Last week, I competed in my first USGA event, the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall Links in Elverson, Pennsylvania. After years of close calls in qualifying rounds for various USGA events, I finally broke through by shooting a three-under 69 to advance out of a Chicago-area qualifier. Stonewall is about an hour outside of Philadelphia and has 36 beautiful holes of golf designed by Tom Doak.
For those of you unfamiliar with the U.S. Mid-Amateur, it’s the biggest American amateur championship for men over the age of 25. The working man’s major came to life with the rise of the college golfer, which diminished the chances of an older amateur player winning the U.S. Amateur. Aside from the crown of best “working golfer” in the country, the U.S. Mid-Am comes with the coveted prize of an invitation to compete in the Masters. So after qualifying for the Mid-Am, you are a mere seven rounds away from playing at Augusta National in its little invitational.
For amateur golfers, USGA events are the pinnacle. All year long, the qualifiers for the U.S. Open, Amateur, and, if you’re older, Mid-Am are highlighted on the schedule. These qualifiers are tough. You know you have to be at your best that day, and sometimes even that isn’t enough. Usually, qualifiers are stories of heartbreaking near misses or just not having your best stuff that day.
The Mid-Amateur tournament itself starts with 256 qualifiers playing 36 holes of stroke play. The top 64 players advance to the match-play portion, which mirrors the NCAA basketball tournament. This year, the championship used both the Old Course and the North Course at Stonewall Links for stroke play before moving to just the Old Course for match play. The 36-hole final went back to using both courses.
Earning a trip to a USGA event makes you never want to miss qualifying again. Everything is taken care of with fine detail, from registration to the championship itself. Each day, players are provided with complimentary breakfast and lunch, player-only sections, brand new Pro V1 range balls, and excellent service all-around. The best part about the Mid-Am is the laid-back atmosphere, as 95% of the players are working guys whose priority is to have a good time. The bar is always full, and most are enjoying a couple of days away from real life.
After playing practice rounds on Thursday and Friday at each course, I knew one thing for sure: finding the correct sections of the greens at Stonewall was extremely important.
The Old Course was one of Tom Doak’s first solo commissions. He inherited a Tom Fazio routing plan, which he made some small tweaks to. The Old Course is more traditional than the North and more demanding from tee to green. What stood out to me the most about the Old was the premium on accuracy both off the tee and into its tiny, tilted greens. The course played firm and fast, which made hitting the greens from the rough difficult.
The approach to the small green on the 14th hole at the Old Course
The North Course is more of what you would expect from a Doak design. The landing areas off the tee are generous, but the greens are severe and tricky, especially when the USGA is setting them up. Doak intended the course to be playable for the average golfer yet challenging for a skilled one, and he struck that balance primarily through his work on the greens. In order to score at the North Course, you need to hit precise iron shots and avoid hard putts over big contours. If you find certain areas of the wide fairways, you have a much better chance at getting to the correct parts of the greens.
The extremely tough short par-3 sixth on the North Course at Stonewall
Stroke play, day one
My longtime swing coach and friend Kiel Alderink came out to caddie for me during the event. It was great having someone who knew my game and tendencies on the bag in this high-pressure situation.
I drew starting times of Saturday at 2:05 p.m. off No. 10 on the Old Course and Sunday at 9:05 a.m. off No. 1 on the North. Saturday at 2:05 was the last tee time of the day—not ideal for someone playing in his first USGA event.
It was one of the longest mornings of my life. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was staying in an Airbnb on a farm. I read a little, watched some TV, and eventually decided to go to the course very early because I didn’t have anything else to do. To make matters worse, I was off the 10th, one of the hardest holes on the Old Course. It was a demanding tee shot, and while skimming live scoring, I saw that one of my friends started with a triple bogey on the 10th. That’s easy to do, considering there’s OB down the left and nothing good on the right. The one advantage of the afternoon-morning split that if you get off to a good start, the short turn-around allows you to keep the momentum going from one round to the next.
The scene before my first tee shot at the Mid-Am
My tee time arrived. I managed to overcome some of the worst nerves I’ve ever had to pipe my drive down the middle on the 10th. After hitting my approach to 20 feet, I drained the putt for birdie. It was the best start I could have imagined. My nerves went away, as did any doubt as to whether I belonged at this tournament. I got through five holes at even par and felt in complete control of my game.
