A trip to the PGA Championship

Posted on January 24, 2014

The PGA Championship

Pretty much any top-level sporting event is an enjoyable spectating experience, regardless of what it is and whether or not you have any interest in it. Every four years we go crazy over exciting sports like beach volleyball in one’s underwear, horses jumping over poles, and boxing with funny head gear on thanks to the Olympics, even though no one has any idea who the competitors or how the sports really work, and certainly no one watches these sports in the interim years save for truly hardcore devotees. It is safe to say that the Home Depot Archery Showdown in Gimli Manitoba is not a hot ticket, but Archery at the 2016 Summer Games? Count me in. But does this hold true for a sport that is both inherently boring and uniquely configured, almost as if by design, to be the worst possible on-site spectator experience going? I travelled to beautiful Rochester New York, site of the 2013 PGA Championship, to find out.

Professional Golf is a strange business, as it is effectively a contest amongst millionaires of who can make the most money every year (and those who don’t make enough money actually get kicked out). There aren’t a lot of other sports that overtly rank competitors in terms of the money they’ve made – try to imagine NHL players being ranked by salary, or football players for injuries caused. It’s a weird concept, but money permeates the world of professional golf in obvious and subtle ways. Now not everything in the PGA is about money. The PGA puts on 36 tournaments throughout the year, which players either play in or skip depending on their whims. However, of those 36 tournaments four are designated as really important, and therefore all of the best players make a point of showing up. These tournaments – The Masters, The US Open, The Open Championship, and the PGA Championship – are known as majors, and history judges golfers by their performance in these tournaments. These events are always held at the best courses, attended by everyone in the golf world, sponsored by the biggest companies, and generally are the subject of intense interest.

The Masters is held every year at the same course in Augusta Georgia, but the others roam around, hopping from one (mostly) exclusive country club to the next. Every now and then one of these events will wind up in a place near to you, if you live anywhere near rich people and if your definition of “near” is liberal enough. So it happened that this year the venerable PGA Championship found its way to beautiful Rochester New York, home to numerous boarded up buildings and abandoned dreams. I’d been to Rochester (or “the Roach” as my travelling companion Dr. Godo dubbed it) before, and regretted the visit immensely. Nonetheless, my pal Pablo wanted to go, since he is a golf fan, and evidently purchased not one but two tickets, in the hope that some malleable sap could be pressed into service as wingman. After much pleading and playing on my inherent goodness, I was that sap. But in fairness, the stay at the beautiful Airport Hotel was gratis, so I couldn’t really complain.

Getting There

We set south just after work, pursued by a slowly encroaching darkness. The route to the Roach from Ottawa takes you over the St. Lawrence, via a large arcing bridge that makes many people very uncomfortable. Me, I like it. We passed through customs easily enough and proceeded on our way when SMASH. Two cars collided directly in front of us in oh-man-am-I-about-to-see-my-first-dead-body fashion. Thankfully I did not get to see my very first dead body, and those involved were more or less okay, but I did get to notch a rare achievement: phoning 911 and getting a wrong number at the same time. I was in the United States but my phone was still in Canada, so I wound up talking to the wrong emergency people, who helpfully had the right emergency people give me a call.

(NB: getting phoned by 911 is much cooler than calling 911 yourself, and calling 911 is pretty exciting because whenever you think about it you want to call just to find out what would happen)

We moved on, being utterly superfluous in emergency response, and as we followed the road to the Interstate the landscape changed, from quaint little houses and farms to swathes of forest and shack-like convenience stores. We stopped at one to get gas and see what sort of strange snack foods we could rustle up (complete failure in that department), and during our time there several people came and went, but we were the only ones not adorned in camouflage. I’m also pretty sure that there was, at that time, no ongoing hunting season to speak of.

We continued on, and arrived at the Rochester Airport Hotel well after nightfall. The place was abuzz with slightly overweight white people in brand new golf shirts, indicating that we were in the right pace. As we approached the desk to check in the staff were whooping over the fact that some hotels had jacked their rates to more than $250 a night, just because of the tournament. This was without question the most anyone had ever or would ever pay for the privilege of a night in the Roach.

