Feeling the Pressure — The Champions Tour Q-School

I walked up to the 72nd hole, the 460 yard par four 18th at TPC Scottsdale’s Champions Course, with water down the entire left side of the hole. My tee shot was perfect. The pin was back left over the water, which is in front of the left two-thirds of the green. I was faced with 170 yards to the front of the green and 194 back to the pin. It was a perfect 5 iron to the right center of the green. My eyes were taking it all in. The pin, the center of the green, the water, but I knew the safe play was to the right one-third of the green.

I made my swing with confidence, two holes earlier I had pured a five-iron, my ball started to the right of the water but then began to draw left. It looked good in the air but down deep I knew I had caught it a groove high on the club face. My ball missed landing safety by less than two feet. Yes! I had hit it in the water. My heart was crushed. Not only had I just made a bad bogey at number 17, but now I had made the worst possible mistake. The thoughts of failure we all face on occasion rushed in. Had I blown all the great play from the week with one swing?

As I walked forward I began to regroup. My theme for the week was FOCUS! I dropped and played my fourth from 90 yards. I pushed this one to safety 25 feet right of the hole. My putt had about 18 inches of right to left break. I have to admit I thought, what if I three-putt, and possibly move out of the Top 12 finishers and gain nothing for my weeks effort.

I quickly did get back on task, FOCUSED my mind on my routine, forward pressed and let the putt go. My ball rolled pure and looked good all the way, it dipped into the right-center of the cup, showed itself along the back edge and then dropped!!

It was a bogey 5, a three-under par 68 in the final round, a 12-under 272 total for the week, and a 9th place finish overall which earned conditional status for the 2016 Champions Tour season.

I want to back up a little now and paint you a picture of how I prepared for competition. Since I only play a couple tournaments a year, I decided I need to be in touch with my team to make sure my health was good, my game was intact, my mental strategy was on point and, lastly, I needed the perfect caddie by my side. Here is a glimpse into what I was competing for and how I consulted my team. I hope this story helps you get ready for your next big event.

A few weeks ago, I earned a spot into the final qualifier for the PGA Champions Tour after making the cut in the stage one California qualifier. Many of you may not know that the Champions Tour only has 81 players competing in most tournaments. The majority of those 81 players come from the all-time career money list. To give a glimmer of hope to the rest of us competitors, each year the PGA Champions Tour holds a qualifying event which awards fully exempt status to 5 players. They also award the next seven finishers conditional status. These conditional players get the chance to play in tournaments throughout the year when enough fully qualified players decide to take a week off. This could account for 1-4 starts each year out of this category.

The team I assembled to get ready for my Q-School efforts:

My Health

Although, I have never been a person who spends much time working out, I do pay attention to keeping my body functional and in balance. I have an upper cervical specialist from Columbia, Missouri, Dr. Jeremy Maxwell, who has helped me for many years. Locally in Arizona, my upper cervical chiropractor is Dr.Tony Montoya. These treatments have become so successful that I only need to visit these doctors a few times a year.

I do make regular visits to Dr. Duane Meyers, who is TPI-certified with a wide range of techniques and skills to keep me functional, mobile, and pain free. This gives me the greatest chance to play my best and take care of my body. These appointments and treatments are an investment into my golf game and my health, and it is important to remember that when you feel better you play better.

My Game

In an effort to shore up my game due to my lack of competitive play since last July, I spent most of my practice time hitting wedge shots, chips and putts. I also paid a visit to my friend Rob Akins at Spring Creek Ranch in Collierville, TN for a full swing lesson. Our time together was a tune up, but more importantly it gave me a clean and organized pattern of thoughts that I needed to swing my best. I have to say for the bulk of the Stage One qualifier and the finals I struck my ball as good as I ever have.

My Mind

Back in early November, Peter Malnati won the Sanderson Farms Championship on the PGA TOUR. I was proud of Peter for capturing his first PGA TOUR victory and thrilled to have a fellow Missouri Tiger golfer to win on the Tour. I knew Peter had been spending time with my old friend and former Missouri University track coach, Rick McGuire, working on his mental game going back to when he played golf at MIZZOU. You see, Rick was not just the MU track coach, but was the lead sport psychologist for the Olympic Track team for many years.

I called Rick and simply asked him to tell me about Peter’s win and their work together. Rick reminded me of the skills it takes to be focused in the moment of competition. You really do not have to focus 4 to 5 hours while playing a round of golf, but you do need to be in the game the 10-15 seconds it takes to walk into your shot and make your swing. The higher percentage of time that you can do this, the better chance you have of playing your best. Although I was not perfect during my play through Stage One and the finals of the Champion’s Tour qualifiers, I am proudest of how I stayed in the moment and focused on the correct thoughts that allowed me to compete at a high level.

Choosing a Caddie

I ask two questions when deciding about a caddie. First, will they be able to help me with strategies like yardages, club selection and green reading? If I decide on a person who I am not asking for this type help from, then I need them to be able to maintain a level demeanor without causing any distractions. This is tougher than you might think. Many of you have read how much I enjoy having my son Jake on my bag, but due to the tournaments overlapping with Jake’s high school schedules, he was unable to attend.

I thought a lot about who to ask to join me. My friend Dennis Schmelzel went to Stage One in California. He was a rock. Although I didn’t lean on Dennis for advice on too many shots, he always knew what to say, or more importantly, what not to say. Dennis understands competition at a high level and he also knows where I go mentally during play.

Q-School Finals Round by Round Scores
Q-School Finals Round by Round Scores

For the finals, I asked a huge favor from my friend Tom Kalinowski to be my caddie. Tom is a busy man and I know he sacrificed a lot of time to spend the week helping me. Tom is not only a great player, but one of the most knowledgeable people I know in golf. Although he doesn’t teach and coach a lot, he is a strong teacher and knows my game as well as anyone. Amazingly, through 72 holes, I can honestly say we never chose a wrong club. That is not to say I didn’t hit the right club poorly a few times. With Tom’s help we read the very subtle TPC Champions Course greens well enough for me to make 20 birdies and one eagle.

Tom especially helped me get back on track during round three. I did not have my swing rhythm early in the round and was three-over through six holes. Tom said I lacked intensity and he simply asked me to make a few really aggressive practice swings at hole #7. From there to the finish of the round, I made seven birdies and shot a six-under 30 on the back nine to put myself in position to have a good finishing with a strong final round.

I am grateful to all my team members for each of their contributions toward my success during both Stage One Regionals and the Finals. Even though I still enjoy competing, let me be clear I have no intention of letting my Champions Tour play affect my full-time teaching career. Since turning 50 in 2012, I have competed once or twice a year on the Champions Tour and hope to do the same for several years to come.

Playing these two weeks of competitions not only helped me plan my 2016 teaching and playing schedule, but it also helped me reconnect with some of the same feelings you may be having on the course. I know that will make me a better teacher and I hope my story will help you prepare for success in your next big competition.

Again, I am grateful for all the opportunities in my life. Thank you for your support. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Stan Utley