by Sam Melia
I had hoped I’d be caddying on Monday at the U.S. Mid-Amateur. Before the fog rolled in on Saturday, Monday golf would have meant my player, Brandon Johnson, reached match play as one of the top 64 players in the field.
Instead, golf on Monday meant a 5:15 a.m. wake up call and 15 holes of stroke play. It’s never easy to sleep when those early tee times are looming on the other side. It’s the same with flights, something in the back of my mind won’t let me hit any sort of deep sleep because I’m terrified I’ll sleep in.
Floodlights were buzzing over the range and putting green as we pulled into the Miacomet lot. I could still make out Orion’s Belt and both the Big and Little Dipper, too. It was early, and a few guys were already on the range grinding at 5:55 a.m. They might have been the smart ones. When such a big field is resuming play, spaces can get pretty tight on the range. In fact, it was so tight that Brandon had to warm up in the rough on the edge of the range.
My mindset when playing in qualifiers is to just stay alive for as long as possible. Qualifiers test a player’s strengths and weaknesses, both mentally and physically. Unless the day is going exceedingly well, there is usually a moment when a player has a choice to mail it in thinking they just don’t have it on the day.
Even within a group, different energies can pull players in one direction or another. Over the course of three days at Sankaty Head and Miacomet, the three players in our group were all alive and well as we wandered out to the 13th tee box at 7:00 a.m.
Brandon was 3-over and Doug Clapp and Sam Bettinardi were both 1-over. Considering the group hadn’t played more than 10 straight holes without interruption, it was commendable that they all woke up with a chance at reaching match play.
The morning started slowly for the group, maybe because the thought of match play had crept into each of their minds. But maybe it was because holes 13 and 14 at Miacomet have some teeth to them, and the back nine in general is rather challenging. The 14th is a converted par 5 with bunkers aplenty down both sides of the fairway and a put bunker smack in the middle of the fairway 50 yards from the flag built to gobble up poor layups.
Brandon played his opening six holes this morning in three over par. Four bogeys and one birdie. And as we walked to the first tee, my mind was in that place where I was thinking we’d ride out the final nine holes, enjoy the walk and do a little battling. Making match play seemed unlikely. I had no idea where Doug and Sam were when we made the turn, but the nervous energy within the group increased.
When Brandon rolled home a bomb on the first hole for birdie, hope increased. After the slow start, he had started hitting his irons solid and the birdie gave him a new lease on life. A great wedge on the second and a fantastic four iron on the par 3 third provided two good looks at birdie that he just couldn’t get to fall.
Another odd part of USGA events is their strict time keeping. After the third hole, the group was warned that we were behind. Another warning could lead to penalty shots, and a penalty at this point would be disastrous.
Doug Clapp was still in the hunt for match play, but Sam’s chances fizzled after hitting his tee shot out of bounds on the third hole. We’ve all played with players that would immediately begin to sulk and spiral out of control, but Sam wasn’t one of those guys. He continued to grind and play hard and never uttered a single negative word. The Golf Gods remember those things.
Brandon wondered aloud as we walked down the fourth fairway about where the cut might fall. He was 5-over but had settled into a groove. It was the longest stretch of golf he had played since the tournament started. I had no idea what he needed to shoot on the last six holes, but birdies were needed and my phone wasn’t far from my reach to have an accurate answer.
He never asked again, even though I knew 2-over was looking like a playoff. At this point, he was hitting the ball great and hunting birdies. An eagle putt that turned into a par took some wind out of our sails, but a birdie on 16 got him to 4-over. Two birdies coming in would have made for quite the story.
Alas, when Brandon’s wedge on the 18th missed the green, his chances were dashed. Doug’s were, too. But having two guys pushing down the stretch to make match play was a blast to be a part of. The tension was high, but it was heightened by the fact that we were warned again after the 16th hole that we were still about 13 minutes behind our required pace.
The pressure of hitting great shots, and doing it on the clock is quite the double whammy. The kick in the stomach was that after the round it was explained to Doug, Sam, and Brandon that they were never behind their pace of play. Instead, the timer didn’t take into consideration that we were one of two groups starting on the 13th tee that morning. So we naturally started behind because our 7:15 a.m. restart was closer to 7:28.
While I don’t think it cost anyone in the group a shot at making the cut, it impacted the group’s play and mindset over the closing six holes. If any of the threesome had missed by a shot, it might have been an argument that the pace of play mix-up played a role in missing match play.
At the end of the round, I turned in my caddie bib, even though I hoped to keep it as a souvenir. They kept a close eye on the caddies and the scorekeeper watched us all take off the bib and toss it into a storage bin. It would have looked pretty cool on a wall somewhere in my condo. But my wife is probably relieved the official was so stringent in his collection of the bibs. Our condo needs less golf stuff, not more.
Like any stroke play/match play format, the playoff for the final spots are often a spectacle. The playoff at Sankaty Head was no different. Thirteen players teed off on the tenth hole into a whipping wind in search of the final seven match play spots. They sent the players off in two foursomes and a final fivesome.
After one hole, six spots were locked in. Thomas Owen, Cole Willcox, Nick Maccario, Jimmy Chestnut, Brady Shivers, and Cody Paladino all made pars, while six more players made bogey to live to fight another hole. They played the 15th, a par 4 dead downwind heading back toward the clubhouse. The green is perched up on the hill where the clubhouse sits. The pin was tucked way back in the right corner. A tough pin to get to, unless you’re Hayes Brown.
Hayes stood over his 96 yard shot with a 58 degree wedge. “I was aiming at some guy’s white tennis shoes just right of the hole, and I hit it right at them,” he told me after making the shot for a two. The ball landed right of the hole and spun sideways, falling into the hole at a pretty fast pace. If it had missed, Brown might have had a tough two putt. To add to the drama, a competitor had already hit his shot to about two feet from the hole.
I stood with Hayes as he waited for the second threesome to play the hole. He wasn’t relaxed yet, and why would he be? He knew how easy it was to eagle the 15th hole, he had done it once already that week in his practice round.
With that eagle, the match play seeding was set. When Brown’s wedge landed in the cup, some matches had already started, as the tournament is a little bit behind due to the fog on Saturday.
Sadly, my time at the Sankaty and Miacomet also came to an end. I head back to the mainland Tuesday morning, leaving behind the island mindset that is Nantucket.
It was a fantastic week, and I’ve got one more post in me about the three days overall. I met some interesting people and learned a lot about competing and ways that I can improve my own game. I also gained more appreciation for what caddies do and the challenges they face out on tour. It’s a challenging job that can be full of highs and lows and self doubt and second guessing.
The chase for the U.S. Mid-Amateur crown and a trip to the Masters and U.S. Open is sure to be a good one. I’m just glad I got a taste of some excellent golf.
Sean Melia will now resume his quest to play all of the courses in his home state of Massachusetts