I started the year off with a T54th (71-75-73) finish in Mesa, AZ. This tournament was highlighted by a first round that included seven birdies, five of which came on the final five holes. This was a record number of consecutive birdies for me, and especially fun because it happened with my former Husker golf team, parents, family friends, and coaches watching. I played fairly well for three days, but being +6 on just 2 of the 54 holes cost me.
The next week, the Symetra Tour brought its talents, i.e. ability to end droughts, to southern California. The rain soaked Volvik Championship at Industry Hills in L.A. was shortened to 36 holes and required a Monday finish. I shot a frustrating 76-75 to finish T66th. I showed signs of great ball striking, but the trusty flat stick let me down. At this point, I was really starting to see the changes in my long game taking shape.
I packed up my car and hit the road for Florida on March 14th with tour friend Laura Kueny. We knocked out the 2,300 mile journey in just three days, even managing to squeeze in nine holes in Dallas along the way. I've decided the key to any long road trip is a lot of good laughs... and when my own (self-proclaimed) hilarity runs dry two hours into the trip, the best place to turn is the Pandora comedy station. Laura and I entertained ourselves for at least 750 miles with the likes of Robin Williams and Louis C.K stand-up. I highly recommend this to all travelers!
Lake Wales was our first stop in Florida. Laura and I stayed with a wonderful host, Tom Austin, right on the Lake Wales CC golf course. The graciousness of a host like Tom, who provided fun dinners with neighbors and came out to the course to cheer us on, truly takes the edge off of the nomadic life. I had another week of solid ball striking that was yet again not reflected in my final scores. I shot 75-73-74 to finish T55th. My highlight reel from Lake Wales did, however, include two eagles; one after knocking it on a par 5 in two, and one hole out from 116 yards on a par 4.
With all of the emphasis I have been putting on my swing changes in the past few months, my short game was simply a bit neglected. Even with solid ball striking, missing a few up and down opportunities and having a couple 3-putts every round makes it difficult to shoot under par. So, I shifted my focus to short game during last week's prep days. I practiced a lot of lag putting, played up/down games everyday, hit bunker shots, and chipped on every hole during practice rounds. My efforts were rewarded with rounds of 70-69-73 and a T15th place finish. I even went bogey free in the second round! I was disappointed to not have mounted a charge on the final day, but sometimes you have to take success in baby steps. This week's small victories and the time spent with my name on the leaderboard gave me a lot of solid experiences to build on in the future.
My major focus remains on the process and how I can get better every day. I am proud of some of the improvements I have already made this year. For example, I came up with a solution for the sluggish starts that plagued me in the first two tournaments. I altered my warm-up routine so that the last thing I do before going to the first tee is "play" the first few holes of the course on the range. I toss down a ball, talk with my caddy about a potential yardage and preferred shot type, then go through my full routine to specific targets. I went from averaging +1.4 on the first two holes in Arizona and California to averaging level par on my starting holes in Florida.
Another area of my game that has shown marked improvement is driving distance. While the Symetra Tour's method for measuring driving distance is far from perfect (they measure your distance on just two fairways for each tournament), it does give a general idea how much I have stepped up. Last year my listed average was 228 yards, ranking me 133rd on tour. I am now averaging 246 yards, ranking me 61st. I believe this has made a significant impact on my par 5 scoring, where I now average 4.86, and on my greens in regulation stat, where I have jumped from ranking 96th on tour in 2013 to 56th in 2014. To think it has only been three months since I made my swing changes, I can't wait to see how these numbers get better with some more time.
I now have three weeks off to spend in Phoenix before the bulk of the season begins. I plan to focus my attention on rebuilding feel and confidence around the greens and working out hard in the gym. The next stretch consists of nine events in a ten week span, so the goal is to hit the road feeling as strong as possible physically and mentally. I am incredibly excited about where this year is headed!