Putting Under Pressure

Under Pressure
By Jonathan Hartley

This was an all-or-nothing 40-footer. You don’t expect to make a putt like that.

Christopher Crawford remembers watching the ball fall. He can clearly remember the trajectory of his 40-foot putt to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Open, but everything that immediately follows is a blur. From photos and his foggy memories of the euphoria and chaos that ensued, we know he pumped his fist in victory and gave a big hug to his caddie, who is also his Drexel golf coach, Ben Feld.

He knew that his next step, logistically, was to sign his scorecard, but as he left the green he experienced what he describes as a “rush of chaos.” Friends, fans, news cameras and golf journalists crowded around asking questions and trying to get footage of the man who had just sunk the miracle putt. The media crush was new territory for a college golfer, but he gamely stuck around for an extra 20 minutes, accommodating interviewers’ questions.

The stunning all-or-nothing putt to send an amateur collegiate golfer to one of the most prominent tournaments in the world made for a textbook underdog tale. The fact that the pivotal putt on hole 18 was set up by inopportune bogeys on holes 16 and 17 made the senior accounting major’s achievement an instant classic. Publications including Golf Week and Golf Digest picked up the story and CBS Sports featured video of the putt on their website under the headline, “Golfer has ice in veins, sinks 40-foot putt to punch ticket to the U.S. Open.”

Crawford certainly exudes an “ice in veins” sense of calm, but he admits that he was acutely aware of the pressure on the holes leading up to his fateful putt on 18. He had avoided checking the leaderboard for most of his round, choosing instead to focus on what he could control. But, “you can tell by the way people around you are acting whether you’re in good shape or not,” he says.

He could see that Drexel coaches, friends and even his co-op employer were still following him on the course and took that as a sign that he was still in contention.

“I hit a couple of bad shots on 16 and made a bad bogey,” he says. “Then I hit a tee shot on 17, a good one, thankfully, and that was the first time I asked Ben (about the score). I knew he was checking the leaderboard updates on his phone.”

After learning that he was on pace to qualify, he hit a shot that set up a 3-foot putt. He missed — twice.

Chris Crawford

Courtesy of www.usga.org

“Suddenly, you actually have a chance to play in the U.S. Open and you feel a little different inside,” he says. “I should have dealt with it better.”

As a competitor, qualifying was Crawford’s ultimate goal and missing a relatively routine putt was deeply disappointing. He found himself needing a birdie on the last hole to avoid a tie and playoff. Now with even more pressure, he hit what he describes as “two bad shots” to start the 18th hole, with the second landing on the green about 40 feet from the hole.

He conferred with Feld, and determined that there was little pitch in the green, and he’d just have to be sure to put enough on the ball to make the distance. Due to the low odds of hitting a putt from that far away, he felt the pressure of the previous holes fall away.

“The hole before was a 3-footer and this was an all-or-nothing 40-footer. You don’t expect to make a putt like that. It’s a 1 or 2 percent type of putt,” Crawford explains. “I don’t know if I hit a good putt or just got lucky, but the ball happened to actually go in.”

Feld watched in awe as Crawford’s putt ultimately fell, but he doesn’t buy that luck had much to do with it. “It was the culmination of all of the hard work he had put in up to that point in time. I am a firm believer that doing things the right way on a daily basis adds up over time and brings good fortune. That being said, the bigger the moment is, the more Chris raises his level of play. This was just another example in a long line of these instances,” says Feld.

Between interviews, practice and travel planning, Crawford was left with little time to bask in his achievement. Practice rounds for the U.S. Open began four days after the qualifier at Oakmont Country Club in western Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until the long drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that the magnitude of his achievement began to sink in. The next few days offered some time for reflection with a light practice schedule at the storied golf course.

Chris Crawford

Courtesy of www.usga.org

The Tuesday after he arrived offered yet another reminder of how big an event the U.S. Open is. He was paired with Jason Day, the top golfer in the world, for a practice round. Thousands of people were on hand just to watch Day tee off at the first hole. The massive crowd was unnerving, but Crawford took solace in knowing this would be the largest gallery he’d play for all week.

Witnessing Day and other top golfers’ games proved inspirational for Crawford. “I got to see where I stacked up against them and saw what I needed to work on to get to that level,” he says.

Qualifying for, and playing in the first round of, the U.S. Open marked a symbolic end for Crawford’s career as a Drexel golfer. His collegiate eligibility ended after the 2015-16 academic year, but as a five-year student, he won’t graduate for another year. Feld knew this provided an opportunity to have Crawford help the program in a new capacity. “Not only did he work to become the most decorated golfer in school history, he was also a tremendous influence to the rest of the team and an ambassador for the Drexel athletics community,” says Feld.

Chris Crawford will join the Drexel Golf staff as an undergraduate assistant coach. His role will be varied, but he sees himself as an asset in recruiting young golfers. Philadelphia’s cold winters can deter some athletes who want to play outdoors year-round, but Crawford says new advanced indoor training aids can make Drexel competitive. “If I can use myself as an example to show that what we have is very conducive to becoming better as a golfer, and as a person, then I think that can certainly help.”

Off the course, his experience juggling academics and athletics is sure to help the team. He acknowledges that Drexel’s schedule and emphasis on academics can be a challenge during tournament season, but it’s just a matter of focusing and working hard. During the season, travel often adds complications beyond what the average student deals with. “A typical golf trip involves waking up Saturday morning to leave at 6 a.m. [and driving for] as long as nine hours. Then you immediately play a practice round, get some food, and all you want to do is go to bed. The next morning is 36 holes of golf, which takes all day and exhausts you. [The next day] you play another 18 and go home,” explains Crawford.

Professors are often willing to put in extra hours to help, but he found that it can take until junior year to really master the balancing act. He looks forward to sharing lessons learned with younger golfers, but maintains that there’s no magic formula; the same principles helped him in school and on the course — prepare ahead of time and leave nothing to chance.

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