Free Solo: How I beat the young guys to win the MeadowWood Men's Club Championship

by Jeff Koppa

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen was the movie about Alex Honnold who scaled the 3,200 feet (from base to summit) El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes or equipment assistance. He had obviously climbed many cliffs during his life.

The thing that stuck out to me was that he rehearsed every step and move until he knew, not thought, that he could put them all together and summit the rock.

Jeff Koppa

Last spring I told my friend Rick that I wanted to win the “Big Three,” which were the MeadowWood Men’s Club Championship, the Spokane County Senior Championship, and the Spokane City Senior Championship.

He agreed that the first one would be the hardest to get, playing against the young players that reigned at the top of our club.

I turned 65 last February, and although my short game and putting were better than ever, I was going to give up lots of yards off the tee to the youngsters. I knew this meant I would need to be sharp with my approach shots.

I also had stored a good memory of this year’s PGA Championship, when Phil had won with what looked to me to be an unbelievable calm throughout his entire tournament. There were some errant shots and bogey results, but he stayed focused on the next shot, knowing that others were having similar troubles.

I think that we learn more from losses than we do from wins. I’ve had my share of both. A couple of tries to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open humbled me when I was feeling I had the game for it. Those pros can eat our amateur lunches. I’ll keep my day job.

Knowing me better than anyone on the planet, my wife shook me out of any nervousness I might be feeling at that point. As I headed out the door she gave me a kiss and quoted a line from Jerry McGuire that fit the moment perfectly: “Bye, hun. You’re not a loser.”

We both laughed and, although the day meant a lot, it put things in perspective. It was just what I needed.

With everything that followed I’d be remiss if I didn’t describe my “blazing” start to the 36-hole tournament. On my first tee shot I found the middle of the fairway, but then came out of my approach shot and landed in a greenside bunker. Trying to hit something close I did just that: my sand wedge hit real close to the ball and I flew over the flag to the hill behind the first green! A mediocre chip and two putts gave me a double-bogey six.

Maybe a bit too relaxed? It was like, “Well, I got that out of the way. Now I don’t have to worry about being too perfect.”

I thought of Phil on my way to the second tee, and thought, “A three on this par-5 would put me right back to even.”

Koppa was getting a lot of trash talk about his age, so he brought a walker to the first tee as a prank. With his win in the 2021 MeadowWood Club Championship, he had the last laugh.

A good drive then probably the best shot I hit on the weekend: a 3-wood from 263 yards stopped on the green to a nice 10-footer for eagle. Boom. Back to even.

I can’t say that it calmed me because I already was for some reason. I did feel good that it probably would hold up for some skins cash.

I birdied the next hole and thought that if you would’ve told me I’d be 1-under through three holes an hour ago I’d take it.

Steady playing kept me 1-under at the turn and I was feeling good.

I made a good up-and-down on 10, then lasered a 6-iron to two feet on the par-3 11th. Birdie there got me going.

I hit the green in two on the par-5 12th and 2-putted for two in a row. Then I really started feeling it as I rolled in birdie putts from 18 feet on 13 and 12 feet on 14.

I told my buddy Dave, “I must be butter, cuz I’m on a roll!” Then I made a 25-footer on 15 for five in a row!

A couple mis-reads on the next two and made pars. Then a tough tee shot on 18 that found the middle and posted a smooth 6-under 66. It was the third 66 on MeadowWood in my last three rounds. Free Solo. I knew I could do it.

Golf is funny that way. The more times you put yourself under pressure and manage your way through it, the more normal it becomes. There’s a line in a country song right now that says, “It might not mean much to you but it does to me.” That’s why I’m recounting all these thoughts. It’s the sum of many, or all, things that get us through, right?

Day two, and the final round was being played at our sister course, Liberty Lake. It had taken a hit because of a failed water system during an unusually hot few weeks. But anyone who plays tournament golf realizes that everyone plays under the same conditions.

I woke early following a late work night. I work a night shift on Saturdays so I can golf the mornings. Not able to sit around, I told my wife that I was going to go do some short-game practice while she got ready to go with me to the course – I wanted my “good luck” charm to share the day with.

On the way to the tournament I told my wife that I expected to lose my 2-shot lead at some point. I didn’t want to be mentally shaken on the course so I anticipated a close grinding finish. A solid warm-up and practice putting green accompanied some congrats for the previous day.

