I am pleased to introduce our first playing professional on A Casual 9, Wes Heffernan. Wes is a journeyman pro who grinded his way through the ranks, and along the way picked up 9 professional wins, including 5 Alberta Open titles and 4 wins on the Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada). Wes has competed in 2 U.S. Open Championships, and in 2011 at Congressional (the year Rory ran away with it) fired a back-nine 31 in the second round to make his first major championship cut. Wes even spent a few weeks ahead of Tiger Woods in the Official World Golf Rankings in 2017, before Tiger received that super political exemption into the 2017 Hero World Challenge. However, his biggest claim to fame is definitely being married to Episode 6 guest, Shannon Heffernan. Wes now balances a busy tournament schedule, family life, and instructing at the Golf Canada Centre in Calgary. Please enjoy.
1. How did you get involved in the game and at what point did you know you wanted to play competitively?
WH: My grandparents were avid golfers and members of Highwood Golf and Country Club. They introduced me to the game when I was about 7 and used to bring me out in the fall after the greens were closed and play the temporary greens at Highwood.
Then my parents moved us onto the 8th hole of Silver Springs Golf and Country Club when I was 8 and we joined when I was 12. As I started to excel at golf, I played with the same three guys each day. We were all scratch golfers and had some epic matches. I gradually started to get better and the matches became a little less even. To this day, I still remember the tee shot that kind of led to me taking that next step. I had just put the new Titleist 975d in play and we had a match at Kananaskis. Having all usually driven the ball similar distances, I hit one about 30 yards past everyone. That extra distance was the stepping-stone to lead me to the next level. I would have been 18 or 19 at the time.
2. I think most of us who have never tried to play golf for a living look at the tournament golf lifestyle as pretty glamorous. What have been some of the great and not-so-great things about being a playing professional?
WH: I have traveled all over the world. Golf courses are almost always beautiful places, so you get to visit some extraordinary destinations. You make lifelong friendships traveling on tour and get to live some crazy stories. When you play on lower level tours, there are certainly challenges but often these challenges lead to the best stories and the best friendships. I have represented Canada in the World Amateur and the World Cup twice. Once with Mike Weir and once with Graham DeLaet. Graham and I were leading after 28 holes against some very strong teams. I have played 8 PGA Tour events which were special events and amazing experiences.
On the not so great side, when you are struggling, especially on a lower level tour, you are just throwing money away rapidly and it can snowball. It gets lonely and frustrating at times trying to dig your way out of slumps. If you have failed at the second stage of Q-school as much as I have, you develop some serious scar tissue. Or you become one of those Q-school disaster stories you hear about. Mine is making quad on the final hole at European Q-school finals to miss my card by one shot.
3. Closing a tournament round with a back-nine 31 can’t ever be bad, but to do it in a U.S. Open to make the cut is pretty badass. Did you find anything in particular to muster that up or did it just sort of come together at the right time?
WH: Well, despite the fact that I was 9-over through 27 holes; I was actually hitting the ball quite well. I was driving it very well but just made a few mistakes here and there and it adds up quick in a U.S. Open. In fact, I was only one-over through 12 holes in the first round, and then you hit the meat of the course at Congressional and it ate me up. Then I went out in the second round and had to start on the back nine and face those holes again.
It turned around when I stepped onto number 1 (my 10th hole of the round). I was angry at messing up 18 again and just channeled that into my tee shot and ripped one down the middle, about 325 yards, and then holed out a sand wedge for eagle. It ended up being number 8 on ESPN Sportscenter Top 10 plays of the day, which was hilarious. From there, I hit it close the remainder of the front nine. I actually left one in the bunker on the par 5 sixth, then got up and down for par. Isn’t it funny how you can shoot 31 at a U.S. Open but still remember hitting a bad bunker shot that cost you a 30? Then I birdied 8 and 9. I made a 15 footer on 9 which, in my mind, I knew it had to go down to make the cut and I ended up being right. That was very satisfying. Especially to make my first cut in a major.
4. For us amateurs who don’t always have a lot of time to prepare for a tournament (say, our Club Championship), how can we make the most of our preparation time and what parts of our game should we prioritize first?
WH: I think the biggest mistake people make is to start working on their swing before an event. Getting too mechanical and then having too many thoughts under pressure. This leads to anxiety and lack of freedom on the course. Invariably, the score will suffer. If you have time, just go play. Maybe put something on the line in a match with friends, so there is some pressure and tension. If you only have time to practice, hit the short game area. Whether it is short game or the range, hit shots and try to keep technique out of it. If you are going to work on anything technical, work on your pre-shot routine.
Play some putting and chipping games with friends. Try to put yourself in situations you will find during the tournament. If you are practicing alone, use your imagination. Try to get up and down 5 straight times from different lies. Then 10. If you get up and down 9 times and then have to get up and down one more time to get 10 straight, you would be amazed how much that situation will translate to the first chip shot you have during the tournament. If you got up and down in practice to achieve your goal, you can look back and rely on that accomplishment.
5. With 9 professional wins you’ve had some good experience handling pressure down the stretch. How have you managed to stay in the moment and keep things rolling to close out a good round, or when you’ve had a lead in a tournament/match?
WH: I think you learn to close an event from the ones you failed to close. I have 9 wins, but I have at least twice as many events I feel like I didn’t close. That is the reality of golf. It is hard to win. But, the more you get in that position, the more you get comfortable and determined and then it happens and you get on a roll. Seven of my wins were in 2006-2008. I knocked on the door a few times prior to my first win. Then I got in contention a lot in those 3 years. After the first win, I started to close out a few more. Having said that, I had three second place finishes in 2008 alone. So, I haven’t always been great at closing. It is something I feel like I should have been better at in my career.
