PGA Tour: Justin Timberlake Shriner’s Hospitals for Children Open, Las Vegas

The Soutwest Section PGA held a Sectional Qualifier at Angel Park Golf Club in Las Vegas on Monday, October 5th. I planned a quick trip out there with a 1 hour flight on Sunday night, returning afterwards on Monday afternoon. I traveled with a professional friend of mine, Jason Magee who was able to get us great deals on a room at the Bellagio and also a $15 rental car!

The golf course was in terrible condition, leading to so much negativity with all the competitors. The greens were freshly overseeded and very slow and bumpy, making putting very difficult. I tried to maintain a positive attitude, hung in there and shot 68. This was surprisingly good enough to qualify without a playoff. I was now in my second career PGA Tour event!

Fast forward exactly one week and Drew Billow and I are boarding the exact same Sunday evening Southwest flight as the week prior. My wife Tina is 8 months pregnant and, unfortunately, not going to be able to make the trip. As a result of my pending absence, her mother flew to Phoenix to be with her while I was out of town. Coincidentally, she flew in on the exact same plane as the one we were taking. Drew and I were able to surprise her as she de-boarded…we said our hellos and took off for Vegas.

Upon arrival, we immediately picked up our bags and met the courtesy car staff. We were shuttled to the lot and given a brand new Audi Quattro S.U.V. to use for the week. The vehicle had 100 miles on it and all the bells and whistles. We tapped into the GPS and found a great meal at an Italian restaurant.

Drew was assigned caddie duties for Monday and Tuesday’s practice rounds only. Garett Copp was heading out on Tuesday night to take over the reigns for the remainder of the event. Drew had never been to Vegas, so we took a spin down the Strip and headed to our hotel…The Palms.

Monday was slated for a 12:00 shotgun start for a Pro-Am which I would not be a part of. We certainly wanted to see the golf course, so Drew and I woke up early and got out there around 7:00. We checked in, toured around, grabbed a bite and headed to the tee. We played by ourselves, relaxed, and just enjoyed a cool, breezy day of golf. With wind gusting at 30mph, it sure seemed like a strong test of golf!

We finished, had lunch, and hung out practicing and mingling with players and club reps all afternoon. I had the opportunity to congratulate Zach Johnson on his good play and win the week prior in Texas. He was very friendly and encouraged me, as a club professional, to have a good week and that “it’s just golf”! Easier said than done!

On the practice days, I was lucky enough to catch up with several players that I had known in a previous life as an aspiring tour player. I caught up with Patrick Sheehan and Jason Allred from my Canadian Tour days and also played a practice round with Travis Perkins. Travis and I played 4 years of college golf together at Florida Southern.

Tuesday’s practice round with Travis started around noon after morning work on the range and with the club reps. Drew and I enjoyed our time in a round that included Travis making a hole-in-one on the 17th hole. Very cool.

Later that evening, I brought Drew to the airport, then met Garett Copp who had driven up from Phoenix that afternoon. We had some steak at Outback on the strip before heading back to the airport to pick up my mom and dad. Exhausted, we all went to bed early.

Wednesday was slated for the Justin Timberlake celebrity pro-am. We didn’t realize it until Matt Rollins, Moon Valley Member and Ping Tour Representative, told us about the inaccessibility of the golf course. We would only be permitted to play 9 holes before the tournament. The first tee time was at 7:00, so we headed to the tee 15 minutes prior to that. I met up with a Ben Fox (Monday qualifier) and Matthias Gronberg, a longtime professional from Sweden. We thought this was important for a couple of reasons: Garett certainly would feel comfortable with a little caddie practice before the main event and for me, seeing some of those holes one more time wouldn’t hurt!

As far as the golf course and the facility goes, the entire club and the staff were wonderful. I was set up with a locker complete with 3 dozen balls, 6 gloves, and some other supplies. There were nothing but friendly people willing to help. My parents and I were permitted into the player hospitality room where there was always a grand buffet waiting there for the taking. There were chef specialties such as roasted chicken, lamb chops, fried catfish, steak, breakfast sandwiches, crab meat, fresh fruit, veggies, sandwich meats…you name it….exceptional. I’d sneak some out for the caddie, my brother and his buddies once in a while!

