For the 6th time, it is that time of year where I write some words about the experience of playing in one of the largest miniature golf tournaments in both the United States and the world, the USPMGA Master's. It's a little delayed but I wanted to make sure I had time to get my thoughts out and it's been a very busy competitive 2023 across all the organizations I support. At the end of this blog I have linked back to all of the previous years as well as to the most recent Puttcast podcast episode where I talk more about this years Masters with my co-host Tom Loftus and our guest Kyle Courcy. I have also linked to the overall Minigolfnews article which provides a bit more background on the overall construction of the tournament in case you aren't familiar.
Each year has brought something different to the experience and this year the stars aligned for some easy travel. Last year we had to delay our trip down by a day due to a hurricane coming through Myrtle Beach but this year it was smooth sailing (or driving as it was). We loaded the kids into the car in Connecticut in the early morning hours of Saturday and after almost 15 hours of driving with some quick stops along the way, we arrived at our condo around 21:30. Now that the kids are past the toddler stage it was easier to do things like eat on the go, which helped us in the drive through. We also sent my mother-in-law ahead of us on a flight down to Myrtle so she was already at the condo and ready for us to arrive. So far the good planning on our part had worked out! This also meant that I finally achieved the goal of having a full day (Sunday) in Myrtle Beach where I didn't have to do anything related to minigolf. I just chilled on the beach with my family, went to dinner to celebrate my son's birthday and hung out in some of the touristy spots. It was a great way to get into the mode for the week versus rushing right into practice which has seemed to been the norm when we have arrived on Sunday in the past.
However, practice did have to begin. I still haven't been able to put together a consistent practice routine and at this point I doubt I ever will. There is always too much variation in terms of who I am practicing with, what other conversations and things are going on, to be able to say "I'm going to do this in this order, take these shots, chart this items, play these rounds, etc." So I have learned to go with the flow and just make sure by the time I'm done practicing that I've checked some of the major points off that I wanted to get to. For me this year it was mostly about making sure I got through all three of the courses and validated my tee shots. Deuces are important at this tournament, especially at Rumble and Pineapple, but you can minimize how much you need to worry about them by good tee shot placement. On nearly every hole on the courses you can keep from having long and difficult shots even if you miss the ace.
Most of my practice this year would be with Tom and we started things out at the Rumble course on Monday morning, moving our way to Pineapple in the afternoon. Things came back to me quickly on both the courses. but of course we kept finding little things to change as we went on. The same could be said for Aloha too after our first foray there Tuesday morning. However, it is funny that after playing these courses for so many years now that there would be a chance for even more dramatic changes. The two examples I had of that were hole 17 on Pineapple and hole 11 on Aloha.
The Aloha change was a bit less dramatic. This is a short downhill hole where the traditional play has been one bounce off the side wall to get around the large rock in the middle, then a bounce off the back toward the cup. It's not a very aceable hole and because of the way the "natural" rocks are used there's also a slight chance of going out of bounds on the second bounce due to some low spots between the rocks. After watching a couple other pros, I adjusted my shot to take a more direct route and play only a single bounce off the back wall. I'd say that one was successful as, while I almost went out of bounds on one round, I still ended up with 3 twos and 1 ace over the four rounds.
Pineapple was a bit more dramatic. Hole 17 is a long uphill shot where most players try for a front door ace, or at least settling it not too far from the cup for a two given the ace is quite difficult with the incline and break. During practice I started seeing some players take a more aggressive shot that used the left hand berm to push the ball towards the hole. Because of the angle and the sweeping nature of the shot, you could give it more power and worry less about an overhit. I gave it a few shots and decided I liked it, even after I learned that most of the players practicing it weren't going to do it in the competition rounds. Despite having pushed it out of bounds during practice I stuck to my decision and ended up with 3 non-stressful twos so I'm glad I learned and stuck by that shot,
Tuesday night was one of my break nights as I went with the family to the Pirate's Voyage dinner show, getting all into the spirit with us all dressing like pirates. It's become a tradition for us to go and it offers a good break mentally from the course.
