The Hazards of Going Low

The Hazards of Going Low

Just like Mike Donald at the 1990 Masters, Mark Costanza found at the Crump Cup the difficulty of following up one good round with another

By Michael Bamberger

Mark Costanza didn’t want to get ahead of himself. What golfer does? But you know how it is: Sometimes thoughts just drop on in, uninvited. Costanza was in the finals of the U.S. Mid-Am at windblown Sankaty Head, on Nantucket, an old whaling island about 25 miles out to sea, and his mind, at least for a moment, had a mind of its own.

This was in mid-October 2021. His caddie at his second USGA event was his wife of two weeks, Meredith, a former New York Jets cheerleader. Meredith had been coming to Nantucket on family vacations all her life. The newlyweds were staying in a beautiful house, gifted to them for a few days, near the course. The winner of the Mid-Am gets invited to the Masters. How lovely is all this? The only thing Mark Costanza needed to do was win one more match, beat his opponent in the 36-hole grand finale. A fairy tale on autopilot. Right? 

Inconveniently, that opponent was Stewart Hagestad, the best male amateur golfer in the United States.

As Costanza considered the possibility of winning the event, in came the attendant thought: What must it be like, to drive down Magnolia Lane en route to the Augusta National clubhouse, to play in the Masters? A fleeting notion that arrived without so much as an invitation by text. But it did arrive.

Human nature is human nature. In 2019, on Masters Sunday, Francesco Molinari awoke with a two-shot lead over Tony Finau and Tiger Woods. You likely know how that day played out. Molinari dunked two balls on the back nine. Some months later, I asked him what Sunday morning was like, when he put on a pair of dark blue pants and an off-white shirt with pale blue stripes. Did he ask himself how all that would go with the winner’s green coat? “You don’t want to,” he said. “But of course you do.”

Tiger won his fifth Masters that day. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself. Molinari was the reigning British Open champion, holding of Woods and others at Carnoustie. He was playing the best golf of his life. He was trying to become the first Italian to win the Masters. Great thoughts, big thoughts, pop in.

My friend Mike Donald had an interesting experience in his first Masters. He won Anheuser-Busch, an old Tour stop, in the summer of 1989, which got him into the 1990 Masters. On the Thursday morning of the tournament, he drove down Magnolia Lane with his mother and father in a tournament-issued courtesy car, a four-door white Cadillac. His play had been poor all through the practice rounds. His expectations were low. He hoped to play well enough to make the cut.

At the 2021 Mid-Am, at Sankaty Head, Costanza faced a cut, too. He had to play well enough in the 36-hole qualifier to get into the match-play part, which of course he did. He fought back from a huge hole in the final, but Hagestad made the putt he had to make on the 35th hole and won, 2 and 1. Costanza got beat by a thoroughbred. Still, there were prizes for him. His good play, and good manners, opened the door for him to play in some of the top amateur invitational events. He played in the Singles at National Golf Links on Long Island. He played in the Coleman at Seminole. Earlier this month, Costanza played in his first Crump Cup, an annual amateur event at Pine Valley. The tournament is named for George Crump, a Philadelphia hotelier and the visionary behind the famously demanding par-70 course across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in southern New Jersey. These are majors, for a select few.

Pine Valley’s 1st green is a three-putt waiting to happen. Costanza made a two-putt par. The 2nd hole is a short par-4 to a blind and elevated green. The second shot is half a guessing game. Costanza played the game well and had his second two-putt par of the day. The third is a downhill par-3 with a wildly sloping green surrounded by humorless and unraked bunkers. Costanza’s 6-iron was hole-high, not even 10 feet away. He made a 2. A 2 is always a handsome sight, on any scorecard. He was off to a good start. Everybody likes a good start. 

At the 1990 Masters, Donald got off to a good start, with two-putt pars on the first three holes. The first par-3 at Augusta is the 4th hole and Mike made a 2 there. After three days of lousy practice-round play, Mike was 1 under as he stood on the 5th tee, both of his parents, most unusually, following him. Maybe he could make the cut after all.

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The Crump has a cut, too. After a two-day, 36-hole stroke-play qualifier, only the top 16 players (out of 78) advance to the match-play championship flight. If you’re one of the 16, you sit at a special table at a tournament dinner. You’re in the club within the club. Costanza started well and played well in that first round. He shot 67. Three birdies, no bogeys. From the back tees at Pine Valley? You don’t get lucky and shoot 67 in your first competitive round at Pine Valley. Yes, it was a still day and the greens were soft. Still. The Crump field is stout and nobody shot lower. Heady stuff. Costanza was in good shape to finish among the top 16. Nobody was in better shape.

On that Thursday at Augusta in 1990, Mike went on the heater of all heaters, pretty much. On the 5th hole, he accepted a read from his caddie, Billy Harmon, whose father won the 1948 Masters. Mike almost never allowed a caddie to tell him anything, but he did on that green. It was on a 20-footer that Mike read breaking to the right. Billy read it the other way. Mike—if you know him, this is a shocker—went with Billy’s read. He walked to the 6th tee 2 under. He birdied three of the next four holes and went out in 5-under 31. Then he birdied 10. It wasn’t like he was striping it and stiffing it (except on 12, where he staked it for his seventh birdie in nine holes). But he was putting and chipping like a golfer on fire.

Mike shot a bogey-free 64 on that Thursday, on a day when the average score was more than 74. The club gives you a gift, a crystal vase, for being the day’s medalist. Mike was leading after the first day, by two. He got the crystal vase. He was already a touring veteran and he knew better than to get ahead of himself, but this much he could not deny: He was in good position to make the cut.

