Thoughts from my start on the Champion’s Tour

Wow, what a whirlwind it’s been!  I love the Champion’s Tour!!!!  It’s more than I ever imagined, been a sort of homecoming for me.  So many of the guys that I played and competed against 20+ years ago, are competing on the Champion’s Tour.  I’ve lost contact with many of them as a result of broadcasting over the last 19 years.             After finishing my last CBS broadcast at the Legends of Golf in Savannah Georgia (the week I turned 50!), I headed to Mississippi early Monday morning for my first Champion’s Tour Event.  I was so excited to have received a sponsor’s exemption to the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic.  I dropped my wife off at the airline terminal at 5am (she was flying home to Raleigh), waited until 6am for the Signature Flight Support FBO to open so I could get to my Malibu and take-off.  After loading the plane, I turned the starter and nothing happened.  I checked over and over to make sure I was doing everything right, still the prop wouldn’t turn.  I have piloted my own plane for 23 years and never had this happen before.  I even went out and hand-cranked the prop.  Nothing happened!  I had a 12:00 pm shotgun start in Gulfport, an important pro-am as sponsors were counting on me and this was something I agreed to do in return for the exemption.

I waited until 8am for the mechanics to arrive at the airport.  They jumped right on it and soon diagnosed a failed starter as I had suspected.  Fixing it would require at least 24 hours.  I headed back to the FBO and was notifying the tournament committee that I would have to miss the pro-am, when Don Pooley, Morris Hatalsky, Bob Gilder and Dennis Watson came through.  They were boarding a Net Jet flight to Gulfport.  When I asked if I could thumb a ride, they graciously agreed.  I made my pro-am tee time.  Only one hitch, how was I going to get back to Savannah to pick up my airplane.  In stepped Roy Anderson, a great supporter of the Champion’s Tour, who asked his pilots to fly me to Savannah Thursday evening so I could pick it up.  I didn’t eat dinner in Gulfport that night until 11pm, but got enough sleep to make my 8am tee time with Gary Hallberg and Tim Simpson.

Teeing off the first tee that windy morning was one very emotional experience for me.  I couldn’t believe I got paired with one of my closest friends, Gary Hallberg.  The realization that this was the moment I had waited for the past 5 years.  This was the moment I’ve been preparing.  Gratitude poured into my heart as I stepped to the first tee, flghting tears.  Thoughts of the incredible support I have had from my wife, Marianna, made this moment so special.  Thoughts of the help and support of all my friends, coaches, Impact Zone instructors and more made me even more grateful.

The announcer introduced me to the first tee in front of the Mississippi fans.  “Making his Champion’s Tour Debut, from Carmel, CA, give a warm welcome to ‘Bobby Clampett’!”  Tears flooded my eyes again, so much so I had to wipe them in my shirt sleeve.  I stood over the ball, feeling peace and ripped a drive down the middle on the into-the-wind 530 yard par 5 1st Hole at Fallen Oak.  I had 238 to the front of the green, into a 20 mph wind for my 2nd shot.  The hole was cut back right.  Already a decision time, do I lay up or go for it.  Water was just left of the green.  I was so excited to try to reach the green in two, I told Van (my caddy), it’s a go!

I ripped a 3 wood onto the green, the only player to hit the par 5 in two all day.  I badly misread the 60’ eagle putt, then lipped out the 10’ birdie.  I went on to hit a lot of good shots, one more three-putt and shot an even par 72.

