So You Wanna Be A PGA Tour Pro?
A strong showing at the Barracuda was followed by a mad scramble to get to the Monday Q for the 3M Championship
By Ryan French
TRUCKEE, Calif. — “It will make me sick if I think about it,” Mark Baldwin told me as we drove to the airport on Sunday night. We had just finished the final round of the Barracuda Championship. We were standing on the 8th tee at plus-7 points for the day, with a real chance to make a move up the leaderboard. Sadly, It didn’t happen. And did that ever sting.
Monday qualifiers and sponsor’s exemptions generally get the last tee times in both waves. We had the second to last tee time Friday afternoon, so our celebration for making the cut consisted of some takeout of especially cold lasagna. Mark went to bed, and I packed his new tour bag with snacks, balls, sunscreen and a new water bottle. (I lost the other one during the round.) I also quickly marked pins in our yardage books before calling it a night.
The race to get to the Monday qualifier in Minneapolis for the 3M Championship began right after we finished the final round. The players’ parking lot turned into our bag-shuffling station. With a new tour bag Mark had received from Callaway and the clothes GolfTec had sent to us, we needed to figure out how to get our luggage under the weight limit. I jammed two pairs of Mark’s shoes into my bag and some clothes into my backpack, and off we went. I’m not sure if the ticket agent didn’t care or didn’t notice that my bag was two pounds over the 50-pound limit.
The alarm went off at 6 a.m. on Saturday, and we met in the kitchen of our Airbnb. Neither of us had slept well; the adrenaline of a late birdie to make the cut was hard to shake.
We were paired with Canadian David Hearn, who on Friday thought he had missed the cut, had packed his bags and was getting ready to leave when he found out two late doubles allowed him to sneak into the weekend.
Mark fought his swing from the start of the third round. He made too many pars (13) and not enough birdies (3), but considering he was struggling with his swing, the plus-4 total wasn’t terrible. In the Stableford format, it’s better to go birdie-bogey (that would be plus-1) than make two pars. It wasn’t the best day, but with the volatile scoring format and the ability to move up the leaderboard quickly, we had another chance.
Our connecting flight from Reno to Denver was delayed 45 minutes, putting our chances of making our connecting flight to Minneapolis in jeopardy. We arrived with just minutes to spare, grabbed a quick snack and immediately boarded the flight. Because it was such a quick connection, our minds started racing during the two-hour flight about a backup plan in the event Mark’s clubs didn’t make it. We had made our flight, but where were the clubs?
We went back to the Airbnb on Saturday afternoon and relaxed. We wanted to be well-rested for the final round. On Sunday we left the house at 7:15 a.m. for our 8:45 tee time with Ashun Wu. Mark had slept well and was relaxed and talkative on the way to the course. It was time to make a move.
Mark starts every warmup with some putting, and then we move to the range. He begins with half wedges before moving to full swings. Next, he typically hits 30 to 35 full shots. This time he hit about 15 before moving to his driver, the final club. He felt that good and loose. I flipped the first ball to him, and he hit a beautiful high draw. “Really nice,” he said before the ball had landed. The second ball was the same, as was the third. The fourth was still in the air, another high tight draw, when he said, “That’s enough. It won’t get better than that.” We headed back to the practice green for a few final putts. I picked up the bag and followed him to the 1st tee, excited for the round ahead.
The first two holes only added to our confidence. A perfect opening drive, followed by a wedge to 10 feet and a made putt produced a birdie on 1. That was followed by a routine birdie at the par-5 2nd. Two holes, four points.
We stared at the oversized baggage claim area praying the clubs would appear. The fact our clothes had made it was a great sign. Finally, after PGA Tour members Kevin Stadler, Parker McLachlin and D.A. Points got theirs, Mark’s green travel bag appeared. Huge sigh of relief! At 11:45 p.m., we headed for the Embassy Suites.
A three-putt bogey on the long par-4 5th slowed the momentum for a moment. On the reachable but challenging par-5 6th, Mark was left with a 4-iron into the long but narrow green. His drive had just trickled into the rough, making the shot more difficult. Before the round, we had talked about taking some chances. This would be one of them. Maybe earlier in the week, we would have taken another club to ensure that we cleared the water. Today we were flag-hunting, even if the pin was tucked close to the penalty area.