The practice area was perfect – great turf, brand new Pro V1 balls (and 6-8 other types if that was what you played). They’d set up a sign with your name on it as you were practicing. The pitching area and putting greens were wonderful as well. Greens were perfect bent grass rolling about 12 on the stimp. It’s such a great environment out there to hone your game under optimum conditions with access to optimum equipment. Speaking of equipment, I was able to procure some freebees as well. I made out with 2 drivers, 2 putters, a fairway wood, a rescue club, 2 pairs of shoes, and a pair of Oakley sunglasses. All the clubs were specially built and tailored to my specs. Honestly all things that I needed or might potentially need…honestly! Matt Rollins at Ping was also nice enough to produce new matching wedges with fresh grooves for the event. I was well equipped and ready to compete.

Our Thursday tee time was 8:35, the last time in the morning wave. I was slated to play with Bob Sowards and Chad Collins – both full-time PGA Tour players, but sort of on the fringes of success out there. We showed up about 2 hours prior and had a great breakfast and warm up session. I have to admit that I was perhaps more nervous heading to the first tee than I was for the US Open in 2004. I believe this was because everyone knew the scores would be low, I was not exactly tournament tough now with my full-time job, and also most importantly, I was bringing far greater expectations to the table than before. I believed I had a good chance to play well if I could just hold myself together!

Despite the nerves, we got off to a very fast start. I hit a 6-iron to the 2nd green and made the 8 footer for birdie. I hit the 3rd hole (par 5) in 2 and 2-putted for birdie. I completed my first ever PGA Tour “Turkey” with a 15 foot fringe putt for birdie at the 4th…-3 through 4 holes! 3 putt #6 for bogey, birdie #7, birdie #12, birdie #13…-5! 3 putt #14, miss 4 foot birdie putt on #15, birdie #16 to get back to -5! Missed a 6 foot par putt on 17, then drove it in the light rough on #18. 18 is a good par 4 of 460yds, intimidating tee shot with water on front and left side of green for the second shot. I thought I had a flier lie out of the Bermuda rough….I didn’t! The ball fell into the middle of the hazard and I made double bogey to shoot 70 (-2). It was a very good score for me, leaving me still with the possibility to make the cut, but I really deserved much better on this day!

We stuck around and practiced for a few hours in the afternoon, then called it a night. Our whole crew was staying at The Palms where we were able to find some seats at the $5 Blackjack table. We had a great time, took it easy and nobody really lost any money to speak of!

Friday’s tee time was later at 1:05, the last group in the afternoon wave. Starting on the 10th hole, I hit a good drive, then a pitching wedge to 2 feet and tapped in for birdie. Steady play led to all pars until we came to #18. We were between 6 and 7 iron in the fairway…Garett and I debated and decided on the 6 with the water looming in front. I hit a solid shot to the back part of the green about 50 feet from the hole. We found out afterwards that cameras were rolling for this putt…they gave me the infamous “blue line” on the Golf Channeland I rolled it right into the middle of the hole for birdie! It was a great boost in front of the largest crowd of the day and also to get a little revenge on that hole from the day before!

I followed it up with another birdie at #1 to get to -5. 5 or 6 holes back, I had looked at a leaderboard that projected the cut to be -5…I hadn’t glanced at one since. A poor second shot at #2 led to bogey, but a great up and down on #3 meant yet another birdie…-5. I don’t need to get into details of the following few holes…they look like simple pars on the scorecard, but I assure you, there was drama involved! We were certainly anxious, but felt confident. Garett knew exactly where we stood and I had a general idea, but didn’t know for sure.

After weathering some tough holes, we finally pulled up on the par 5 9th hole. I somehow felt relaxed at this point and hit a great tee shot down the middle. Standing there in the fairway with Garett was perhaps the most important moment of the golf tournament. I give Garett a lot of credit for what he DIDN’T say. We had 249 to the front edge and 262 to the hole. I mentioned that I felt good about the shot and didn’t see any real problem with busting a 3 wood up there, getting up and down for birdie, and being done with it. He said he liked it, we were positive, and I knocked it up near the left side of the green. Garett did not tell me we NEEDED birdie…I still felt relaxed.