I always see Wednesday as really kicking off the tournament. Everyone is putting their final touches on their strategies and shots, people find out their groupings and course rotation and the opening remarks happen that evening. For me, its the last real practice I will have as well. Sure, I do some warm up before the rounds when we play but in the event on Thursday/Friday I'm off the course. Wednesday night is also the charity event and it was again working with some kids from First Tee, showing them around the Aloha course for a competition round. I had initially told Gary Hester I would be a backup in case he needed me to help and when it turned out he had enough to go with the groups I decided to jump in with Tom and two young women he was mentoring. I'm glad I did because one of them would go on to win the little tournament!
With the competition looming. I did my best to have a relaxing evening. Most nights this trip I found time to either relax on our condo's balcony or go on some late-night walks on the beach with my wife. I did everything I could not to overthink what I had ahead of me.
My rotation ended up being the same as in 2022, with my first rounds at Rumble then moving to Aloha and finally Pineapple. I don't know if there is an "ideal" rotation for me but after the success of 2022 and my results in 2023 I will take this one! My morning rounds I was paired with Brandon Davis, a Putt-Putter who I was familiar with but didn't have much time in the past to get to know. He turned out to be a great partner and a finished well himself in the tournament at 8th. Unfortunately my tournament would get off to a slow start as I failed to get a single ace in the first round and with a couple of 3's I carded an opening 38. the good news was that would end up being my worst round of the tournament. With Brandon scoring an opening 30 there was a disheartening moment where I realized I was already 8 strokes down to someone and the tournament had barely begun.
In my earlier days of competition this would have sunk me. I would have pushed too hard to chase aces in the following round, leaving me prone to mess up more. I would have let negative thoughts creep in, resigning myself to a finish that was already out of the money and I still had nearly 200 holes of minigolf left. My mental game is much better these days and I just did what I have been doing over the past couple years - focus on the hole in front of me. It seemed to work because I carded an ace to start round two, then found 5 more including ones on the not-often-aced holes 6 and 12 on my way to a 31. The wild thing about that round was that I took a 3 on hole 9, which is arguably the easiest hole on the course and certainly one of the most aceable. I had the worse tee shot I have ever taken in my life on that hole (in competition or practice) but my one-hole-at-a-time philosophy helped me push through. It carried into the third round as well. While I lost some of the hot streak of aces, I played bogey-free and carded a 34. Overall it was a couple strokes worse than my good start on Rumble in 2022, so while I wasn't flying high, I had crept up into the top-half of our rotation and I was feeling ok about my position.
When we moved over to Aloha I was paired with David Myers, another Putt-Putter who was playing Amateur. Another great guy to chat with and we both did ok on the first round as I carded a 32 and he a 30. It was another bit of "oh no I might be losing some ground" but I stayed focused. My second round was one of the most interesting I have ever played in a tournament. Through 9 I was only 1-under after bogeying the first hole. As a reminder, this is a course where most people are looking to be at least 3 if not 4 or 5 under by the turn. That's when the rain started. It wasn't much at first and ultimately wasn't more than a good passing shower but it turned me into the bishop from Caddyshack starting on hole 11. As I mentioned above, I changed my tee position on that hole and it paid off as I aced it. I then aced the next 3 holes, including the volcano 13 and two more by the time I finished the back 9 at 6-under, putting me at 29 for the round. It wasn't my best ever score on Aloha but it felt like an amazing round with that back 9 in the rain. I'd finish with a solid 30 as the rain ended and again found myself slight worse than in 2022 but still not in a terrible position overall. My hopes were up that if I could survive Pineapple I'd have a good chance at making the later starting times on Saturday. That night was a good chill night with the family and the wife, putting me in a good relaxed state for Friday.
At Pineapple I was paired with Joey Baldasano, yet another Putt-Putter, and kept up the trend of being a good putter and good company. He would also just snip me for T-18th place at the end of the tournament by 2 strokes. There isn't too much exciting to say about my three rounds there other than I maintained well and ended up a couple of strokes better than my 2022 effort. While I didn't find many aces, I only took 4 bogeys which felt like an achievement.