“Two-hundred fifty dollars?! Wooooweeee” was the reaction of a guy on the cleaning staff. He was incredulous. I asked him what sporting event he would consider paying that much to see, and he answered “two-hundred fifty dollars? I’d go to Hawaii!”. I began to wonder if he didn’t have a point. I was paying to watch… golf? I prayed he was wrong, for my pride if not my pocketbook. The girl at the desk recommended a restaurant for us and even gave us a coupon. In America you should always have a coupon, and if you don’t have one you should ask for or demand one, regardless of what you’re buying. Paying full price for anything in the land of the free (or deeply discounted) is a sucker play all the way; remember that.

We took a late dinner in a sports bar sort of place that boasted great wings, and in truth they were pretty good. There was a team of similarly dressed goons at one end of the bar yelling at each other and generally being PUMPED UP about something. A woman in clothes that maybe fit her three years ago was flirting intently was a frat boy type. The space between them progressively narrowed and you could observe each of them swaying ever so slightly. I don’t know for sure if they managed to pull off a coordinated exit. I can only hope so. Pre-season NFL football was on TV, to which no one paid any serious attention (pre-season NFL is a virtually worthless affair that NFL owners somehow  contrive to charge full price for), but seeing these giant, heaving, MEN on the field made me compare again that glorious violence to the spectacle I would soon take in. None of the football players had caddies or visors.

*     *     *

We awoke to the sound of my phone’s alarm and set to readying ourselves. I had stuffed a pile of clothes into a duffle bag with the intention of picking and ironing something later, and to my horror the iron in the room didn’t work. It got slightly warm to the touch but that was it. Pablo looked slick and ready to go in proper golf-watching attire (respectable shorts, pressed polo shirt). I had on a wrinkled plaid dress shirt, and felt ashamed to look like a bum. After a thoroughly awful breakfast – veteran travellers know that saving a mint from dinner is preferable to a standard quality hotel breakfast – we set out across town to an industrial park in the middle of nowhere, where they had set up a shuttle service to take you to the event.

On our way we stopped at a Starbucks, and inquired as to whether they had any milk on hand, rather than 18% cream. The girls behind the counter looked genuinely puzzled but eventually some rummaging turned up an unopened four litre jug of milk, which they handed over, commenting that “no one ever wants milk” with wonderment. If you’ve never visited Upstate New York I can confirm what you suspect: these people are big (and fat). Watching them eat is a slow motion trainwreck you are powerless to stop, but is also great motivation for shedding that ten pounds you’ve had in mind  the past several New Year’s Days.

After missing an exit or two we eventually got to the warehouse area from which the shuttle bus departed. We walked over to get in line and Pablo barely avoided stepping into what surely looked like a large pile of shredded cheddar cheese, just outside the passenger door of a parked car. Yes, a pile of cheese, in a parking lot (for those who haven’t experienced it Americans are the world leaders in finding ways to apply cheese to any edible substance, and their achievements in this field are both frightening and awe-inspiring). We boarded and were whisked into the heart of the PGA Championship tournament.

The ride was a perfectly calibrated journey from ruin to opulence, starting as it did in an industrial parking lot, proceeding on a decaying freeway, past the once-proud downtown that had a few signs of life to it, through a modest residential area, and into some progressively grander and more impressive houses. The closer you got to Oak Hill the pricier the real estate, and the lower the chance of seeing any human being walking around or engaged in any task other than driving a luxury SUV. The places went from nice enough, to nice, to really nice, and then got even nicer still. Stately manors, rendered in that northern US style that is hard to describe, exactly, but simply does not exist in Canada. We have nice houses too, don’t get me wrong, but old US mansions and estates have some certain look to them that instantly identifies them as such, and even in border regions the subtle architectural differences between the two countries are stark and without exception. After passing several such places you find yourself on a long winding road that leads to the country club itself and into a whole other tax bracket altogether. Sunlight pokes through a canopy of giant old oak trees, spaced at a tasteful distance from one another across vast, well kept lawns with huge homes set well back from the street and from their neighbours. These people have no need of fences, since the sort of people you’d need to fence yourself off from never make it out here anyways. There are American flags here and there, but far fewer than you’d expect. The residents’ patriotism is rendered in marble and cobblestones, and extra garages, and ornate mailboxes.

