Canadian wildfire smoke blanketed Metamora Fields Golf Course in Peoria, Ill., during the first two rounds of the OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois Classic.
Wind gusts and heavy rains halted play during the second round, blowing the eerie haze from the sky. When play resumed, the skies cleared and the sun came out revealing the lushness of the wide fairways and the golden fescue lining them.
Gary Deserrano, managing partner of the All-Pro Tour, stopped his cart as our group walked off the 17th tee. He paused, admiring the glowing evening.
“This is what I envisioned when I visited this place for the first time when it was covered in snow,” he said. Deserrano saw light in the dark. He couldn’t have imagined crowning a champion who better embodies that hope.
There are uncommon weeks in a professional golfer's season where they can't miss. Their concentration and focus is so unflappable that they only see the ball's intended flight to the target. Even when they miss -- and they do miss -- it's as if it were a fluke, an anomaly that can be explained as bad luck.
But that's not most weeks.
Ask Charlie Saxon. I wrote about Saxon's journey a month ago. His wins across multiple continents and success through the developmental tour ranks were followed by deflating setbacks. Each time Saxon was close to breaking through, injury and poor play would devastate his momentum. Saxon had multiple hip surgeries and eventually lost his swing, his speed, his confidence, and his Korn Ferry Tour status.
“I’m trying to play ‘Charlie golf’ — the golf I’ve played before, the golf that competes and has contended, and the golf that will contend again,” Saxon said to me for last month’s feature article.
Saxon had one of those can’t-miss events this week at Metamora Fields. The relentless golf warrior rediscovered ‘Charlie golf.’ Saxon shot 25 under par to win the tournament, with a final round that included seven birdies in a nine hole stretch. Saxon beat second place finisher, Hayden Wood, by five strokes.
I also competed and quickly found myself in a familiar position: chasing Saxon.
The tournament was the least mini-tour feeling mini-tour event I've played in. The APT sold tickets, had dozens of volunteers, featured a drone show, and held a concert headlined by chart-topping country musician Mitchell Tenpenny.
The tournament had free meals for players after every round. In the mini-tour world, that is no small perk.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo played in the tournament and nearly made the cut. Romo played in front of my group. He was a shot outside the cut line with nine holes to play and watching from afar, our group saw his body language change late in the round. Romo shot 40 on the back nine and missed the cut by five shots.
There were identifiable celebrities in the pro-am. I played with 15th-ranked Light Heavyweight UFC fighter Dustin Jacoby. I'd be lying if I told you Jacoby isn't an intimidating presence. He's training for his next fight taking place on August 4, and I wasn't going to penalize him if he teed off slightly ahead of the markers. But he couldn't have been kinder and more engaging with our group.
Jacoby told us he started his career fighting for $200 a fight, with a $200 bonus if he won. With every arm bar and knockout, his pay grew. Connor McGregor changed the game for every fighter. Now Jacoby gets paid a sum that could persuade a pacifist to jump in the ring.
"It's a hard way to make an easy living," Jacoby told me.
Succeeding as a professional golfer might be harder than standing up to a right hook from Jacoby. Most weeks are spent trying to find something usable -- not your best stuff, perhaps not even your second best, but something that can produce a competitive score. Something that gives you a chance to turn a profit.
Often, during this continuous search, players find themselves in an exhaustive battle against the cut line.
That's where I found myself this week. My swing regressed into a pattern that produced unreliable shots. The pattern infected my shorter shots and pitching. With a couple holes to go, I was asking for divine intervention to make the cut. In its place came frustration. I shot one over par and missed the cut by three strokes.
But the APT tournament didn’t feel like a mini-tour event, and Saxon’s win places his return to a larger stage realistically in view.
“This particular win just means a lot because of how poorly I’ve played in the past year and a half,” Saxon says. “I’ve put in a lot of work and I’ve had a lot of great people in my corner.”
We’d all do well to learn from Saxon; to be relentless against the odds. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable,” is a phrase that has become cliché among pro golfers, but growth at the highest level comes from embracing discomfort.
In 2020, Charles Barkley showed up to The Medalist in Hobe Sound, Fla., to play “The Match.” Barkley saw a drenched Tom Brady running sprints in the rain in the club’s parking lot. Training camp hadn’t even started yet. A perplexed Barkley asked what the hell Brady was doing.
"I’m trying to win a Super Bowl," said Brady.
Tony Romo could have played golf anywhere in the world this week, but he was in Peoria, Illinois, with a back injury, trying to improve in competition.
We don't hear much from professional golfers when they're playing badly and grinding out the real work. Golf fans see the scores, or hear players are struggling, but rarely do we get much beyond that. When a player misses their fourth cut in a row by one shot, no one is asking them for an interview.
If there's one thing successful professional golfers learn, it's resilience. The struggle gets real for every single player at some point. When there are more questions than answers, the successful players find something hopeful to cling to and get to work.
“I’ve learned that golf is hard and not to take good golf for granted because this game can humble you pretty good,” says Saxon.
How golfers – and athletes generally – find their way back to peak performance is an experience we can all learn from. The search can feel practically hopeless at times. There were moments for Saxon like this. I imagine after he lost his tour status, his mobility, and his strength following a 2021 hip surgery, there were desperate questions on sleepless nights.
When players win, they're rightfully ecstatic to discuss success and savor the moment. We get to see them at their best. They teach us about how to handle the pressure of succeeding on big stages where the stakes are great.
But most players admit, they learn the most about themselves when they're in the lowest moments. Not every fan can imagine how deeply you have to breathe to slow your heart rate with a career-defining shot on the line. But I suspect almost everyone knows the frustration of failing to meet expectations, or how hopeless some moments feel when no matter what you do, it doesn't feel like it's enough.
Saxon found solace in his family, his faith, his past success, and refused to feel sorry for himself. Rather, he believed a brighter future started with incremental and daily improvement. This is where great athletes separate themselves -- they play the long game. In golf, you can be here today and gone tomorrow. But the opposite can also be true.
“It’s taken longer than I hoped, but it’s nice to see patience and sticking with the process pay off a bit,” Saxon says. “Just got to keep building.”
We push ahead with what we have, learning where we can, embracing the discomfort, hoping something to celebrate lies ahead.
Saxon never lost hope — and that’s worth celebrating.