectators who had come watch the action unfold.
There was nervousness and pure interest to see how I would handle the finish, and it was the first time in my life that I now had something in front of me that meant so much. For me, the moment I was in after coming off those back-to-back birdies was purely incredible. The only thing I wanted was to live in it and keep playing. Having the lowest score of the tournament wasn’t what any of this meant in my heart.
The tee shot at number 5 was one of my favorites on the course, even though it didn’t really fit my shot-shape. With a few tall pines that dangled their limbs out in front of the tee box where one would’ve liked to start their tee shot, you had to aim left of the fairway and fade something back to the right in order to hit driver down this unique hole. With the adrenaline I had flowing, I was convinced I could do just that, and have a chance to go at this par 5 green in two.
“Swoosh, Swoosh”, as I made my two practice swings, whipping the club through a little harder on the last one to rehearse for the aggressive lash I was about to give it.
As I turned through it with all I had the momentum carrying from my upper body outraced my lower-half causing the club head to fly through the hit just a second too fast and release over before I’d intended it too.
The ball started left of the fairway just as I’d aimed but couldn’t fade back to the right since I hadn’t held the face open enough through impact. I watched it as it bounded through the pine-straw on down the hole a good ways, as it finally came to a rest underneath the left trees where I knew I could at least play the next shot from.
Upon reaching the ball I felt a slight relief from all the excitement that had built up from the previous moments and was even more fortunate about it staying in play, just some 7 or 8 yards inside the out-of-bounds line. I waited for my playing partners to play their shots down the fairway which gave me a little time to ponder what I would do from here (briefly realizing that I was still playing with other people).
There were no trees or anything in front of me, and the lie in the pine straw wasn’t all that bad. Knowing I wouldn’t be hitting 3-wood from here to go for the green allowed me to figure between punching something safe and short down in the little valley presented by the fairway for those laying up risk-free, or taking a stronger club and playing up to the top level where trees narrowed in on both sides.
Given that being on this top level would make it much easier to see the green where the flag was perched and land me closer to it for my 3rd shot, I elected to play further up where my percentage for birdie would be increased. After all, the percentages had been in my favor so far that day, right?
“WHACK” as I plowed through the sandy pine straw with my 3-hybrid as it sailed over the valley in the fairway with force. I got a little ahead of it with my hips this time as I came through resulting in the fade I was looking for in the tee shot, as the Titleist #3 slid across the landing zone and bounded in the cluster of pines on the right some 70 yards from the green.
“You’ll make something from outta there,” I mumbled to myself as I eyed the little white dot lying under the trees back from where I stood.
I knew I’d have at least a gap to the green somewhere as this group of trees wasn’t dense enough to completely block me out, and it was so as I spotted one upon approaching the ball. With a young little pine to my left and another one to my right and more in front of me, I’d have to navigate through it to land close to the pin. The tree’s first limb was about 10 feet off the ground, with the next one being about 15 feet above it.
This 15-foot window up in the sky presented by the limbs was my route to the pin if I wanted to get it close. Surely I could have punched under the trouble and got it somewhere around the green with a chance to get up-and-down for par, that at -4, would have been more than enough here. But in the moment’s circumstance, this just didn’t feel right to me. I hadn’t hit a shot in good position on the hole yet, and I felt like I was destined to go up.
66 yards. I pulled sand wedge and began visualizing this shot going through the little gap in the limbs and finding the flagstick perched atop the ridge. I figured my coach and all the frozen spectators around the scene now were holding their breaths as they saw me taking long practice swings gazing at the little window in the trees, realizing what I was about to try.
The last thing they wanted to see at this point was the ball ricocheting off the tree and bounding back at me. I couldn’t help but snicker a little at the calmness I felt amidst all the tenseness from the others in this moment, as I readied the clubface behind my ball.
With the little window in the tree pictured in my mind, and that Titleist #3 logo smiling up at me, I pulled the club back, and brought it through as rhythmically possible as I ever had with a wedge shot. It took off right at the bottom limbs and shot through the gap, missing even the leaves on either limb by a wide margin as it glided on towards the green.