90 feet, through the fringe, multiple breaks, as darkness was closing in…not the easiest of up and downs! I hammered it up there and it trickled down to about 2 – 2 ½ feet from the hole. Here was my mistake…as I’m leaning on my putter waiting for the other players to finish out, I took a glance at the leaderboard. It clearly stated that the projected cut was -6! Most people don’t realize that many PGA Tour players are still wearing metal spikes out there…I needed to make this little putt, through a mine field of spike marks to make the weekend. Needless to say, it dropped.

Smiles all around from caddies, fellow players, my family, Garett, and also from the few remaining onlookers. We shook hands, hugged, laughed….”Congratulations, welcome to the weekend” was all we heard. Such a great feeling! I had dozens of emails, phone messages and text messages from friends, family, and others whom I had not heard from in years!

It took me a long time in the scoring booth to regroup, triple check my scores, and sign my card. We were all elated. The cheerfulness carried over to our meal at Olive Garden that night where we were all giggling and laughing like teenagers the whole time. Everyone was so happy.

Now, because I was the last player in, making the cut on the number, I would be part of the first group out at 7:00 on Saturday morning. We woke up at 4:30, got to the club by 5:30, and sat down for a quick breakfast. It was absolutely dark outside at 5:45 without a hint of a sunrise when we ventured out to the practice range to begin warming up. They had lights set up for us early risers.

The PGA Tour plays 2-somes on the weekend, and given that there were 83 players who made the cut, I would have the unique opportunity to play a solo round of golf! I say I was alone, but in reality, there was my caddie, walking scorer, standard bearer, my friends and family, along with all the volunteers and helpers handling the gallery ropes along the way. Yeah, I would have loved to play with a marquee player, but this would certainly prove to make an equally intriguing story!

I didn’t have my best on this day. I battled on the front nine with a bogey and a birdie turning at even par. 4 more pars on the back nine, until good birdies at #14 and #15…-8 for the tournament. #16 is a reachable par 5 with water all along the front of the green. I hit a good tee shot leaving myself 210 to carry at the closest point, 224 to the hole. I had a good lie and felt like my golf swing was now holding up. Garett and I discussed and decided to go for it. I hit a solid rescue club that just hung a touch out to the right. As it came down, I figured it would easily make it over….it struck the very top of the stone wall, kicked directly up in the air, and came back into the water. Rather than an easy birdie, getting me to -9 for the tournament, I shot even and ended up at -6 through 3 rounds.

The PGA Tour rule, adopted just this year, states that when more than 78 players make the cut, there will exist a 54 hole cut to low 70 + ties. Those missing this cut will be deemed to have “made the cut”, but “did not finish”. They will still be paid based on their finishing position. As a result of my even par round, I fell back a few spots and fell out of the top 70. I would not get the chance to play on Sunday….but would manage my first ever check on the PGA Tour for $7,462.

I don’t need to tell you how disappointed I was with this particular rule, although I suppose I can understand the reasoning behind it. Nothing; however, will take away from the experience we all had this week in Vegas. On Saturday night, we got hooked up by our walking scorer by getting into two very exclusive and expensive clubs at The Palms as VIP’s. We had a few celebratory drinks and enjoyed some time with Garett and my brother Jake.

Rather than flying back to Phoenix late, I decided to hitch a ride with Garett. We stopped at the Hoover Dam and shared a great conversation about the week we had. My family was leaving on Monday, so they got to stick around one more night. We arrived back home in Phoenix in the afternoon on Sunday, just in time to catch the awards presentation to the winner on the Golf Channel.

I just received a heartfelt email from my mom and dad about the week that seems to put our experience in perspective. Keep in mind that our family is a blue collar, small town group from the State of Maine…extravagance is certainly not our style. They had given up their 35th anniversary trip to Niagara Falls to be with us at the tournament. My mom wrote, “Never in our wildest dreams did Dad and I think 35 years ago, we’d be sharing our anniversary with the two of you in Vegas. What a wonderful treat it was for us to be there with you”. They would NEVER think to go to Vegas, never mind on their anniversary, but they had the time of their lives.