On this whole ride in, passing scores of homes, we failed to see even one person. We did notice several PGA-branded Mercedes Benz vehicles in driveway after driveway, and you got the impression that every last resident had just handed their keys over to the golf association (good people, don’t you know) and taken off to the Hamptons or somewhere until this whole public-being-here thing blew over.

The Site: A Kiosk For Every Desire

The density and frequency of silver PGA-branded Mercedes Benz vehicles increased and before we knew it the bus came to a stop and deposited us at the entrance to the site. We walked along a little runway covered in PGA branding and followed the crowd to the entrance. Security gave us a once over, and some police dogs nosed around, but it wasn’t terribly oppressive. As you enter you can’t, at first, see any of the actual golf course. There is a long walkway, a food area, some tables, some bathrooms, and then another long area full of various stuff to look at and buy. We walked this commercial gauntlet and the PGA’s gameplan came into sharp focus immediately. The whole place is set up to sell you things that you really and profoundly cannot afford, and to create a sort of caste system that makes you really and profoundly wish that you could afford those things. First off there are the exclusive areas. The Wannamaker Club greets you as you enter, and if your ticket includes entry into those hallowed premises (as ours did) you immediately get to feel superior to the rest of the hoi polloi out there in the sun, just walking around. The highly exclusive Wannamaker Club (an extra $20) allows guests to watch the tournament on TV instead of going out and watching it in person, which is a great relief. It also offers the worst and most expensive cup of coffee I have ever had, five American dollars for absolutely undrinkable swill, some little doughnut things that looked pretty good, and (mercifully) far shorter lines for bathrooms than out on the grounds. The temporary bathrooms they had set up were the best I’ve ever come upon, spacious, clean, and fragrant; they alone justified the $20 Wannamaker Club premium.

But the Wannamaker Club is only one of four exclusive clubs that one can be a part of, and it is by far the most modest. You see, there is also the Executive Suites Clubhouse, a large multi-storey structure by the 4th and 10th holes. It looked like a raucous good time from the sweaty fairway below, with people cruising the several balconies and roaring with recognition at seeing each other, or whatever it was they were doing. Then there is Nickalus Village, a line of exclusive corporate suites sandwiched between the 18th and 14th holes, and providing good views of neither. It was full of loud-talking men smoking cigars aggressively, and glassy eyed women bobbing in the breeze after one too many drinks and explaining things to their companions insistently. It looked like a great time. And finally there was the stately clubhouse set atop a small hill and overlooking a fleet of silver PGA-branded Mercedes Benz vehicles. This is where the players themselves relaxed and where the real cream of Oak Hill society gathered. The clubhouse had views towering above the average fan, and groups of men guffawed above us, drinking brandy and Coors light, as we scurried along beneath them on our way in to the tournament. The clubhouse provided excellent views of the practice putting green and virtually no views of any actual golf holes. Interestingly, then, the escalating levels of exclusivity offered the golf fan descending levels of actual exposure to the golf being played on the course, which made it all the more apparent that one does not necessarily attend a major golf tournament in order to watch golf being played. Maybe that should have been obvious to me beforehand.