I knew I’d controlled the distance pretty close judging how the strike felt off the face, and now I just needed it to fly far enough to carry the ridge as it was coming in too high to skip up it. Glaring under the limb anxiously awaiting my ball’s return to the ground, it pitched just above the ridge and stumbled forwards to 5 feet from the hole.
“WOO!” echoed my coach’s excitement from across the cart path sitting behind the green. It was a shot that had even wowed me, and now I was ready to hit the putt for a possible 3rd straight birdie.
Though it was only 5 feet and hardly any break in it, I took my time getting ready to hit this putt, as what it was for meant so much to me. I tried to get it in my conscious that it was just another short putt that I’d calmly knock in as I had all day, but the emotional intensity of what was unfolding started to affect me, as I paced around the green pretending to study the putt from each side of the hole. Really, I was only thinking. Thinking of what everything I was doing all meant.
5 feet down the hill to get to -5 under. Finally, I shook the nerves and was ready. Rocking the putter slowly back and guiding it through to give the ball just enough to start down the hill towards the hole, I watched it break a touch right before curling in gracefully around the back edge of the cup.
“BOOM” my coach had shouted to narrate it’s happening, but I had already said it in my mind when I knew it was in.
*3 birdies in a row. Imagine that.
-5 for the day and -5 for the Championship. Something told me I had the lead at that point, and with the finishing stretch now left to play, I couldn’t help but think about it. The 6th hole is where Longleaf’s front 9 turned back towards to the clubhouse, where the excitement now surrounding this part of the golf course would soon turn to anxiousness upon finishing the round, waiting on the result of win or lose. But there were still a few moments left to make between where I stood now glaring down the tough 6th hole and the last green, as I faced the pressure of trying to win the State Championship.
“Woosh” I quickly took my stance.
“CLANK”! Left it went. Not good.
I stood there on the tee hunched over, squinting down the hole’s left side as I tried to determine where it had ended up. I couldn’t tell at the moment but where my coach’s golf cart raced among the array of searching spectators wasn’t a very consoling spot to be in. Especially not in the situation I was in.
As I threw my bag on my shoulders and hauled off down the fairway towards all the chaos, I knew I’d rushed the tee-shot. The adrenaline I had flowing through my body after jolting up to the 6th tee at -5 (the lowest under par I had ever reached in a round of golf) took over my routine, causing me to not even take the time to look where I was aimed before hitting it. Where I’d really got out of whack was only taking the one quick practice swing, not the two fluid ones I’d stuck by all day before playing every shot.
“Don’t let the situation you’re in change anything, stick to the rhythm that’s gotten you this far,” I reassured myself.
When I reached the spot everyone had now gathered, I realized where it was. It was not only under the only tree down the hole’s left side but in it. It was lodged so far into the bush-like piece of vegetation my coach was glaring into, that it was trapped underneath the bottom of its thick leave-covered branches.
I could barely see the ball in there, as I attempted to reach in and part some of the leaves before realizing it was a holly tree. It’s pointed leaves that were now trying to stick through my hands made this matter even worse, so I decided to call a rules official over to weigh my options out of this situation. The bush obviously wasn’t being my friend at this time, and I wanted no part of it.
“So what can I do?" I asked him impatiently as the rules official had begun rambling on through rules I already knew.
“Well, the only way to get out from under it will be to take an unplayable lie from here, which gives you two club-lengths away from the object, no nearer the hole. And a 1 stroke penalty.”
“Yep, that’s my best option, ” I responded to him as nicely as I could under my frustration with the little thorned-bush.
My first club-length only moved me out from under the tree’s core, still in the reach of its devilish branches. The next one moved me just to the right of it where I could now get back to playing the hole. However, because it's pointy branches still stuck out slightly to my left I couldn’t take the escape shot at the green, adding even more to the hatred I'd grown for the thing.
The holly tree had been the only bush-like vegetation on the entire hole that could swallow up a golf ball, but now just between me and my path to the fairway was some double palm tree that made up the other part of this annoying little flower bed. I came to a conclusion that it was there to irk me just a little more.