My 66 had me two shots ahead of two 68s and one guy with a 69 for the final group. The 68s were last year’s club champ and his buddy, and both of them could out-drive me by 60 yards plus. I vowed not to get into a long drive contest today and hoped maybe they would. One of them quietly said, “I’m coming for ya.”

A little gamesmanship? I like it. I didn’t doubt he was coming. I welcomed the challenge. I mean, what do we do this for?

We made our way through the first several holes without a birdie until gamesman chipped one in from long grass behind the seventh green. I had missed a couple par putts early, but then made a birdie with a good pitch and putt on the par-5 eighth.

I had noticed the fourth player in our group was having some back issues. He had fallen behind and with the injury making it worse withdrew and walked in from the eighth green. As I watched him walking down the side of the ninth fairway I felt bad for him but quickly refocused on my own mission.

As we made the turn I was a shot down but still two ahead of last year’s champ. I made a great up and down for par on 10 because I couldn’t reach the green from the left rough. When the 12-footer dropped for par I got a spark of confidence. C’mon putter!

Zeroed in on the next hole and stuck one to three feet for a birdie. Tied up! Stroke play just became match play. Who’s gonna blink?

We all found the fairway on the par-5 12th and, yeah, I was first to hit my second shot. Put myself in front of the green in good shape. A little trouble from those guys but a par and a bogey from them separated us from the field, I thought.

I caught the fairway bunker on 13 and drew a bad lie. Could only get out about 30 yards. Ugh! He was in the middle for his second but I heard him say, “I shanked it!” And I watched his ball go in the greenside bunker.

I wedged close with hopes for another par save, but the putt rolled by. He had trouble in the bunker and made a triple-bogey seven.

I striped my drive on 14 and was 60 yards behind them again! My ball had a big clump of mud on the right side. I was trying to remember how it affects a shot? “Does it fly the opposite or the same way as the mud?” I thought it would go to the right so I aimed left but it went left a little from the mud, but I still caught the edge of the green. Pars around.

Fifteen is a short dogleg-right par-4 and people started to gather around our group. A bit of a wait and I went to my go-to cut shot with a 3-wood. Middle! Him too.

The final scoreboard for the 2021 MeadowWood Club Championship. Numbers don’t lie.

I looked up from the fairway and my daughter and boyfriend walked up. Trying not to be too intense, I greeted them then got back to the race. A smooth gap wedge found the green and another par on the card. The par-3 16th green found all three of our tee shots, with mine the closest at 12 feet. All pars. Some disappointment for not making that birdie putt, but I started thinking, “Just a couple more good swings.”

Seventeen is a long uphill dogleg left with lots of trouble and trees bordering the fairway. Hitting my go-to cut to the middle was a small victory and he was in trouble again long in the trees.

My ball stopped in a marked area of ground under repair. Just another potential distraction, like the mud ball a few holes ago. I called him over, thinking that I didn’t want to do anything stupid right now. We agreed on the drop and I followed the rules.

Of course I was hitting my second shot first – 190 out, with the wind out of the left. I focused on the middle of the green and hit it good enough to clear the front right greenside bunker, but not on the green.

After his pitch out of the trees, his third came up short of the green. Yikes!

I had to chip over the fringe and I pulled on the memory of the morning when I couldn’t sit. I had practiced those little touch shots thousands of times for a time like this! To three feet and a timely par and I felt a chill when I took the ball out of the hole. One hole to go.

More people and friends gathered around the tee on 18. I wasted no time hitting my trusty hybrid after telling them I’d probably hit this a little left away from the water on the right. Ha! The two long-hitting kids (anyone under 50 is a kid) waited for the green to clear on this short (330 yards) finishing hole. One of them drove the green against a breeze, and the other was just short.

My gap wedge second shot found the middle of the green, but I didn’t realize there was some adrenaline running through me and I powered my putt about six feet by. I nudged the par putt up and tapped in for the only three-putt of the day.

At first I wasn’t sure if I had won. A look at the scores showed that I had. I was so match-play focused that I didn’t know what score we shot. Like that old Alaska saying, “When a bear is chasing us I just have to be faster than you, not the bear!”

The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming. I was just kind of shocked. I don’t think anyone expected me to win. I had pulled on so many past experiences to keep calm enough to execute the shots I had practiced forever.

I had won the 2021 MeadowWood Men’s Club Championship!

After all that I went to bed early and slept well that night. I think mainly because I’m 65 years old.