RICHMOND, Va. What I learned from competing in the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship here last weekend at the impressive Kinloch Golf Club:
• You can't beat anybody if you don't make putts. Just like baseball is 90 percent pitching and 10 percent pitching (get the point?), golf is all about putting. Tiger Woods proved that once upon a time. Make putts and you're hard to beat, especially in match play, which is what the top 64 finishers advanced to at the Senior Am. I didn't qualify for that, and the way I handled Kinloch's fast and undulating greens, I was never going to be much of a threat.
• It's the putting, stupid. That point bears repeating. I didn't miss a bunch of three-footers, I just didn't make much outside of three feet. Two rounds, 68 putts. My real downfall came in Saturday's opening round, where I struck the ball very well yet turned a 70 or 72, at worst, into a 77 with a combination of mis-reads and a lack of feel for the speed (and therefore the breaks) of the greens.
• Practice rounds are important. It definitely hurt that heavy rain late Thursday forced the club to close the course on Friday, when I was scheduled to play a practice round. The club had also been closed Wednesday due to a storm and the forecast for Thursday wasn't promising, although the course was able to re-open for practice. I arrived after 5 p.m. that day, having driven from Pittsburgh, and got 45 minutes of chipping and putting in before the deluge arrived. I was able to ride around the course in a cart Friday, but I wasn't able to get on the greens. It was a disadvantage I never overcame.
Instead, I played nine holes at a decent public course nearby, Sycamore Creek, where the greens were probably running at 4 on a Stimpmeter. Kinloch's greens, I was told by an informed source, were about 13.
• Come to think of it, I usually don't putt well on fast, severely sloped greens. Mainly because I don't get a chance to putt on surfaces like that. My home course has greens that are relatively flat and, on a good day, medium speed (which is what most clubs with limited budgets should be). If I want to improve on fast greens, I probably need to join Oakmont. (Boss, can I expense that?)
• Some guys age really well. Bill Millsaps, the long-time golf writer from the Richmond paper and a local legend, is retired but still funny. He was the guest speaker at the Friday night Senior Amateur players' dinner. His list of 10 things he knew about golf included, "The ball in the rough you can see sitting up from 50 yards away is never yours... Bad shots come in threes. If you hit a fourth consecutive bad shot, it's actually the start of another set of three... If you say a shot was the worst one you've ever hit in your life, just wait. You'll hit a worse one."
He also told a story, which he credited to the late-great writer Peter Dobereiner, about Nick Faldo being asked for an autograph as he walked from a green to the next tee during an American tournament. Faldo went ballistic and berated the man until the disgusted fan decked Faldo with a punch. It was the first case in recorded history, Millsaps said, of "the fan hitting the s--t."
• Luck always plays a factor, no matter what. In the second round, I was already a couple over par and probably at least one shot below the cut line when I hit a good drive at the par-5 13th hole. I had a downhill shot to a small green, 235 yards, and decided to go for it. I blocked a poor 4-wood shot well to the right into a thin line of trees by the 14th tee. My playing partners, Bill Palmer and Buzz Fly, weren't sure what was over there but we all thought it would be playable. To save time just in case, I dropped another ball and hit a provisional, a nice draw to 15 feet, pin-high.
Half a dozen spectators by the green and two rules officials heard my shot hit in the rough, right of the cart path. Despite the help of a whole posse, five minutes passed and we never found the ball. Bizarre. Well, I still had a 15-footer to save par. I left it in the jaws, an inch short. What a bad bogey and bad luck to lose that ball. Of course, if I'd hit it to 15 feet for eagle the first time, it wouldn't have been a bogey. Same guy, two entirely different shots. That's the aggravating mystery of golf. I bounced back and hit it to eight feet on the next hole, six feet on the hole after that, and lipped out those birdie putts.
• You can make up for mistakes by making putts.
• A birdie-birdie finish might've gotten me into a playoff for the top 64. The 17th was playing 189 yards to a green angled on a ledge above a creek. I missed the green badly to the right, had a poor lie and did well to pitch it to 20 feet. The pin was on a crest and I had to make that putt to have any chance, so I was determined to give it a run. Not bad, but it ran five feet past. My return putt wandered right of the cup, the kind of thing that happens when you're at the tail-end of the field late in the day and the greens get trampled. I snapped a drive into the water at 18 for a pair of double bogeys to finish at 81, not that it mattered since I'd already flunked this pass-fail course by then.
• Practice facility envy is a terrible thing. Kinloch, which is maintained exquisitely, has a world-class practice area. There are three short-game greens surrounded by acres of immaculately mown fairway grass. I didn't notice them but heard later there were markers in the ground every ten yards, up to 110 yards, so you could work on distance control. There were perfect tour-quality bunkers next to the greens. There were two large putting greens, also. The range was so big that there was a building on it one of those covered/indoor academy-type places plus another practice green to its left. Yeah, I'd like to have a membership just to the practice area. It blows away every facility that I know of in western Pennsylvania (including Oakmont), where a chunk of flat land is difficult to find.
• Club perks are nice. Kinloch had two jars filled with homemade cookies at all times in the grillroom. In the tray by the door that holds scorecards, pencils, divot-fixers and tees, there was also a pile of unusual ball markers shiny, freshly minted and never-circulated new pennies. Very cool.
• There's always next year. Actually, I already learned that from a Cubs' fan.