You don’t know what nervous is until you enter the last round of a buddies-trip tourney with the lead (and no sleep)
The firepit embers were still flickering, illuminating the towering trees all around us. It was almost 2 a.m. Bottles clinked in celebration and commiseration. A guitar was being strummed. The Uncle Tony Invitational, an annual buddies trip to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort I partake in along with a couple dozen pals, had concluded a few hours earlier and none of us wanted the camaraderie to end. Suddenly I felt an arm around my shoulder, and Dean Wilson — yes, the PGA Tour winner — pulled me in for an avuncular chat. “I was proud of you out there, Shippy,” Dean said. “You looked confident. You looked composed. And every shot I saw you hit was a good one.” At that moment I could have floated up with the smoke to the treetops.
It had already been a very emotional experience. I arrived in Bandon straight from a long week at Royal Portrush. I was worn out physically, homesick and feeling guilty that I was away from my family in the heart of summer vacation. My game was raggedy, too. My clubs went missing on the way to Northern Ireland, so by the first round of the UTI it had been nearly six weeks since I’d played a full 18 holes. With its crosswinds and tight lies, Bandon is not an easy place to find your game. And then there is the pressure of not wanting to let down your partner while weathering endless trash talk from the other fellas, to say nothing of the accumulated fatigue from the long, boozy nights.
In the first of four rounds of net best-ball, on Bandon Dunes’ namesake course, I actually played fairly well, the round made easier because my partner, Steve John, tore up the place. SJ is a rock-solid 3 who plays a sizzling low cut that borders on the erotic. We took the first-round lead with a score of –10. In the real world, nobody cares about the UTI standings, but for our little tribe it is deeply important; the winners get an actual trophy and the joy of gloating viciously in a years-long group text thread that is my favorite reading. That night I lay in bed, unable to sleep. In my head I was playing the next day’s venue, Bandon Trails. I was feeling such an intense pressure to live up to the lead that I actually became short of breath. I was choking with my head still on the pillow!
It should come as no surprise that I played pitifully at Trails. SJ bailed me out so many times I honestly wanted to weep with gratitude. We kept the lead by one stroke.
For our final day we would play 36 holes. Even though I already had a blister forming on the bottom of my foot, I rose with the sun to haunt the range. I was still searching. The front nine at Pacific Dunes was such a struggle that on the 10th tee I stared out to sea, thinking about all the pep talks I’ve given my kids before big games and big tests. It was time to live those words. Chin up, shoulders back, I gave it everything I had on the back nine, shooting a 37 in the wind and making some crucial net-birdies. (I was playing off of 9.) But we were now in second place, three back. When I told my pards I was going to the range between rounds, he looked at me like I had gone crazy, which I sort of had. But it was deserted and quiet up there, and I found some rhythm and peace of mind.
For the final 18, back on Bandon Dunes, we were paired with the leaders: Bruce Taylor, executive director of equipment at Golf Digest, and David Licosati, VP of sales for the IT company Service Strategies. Bruce, 65, is a six-time senior champion at Wilshire Country Club in L.A., and he didn’t miss a shot on the front nine. Dave, a towering 6’4”, was a rugby stud at the University of San Diego who has only been serious about golf for about a year. Playing off 17, he was in-pocket on the first four holes…and then summoned three perfect shots and made a natural birdie on No. 5, maybe the hardest hole at the entire resort. When SJ and I both three-putted the 8th hole — his first such miscue of the trip! — we were five strokes back and on the ropes. Walking down the 9th fairway, I flashed on something Tom Watson once told me: “You can’t win major championships until you learn to breathe.” I resolved to stop trying so hard and focus on little things: deep breaths, tender grip pressure, relaxed shoulders, good posture. Suddenly, for the first time all trip, I was releasing the clubhead and putter blade; I played the next three holes in net four-under to get us back in the fight.
The final seven holes had more melodramatic developments than a telenovela, with David making a series of improbable bogey-net-pars to keep SJ and me at bay. We were one down standing in the fairway of the short par-4 16th hole. I was facing a ticklish 50-yard pitch through the wind, a shot that had bedeviled me all trip. But I clipped this one perfectly, my ball trickling to four feet. That morning I had missed a similar-length birdie putt because I was anxious and edgy and tried to jam it into the hole. I knew the whole tournament was likely riding on this putt, but standing over it I felt…nothing. I was utterly relaxed because I knew I was going to make it. It was one of the most life-affirming feelings I’ve ever had. Tie ball game.
Behind the green of the par-5 18th hole, all the boys had gathered for the denouement, a rowdy gallery if there ever was one. I was ten paces short of the green in three, facing a very touchy shot over a buried elephant and down the slick green to a perilous pin position. Any other time I would’ve been terrified to take the putter back, but not today — I smoothed my ball on the perfect line. I can still hear in my mind all the hooting and hollering as the ball tracked toward the hole…then the chorus of groans as it singed the edge of the cup. Still, the gimme net-birdie sent us to sudden death.
On the second extra hole I gutted a do-or-die 15-footer to save an unlikely par, but it wasn’t enough, as David had hit the best shot of his life and brushed in the winning putt. I thought I would be devastated to come so close and fall short, but in fact I was euphoric. Of course, it felt great to have all the guys pounding me on the back and expressing their approval for my clutch play. But more than that, I was grateful to have come through for SJ and our faithful caddie Brandon Skytta, who had sustained me with his certitude and good cheer.
Around the firepit that night I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt zero disappointment until my heart-to-heart with Dean Wilson. “If you want to be brutal about it, we could say you failed because you’re not drinking out of the trophy right now,” Dean said. “I’m sure there are a few shots or putts you’d like to have back. There always is. But why are you so happy right now? Because the game usually breaks your heart. On those very rare occasions when you conquer it, nothing feels better. Nothing.”