SEASIDE, Calif. -- On a cool, gorgeous morning on the practice green at the Bayonet and Black Horse courses, with Monterey Bay providing a perfect backdrop, Danny Balin was rolling some putts to get ready for Sunday's first round of the 2012 PGA Professional National Championship.
Balin, 30, is the PGA Assistant Professional at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, Conn. This is his third start in the National Championship. In his first two appearances, the Penn State product finished fourth both times, resulting in trips to the 2010 and 2011 PGA Championships.
"I'm here hoping to improve on my past results," said an enthusiastic Balin. "I've learned that you've just got to be around for that last day. Anything can happen out here. If you avoid the mistakes and give yourself a chance and put yourself in position for that final round, then anything can happen. This is our marquee event, so you always want to play well here. I've been working hard all year leading up to this. This is the pinnacle of the year. I really want to play well out here this year and try to get back to where I've been the last two years."
In last year's National Championship at Hershey Country Club, Balin entered the final round well off the pace, mainly due to a disappointing first-round 75. However, he blitzed the East Course that last day with a National Championship, record-low round of 8-under 63. Remarkably, that was one of just four sub-70 rounds that day and the best score by a whopping five shots. Balin's 9-under 276 total was just two shots shy of a playoff, eventually won by Maryland's David Hutsell.
With that result, Balin earned himself a spot on the U.S. PGA Cup team. The biennial PGA Cup is basically the club professional version of the Ryder Cup, pitting 10 players from the U.S. against 10 from Great Britain & Ireland. The 2011 matches were held at CordeValle in San, Martin, Calif., and the U.S. won by a margin of 17 ½-8 ½.
It was a dominating victory for the Americans, but aside from the great team effort, Balin's biggest highlight came in a match that he lost on the second day. He aced the seventh hole at CordeValle, knocking in a 7-iron from 183 yards. The magnificent shot was even highlighted in the No. 9 spot in the, "Top 10 Plays of the Day," on ESPN's Sportscenter that night.
"That hole-in-one, I guess it's pretty obvious that that's one of the better shots of my life," Balin said. "But it was also very lucky. Anytime someone makes a hole-in-one, you have to have a little bit of luck. That happened to me at the right time on the right day, but unfortunately we still lost that match. The GB&I team that we played was very solid. It was nice to win that hole, but those guys came back and we didn't win that match. But, it was a great highlight for my career and something I'll always go back and think of when I'm in an event like this. I know I can do great things with my game and I'm ready to take the next step."
Just as the celebration was starting for the victorious U.S. team after the PGA Cup win, Balin had to cut out early and take a red-eye back to the east coast to play in his Section Championship, which started the next day.
Even jetlag was no match for Balin - he went on to win the Metropolitan PGA Professional Championship by two strokes at Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, N.Y.
"It was great to be on the PGA Cup team last year," he said. "I tried to use the experience there to build momentum for other tournaments. I actually had to fly out of there right when we finished that last day. I took a red-eye home so that I could play in our Section Championship and I ended up winning.
"That was great - 1. because I played a lot leading up to it and had a lot of good things going on in my game; and 2. I knew the golf course really well," Balin said. "The place where we played the Section Championship, my teacher is the head pro there, so I knew the course. I feel like I had a little bit of an advantage over there. Although the PGA Cup was awesome, I still love competing in our Section event and it was important to me to get back there. I came in second and lost a playoff the year before, so I had a little redemption on the line. So I left the Cup early to get back for that and it ended up working out great."
Balin is sure that all the great experiences he's had on the golf course over the last few years can only help him in the future… and this week.
"I think having played in a couple of PGA Championships now has definitely helped me a lot in this event," he said. "It's mostly having a better grasp on time management. You learn to manage that time better. You learn not to spend so much time on the golf course and spend more time just practicing, hitting different shots that you're going to have to use around here. The PGA Championship gives you confidence. You know that you've been there before and you can do it again. I'm very excited and I hope that my game is as good as it can be this time around."
Despite living on the opposite coast, Balin does have at least a little familiarity with the Black Horse course. He played a pre-qualifier for PGA Tour Q-School here a couple of years ago and got his first look at Bayonet earlier this week.
"Then I got out here on Monday and was able to see Bayonet too," he said. "These courses are very different from Hershey last year. Both courses are very difficult here and you've really got to play well. There's not going to be a lot of low scores out there this year. We're just going to have to try to keep it around par and avoid the mistakes. Par is a great score here this year. You just have to keep those big numbers off the card. Getting familiar with the golf courses has been great the last couple of days, knowing where you can and can't hit it. I'm just trying to put myself in a position to improve on past results."