After a disappointing T14th finish in the Jones Cup, followed by a poor finish in the Moot Thomas with a T3rd, my hope was for a breakthrough in the Florida Azalea. Palatka Florida is a small rural town with a very historic Donald Ross course called Palatka Golf Club established in 1925. This little gem measures only 5942 yards long, but don’t let that mislead you.
After I finished my last round in Ocala Florida for the Moot Thomas, I drove an hour to Palatka to take a look at the Palatka Golf Club. I was told many stories about its tiny greens, tight fairways and tricky holes. The course was still very busy late Sunday afternoon so I waited until Tuesday to play a late afternoon practice round.
What I found was a beautiful course in great condition that challenges a player with virtually every green elevated with run off on all sides including false fronts. So what the course may lack in total yardage, it made up for with the tiny greens that require accuracy in not only distance but also in direction. The well conditioned greens and fairways provided very nice surfaces, but still quite sticky and slow.
I found most holes require you to decide how aggressive you want to be off the tee. The 4th and 5th holes are easily reachable par 5 holes, but slightly errant tee shots will result in a re tee as OB is very tight on the right on both holes.
I returned again on Wednesday after spending an enjoyable day on the river trying to catch a bass that I heard was abundant in the river. After 4 hours of not getting any attention from the fish, I thought I would return back to something I was a bit better at. Wednesday afternoon the course was empty and I was able to play 27 holes in less than 3 hours. It gave me a good idea of the options I would have when the tournament started on Friday.
Of course when I inquired about entering, I was told by the famous tournament director, organizer, and past champion Ronnie Tumlin that the event had a nickname “The Doug Hansel Invitational” as Doug has won the event 4 of the past 5 years, and is the #2 ranked Senior amateur in the world, and just finished under par and in the top 3 at the Jones Cup. Doug is a past USGA Senior Amateur champion and always is a threat to win every event he enters.
Ronnie went on to ask me if I thought I could compete against Doug, and said all the west coast players in the past have come back home with their tail between their legs after getting whipped by Doug. He of course was just stating how well the course fits Doug’s game, and that obviously he is very comfortable and confident on it. I did not tell Ronnie I was going to beat Doug, I just said I hope to be competitive, that’s all I want from any event I enter, to have a chance on the last day.
I was paired the first round with two really nice guys, but their games were not sharp on this opening day, which was not the case with my start. I stuck to my strategy and played aggressive when it was a good risk, and more conservative when it was not a good risk. I found myself making a few early mistakes that I erased on the back nine as I made birdie after birdie. With only two holes to play (the tough 18th hole playing 475 yards long, and the short 1st hole playing 325 yards) I got too -6 with a great birdie on the 17th hole. After a good drive on the 18th hole I made a mental mistake by not hitting enough club, leaving a very tough chip shot from the short side of the green. After a rare poor chip I was left with a sliding 25 foot par putt. I wanted to make sure that I left with no worse than a bogey on the hole. I was honestly shocked when I miss hit my putt, but watched it break in the opposite direction than I anticipated and rolled in the hole for a saving bogey. I felt that was a gift, and I needed to end strong on my last hole.
On the first hole, I roped hooked my 3 wood, that got extremely lucky leaving me with an open shot only 60 yards from the pin. After a chunked approach short of the green in the bunker I left with a very unsavory bogey to finish with a -5 65 and a two shot lead over Doug. Since I knew I was paired with Doug on round 2, and that I needed to clean up some of my mistakes from day 1 despite the good score of 65.
Round two my playing partners were Doug Hansel, Jack Hall and Larry Cotton. Doug and I didn’t get off the a very good start with an opening 3 putt, followed by 2 other bad bogeys going +3 after 5 holes. I got it back going with a solid eagle on the par 5 4th hole getting me back to +1. I was a bit tight opening the round, but found my groove with the putter as the round progressed. I only had a small lead over Doug going to the 10thhole, our 15th hole on the day. I found myself short of the green in 3 shots, with a tricky chip shot to a front pin. With my new chipping grip weakened left hand grip, I found it easier to engage the bounce on this sticky grass. With confidence I knocked this chip shot straight into the hole for a much needed birdie to claw back to even on the day.
On the 11th hole, one of my playing partners missed a very short par putt, and in frustration threw his ball as far as he could and into the bushes 40 yards away, and followed it up with a 30+ yard wing of his putter towards the next tee, all while yelling many 4 letter words. Honestly I was quite shocked by this, it was a very poor display of sportsmanship and it rattled me as I tried to focus on the last two holes we had left.
I gave myself a little extra time to focus on a tricky tee shot on the par 3 12th hole with a corner right pin sitting on a slope. I hit a very good shot pin high about 20 feet and rolled it in for a very important birdie. The 13th hole is a very good risk/reward hole as its only 295 yards long, but has trees tight down the left, and a hazard down the right. I hit a great drive short of the green followed by a decent chip to 10 feet from the hole. This tricky downhill slider was a bonus putt that allowed me to get my round to -2 68, but more importantly an overnight 5 shot lead, and a 7 shot lead over the ever dangerous Doug Hansel.
I knew on this course no lead is safe with a hot round someone, especially Doug could go very low on me. I knew the weather was going to be perfect leading to ideal scoring conditions. I have not led a major amateur event in quite some time, and I will admit I did not sleep well Saturday night as my mind was constantly going over each hole on the course and what my strategy would be with such a large lead. Large leads are great, but they can also produce a lot of stress when thinking about how can I blow such a large lead. Of course that’s not what you want to think about, ideally you have a game plan that you stick to, and play one shot at a time. WAY easier said than done. I knew I was going to be nervous and that my putter would be challenged as that’s where I struggle most under pressure.