The walk to the golf course takes you past, you guessed it, the Mercedes Benz pavilion, where you can see with your own eyes, up close, yet another silver Mercedes Benz, and ask the well-dressed salesman various questions calibrated to inform him that you’ve really been thinking about a Benz for a while, and price is definitely not a concern, and if only they had this model in a ten cylinder variety it would be just perfect for you. Meanwhile the salesman is looking at your overworn sport shoes and the mustard stain on your collar and he knows that either you’ll never ever so much as sit in a Mercedes Benz or you’ll be one of those sad sack cases who thinks “aw screw it, I deserve it” and drives his own retirement or children’s education around full of premium fuel, but with small mustard stains on the leather, depreciating exponentially with each envy-inspiring kilometre until next year’s model comes out and shines a harsh spotlight on the futility of luxury car ownership for the average man. Next to that is the Omega Watch Chrono Hut. It features the same salesmen, except these ones are outfitted with watches that look like they could launch nuclear weapons. As far as I can tell the luxury oversized watch experience is expressly designed to give the wearer the impression that either a third world war or a convenient, escape enabling smoke cloud is only a flipped-up watch face, button push away. Omega sells watches like the Speedmaster, or Seamaster, or the Ladymatic, and you can even get yourself a pair of similarly styled his’n’her’s watches, which are perfect for the sort of people who think that having their picture taken together wearing matching white t-shirts and parent-fit jeans, and putting that picture up in their house in a large, faux-aged frame is a really cute idea. Omega will happily relieve you of two or three thousand dollars for one of these beauties, which is basically a good deal, though I’m sure you can get a better price if you bundle it with a silver Mercedes Benz. Don’t pay full price when you don’t have to.

Next down the line is the Taste of New York tent, which to my disappointment did not featuring a sampling of chicken wings, cheese-stuffed chicken wings, and pizza flavoured pretzels. Instead it boasted a wide (and more importantly free of charge) sample selection of craft beers and artisanal cheeses, and was thus filled to capacity every single time we walked past it. Subsequent research revealed that the Taste of New York tent was woefully incomplete, as it did not include Rochester’s signature dish: the Red Hot Garbage Plate. This dish, which I swear exists, is a pile of burgers, sausages, ham, macaroni, potatoes, hot sauce, and probably any other thing you could think of that could never be considered remotely healthy. It sounds utterly horrific, and I will definitely seek it out if ever I return to the area.

The Taste of New York free samples were the only thing on this stretch that almost anyone could afford, so they were all but compelled to take advantage. Beside this area was a Champagne Kiosk, selling serving-sized bottles of champagne and goofy little plastic champagne glasses to go with. At ten o’clock in the morning business was rather slow, but there were a few people milling about near the Champagne Kiosk goading each other into it.

“Come on, why not?”

“I don’t know…”

“Come on!”

“Oh we are so bad, drinking champagne before noon!”

It wasn’t so expensive, and it was an easier way to distinguish yourself from the crowd than buying an Omega watch. The cheapest way to distinguish yourself, though, might be to get yourself an Omega watch tan line through the careful employment of cardboard and/or sunscreen. The next time I attend a highbrow event I will definitely try that strategy. Damnedest thing, my Seamaster fell straight into the Sargasso Sea whilst I was rigging the fore-jib, don’t you know.

On the other side of these various kiosks there stood an enormous, airplane hanger-sized temporary building filled with golf merchandise of every possible type. Clubs, shirts, tees, balls, pants, visors, bags, more visors, and so on. You could even get framed golf paintings of your various holes, and really any other thing you could ever think of that could maybe be associated with golf. The Golf Hanger was a notably typical example of American innovation for two reasons: first, it featured a courier station at the checkout counter so that you could immediately unburden yourself by mailing your new purchases to yourself as soon as you had paid for them. Having this service available means that you can sell pretty much anything you want, as customers don’t have to worry about hauling a Jack Nicklaus crokinole board around for seven hours. Second, the entire vast space was, in the midst of the August heat, completely air conditioned. You could clearly distinguish the serious customers from the red-faced casualties intently studying the “Mommy’s New Caddy” maternity wear a little too long.

We finished with the various selling stations and made our way toward the course. There was a man there, with some kind of official looking yellow t-shirt, whose apparent job was to tell us to watch our step as we approached a treacherous two centimetre high ledge. He seemed almost embarrassed to be there doing it, but we warned us all and somehow everyone managed to survive stepping from gangway to cobblestones. It was a nice touch, I will admit, and it made me disappointed to think that no other event or establishment had ever cared about my well being to this extent.

