Growing up I participated in many different sports. I thought for sure that I would have played baseball and basketball in the years that followed high school; however, it wasn’t until I played in the high school district golf championship that my focus changed.
Every year I practiced and anticipated the arrival of this tournament. Doing well in the district championship meant college scholarships and the chance to compete in the state tournament.
November 1999, I arrived at Delaire Country Club in Delray Beach, FL for the district championship. As I began warming up I remember feeling the extreme pressure, not only was this round of golf going to determine my future, it was possibly my last high school round of golf.
As I walked up to the first tee I wondered if everyone watching could see me shaking from all the nerves. My sweaty palms were another indication of my nerves, “This is it Paul, your most important round yet.” Well, my nerves certainly got the best of me as I opened with a bogey on an easy par 5. Two more bogeys followed the first and I said to myself, “time to get it together Paul.” I managed to finish the front nine in three over par, 39.
My coach pulled me aside to give some positive words of encouragement, he told me to keep my head in this because there are still nine holes left. I started the back nine by making par on the first five holes. On the 15th hole I carded my first birdie, things were starting to look up. After making a 15 ft. putt on the 16th hole, my coach met me at the 17th tee to ask if I wanted an update of how my competitors were finishing. He informed me that the best score in was a one over par, 73. This meant that I would have to birdie at least one of the last two holes to tie for the lead or win.
That little bit of information lit a spark under me; I managed to birdie the 17th hole placing me tied for the lead. The only hole left was the hardest on the course, a 440 yard, dogleg right par 4 that was directly into the wind. I remember telling myself to take it shot by shot on the tee. I somehow managed to hit a pretty solid tee shot down the left side of the fairway. When I got to my ball in the fairway I noticed the gallery of people gathered around the green. All of my teammates, competitors, and coaches were all watching to see the final outcome. I analyzed every detail of my last approach shot of the day. It was 157 yards to a tucked flag on the right side of the green, straight into a strong wind. I chose a 6 iron and went into my pre shot routine, followed by a deep breath. When I finally struck the shot it felt like an eternity that the ball was in the air. It finally landed and the crowd erupted into applause. The shot landed within inches of the hole and finished within 2 feet. I now had the final task of making that short putt to win the event. Even though it was a short putt, everything was riding on it. To this day I have never been so nervous over a putt. The two foot putt seemed like a 20 foot putt, I kept my head still and made the stroke. The ball barely curled in the right side of the hole. The elation I felt when that ball was in the bottom of the hole was surreal.
Moments like this are what make this game the greatest game on earth. This round is the biggest reason I chose to make golf a part of my life forever. To have the chance to help people achieve great golf memories of their own is truly a blessing.
Paul Rifenberg, PGA
Wycliffe Assistant Golf Professional