by Kevin Sylvester, Buffalo Sports Page
I have many friends that hate the U.S. Open. They don’t like watching pars. I don’t hate it, and appreciate par being a good score. That’s been the U.S. Open’s identity, and the USGA is determined to keep it that way. However, they seemed to have gotten it wrong again with the green speeds. Players have been penalized at Shinnecock Hills for hitting good shots. Good shots aren’t always rewarded, but they should not be penalized. The course is supposed to be set up fairly for all golfers on all tee times. That did not happen during round 3 for the lead groups.
That was the consensus opinion anyway. Patrick Reed made an interesting comment following his round on Sunday on Fox. Reed said that he didn’t think the course was unfair, but that the pin placements on 13 and 15 were off by about 2 yards each. That was it.
The course was set up easier, supposedly, for the final round. Tommy Fleetwood’s 63 would be evidence of that, but then again, he played really well. As did the champion, now two time defending champion Brooks Koepka. Judging by the final leaderboard, the tournament played out very well with a strong top 10. A Major championship is supposed to be tough and one has to beat the best to win. That’s what Koepka did for the second consecutive year.
My partner, Dave, at Fox Valley CC suggested I write an account of what it’s like to be in a shootout with a chance to win a club’s Major. We had that chance this past weekend at the Member/Member tournament, and lost on the 4th sudden death shootout hole. It was exhilarating to be in it, and here is my account of what it was like.
To make the shootout and have a chance to win the event, you first have to win your flight which is no easy proposition. The format was shamble best-ball day one, then shamble aggregate (both balls) day 2. Flights were determined after day one scores, and our 68 was not great considering both Dave and I are 8.6 indexes. We had a bad day, and zigged all day, no zagging. For Day 2, our flight was tight amongst the 6 teams, all within 1 or 2 strokes of the lead. I was so unhappy with my ball striking on day one, I used a completely different set of clubs, but the same putter.
It paid immediate dividends as we opened up on the par 5 12th hole. We used Dave’s drive (had to use at least 7 from each player) which left us 200 yards from the flagstick. I took out my 3 iron (love that club) and hit a beauty that ran up to 15 feet hole-high right. A great look for eagle. I burned the right edge on the putt and tapped in for birdie. Dave also made birdie (we won a skin for 2 net eagles), and we were off to a great start. We figured par (144) would be a solid score for the day with both balls counting. Our plan was to avoid double bogey at all costs. We did until our last hole (I hit a draw that found the hazard on 11 and took a 6), but it didn’t spoil our play. We shot a net 138, and liked our chances as we headed to scorer’s table. Our score was best in our flight, and tied for 2nd best on the day. We were in!
Prepping for the shootout
I had been in a shootout once before, and it was a 4 hole aggregate playoff with 8 teams, 2 knocked out per hole. It was four years at the Orchard Pack CC invitational, which my partner and I actually won. It remains gratifying to this day. I do remember the nerves I had going into it, and I felt the same way prior to the start of this one. I asked Dave if he wanted a drink or a shot. He said no. I did a quick shot of whiskey and ran to the range to practice the tee shot I’d have to hit on 18. We decided I would take the tee because I had found the fairway the first two rounds and laid it up 20 yards short of the water each time laying a little off my 3 wood.
There were no balls by the range tees as is it was Saturday evening. So I drove out on the range and grabbed a handful. I drove back to the tee, setting up on the right side to simulate how I would set up alignment on the hill at 18. I duffed the first one because I was hurrying. Then I decided to slow down and go through my routine. I struck the next 4 perfect. I decided one more and I was ready. I topped the damn thing. So I reached into my bag for a ball to donate to the range. I couldn’t head to the shootout with that topper being my last contact. I struck the OnCore Avant (yellow one in case you find it) perfect and headed back to pick up my partner for the shootout.
Each of the five teams drove up the hill to the 18th tee for instructions and to draw numbers out of hat for order of play. The rest of the members and spouses were on the patio above the 18th green watching on. Dave drew for us, and pulled number 4. Good. I didn’t have to go first. Greg, a great guy that had a serious health scare earlier this year (we’re glad to have him back on the course) went first and hit a good drive down the left side of the fairway. It may have drifted into the rough, but I knew it was by the 150 yard stake. The next team went and found the fairway. The 2 time defending champion went before me and put it into the fairway bunker. It was surprising and I think all of us were thinking that’s a tough spot. I was also thinking, don’t put it in there too.