Seeing The Golfers

The route to the course took us through the practice area, where the players leisurely stroll out and warm up, hit balls, talk to each other, stretch, stare down the range dumbfounded, fiddle with their clubs, and all manner of other little things designed to prepare themselves for action. Almost everyone watching has absolutely no idea who they are looking at and we, like several other groups around us, started to guess at the identity of The Guy With The Orange Shirt and the Beige Pants or The Fat Guy With The White Bag and so on. At this stage you are trying to convince yourself that you’re witnessing something significant but after a minute or two of nothing at all interesting happening you feel like you can move on without missing something amazing. Another little walk around the back of the main clubhouse and there it was, Hole Number One. It was still quite early – the place would fill up considerably more by mid-afternoon – but there was a crowd assembled and it buzzed with interest as someone, we didn’t know who, moved up to the tee box. Here we engaged in the first of many feats of moving around slightly in a crowd, and ducking our heads around like pigeons to get the perfect view of the upcoming shot, through rows of other spectators. Of course, each of them, except those pressed up against the rope, were doing the exact same thing, so you find yourself in a constant state of micro-adjustments in order to see anything at all. You grow to hate everyone moving in front of you, because if they would just stay still then you could see fine, and you can’t understand why everyone else seems to have a low intensity seizure at just the wrong time, all the while oblivious to the fact that the people right behind you are praying for you to faint or pull a hamstring for exactly the same reason. Tall people and people sporting large hats are the worst of the worst, as no amount of fidgeting and neck-craning can overcome them. Some hardcore fans, faced with this problem, have simply given up altogether on the idea of jostling for space, and have instead brought technology to bear. At the first hole there was a guy, well back from the action, seated in a no-doubt comfortable folding chair with a sleek black periscope held to his eye. He would thus spend much of his day surrounded by tip-toed spectators experiencing the competition very much like a U-boat Kapitän might have at the 1940 PGA Championship held at Maine’s famous Shoreline Country Club. I didn’t try it myself but I have to think that following the flight of a fast moving, tiny golf ball for hundreds of yards with a periscope would be pretty much impossible, but if these guys are capable of doing so then the television networks have for themselves a very convenient golf cameraman farm system, with able recruits ready to step into the line of duty at the very next cameraman death caused by blood pooling in the lower extremities and thereby depriving the brain of oxygen. They say it’s a peaceful way to go.

On this subject, I should confess that I have absolutely no idea how anyone can consistently keep an eye on the ball after it’s hit. I watched with near fanatical singularity of purpose and lost at least 90% of the shots I witnessed, most immediately after they departed. I would regularly be staring at a cloud intently when the ball dropped to earth, or I would have my gaze fixed on a particular spot on the fairway that I was sure was the place, only to have the ball linger for an eternal four seconds and land fifty yards past where I was looking. Just as amazing, the professionals seem to be able to assess the quality of their shot one second after the club face makes contact, and will often turn away without appearing to have watched it land at all, either scowling (good shot) or scowling a lot (bad shot).

We had a pretty decent view at the first hole and watched a pair tee off. Now, you don’t need to be a golf fan at all, but if you’ve ever taken a few dozen rage-inducing hacks at a driving range you can’t but appreciate the sight and sound of even a lower tier professional really getting ahold of the ball. Its flight almost appears to defy physics as it just goes up and up and continues ascending well past the point that it should have started falling to earth. Of course it’s simple physics, and they’re hitting the hell out of it, but to see it is really jaw dropping. It also sounds different than your driving range hacks, or even the hacks of the really good guy, who brought his own adamantium-alloy clubs to the range and who has his nickname embroidered on his golf bag. It’s this ultra-satisfying, deep pinging sound, and you can understand immediately that if you ever did that even once you’d throw money at equipment manufacturers, swing coaches, and golf course owners to try and do it again. The other thing you immediately notice is the relative nonchalance with which the pros do this. They’ll have a look at things, swing the club once or twice, square up and BANG. It’s gone. Given this approach you can’t help but expect one of them to really shank the ball or miss completely, but this never happens. In fact, I don’t think I saw more than one or two “bad” tee shots all day, and certainly nothing disastrous. After each member of the pair – golfers always travel in twos – tees off they stroll up the fairway to size up the next shot. At this point some of the spectators follow them, choosing to shadow a particular pairing, while others stay put at the tee box. We elected to move up the fairway and stayed there for a little while, watching golfers hit shots to sort-of near us, and then hit shots from sort-of near us to a green that we could sort-of see.