As we rolled into the fourth round at Aloha, things got interesting. I was sitting just above the cut line for the late start times. It was the only time in the tournament where I felt pressure to really reach a certain score. I thought that if I could card a 32 or better than my chances were good to get into the later time. But I had so many great putters behind me chasing those spots I felt I had to break 30 to be sure. Of course one of the people chasing would be my partner for this "moving day" round Jon Lang. He wasn't much of a chatter but our round was pleasant and he could fire with 5 aces on 2 through 6 after bogeying the first hole. While I picked up hole 3 for the only time in the tournament, I missed some of the other easier holes but was still 3-under through 9. As I rolled into 18 I knew with a 2 I would finish at 31. It was the only time during the tournament where I think I pressed too hard, shooting for a score and not playing the hole. As a result, I didn't get the ball up the hill on 18 and while I had a good run for the deuce I took a 3 and came in at that 32 score. I would spend the next 20 minutes sweating out the 4 or 5 groups behind me until I was able to mathematically conclude I was good for Saturday. I had just snuck in at 28 of the 30 who got to play later.
Although I was taking a more relaxed approach to the whole week, that was the first time during the competition where I felt I could let things off my shoulders. I had made my goal of getting into the later start time. I did some quick math and figured that all I had to do was play "good" in the final two rounds and my odds of staying in the money, despite not many strokes between me and the money line at 35, were good. As a bonus, I was paired with Danny Baddeley who I had know for many years now and we always had a good time playing together.
The only bout of significant rain we had that week also moved in that night for a couple of hours but it didn't stop my going out with the kids. My wife and mother-in-law got a break to head out themselves to make candles and Tom and Kyle joined me and the kids for a trip to a new indoor course - Ripley's Crazy Golf. The course couldn't be further from what we had been playing all week with crazy ways to play holes (including a billiards set up and a swing) but that's what made it such a good mental break.
After another relaxing evening, I took advantage of the later start time to enjoy another sunrise from my condo balcony and then went a little early to the course to support friends like Tom and Kyle as they completed their final round. There was a bit of confusion as the final rounds wrapped up as to when practice for the top groups started and this line of players ended up nearly catching up to the end of the pack playing their round, which wasn't ideal. I bailed after 8 holes as I was tried of standing in the line and figured at this point there wasn't too much more I needed in terms of warm up or understanding how the course was playing.
It turned out I was right. In the final rounds we start on hole 5 to give the spectators some good holes to watch as the rounds wrap up. I started a little slow, picking up an ace on 8 but then giving it back with a 3 on 13. I quickly turned it into the best run of aces I have ever had on Rumble, sinking 15 all the way through 1 for five in a row. I finished at 5 under and I knew that was enough to keep me in the money. My success didn't stop during the final rough, despite bogeying the first hole. I'd make it up with back-to-back aces on 8 & 9, 16 & 17 and 1 & 2 and finish with a 32. Although the rock has been gone for a couple of years now on 17, it was still a relief when I played that hole for the final time and was happy to have aces it four of five times this year!
There were a few things that amazed me about that morning, starting with a combined 63 was the tied for the second best total that day, beaten only by Joey Graybeal's 61. I also aced holes 8, 16 and 1 twice, some of which were part of that crazy run I had. One isn't super surprising but it had been giving folks trouble all week, but 8 and 16 are finesse shots that I hadn't gotten close with two days earlier. So it was satisfying to have that as part of my final rounds. The final surprise came when I looked at the final scores. After finishing I knew I had made the money, and knew I had at least stayed in the top 30 and by some quick math I knew I made it into the top 25 even. At that point I wandered away from the scoreboard to watch the end of the tournament and to see Gary Hester get his first Master's win which was a pleasure. I was shocked when I got back to the clubhouse and realized I had moved up enough to crack the Top 20!
I was elated. I didn't have high expectations for this year's tournament and I managed to turn it into the second best finish of my career. When I looked t the leaderboard I was shocked at some of the names I finished higher than and it was quite a confidence boost in a year where I didn't have a chance to play too many tournaments. The most impressive thing to me, looking back at the tournament, was that I only took eleven bogies, which was less than a one-per-round average. I don't think I've ever played that consistent in any lengthy tournament, especially with the variety and difficulty of those courses. It was definitely both a hallmark of my 2023 and my overall career.
With that, another year of competitive minigolf is in the books for me and I've got the 2024 Master's penciled in already. Happy putting to all!
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