Luckily, its split trunks were fairly far apart from each other and widened further apart the higher up the tree stretched. This presented a wider gap the higher up one played a shot through the goal posts-like figure created by the two trunks.
Upon first thought, I was tempted to take 4-iron and try to burn a low hook through the gap that would have to start way out to the right and turn back towards the green. This would have been the boldest thing I’d done all day and possibly one of the boldest of my life given the less than casual situation I was in. I shuddered at the thought of the ball not making it through this narrowest part of the trunks’ gap, knowing that I could end up making a 9 on the hole should it not start perfectly straight and come bounding off either of the wooden barriers to no telling where.
The higher up I peered at the widening gap, the more I was convinced to loft something up through it safely out to the fairway where I could actually have a normal 4th shot. I had handled those okay so far for the tournament.
Resting my pitching wedge behind the ball, I eyed the air that would lead me back out to the fairway between the highest part of the gap, before hitting a committed punch right through the uprights of the “goal posts” for a field goal. As heroic as it would have been to pull off the touchdown through the gap, I was satisfied with the field goal for that unnerving moment.
From 111 yards to the flag I played another soft wedge to about 12 feet left for a bogey, which wasn’t bad for what had started off as such a disaster of a hole.
On the bogey putt I had to come straight up the face of a ridge that ran vertically through the middle of this green, missing it a foot or two to the left of the hole, before tapping in for double-bogey.
A six on the 6th hole (dropping me back to -3 for the Championship). I didn’t know what to think as I came off of this green now with only 3 holes to play, but I knew it didn’t go as planned.
I walked off of the green with my head down not looking at any of the spectators whose hearts I felt had plummeted after watching me make my first flaw of the day. Before I had time to even think about regrouping, here came coach on his golf cart.
“Ole’ King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he...” Literally. In the low of this moment, those were his words to me. I chuckled just like I had when he recited it to me earlier after the first nine, not slowing down on my walk to the 7th tee.
“I got it, it’s ok," as I managed to give him a grin in response to what I was about to do.
Nothing that he or anyone else could have said to me at this point was going to change how I handled the scenario that I was in- it was all up to me on what happened from here to the finish.
Quickly, I realized that I was still -3 par for the whole Championship. With 3 holes that I knew I could play ahead of me, this wasn’t a bad thing to get a grip on. The 6 I had just made no longer affected what happened from here on out, unless I let it destroy the strong-minded mentality I had carried with me this whole way. I made a mistake back on the 6th tee, and now it was time to put it behind me and learn from it, just as I had from all the mistakes I’d made throughout tournament golf before this day, that now strengthened me to the point of contending for this Championship.
“You’re not playing for that trophy in the clubhouse," I remembered.
I was playing for the sheer opportunity of overcoming moments such as these and making them into so much more.
Now I had begun again to relish in the amazing reality of playing for the State Championship, and I wasn’t about to release that feeling.
I was ready for that tee shot on 7, and for the 30 minutes ahead that unfolded like a trance to the finish.
With out-of-bounds left of this wide fairway, the only place I couldn’t miss it was where my previous swing had gone. But this swing was timed a little better than the rushed one before
I went back to taking my two practice swings, before latching one right down the middle to bring some hope back to my spectators that now lined the hole eagerly. With the wind into me, I couldn’t reach this par 5 in two, as I hit a solid 3-wood down the middle 50 yards short of the green.
My pitch from the fairway landed a tad short of the hole, before spinning back to about 15 feet below it. The putt wasn’t the worst of my effort, but from 15 feet they don’t all go in as I left it short up the hill. It was a solid par none-the-less, as I moved on to the 8th at -3.
A par at the par 3 8th left me with only 1 hole left to face, at -3 for the Championship. I had carded a final “3” on each of the tough par 3’s that Longleaf offered, which had been key to my momentum throughout both days.
I stood there on the 9th tee, staring down the dreamy fairway that at the moment didn’t even seem real. I forgot that my playing partners were still there with me, and motioned for both of them to go ahead and tee off.