I was paired with another really good friend in the second round, two-time Champion’s Tour player of the year, Bernhard Langer.  Bernie and I used to practice a lot together and play a lot of practice rounds.  Despite two more three putts in the first 14 holes, I had a pretty good round going at one-under for the day.  Again the winds were up.  Then I bogied three of my last 4 holes, hitting all good drives, but mishitting two approach shots and misjudging the wind at the last hole.   In the final round I was paired with another great friend, Ted Schulz.  I picked up where I left off the second round, bogeying 4 of the first five holes.  Then I got on a roll, making 4 birdies in the next 10 holes and getting back to even for the day.  I drove into a fairway bunker at 16, tried to hit a full sandwedge over the steep lip, but caught the ball just a fraction thin, leaving the ball in the bunker.  The resulting double-bogie was then followed by my 6th three putt of the week at the par 3 17th.  A final round 75 dropped me back to t47th.  I was pretty disappointed, because I felt I had played much better.

I had changed my putting set-up to higher hands, but never changed the lie of the putter, which was then too flat for me.  I had pushed a lot of putts all week. On Monday I called my putting coach from Yes Golf, Brett Davies.  That afternoon, he had a new, more upright, putter heading home.  When it arrived, it was perfect!  My putting was back on!

On Wednesday, I got a call from the Region’s Charity Classic.  “Bobby, it looks like we’re going to get a sponsor’s exemption back and we’d like to give it to you!”  I was so fired up!  I went out and played a quick nine with two balls, shooting 8 under par at my home course, Brier Creek CC.  On Friday the exemption was confirmed.  On Sunday, I was flying to Birmingham in the Malibu.

I arrived at the Ross Bridge RTJ course by 3pm.  It was stunningly beautiful, carved out of the rolling hills, with pines and lakes.  I played nine holes on Sunday.  On Monday, I didn’t get to play, as my caddie was struggling charting the greens under the new Aiming Point Concept I was implementing.  I had used the system in Mississippi for the first time and really liked it.  Tim Tucker had taught me how to do it while on the putting green in Savannah.  It made so much sense to me.  So I charted the greens on Monday and got a good practice session.  It was a cold and rainy day anyway.  On Tuesday I played Old Overton Golf Club, the course that my development partner on the Payne Stewart Golf Club, Mark Elgin, developed.  This was an outing for Region’s Bank that they had asked me to participate in return for the sponsor’s exemption.  On Wednesday I was able to play the pro-am at Ross Bridge.  I shot a 4 under par 68, but didn’t feel too good about it.  I had missed to many shots to the left.

On Thursday, I was not playing in the pro-am, so I spent some time with Master Instructor Billy McDonald on his “About Golf” simulator at Birmingham Southern University.  I had also invited all my pro-am partners to join us.  One did show up.  He got a great lesson from both Billy and me on the “Impact Zone” and left so excited about his new found discoveries on his swing.

Billy noticed that on some of those left shots I was hitting, he thought the clubface got just a bit shut on the backswing.  When I got to the range, I was able to fix the left shots by being more patient in my transition from end of backswing to the start of the downswing.  I was feeling more load and lag as a result of being more relaxed and patient at the top.  I started striping it on the range.  I had another good practice on Friday morning before the first round.  I was paired with another old friend, Jay Don Blake and Jim Dent.  Jay Don and I were college contemporaries in Utah, while Jim and I had played several times in my first few years on the PGA Tour.  I played very solidly, making 7 birdies and no bogies for a 65 which tied me for the lead.  On Saturday I was in the final group, with Joey Sindelar and Russ Cochran.  I played even better, making 8 birdies and again, no bogies.  Dan Forsman had shot a course record 62 earlier in the day, but when I birdied 4 of the last 6 holes, I was in the lead.  I made a key birdie at the 17th to take the lead.  With the bad weather report for Sunday and Monday, having the lead could be really important.  Berhnard Langer had discovered that in Tampa earlier in the year.  I had only missed three greens in regulation in two rounds and had hit most of the par 5’s in two.  I was in a good rhythm.

Though the storms had split and gone around Birmingham, I felt good on Sunday.  My practice however wasn’t quite as good as Friday and Saturday’s practice.  I felt a little out of sync on the range.  I was paired with Dan Forsman and Q-School winner Peter Senior.  Dan and I had grown up together in Northern California and were good friends.  In fact when Lee Martin (IZ Master Instructor) left Quail Lodge in 1973 (Lee was my first teacher), he later showed up at Los Altos CC and taught Dan Forsman.  Dan and I talked a lot about Lee during the round.