On the par-3 15th, I hit my approach just short of the green and chipped it inside three feet. I thought an easy par save was coming. Unfortunately, I didn’t commit to my line and missed the putt. Next up was the difficult closing stretch of 16-18. I believe that the tee shot after a short miss is one of the toughest in golf. Your mind just isn’t right. And sure enough, I hit a poor tee shot on 16 and made a double bogey. I followed that with a missed green on 17. Bogey. My drive on 18 caught the fairway bunker. Another bogey. I wrote down an opening-nine score of 40, five over. Things were slipping away.
I was rattled. My thoughts were racing, and the calm that I felt on the first five holes was gone. I began to think about how bad this round could get.
It’s not surprise that my tee shot on the first hole was terrible—a snap hook that sailed over Stonewall’s entry road. Certain that it was out of bounds, I hit a provisional. (Right down the middle, of course.)
But as we got closer to where we thought my first ball went, we didn’t see any out-of-bounds signs. Amazingly, the road wasn’t OB. A fantastic break. Better yet, the first hole is a gentle-handshake par 5. All I had to do was get back in the fairway and a birdie was in play.
But my mind still wasn’t settled. The negative thoughts kept coming.
Then, as I got ready to hit my shot, a shuttle bus came barreling down the road. I stepped off and waved my arms to try and get the driver to stop so that I could hit. But instead of slowing down, he pulled up alongside me and opened the door. He thought I wanted a ride. Why else would I be this far away from the golf course?
It was the best thing that could have happened. What had felt like a dire situation was suddenly a hilarious one. Kiel and I burst out laughing as the bus pulled away. Then I stepped up to the ball, hit a good recovery shot, wedged it close, and hit a good putt that narrowly missed. My disastrous front nine was in the past.
I played steady golf over the next several holes, just making simple pars. My last hole of the day was the tough par-3 ninth, and I birdied it to cap off a one-under back-nine 34 for a total of 74 (+4). I was in a tie for 74th, a decent position considering that the Old Course was playing over a shot harder than the North. I was right in the mix for one of the 64 match-play spots.
The approximate path of my tee shot on the first hole at Stonewall Old
I had a nice meal and went right to sleep. I was eager for the next day, feeling that I had escaped disaster and was fully capable of playing at the U.S. Mid-Am level.
Stroke play, day two
Sunday was a much earlier start. Kiel and I decided to get to the course early, do some short-game work, and eat breakfast at the clubhouse. The weather had changed dramatically. Instead of hot and calm, it was cool and breezy. I felt great. I had one of the best range sessions of my life.
Unfortunately, my driving-range swing didn’t make the trip to the first tee. Hitting my approach from deep rough on the left, I had to lay up short of the green. From there I faced a delicate downhill pitch with a strong wind at my back. I hit a good one that came to rest inside three feet. But the wind was really blowing, and it put doubt into my read. I didn’t factor in the wind enough, and I missed. Frustrated, I went to brush in my bogey. I missed again.
I righted the ship quickly and managed to surrender only one more shot for the rest of the front nine. I made the turn at +3 on the day and +7 on the championship. Not bad considering the windy conditions. Plus, I had scoring holes coming up.
My back nine started with a bang: I nearly holed my second shot on the short par-4 10th. The tap-in birdie gave me much-needed jolt of positive energy. I was +6 for the championship; I had two birdie opportunities head; and I was confident that I would make match play. I began to daydream about what it would be like to compete in the match-play rounds.
This is the cardinal sin in tournament golf. When your attention drifts away from the present task, disaster tends to strike. And strike it did. I fanned my next tee shot right into tall grass, hit the awkward, downwind approach poorly, and ran the chip through the green. A birdie hole became a double-bogey hole. +8.
After two pars, I hit a good tee shot down the right fairway on the 14th hole. The problem was, it went too far. I had a good lie in the rough but a very bad stance on the back lip of the bunker. Bogey, +9 on the championship. Off the 15th tee, the only place you can get in trouble is the tiny pot bunker in the middle of the giant fairway. I took dead aim at the bunker, figuring there was no way I’d hit it. I hit it. Bogey, +10 on the championship. By then, hope was dwindling and bad swings were multiplying. I finished with a 79. This was less than two hours after I had felt like I had match play in the bag.
I remembered a conversation with a friend. He and I had talked about how cruel golf can be, how you have to savor the 1% of glorious moments it gives you. Qualifying for the Mid-Am was a 1% moment, a rare success in a ruthless game.
After a few beers and some reflection, my raw disappointment began to taste more bittersweet. I’m proud of my first showing at the national level, proud that I got there at all, really. And I learned that I belong there.
So for now, I’m thinking about my next USGA qualifier.