When I was somewhat back into reality, I pegged my tee in the ground and placed that Titleist #3 on it one last time, that had stuck with me that entire day.
“Swoosh, Swoosh”, the club felt like a magic wand in my hands.
It glided down the center of the fairway. I hadn’t even noticed the two bunkers that made up the right side of the hole, I had only swung with it and never looked back.
There was something about this moment now, that was by far the coolest of anything I’d ever felt on a golf course in my life.
While my playing partners each played up towards the green, I shot the flagstick with my rangefinder dead on at 127.
127 yards, now between me and that last green.
I was soon about to play this last shot with my back to the mob of spectators now gathered on the edge of the clubhouse’s scenery, stretched from the left of the green all the way down the left side of the 9th’s quiet fairway.
As I made my club selection, I knew I usually would have hit 9-iron here, but there was no arguing with the force that told me to hit a pitching wedge.
I couldn’t help but factor in the adrenaline that I suspected I would strike this shot with, amidst the calmness of my body that now felt controlled by the moment.
As I readied that club face behind my ball after the ritual practice swings, I was absolutely lost in the stillness of this perfect moment. No one made a sound, as all took their breath in awaiting me to pull the club back.
As that club guided back to the top of its arch, it wasn’t just I who had pulled it up there, but something greater than me was making this swing. It was pure God. And He brought it through that Titleist#3 one last time, right on the dot.
It soared through the air so perfectly, carrying the hump in the middle of the green before landing dead even with the flagstick, stopping on a dime. No more than 8 feet left of the hole, exactly where I had aimed it.
Claps and cheers erupted from the nervous group of the spectators that had followed me all day. I was more than thrilled with the shot’s end result, as it reflected the maturity I now carried in my stride up onto the green.
The way I’d played it to such a smart but aggressive landing spot showed the confidence I had in my ability that had propelled me to contend. At some point, you have to break through and handle the pressure, and that shot into the 9th was exactly that for me. The setting, the scene, and that shot in the moment is something I will never forget.
One last putt. It was a fairly straightforward birdie look that I determined should break a little to my left. The back of this green was fairly tricky, so I stuck with my first instinct and now focused on staying in the moment and stroking it smoothly for one last time.
I lined it up like I wanted, and stood behind it to give everything time to settle.
My playing partners, the crowd lined up down the 9th and all who had gathered around the clubhouse now went away from my consciousness. It was quiet enough to hear a bird rustle in the trees surrounding the back of that 9th green.
Once content with the moment, I rocked the putter back as I had all day and gave it a calm stroke. It eased offline right at the start and slid by the left side of the hole some 3 feet past. The way the putt rolled, something told me that it simply hadn’t been meant to go in. Now what really mattered, was making this next one.
As I brushed the putter head through twice, as smooth and steady as possible, I let it go on the 3rd stroke. Purely, the that Titleist#3 rolled over the front edge of the cup and emptied into in, just as those critical little putts had done all tournament long for me. I hadn’t missed one inside 3 feet for two days.
Par, and I’d shot a career best score of 68. Three under par (-3) for the day, and three under for the championship.
Moments later once underneath the clubhouse, I found out I had won the State Championship. The leader who went out that morning on the other side of the golf course had finished at even par (E), after a two over (+2) 73 to go with his Round 1 69.
Had I made that last putt for birdie on the 9th, I would have ended up winning by 4 shots. Instead, those last three pars I made coming in kept me at -3, propelling me to win by 3.
In my 3rd State Championship, with some Titleist #3 ball I pulled out of my bag that morning, I started off with a 3 on the first hole and made many more in special places around Longleaf that day to go to win (by you know how many).
The journey, hard work, and the hardships I overcame to get there mean more than what’s etched on the trophy I received could ever mean. When I overcame making the double-bogey at the 6th hole, these things are what taught me how to do it, as well as many of the other bold shots and moments I was fortunate enough to create that day.
That day was an unbelievable experience, it was a day I would never have thought would make my father cry upon watching me through the process that led up to the result. That day was the day that made me, that began to shape me into who I am now.
“We have come to share in Christ, if we hold firmly till the end, the confidence we had at first."