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Friday, September 9, 2016

Talking practice rounds at the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall

   EAST NANTMEAL – A couple of pretty interesting – and pretty hot – days of practice rounds for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Stonewall’s Old Course and North Course have been completed.
   The first round of qualifying for match play gets under way first thing Saturday morning. But first there were two rounds of practice, a chance to get acquainted with the golf courses and your caddy, if you have one. It’s sort of like those necessary evils that are NFL preseason games. They don’t count, but they are very valuable.
   I met my guy, Michael Mitani of Irvine, Calif., for the first time about an hour before our scheduled tee time a little before 1 p.m. Thursday at the North Course, the “udder course,” as the Stonewall members like to call it, playing off the club’s cow logo, a salute to the property’s previous life as a dairy farm.
   Mitani would tell me later he was a junior golf contemporary of Tiger Woods in southern California 25 or so years ago. “He beat our brains in,” was the way he put it. He had survived a five-for-four playoff after carding a 1-under 70 at his qualifying site, Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles.
   Mitani was still adjusting to the time change and there is nothing in SoCal quite like the heat and humidity we were experiencing Thursday. We were joined for both practice rounds by two other SoCal types, Cameron Tennant, a former San Diego State player, and Satch Hermann, both of whom came through the qualifier at North Ranch Country Club’s Valley/Oaks Courses in Westlake Village, Calif.
   The North Course is more of a “cart course” for the membership, so I haven’t seen nearly as much of it as I have the Old Course. And this was a whole different ballgame.
   The par-5 eighth hole, for instance, is 524 yards from the blue tees, but stretches out to a monstrous 602 yards from the black tees, which are actually set up on the back of the teeing ground for No. 5.
   And these guys can really hit it. Mitani, who often favors a baby fade, is a relatively short hitter compared to the rest of the field. Tennant, a drawer of the ball, just kills it, high and long. So, as much as these guys were learning about the golf course, I was getting an education in how the North would play at its absolute maximum length by guys to whom length isn’t much of an issue.
   And there is no right or wrong approach to a practice round. Hermann had his caddy, but no golf bag as they had several wedges and Hermann’s putter. He watched with great interest where the tee shots of Mitani and Tennant would go and what club they would use on approach shots and off the tee at the par-3s.
   The fun would really start at the greens where everybody would throw two or three or four golf balls around, checking slopes and looking around for places where other cups had been cut and chipping and putting to any and all of them, even sometimes to where the hole was cut.
   Either I or Tennant’s caddy, Sean, who is based at Philadelphia Cricket Club, but is often on call when there’s a big outing at Stonewall, would be off on the side with the flagstick as golf balls rolled around in every direction.
   It’s difficult to figure out exactly what Mitani shot, but he had a couple of birdies and a couple of bogeys and a whole bunch of pars. If he was in the fairway – and he usually was – and got the yardage to the pin right, he hit it exactly that far most of the two practice rounds. It is that kind of distance control, not just pure distance, that really separates the good golfer from the kind of high-level amateur that shows up at an event like the U.S. Mid-Am.
   We teed off a lot earlier Friday, just before 8:30 a.m. and, for a little while, were blessed with some cloud cover that made things a little less uncomfortable. 
   We had an added starter in Adam Condello, who made the field as an alternate out of the qualifier at Irondequoit Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. His ball flight was much like that of Tennant, right to left and high. And he provided the highlight of the day when his approach at the par-4 13th hole, kicked left, caught the slope and rolled into the hole for an eagle.
   The Old Course was one of the first big splashes in the career of architect Tom Doak. He returned a decade later, a much bigger name in the golf course architecture hierarchy, to do the North. The green complexes at the North are undulating in the extreme in places with multiple levels and swales in the middle. The Old Course green complexes seem less complicated, but are often trickier with subtle slopes and putts that seem to go the opposite of the way they look.
   Mitani probably scored a little higher at the Old Course than he did at the North Course – a pattern that will likely be repeated by much of the field in qualifying – but he did a good job of avoiding some of the pitfalls that can lead to a big number on any number of the Old Course’s more challenging holes, the kind of train wreck that can short-circuit a stroke-play round.
   When Major League Baseball announced it would use the outcome of the All-Start Game to decide home-field advantage for the World Series, they ran that hokey deal all summer, you know the “This Time It Counts,” campaign. Well, the practice rounds are over at the U.S. Mid-Am at Stonewall. Qualifying gets under way Saturday morning and yes, this time it counts.

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