Mark Costanza followed his first-round 67 in the 2023 Crump Cup with a second-round 81. Thirteen players shot 147 or better. Seven players were tied at 148, Costanza among them. The sudden-death playoff began on the 1st, lots of people watching. If that’s you, in that playoff, there’s nothing in the world more important, at that very moment, not in golf, anyway. A seven-for-three playoff. Seven good golfers, three coveted spots. Three guys made pars on one and advanced to the championship flight. Mark, after a three-putt bogey, was not among them.

In the second round of the 1990 Masters, Mike shot an 82, without a birdie and with a triple bogey on the last. The cut was 148. Mike had shot 146. In those days, the players went off in twosomes on Thursday and Friday and second-round tee times went according to score, leaders last. Mike’s Friday tee time was the last of the day, at 2:21 p.m.

Mike had to talk his father, Bill, a mechanic, into coming to that 1990 Masters. As Mike remembers it, some weeks after the tournament, his father said, “I’m glad I went. I won’t go back, but I’m glad I got to see you play there. That first round was terrific, but I was more proud of you the second. You came out of that tent, the reporters were waiting on you and you answered their questions. You took it like a man.”

Mike loved being on Tour, more than anybody I have ever known. He lived it. But it was golf. Mike knew. He had shown character and class. What more could any parent hope to see? 

The other day, I got Mark and Mike on the phone together, to talk about the 1990 Masters and the 2023 Crump Cup. To talk about going low one day and the challenge to keep it going the next. These are not everyday scores, 64 and 82 in your first Masters (and still making the cut), 67 and 81 in your first Crump Cup (and not). They are separated by a generation. Mike is 68, and the year he won his lone Tour event, 1989, was the year Mark Costanza was born. But each spoke the other’s language.

“This is great,” Mark said at one point. “I’m not comparing what I did with what you did, but it’s cool for me to hear the similarities.”

Mike knows Pine Valley. He first played it years ago with a mutual friend of ours, the late Fred Anton. Mike talked to Mark about the second shot on 2, and along the way any shot where there’s a hill and wind and the caddie adds this and that and says, “It’s a 159 shot.” Mike: “As if I have a 159 swing.”

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“Totally,” Mark said. “I’m the same way. You’ll hear guys say on their wedge shots, ‘Choke up a half-inch, 10 o’clock on the backswing, 10 o’clock on the follow through, it’ll go 77 yards.’ Good for them if they can play that way, but I can’t.”

Mike said, golfer to golfer, “Following up a great round can be difficult. Did you get off to a bad start the second day? Did it snowball?”

The second day, Mark said, was not the first. It was cooler and windier. He started not on one but on 10, a short but devilish par-3. The round started to unravel, Mark said, on 14, a downhill par-3 over a pond. His tee shot pitched on the green and finished in a trap over it. The bunker shot left him with an 8-footer. He missed it. He never righted the ship and signed for 81.

“Hey,” Mike said. “Could have been 82!”

Mike asked Mark if he was panicking in that second round. Not really. “The conditions were tougher, and anything that was off, the mistake was magnified,” he said. Man, there’s a lot in that. 

Mark asked Mike, “After your 64, were you thinking about winning?”

Not for a minute, Mike said.

“I was always thinking, ‘Make that cut and play on the weekend,’” Mike said. “The last thing you want to do is be watching, and not playing, on the weekend. I knew I wasn’t playing great golf [at the ‘90 Masters]. But I thought, `I’m gonna hang in there, do the best I can. Grind it out to the end. Just make sure you don’t shoot 90.’”

In his first U.S. Open, in 1984 at Winged Foot, Mike shot 68-78. He shared the first-round lead and made the cut. He knew what it was like, to play a difficult golf course for a meaningful title against the best players in the world.

On the 1st hole in the second round at Augusta, Mike had a three-putt bogey. On the 2nd green, he had a six-footer for birdie. The greens were crusty, almost devoid of grass. Billy Harmon told him, “Don’t even try to make this. If you don’t make it’s going eight feet by.” Mike tapped it. His ball went six feet by. He missed the next one. Another three-putt bogey. He had already missed two short ones. “Now,” he told Mark, “I’m in survival mode.” Note the present tense. Not the tension.

Every time he reached a crosswalk, the same guy yelled, “C’mon, Mike, you can do this. You can win this. I’m betting on you.”

As if there’s anything new in the game, except the money they play for. It will always be hard to follow a low round with another one.

“Nobody can prepare you for that second round,” Mike said. “I kind of lost my brain out there, but you have to do it. You have to be part of it. Now that you’ve had that experience, you shot that 81, you’re a different player and a different person because of it.”

Mark said, “Some good players will tell you, you have to come out in the second round and wipe the slate clean. It sounds great, but it’s easier said than done.”

“They’re trying to trick their brain,” Mike said.

“It’s impossible to trick your brain,” Mark said.

“You have to grind and grind and grind,” Mike said.

I’m pretty sure I heard Mark nodding.

Nick Faldo won the 1990 Masters. He was the best player in the game just then. Mike finished just about dead last. But he made the cut. He and Billy closed down an Augusta bar as Sunday turned into Monday.

Steward Hagestad won the 2023 Crump.

I’m pretty sure Mark Costanza will have more chances. Also, he knows: it’s just golf. Meredith is pregnant with the couple’s first child. His career in finance is in full swing. He’s an excellent golfer with events to play in. How much fun is that?

Mike Donald will tell you: very damn fun. 

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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