Travelin Joe Plays with the Pros at the Humana Challenge: Round 1

January 23, 2015

Driver down the left side of the fairway. 7-wood to 20 feet. Two putts. Par, net birdie. I’m 1-under after one hole in the Humana Challenge. As one-time Palm Springs denizen Frank Sinatra once sang, “I’ve got the world on a string.” After the third hole, I wanted to throw up. Welcome to tournament golf.

Day One at the Humana was memorable for so many reasons, right and wrong. It started with a surprise. Donnie Hammond, the 1986 Bob Hope champion, apparently withdrew on Tuesday. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that after he saw who he drew for his first-round pairing, he caught the next plane out of town.

I wound up with second alternate Roger Sloan, a 27-year-old Canadian. I’m not sure I had ever heard of him. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

Sloan snuck in as second alternate, after Monday qualifying the week before in Hawaii, making the cut and finishing 67th. Turns out he won last year on the Tour and has two PGA Tour Canada wins to his credit. He’ll have to make up some ground after a 2-over-par 74 on Day One, but he could not have been more pleasant to be alongside. We chatted about hockey, about Alberta and British Columbia courses and about the differences between the Tour and the PGA Tour.

“The biggest difference,” Sloan said, “are the distractions. Everything is just bigger on the PGA Tour. More people, more equipment vans, more volunteers, more everything. It’s tougher to focus.”

I asked him what the difference was in quality of play. “After the top 25 or so on the PGA Tour, the differences are very small between the other guys and the top players,” he said. “The PGA Tour players drive the ball just a little bit better. They make more putts. Otherwise, it’s close.”

I can’t imagine too many players driving it better than Sloan did on this day. He was a machine. His approaches, however, weren’t as sharp, and he couldn’t buy a putt: four lip-outs and three left on the edge. I was frustrated for our team, and frustrated for him. Great guy, brings a bunch of game. Get a few putts to drop and he’s 68, not 74.

Yet, it wasn’t Sloan’s game that was the problem for me today. It was my own nerves. My own focus. My own sense of being well out of my comfort zone. I had enjoyed a superb lesson on Tuesday from GOLF Magazine Top 100 teacher Tim Mahoney, but I just couldn’t relax enough to let those smooth swings happen. And way too many things going through my head that created more tension. I couldn’t blame the weather—75 degrees and just a hint of wind—and I couldn’t blame course conditions. OK, I could blame the design, a late ‘80s Jack Nicklaus creation with slender, extremely well-guarded greens, where every marginal shot was punished severely. Still, the blame falls squarely on my own nerves. I am not a tournament golfer. When every shot counts, including two-foot putts, it’s quite a different exercise. I found myself neither physically fit, nor mentally fit for the rigors of a tournament round of golf.

I couldn’t blame a lack of sleep. I slept better than ever at the La Quinta Resort & Club, one of GOLF Magazine’s Silver Medal winners in our 2014-’15 Premier Resorts Awards. The Wednesday night Pairings party at the Renaissance Esmeralda set the tone. Amazing food stations, Rich Lerner and Golf Channel entertaining, putting contests, a silent auction for charity. They even posted jumbo screens with amateur profiles throughout the night. Unfortunately, I never saw my profile. During the time that amateurs with the letter L starting their last name through the letter R, they instead showed live footage of a string quartet composed of four attractive females, playing music never intended for the violin. Where P for Passov would have appeared, we were treated to a music video of the ladies playing Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” I would have liked to have seen my profile, but honestly, the violins were better.

Way too complicated for amateur hacks was the scoring system. I was told at the first tee to record scores for the other pro in my group, Tom Hoge, a personable Fort Worth resident by way of North Dakota. I was also asked to keep the tab, gross and net, for the other amateur in my group, an amiable investment banker named Bill Strong, who just moved back from Hong Kong to Chicago. Then I had to mark down the overall gross score for their team. I’m trying to put a golf ball in play, and I’ve got accounting duties that rival those studying to pass their C.P.A. exam.

So to shoot even par as I did, with a 10 handicap, meant it was a colossal struggle. At the 11th hole, our second, Sloan surprised me by missing what I thought was a very makeable putt. Suddenly, my 6-foot par-saver was important for the team. Tension engulfed me. Easy 6-footer, shoved it way right.

Then at 12, I stopped my follow-through and push-sliced my drive into unplayable native shrubbery. At the tee, I was seized by the notion that we might be playing too slowly. Oh my god—what if I cost these guys a slow play penalty? Yet, why was I thinking that? We were fine. Lost ball, never hit a provisional, take an X, and oh boy, I’m now feeling very self-conscious. It only got worse from there. At 12, I caught a glimpse of a leader board. Phil Mickelson had birdied three of his first six at La Quinta Country Club. Wait, I’m playing in the same field as Phil Mickelson. What am I doing?

In short, I let myself get overwhelmed. I made a handful of pars, but didn’t help the team much after that. Sloan rallied to post three birdies, but it left me at even par 72. Hey, somebody in the field has to finish T147 out of 156 amateurs. Back at the hotel room, I looked at the leaderboard. Luke Donald shot 75, putting him 145th out of 156 pros. Jason Dufner skied to 76, placing him 148th. I felt better. My performance wasn’t historically bad, just poor—the equivalent of a pro shooting 75 or 76.

And I finally remembered where I saw this Roger Sloan guy. He won the Nova Scotia Open on the Tour in 2014. Long hair, scraggly goatee. Made an 8-foot par putt at the 72nd to get into a playoff, then won it in sudden death. I was watching on TV, and the crowd broke out into an impromptu version of the Canadian national anthem. He’s out there grinding away, every day, every week, trying to gain a foothold on the PGA Tour. I guess I can do that for two more days.

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