No matter how well you strike a shot, there’s always apprehension when the ball is in the air and trouble is lurking. The ball landed softly and stopped 25 feet away for eagle. As the putt rolled toward the hole, Mark raised his arm, striking the same pose he had held on the 18th hole on Saturday when holing a 40-footer for birdie. Somehow this putt stayed out, sliding over the edge of the hole. Disappointing, but there is never a bad time for a tap-in birdie.
We had some real momentum as we stood on the tee of the par-3 7th. Mark and I talked through the club selection and decided on a 9-iron for the 178-yard shot. As soon as it left the club, the ball was tracking. The shot was so good, in fact, that Mark said, “Go in!” It almost did, ending just 18 inches away. Another kick-in birdie for two more points. We had played only seven holes and already had racked up seven points.
As we stood on the tee of the reachable par-4 8th, we had climbed 25 spots on the leaderboard. There was a real chance we could make some noise, maybe even sneak toward that coveted top 10, which would have gotten us a spot in the following week’s 3M Championship. But pro golf is hard.
Mark and I got settled into the hotel a little after midnight. Mark quickly showered and headed to bed. His tee time for the 3M Monday qualifier was just 11 hours away. I sat down to write this article and ordered Taco Bell. Life on Tour!
The 8th hole at Old Greenwood has given us trouble both years we have played it. The green is diabolical, sloping away from you with steep runoffs on the back. You have to split two sets of tall trees off the tee. On the first three days, a full 3-wood had nearly gone out of bounds over the green, so Mark tried to smooth one. The ball caught the left trees and fell straight down.
Still, that left only a 75-yard lob wedge, but with the green sloping away, that required a perfect shot to get close. The ball looked great when it left the club, but it landed a yard short and stayed on the fringe. Mark’s delicate chip checked quickly and left a 15-footer for par that just missed left. It was a costly bogey on a hole where we were clearly thinking birdie. So much for that momentum.
A poor 9-iron on the next hole led to another bogey, and just like that, Mark was struggling. The following five holes were flat-out miserable.
A terrible choice of clubs and a poor chip resulted in a bogey on 11. A 7-iron into the short par-5 12th only netted a par, and another poor wedge led to an agonizing bogey. The reality of another opportunity slipping away had set in. There wasn’t a lot of conversation. All of the hard work we had done on the front nine was long forgotten.
On the par-4 16th, the hole Mark had driven on Friday to get in under the cut, he hit another remarkable drive. It ended in the front bunker. As we walked toward the green, Mark broke the ice. He turned to me and said, “I’m just going to enjoy the hell out of these last three holes.” The bunker shot almost went in, and he tapped in for birdie.
The 18th is a long uphill par-4 guarded by bunkers on both sides. Off the back of the tee, you can see the majestic mountains. It is a perfect setting for the last hole at golf’s fifth major. As we headed up the fairway, Mark thanked me for talking him out of quitting after he just missed at Korn Ferry Tour Q-school last year. I told him that no matter what happens from this point forward, no one can take away that he made three cuts on the PGA Tour. I thanked him for letting me tag along.
“I love ya, buddy,” he said as he slapped me on the shoulder.
Like at every PGA Tour event, players at the Barracuda are introduced as they walk to the 18th green. I fell back a bit and watched Mark climb to the green to applause from the surrounding suites. I know he was soaking in the moment, and so was I. I hope this isn’t the end, but I wanted to make sure I took it all in, just in case.
Mark missed his 20-foot birdie putt and tapped in for par. We finished with plus-5 points for the day, plus-17 for the tournament and T50. Let the record show that over the past year, Mark is 3-for-3 in cuts made on the PGA Tour: at the Barracuda last summer, at Pebble Beach in February and now this week. When given the chance, he has capitalized.
Our tee time for the 3M Monday qualifier is at 11:50 a.m. Central. Another opportunity to play in a PGA Tour event awaits. Yes, it’s a grind, but this never gets old.