Newfound respect for the world’s best after our GolfTEC intern plays Baltusrol

By Alex Rajaniemi

There are a few moments when every golfer watches a PGA Tour professional and realizes just how other-worldly their talents are.

For you, maybe it came late last Sunday when Jason Day stuck a 254-yard 2-iron for eagle. My moment came on Monday after attending the 98th PGA Championship, when I was invited to play at Baltusrol Golf Club — host course to Jimmy Walker’s dramatic victory just a few hours earlier.

With the Sunday pins still cut, tournament tees ready and grandstands still lining the course, I embarked on an experience that was all I had hoped it might be, and more.

What Baltusrol taught me can help everyone’s golf game

The difficulty of championship golf and greatness of the world’s best can’t really be appreciated until you experience it yourself. It’s as mesmerizing as it is sobering.

Considering all of the insanely tough hole locations, thick rough and beat-you-to-death long-iron approaches at Baltustrol, what I took away more than anything else is just how strong the world’s best are mentally.

Whether having to muster an eagle on the the 72nd or hole a 3-footer for the Wannamaker Trophy, they seemingly have no pulse or even awareness of the pressure on them.

Baltusrol PGA Championship 18th grandstand view

To me, this is a great thing to remember next time you’re out on the course. Think of what could have been passing through Walker’s mind when he watched the Baltusrol gallery erupt for Day’s eagle, but then pulled his fairway metal and went for the green anyway.

While I would’ve thought the world was ending, Walker gathered himself, hit it up by the green and then threw a conservative pitch on the putting surface and calmly two-putted for his first major.

So, keep your cool the next time you shank a ball when your buddies stick their approach. Because nothing is scarier than playing against a guy with no pulse, and if you can’t rattle yourself, nobody can.

Speaking of getting rattled, here’s what not to do …

Highlights of my round at Baltusrol

I got off to a stellar start with a striped drive on the first — dead center of the fairway, just short of the bunkers on the left. Then after an 8-iron to 15 feet, I made the putt for birdie and immediately thought, “I’ve got this course, what’s all the fuss about?”

pga championship at baltusrol wannamaker trophyBut then I quickly proceeded to triple the second by way of some snap-your-wrists-thick rough, and we were off and running.

I collected myself with a par on the third, but as if I needed to be even more intimidated at that point, we walked around the grandstands on No. 4 and I came face-to-face with the Wannamaker Trophy.

I barely cleared the water and was lucky to walk off with a par.

Steadying the ship after my triple on 2, that feeling started creeping in again that I maybe wasn’t just some mere mortal compared to the pros, but actually did have a game that could stack up.


A pair of barely misplaced tee shots on 10 and 12 led to two double bogeys, and even my perfect drive on 13 quickly turned into a bogey. I hacked my way through deep rough and scored my second triple of the day on 14. And then to keep the bad mojo going, I made Lee Janzen’s mistake at the 1993 US Open by missing long on 15, and three-putted 16 after my best 4-iron of the day.

Yikes. What just happened?

In one hour, my 2 over had turned into 12 over. Dejected and angry, I lost all of that confidence I felt, because Baltusrol’s back nine had beaten me silly. Which left me with one burning question and an incredibly newfound respect for the world’s best — how do these guys do it?!

Four points of proof from Baltusrol on why tour pros are SO good

— As aforementioned, I hit the best 4-iron of my life over the flag at the par-3 16th to 20 feet. What’s funny is I listened to Jordan Spieth berate himself after he “missed” his shot on this hole to near the same spot. And his ball was still in a better spot than mine.

PGA Championship at Baltusrol Nicklaus plaque— After the round I tried Jack Nicklaus’ legendary shot on 18 and failed miserably … with an easy-to-hit hybrid made in 2016, let alone a 1-iron made in 1967. I also attempted to replicate Justin Rose’s miraculous par save from the trees on 11, but ended up more like Brooks Koepka did on Sunday.

— You can’t imagine how tight the tee shot is on the 649-yard 17th. It has to be perfect, and is one of the coolest shots in professional sports if not just for how impossible it is for the average golfer to accomplish.

— I had Jason Day’s 72nd-hole putt for birdie on 18, and two-putted. This is what amazes me about Day — sure he’s long and hits the ball over the moon, but his green reading and capture speed control are on another planet. To put his greatness into perspective, he’s missed just two putts since 2014 inside of 3 feet. That’s just silly.

Favorite moments as a spectator

My favorite moment of the tournament came on Sunday when Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka played the fourth. We sat in the stands right below the large tree just left of the pin, and watch both of them throw darts into the green. “U-S-A” chants immediately erupted from the gallery.

Baltusrol 4th PGA Championship

Then Reed’s caddie read a putt and held push-up position for almost 30 seconds. The crowd erupted again — louder than any cheer we heard all afternoon short of Day’s eagle putt. You didn’t see or hear about this on TV, but they left that green in tears laughing.

PGA Championship at Baltusrol Tim RosaforteOn Saturday, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with one of the finest journalists in sports, Tim Rosaforte of Golf Channel. We listened for an hour as he recalled countless golf stories, ranging from encounters with President Obama to Tiger Woods. He spoke of the health of the game, future of Olympic golf and shared some of his secrets to being one of the most respected writers in the game. When people ask which sports figure you’d like to have a beer with, I’d suggest putting Tim on that list.

It was the week of a lifetime as a golfer. The course was brilliant; golfers that much better. And I learned that if this game can’t rattle the best in the world, why should a few poorly timed shots get me off my own game?  So, assuming I get another shot to play the Monday after the PGA Championship next year, let’s hope I can take what I’ve learned to better handle the closing nine at Quail Hollow.

Image Gallery from the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol


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