What happened on the final round I have never ever experienced before, it was the wildest roller-coaster I have ever been on during the final round of a major amateur event. So here it goes. The first hole I finally was able to find the fairway with a 3 wood, leaving 89 yards to the back pin. I hit a decent shot to the back pin, but clearly I was not in control of my putting speed, as I rolled my 15 footer 5 feet past the hole. Once over this putt, I felt the pressure and decided to go eye closed. To my delight after my “in the dark” putt, I opened my eyes to watch the putt roll straight into the middle of the cup for a starting shaky par.
What happened next on the next two holes has NEVER happened to me before, and I still cannot quite believe what happened. After a strong tee shot I was left with 105 pin and 92 over the front bunker. It was a good yardage for my 54 degree sand wedge. The pin was middle left requiring a middle of the green target, anything left would roll down the side slope leaving a long and tough shot. I hit a miserable pulled shot, that bounded down the slope and into the rough leaving me a tough short sided flop shot of about 15 yards. With my new weakened left grip I felt a lot of confidence with the shot, and to my sheer amazement and pleasure I watched my ball find the bottom of the hole for a very unlikely birdie. Unfortunately for Doug he three putted the green to fall back to 9 shots back after just two holes.
The third hole is the toughest par three on the course, but on this final round the tee was moved was up leaving a 125 yard shot straight up the hill to a back right pin location. It was a perfect gap wedge for me, to my dismay I saw my shot going long left into a terrible side hill lie in the back bunker. What happened next is something that I’ve never done before ever. I was looking at the shot hoping to get this ball on the green and just make a safe bogey. Going long would be a disaster as the green sloped away from me, and there was OB long. Short would leave a tough downhill two putt, so I needed a quality shot. I struck the ball too close to the ball, and I was in utter shock when my ball flew straight down into the hole, never touching grass for a birdie two.
At this point I have a 10 shot lead over Doug with 15 holes to play, I’ve got back to back par 5 holes that I hit 4 iron rescue on giving up on hitting them in two shots. I made two solid pars, while Doug made 2 birdies to climb to 8 down. He drained another birdie on the par three 6th hole to get to 7 down. We tied 7 with pars, but again he gained another shot on me on #8 when I 3 putted from the back of the green. The ninth hole was a JOLT to my system when Doug hit his approach with a sand wedge short on the false front and saw his ball pull back off the green. With a back pin and 90 feet to go, I thought I might possibly gain a stroke on Doug. But instead I watched as Doug rolled his 90 foot putt to the hole, putting more pressure on my 30 footer that I then knocked up to two feet. I felt the pressure over the putt, and with eyes closed I moved my body slightly and missed the 2 foot putt leading to a big two shot swing. Now Doug was only 4 shots back.
Now with 9 holes to go, I was going to need to play solid golf, perhaps even under par golf to close out this event with a W. We both hit great tee shots on 10, Doug went for the green in two with a rescue club and came up just short on the front fringe. I hit a rescue that didn’t carry the front left bunker leaving me a tough long bunker shot to a back pin. I hit a great shot 10 feet from the pin and was greatly relieved. Doug hit another quality putt to 2 feet and made his 5th birdie in a 7 hole stretch. After missing my birdie try from 10 feet, I found myself with only a 3 shot lead with 8 holes to go, it was GAME ON!!!
On the 11th tee I decided I was going to ramp up my effort to play a little more aggressive, as the conservative approach was not working. From thet point on my game sharpened up, and I hit quality shot after quality shot. After tying pars on 11 and 12, I maintained my 3 shot lead to the 13th hole, the drivable par 4. Doug up first made his first real mistake of the day hitting his tee shot dead right and lost in the hazard resulting in a costly bogey. I made a solid par, and followed it up with a quality shot over the pin on the par 3 13th hole leaving me a 20 foot straight downhill putt. Doug going straight at the pin, slightly pulled his shot leaving him a very tough chip which lead to another bogey. My tough downhill putt again I didn’t control my speed well hitting my putt 6 feet past the hole leaving a critical 6 foot par putt that would give me a 5 shot lead with 4 holes to go. With eyes closed I hit this steeply uphill par putt and opened my eyes in time to see it just barely roll into the front of the cup.
My 5 shot lead gave me incredible comfort resulting in quality shots coming in with a birdie on the 17th hole putting me 6 up with one to go. An ending bogey only cost me bragging rights of having all three rounds in the 60’s. In an effort to make a flight back home from Jacksonville, I was eager to sign my card and hit the road. Doug had kept my card and recorded a 4 on the 18th hole, the only mistake on the card. I’m sure it was an oversight on his part, but had I not caught it, I would have been disqualified and devasted. It’s a lesson to all too carefully check your cards and compare your scores to what you record, and then double check vs what you shot to par.
Winning this amazing event was such a wild emotional ride, Doug gave me one hell of a scare, as he is capable of shooting 62 on any given day. But in the end, I had the better 3 days, with some incredible luck and skill.
My hat is off to all those that care for that amazing golf course with a total maintenance budget of $100,000 a year. All those I met at this event I truly enjoyed, the staff and those competing is truly what makes these experiences so enjoyable. It’s always nice to win, but there is a much bigger purpose and reason to compete. The 2020 Florida Azalea will always be dear to my heart, especially with what’s happening to our world currently.
In closing I want to stress to all of you the importance in reading my next post. It will provide you with information regarding the reason why I was able to play at this high level after 90 days from major ankle surgery. This information will be important in keeping your families and friends healthier and enable you to reduce your inflammation and bolster your immune system. So stay tuned this information is coming tomorrow.
Be safe, stay healthy and remember that this too shall pass.
All the best