HEADLINES

How Connecticut Players Prepare for a Season in Flux

It’s a golfing year full of questions, and for competitive golfers, one is paramount: How do I prepare?

With most gyms and practice facilities shut, and golf allowed only with restrictions, how does a champion ready him or herself for competition?

We reached out to recent Connecticut champions to learn how they’re dealing with the pandemic and still getting themselves ready for a season that may begin as early as a month from now.

“That’s a funny question,” laughs Jen Holland, the 2019 Player of the Year. “Funny because I got new clubs this season and was really anxious to get out there and use them but haven’t played at all.”

For Holland, a physical education teacher in Middlefield, the season usually starts when school ends. The chilly, wet weather we’ve had in April is not her favorite. So, besides walking and jogging, she’s concentrating on her competitive attitude. “I’ve been visiting mental-side web sites, thinking of that part of my game, you know, reading about the best ways to handle things when you’re in stressful situations, how you stay calm, you know, taking in as much information as possible.” Virtual teaching adds to the stress-testing. “It’s more work than going to work,” she says. “I’m just not used to sitting in front of a computer all the time.” (Holland’s clinics for young golfers at Lyman Orchards are on hold.)

She and Debbie Johnson—who both qualified for the U.S. Senior Amateur last year—were hoping to make the field of the 3rd U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club until that event was cancelled. Johnson misses the early competitive events that helped her get ready for the Connecticut Women’s Amateur and Connecticut Women’s Open (which has now been moved to August at Rockrimmon Country Club) but she’s playing. Johnson has had more time to do that, given that she’s not commuting every day from Stamford to New York and her job as a computer-system manager. 

“The only way to prepare for competitive golf is to hit shots when you’re nervous, and you need tournaments to get ready for that. All I can do is play, and I’ve been playing and happily walking, which is awesome. I’m at a private club {Oronoque Country Club} so I’m fortunate. Our range is not open and our putting green is not open because I guess they don’t want gathering. Used to be you could go out at the end of the day, but now because of the tee times being farther apart, the course tends to stay full.”

2019 Player of the Year Rick Dowling was especially anxious to get back. He and partner Nick Taylor of Waterbury were going for an unprecedented third title in a row at the Two Man Championship (now May 18 and likely to be rescheduled.) Dowling’s had the special benefit of working for Junior Golf Hub, attached to the Golf Performance Center in Ridgefield. “I’ve been spending about five hours a week for the last month or so outside at Golf Performance Center. The crew is still maintaining the grounds and the entire property is in phenomenal shape. I'll spend most of that time on short game and playing the short course, that we call ‘GPC National.’” For inspiration, Dowling’s also watching a lot of YouTube great-shot videos. “Seve highlights have been my favorite so far.” Add podcasts, live seminars and at home workouts designed by the GPC staff to a review of last year’s Amateur Championship season. “I’ve also been reflecting on last season and revisiting all the rounds, all the shots, how I practiced and prepared,” in hopes of another multi-major season. 

For a lot of the disciplined practicers among recent champions, it’s a shift to more impromptu practice. A few, like 2014 Public Links Champion Glen Boggini, have access to private gyms, but most are limited to “body-weight” exercises at home, and, with putting greens and ranges closed, a lot of on-course, playing practice.

“Playing is about all I’ve been doing,” says 2019 Senior Amateur Champion Bill Hermanson, a member at Black Hall Club in Old Lyme. “ I say that because I’m playing instead of practicing. The range is closed. The putting green is closed. And you can’t really hang around, so I play and that’s my practice now. Being able to play but not practice is unusual for me.  Normally, I’m running around like crazy for work at this time of year and squeezing in practice,” says the golf company manufacturer’s rep. “This year most of my customers aren’t even open.  I can’t really practice because those areas are closed. but I have time to play. It’s strange. I feel like my game’s pretty sharp, though.” Hermanson has been talking to Two Man partner Dave Szewczul, for whom the delay might not be such a bad thing. He continues to recover from multiple surgeries in 2018, and the warmer the weather the better for him.

2017 Public Links Champion Mike Kennedy has been doing the same at New Haven Country Club in Hamden. Thanks to decent weather, especially during March, he, too, has more rounds than usual. “Honestly, I probably get four or five rounds in by April 20 and this year I’ve got 20 I think. Ten or 11 were in March. I’m practicing on the course, getting into golf shape that way, and being careful. The staff has been terrific about taking care of people and then sending the message, ‘Thanks for coming,’ and making sure they don’t hang around and congregate.”

For his sometimes playing partners Ben Conroy, the 2018 Player of the Year, and Ben Day, the 2019 Mid-Amateur Champion, things are different, thanks to young families. “Most of my quarantine time goes towards our 6 month old, Miles,” says Conroy. “On the golf side my approach was to play the tournaments that work into my schedule and practice when I can, and just accept the results as they are for the amount that I was able to prepare.” It’s all given Conroy a new appreciation for golf. “I’ve also promised myself that I'll enjoy every second on the golf course even more than usual, and take advantage of the chances I do get to compete,” he says. “Given the mild winter and fair spring, I've been able to sneak out to hit balls at a range in Cromwell a couple of times a week for about an hour. I live about 5 minutes from Timberlin so I can sometimes steal a few minutes to chip and putt there also. I've played three or four rounds. I would guess that's less than some others, but I feel like I've gotten the rust off and am fairly optimistic about bringing a competitive game to the tournaments I can play this year. I try to run 15-20 miles a week and do some body-weight exercises, push-ups, squats, etc. to stay strong and fit, and that helps blow off some steam, which I feel is especially important these days.”

For Mid-Amateur Champion Day, who won the Connecticut Four-Ball with Conroy two years ago, family is also priority one. That, and a still busy executive position. “I’ve been playing once a week, so it’s hard to get sharp. With kids out of school and our no-visitors policy, I’ve only felt comfortable leaving one day per week, not really fair to my bride [Leeza] to do more than that.  Chipping in the yard with my kids, swinging in the backyard, stuff like that.  And at work, I run a manufacturing company, so staying ahead of all the challenges while our people are still coming in to work every day has been challenging.  Needless to say it’s a strange time. I think knowing what that first tournament will be will help a lot—give me something to get ready for and let me plan out my prep.”

At Wallingford Country Club head professional Steve Birkmeyer has, as always, welcomed the state’s junior stars and 2019 Connecticut Junior Champion Ben James, along with recent grads Alex Aurora and Chris Fosdick, among others, have been keeping their games sharp on Wallingford’s slick greens. They’ve also been playing Great River Golf Club in Milford with 2019 CIAC Open Champion Alex Gu of Darien.

James has had more prep than most. After playing in the Junior Presidents Cup in December, he finished eighth at the AJGA Simplify Championship in Texas in February and then got in more practice at Pinehurst in March, where he and 2019 Public Links Champion Peter Tomlinson went to get the rust off. “Ben and I had gone to Pinehurst to get ready and the whole thing kind of came down while we were there,” says Tomlinson, who also won the Tournament of Champions last year. “So we were going to be there a week and ended up staying two. Our focus was on short game and so while the putting green was open we got a lot of work in. Now I’ve got a putting set-up in the basement and have been working on that.” The season’s delayed start has been drag for sure.  “I kind of hit my stride last year and was really looking forward to playing. It’s disappointing not to be able to play right away. But the important things is that we’re all safe.”

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