I was feeling a little nervous, but excited on the first tee, about what I had expected.  I was first up, and hit a good drive up the right center.  Dan got a good break on his hook off the first tee, the ball rolled through the bunker.  Senior, I don’t think he missed a fairway all day.

Dan drilled a 20 footer for birdie on #1.  I missed my 16 footer.  Senior drained his 15 footer.  Suddenly with a par on the first, I’m back tied for the lead with Dan and only one ahead of Peter.  The par 3 2nd hole was playing 183 yards into a 8 mph 2:00 wind.  The hole was cut in the front right, perfect set up for me to hit a hard, holding 6 iron.

Dan hooked his 6 iron on the far left of the green.  Senior hit his at the flag but 30’ short.  I felt like now is my time to make a statement, I’m going for the flag.  I hit a good one, 6 feet away.  Dan made a good two-putt, Senior drained another long putt to tie the lead.  I then made my 6 footer to regain the lead.  I felt that was an important birdie.  Dan and I birdied the par 5 3rd.  I still had a one shot lead going into the par 5 6th.  I hit a good drive and stripped a 5 wood that rolled 25’ past the hole.  Dan also hit a good drive and hit a beautiful hybrid 12 feet from the hole.  I missed my eagle, but tapped in for birdie.  Dan then made the eagle to tie me for the lead at 18 under par.

I will long remember the 7th hole, a downhill dogleg to the left par 4 with options off the tee.  Two fairway bunkers sit at the corner of the dogleg.  I didn’t feel I could even carry the first bunker, so I elected to lay up short of the bunkers with a 5 wood.  Dan hit the driver, hooked it left into the far fairway bunker.  I had hooked my 5 wood a bit and it hit the edge of the trees, dropping down 194 yards from the flag with a severe downhill, slicing lie.  Because my drive wasn’t to the dogleg, I needed to hit a pretty big hook, about 20 yards and the hole was cut in the most difficult back location.  The play for me was to go for the middle of the green, as I only had about 155 yards to the front edge of the green with a 4:30 breeze.  I selected a 7 iron, probably the worst club selection I’ve ever made.  I hit a good shot that wasn’t a flier, but flew the right side of the green and disappeared over the hill into the hazard.  The ball carried about 185 yards.  I thought I could get the first hazard shot on the green, but the long reed that plagued my backswing and downswing, was tougher to hit through than I thought.  The ball then rolled into the edge of a large clump of grass, enabling me to only hit a de-lofted shot towards the back of the green.  I was only trying to advance the ball as close to the green as I could.  I was able to pitch up 6 feet from the hole and sink the putt for a double-bogie.

I had given my sandwedge to my caddy, to clean after the first hazard shot.  I was walking over to inspect my lie in the hazard.  He took the wedge and swung it in the long grass to get rid of the dirt on the face.  Many viewers called the Golf Channel to say they believed that was a two-shot penalty.  On the 10th fairway, Brian Claar (Champion’s Tour Rules Official) notified me about the apparent rules violation.  When I asked my caddy, he said that he swung the club above the hazard line.  Still Brian wanted me to see the film after the round.  When I saw the film, my caddy had taken the club, walked several steps up the hill with his eyes looking at the ground, before swing the club in the grass.  This verified his statement that he saw the line and swung the club into the grass above the hazard line.  Brian agreed and thus I wasn’t assessed a penalty.  My caddy did nothing wrong and knew the rule.

Dan then went on a birdie tare, 4 straight, three of them were long putts.  The tournament was over.  I shot a 73 for the round and finished t5th.  I was the highest finisher in the top 10 who was not exempt for Des Moines, thus I was now in the tournament.  Congrats to Dan on his great playing!