When I have won though, I just handled the pressure better. It’s not like you aren’t nervous, because you are, it’s the way you face it and frame it. When I won, I felt in control and calm and, more than anything, determined. Determined to win. Not scared of the moment. When you are in the moment though, you don’t realize it. It happens too fast. It is not until after that you can analyze how you handled the situation. Invariably, if you didn’t win, you notice that you were hesitant, scared, or just too tense under the gun. These things usually result in poor decision making, rushed shots, or just poor swings or putting strokes.
6. Do you use goal setting to help you improve, if so, how do you approach that? And if not, why not?
WH: In the past, my goals were always result-based goals. Too much so, in my opinion. For example, in 2008, one of my goals was to win 3 times on the then Canadian Tour. I was certainly in contention to win 3 times, but you really don’t have control of who wins. It’s the tired old adage — focus on the process. My goals now are mostly process-oriented goals that, if accomplished, will produce results.
I struggled for a few years with some swing changes and kind of lost the fun in the game. For someone as passionate about golf as I am, that was difficult. One of my goals last year was to have fun whenever I played. That goal almost won me a Mackenzie Tour event. I did a great job of following that state of mind last year. Besides, if it isn’t fun, what’s the point?
7. How do the challenges of playing tournament golf compare to those of being an instructor?
WH: Now that I am teaching, I would like to reach a level of success that I strived for in my playing career. The challenge with that is you have to put the time in to not only learn everything about the golf swing, but how to apply that knowledge to your students to help them get better. It doesn’t just happen. You have to keep learning and trying to get better, refining how you deliver lessons to people and solving the complexity of helping golfers of so many levels, so many different swings and unique ways of improving how they play instead of trying to fit people to a specific model or swing. If you ever have an instructor that thinks they know everything and are close-minded to change and new discoveries, I would look elsewhere immediately. That is similar to the challenges of playing tournaments; you have to figure out ways to score no matter how your swing feels, the weather, or how your competitors play. Golf is so fluid and changes everyday. That is the beauty and the extreme challenge of the game.
8. Do you focus mostly on swing instruction, or are you open to coaching people who may just need help with developing effective practice routines, course management skills, and preparing for tournaments?
WH: Definitely both. So far, most of my clients have been looking primarily for instruction. I know the swing but I believe because of my playing career, my expertise would be in helping people play the game. Learning how to handle pressure better. How to think and what to do when they are terrified on the first tee. For the better players, helping them learn how to prepare for events. Again, it is different for everyone, but learning how to play tournament golf is a completely different skill set than playing non-tournament golf. Most people realize this when they step on the first tee of the club championship and it feels like a different game. It takes a lot of practice to make good decisions under pressure, to play with freedom and find that state where you can play your best when the stakes are the highest.
9. I think you’ve already achieved a great deal in the game, but I’m curious to know what you have left in the tank and what else you’d like to achieve?
WH: This may be over-confidence but I believe the tank is full again. Obviously, priorities have changed. I have a family now. We have a 2 year-old daughter. Traveling a lower level tour just doesn’t work financially. Outside of tournaments, I hardly play anymore and practice is limited. But, when we start to play events and I get going, I hit it as well as ever. I am longer than I have ever been and when I putt well, I can win anywhere. My biggest challenge has always been that I rarely putt really well. I did at the ATB Classic last year and that resulted in a second place finish. My drive and determination to play well is at an all time high and competing at any level is my passion. My enjoyment level on the course is higher than ever. I want to win on the Mackenzie Tour again. I want to play in the U.S. Open at least one more time.
Big thanks to Wes for being a guest on A Casual 9. I found it both interesting and inspiring to hear about his experience and perspective, and I’m certainly looking forward to his next professional win and next U.S. Open appearance. For more about Wes, or to contact him for lessons/coaching, please visit his website.
Also give Wes a follow on Twitter — @heffgolf
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Previous Episodes of A Casual 9:
Episode 1: Roger Kingkade – the Calgary legend dishes on his recent exit from radio, his golf game, and how his new golf app business is helping both golf courses and golfers.
Episode 2: Lisa “Longball” Vlooswyk – the 7-time Canadian Women’s Long Drive Champion talks about her amazing story, competition, getting more women to play golf and, of course, how to hit it longer.
Episode 3: Leah Bathgate – the Founder and President of the Alberta Golf Tour talks about the future of the Tour, the benefits of competition, men and women competing in the same flights, and more.
Episode 4: Patrick Koenig – the epic golf photographer, whose work has been featured by the likes of Golf Digest, talks golf photography, course rankings, social media pet peeves, Tiger vs. Poulter, and more. His takes will have you feeling the heat.
Episode 5: Jon Sherman – published author and mastermind behind Practical Golf, Jon dishes out on practical game improvement, how to have more fun, and keeping your game sharp when time at the course is lacking.
Episode 6: Shannon Heffernan – golf fitness guru and founder of DM Golf Performance, Shannon Heffernan, talks about off-season vs. mid-season training, keys to longevity, a common hurdle for instructors, and more.
Episode 7: Alberta Golf – Director of Business Development & Corporate Communications, Jack Lane, talks about the value of supporting golf governing bodies, junior golf, amateur competition, the state of the game in Canada, and more.