I was next on the tee and my heart was beating. It felt like an old cartoon I remember when a character found love at first site and was illustrated by a heart shape expanding outward from the chest. Dave never seemed nervous, but he was feeling it too judging by the graph from the heart rate monitor watch he was wearing (pictured to the right).
I took deep breaths, and pictured myself back on the range. Aim at the tree across the creek on the left side and hit a baby cut off of that. I took what felt like a half swing and sent the ball on it’s way. It started down the center of the fairway and faded towards the bunker. I cleared it by a good margin, and Dave was happy to have a clean shot.
Approach and Green
The defending champion’s (Chuck) partner Mike was first to play. He had hybrid out for what had to be 170 yardage, but the green is up on a hill and sloped severely. It was tough shot to be sure, but he hit a brilliant shot. Clean contact that hit the front fringe and somehow stayed against the collar. I forget the order of the other three, and was not even sure what our turn was. Dave had the approach in the alternate shot. Yardage to the flag was 144 from the right rough, but good lie. Dave launched it towards the center of the green, with a back left hole location which is super difficult. The ball landed in the center, and gravity brought it down the slope to the right, but not all the way. We were the only team on the green in regulation.
Two of the teams ended up being long, which is wrong on 18. The chip shot down the hill is treacherous and you have to play it parallel and hope the ball doesn’t hang up in the rough. That happened for both teams, and there fate was determined before they putted. Chuck hit a good chip and run from the front of the green, up the hill 4 feet past the hole. It was a good play, but no certain par. The other group (Jones) that was short also had a nice chip to a similar distance, perhaps a tad closer, but again above the hole. It was my turn to putt, with a chance to win with birdie.
We walked the line and around the hole. Dave and I agreed on two cups to the right up the slope from about 25 feet. It may have been 30, but I liked the line. My concern was hitting it too hard past the cup and leaving Dave with a very quick down hill putt, or worse, having the ball roll past and going off the front of the green. As took my stance, I could hear the gallery shhhing everyone. I almost backed off, but figured I could handle it. I pulled my putter back and struck the ball. I knew immediately that I didn’t give it enough. It was slowly going up the hill, turning left and came to rest 5 feet below the hole right. We were still away. Dave had to make it, but I was confident he would. He had been making edge putts all day, and this was right edge firm. He did not disappoint. Right in the heart. We were surviving. As we figured, the other two par putts dropped, down to 3 teams, and headed back to the 18th tee.
Second Playoff Hole.
We drew numbers again, and I was third. I watched the other 2 competitors pipe it down the middle. My heart was racing again, and then I figured out how to handle it. I was going to announce my shot in my head as if I was calling golf on PGA Tour Radio. Here’s the call: “Kevin Sylvester, on the tee at 18 for the second sudden death playoff hole. He has the ball on the right side of the tee box as he did the first time around, tee nearly all the way down, ball slightly above the turf. Practice swing perpendicular to the ball, another near his stance, and he now sets the club behind the ball. Looks like his line is at the tree across the fairway, likely to cut the ball off of that. Here’s the swing,….. and the ball is on a good line down the center, now a slight turn right…..on the fairway…rolling down the slope and inside of 150”. Corny, I know, but it worked. We were away, and Dave hit another shot that looked like it was all over the flag. It landed about 10 feet short, but not high enough to stay on the back plateau. It rolled towards the front of the green, but in a good spot, 25 feet directly below the hole. The Jones group went through the green right into the hazard and would end up making a hell of a 5 from there. Chuck and Mike were on the green, about 5 feet in front of us to the right, in good shape too.
I looked at the putt from all over and told Dave, “I like the line, one ball out left. I’m making this”. I didn’t hear a thing this time, and I was not going to leave this short!. I pulled putter back and struck it well. The pace great, turned right to left, but I knew it would turn back to the right near the cup. I thought it was going in, it looked good, but it broke across the face of the cup and ended up 6 inches to the right. A near miss. Chuck went next, and I didn’t want to watch, but did anyway. He made sure he had the right pace and started to raise his putter 3 feet from the hole, but he hit it too hard. It lipped out and ended up 3 feet above the cup. Tap-ins, and we were down to 2.
Third Playoff Hole.
I was second this time, as we tossed a tee instead of drawing numbers. I found the middle of the fairway, nearly the same distance as the first two times. Mike was first on the approach from another solid tee shot from Chuck, and went through the green to the right on the downslope. The window was open. Dave pulled out 8 iron again and took a good swing, but this was headed right too. It hit the hill, the front right, and came down the slope in the rough. Chuck and I had tough thirds, but I would rather have mine than his. My stance was awkward and I knew I had to get the ball up to the back shelf to give Dave a chance at making the putt for par. I played the ball off my back foot with my 56 degree wedge and committed to hitting it with speed. All I could see was the top of the flag. I made contact and kept the speed on my follow through, and my head down. I could hear the gallery on the patio say good chip. I couldn’t see it. It ran 5 feet past the hole on the left. Chuck was next with a more awkward stance, ball above his feet. He had to bump the ball into the fringe above the green and have the ball trickle to the hole. Not making the green or having it roll off the front were real possibilities. Not for Chuck. The son of a bitch (he’s actually a great guy) almost made it! The ball stopped 3 feet below the hole, meaning Dave had to make our very fast and testy putt to stay alive.
We looked at the putt. Left edge, and the next one didn’t matter. Dave took his stance, made a smooth stroke, and the ball fell right over the edge of the cup and in. Clutch! I’m sure Chuck and Mike thought the son of a bitch made it too. I starting walking right to the cart to head back up the hill to the 18th tee with no doubt about Mike making the 3 footer to extend the playoff.
Fourth and Final
I tossed the tee (it was a terrible toss really) and was up first. I went through the play by play call in my head again and took my swing. I scuffed the ground, but still my good contact. No fade, but a liner down the left side that came to rest in the fairway, inside the 150 stake. It was in an old divot that was growing again, probably a week or 2 old. Chuck and Mike were in the right rough. Dave played first, and took 7 iron this time with the number 154 to the flag. He struck it well. It was on a great line. It looked like it was going to be all over the flag, but somehow it was short. Dave was dumbfounded. It was deflating, but I was determined to pick us up with the good chip again. Mike hit a great shot out of the rough (the only bad approach was from the fairway in the playoff) that ended up 15 feet hole high left. Remarkable really.
I stood over the ball on the hill below the green getting ready for a big chip. It was halfway up. The stance was a little steeper than before, and I grabbed my 56 wedge again. Same plan. Head down, back foot, speed through. I didn’t hit it as hard, but caught it well. I put Dave in a familiar spot, 5 feet from the hole (below this time) left edge. He was going to make it, no doubt in my mind.
Chuck was stalking his birdie putt, and had a walk of confidence as he read the line. As he took his stance, I turned my back not to watch, but ended up peeking. The pace was perfect. The ball took a slight turn to the right and fell over the edge and disappeared along with our chance of winning. Chuck fist-pumped as the dagger came to rest in our hearts. Hats off to Mike and him. They made some great scrambles to stay alive and we missed our chances. We shook hands and congratulated them, and headed off the to the showers. We lost, but held our heads high knowing we gave them a hell of a fight.
I was proud of how we played. We were solid. They were gritty. It took birdie to win the thing. I woke up at 3 am on Sunday, unable to sleep any longer. I kept thinking about the 2 birdie chances we had to win, and how my putts didn’t go in. The first time, why didn’t I give that a better run? It was to win. The second one, how did it not go in? It felt perfect. I’ll get over it, and enjoy the fact that we had a chance. It was a thrill to be in it. I’ll even take solice in this response from 2 time PGA Tour winner Dudley Hart on my Facebook page following my post about not sleeping over this:
Kevin, Hope all is well! Welcome to my world. That’s how I lived for the better part of 26 years! Trust me, it’s worse when it costs you serious cash!!!
After reading that, I immediately thought of Jason Dufner and how a 3 putt at The Players this year cost him $700,000. We weren’t playing for anything near that, but the most we could play for at our club. The sting will eventually go away, but each time I walk by the giant plaque in the clubhouse commemorating Member/Member winner, I may not look. Of course, there’s always next year.
Really, you want more? This is where I make recommendations. I’ll keep this one short. I recommend you sign up for The Duster Challenge. It’s a great time for a great cause. All the details and registration is at dusterchallenge.com.