The course, it must be said, is truly a sight to behold. It was a perfectly sunny but not too hot day, and it had rained quite heavily the day previous, which stirred up the pleasing smell of earth and grass that permeated the place. The holes are scattered around gently rolling hills dotted with huge old oak trees and other foliage. There isn’t a great deal of water, but each hole is like a calm green sea that you desperately want to run out into barefoot. The bunkers are so perfectly put together, raked to look like the surface of virgin planet, that they don’t look exactly real. There are some birds flitting about, and the breeze has the old oaks murmuring at you every so often. This aspect of the experience should not be undervalued; even if you paid no attention whatsoever to the tournament your ticket entitles you to stroll about one of the finest city parks you’ve ever visited. It makes you wish that municipalities could afford to hire greenskeepers and guys to chase cats out of sandboxes.

From our mid-fairway vantage point I could observe the culture of golf fandom from up close. Golf is, of course, a quiet game, and talking, cheering, or any sort of noise making is strictly prohibited as golfers are making their shots. Each hole even has a dedicated team of shushers to enforce this: they wear blue vests and raise both hands in the air whenever any player is about to shoot, indicating to you to be quiet. Since the time for silence is obvious by simply watching the golfers (which everyone is doing), and since no one is watching the vested volunteers, this seems like overkill, but it works. The effect is not unlike airport security lines which feature signs saying “Any talk of bombs or hijacking or other acts of terror will be treated as threats” and of course after reading such a sign all you can think of saying something cheeky about bombs or hijacking just to see what happens. The shushers are similar: as soon as they put their arms up all you can think about is letting out a blood curdling scream, just because you’re not supposed to. Nobody on the course falls prey to this urge, though there seems to always be at least one idiot who yells out “You da MAN!” or “Get in the hole!” after every shot, and regardless of the quality of that shot. Shoot it fifty yards wide of the fairway and into an ice cream cart? You da MAN! The height of fan interaction with the players, if we can call it that, is as they march up the fairway. As they do fans will yell out to them, encouraging them and such. There seems to be a code in golf that one should always yell encouragement at the golfers on a first-name basis. This stands in marked contrast to almost every other sport, where players almost don’t have first names, and where it’s generally more common to heap abuse on them than to say anything nice. And so as Adam Scott, say, walks by, you will hear a chorus of “You da man, Adam!” “Way to be Adam!” “Go Adam!” and so on. This encouraging chatter follows each golfer all around the course, but to varying degrees, and it is kind of sad to see a popular golfer walk up the fairway trailed by an unpopular playing partner. We watched Phil Mickellson, probably the most popular player on the PGA tour, stroll by with Vijay Singh, a formerly great player known for his icy demeanour and beloved by pretty much no one. Everyone around us yelled out to their pal Phil and I’m pretty sure I was the only one to say anything to Vijay when I told him to believe in himself (he ignored me). Golf fans pay strict heed to the advice of Thumper the rabbit’s parents, and choose to say nothing at all when their most hated players pass by. As I greatly enjoy heckling I found this aspect of golf culture the most difficult to obey. Just based on their clothes alone it would have been a turkey shoot of insults, but I reeled in my baser instincts and acted with decorum. Unfortunately.

The Fallen Hero

Another important aspect of professional golf is that the players almost never so much as acknowledge the fans, not even in the most minimal ways. As Sergio, Boo, and Dustin pass by under a shower of adoration they are careful to not look at anyone in the audience (which is actually difficult when you are completely surrounded), nor betray any sign at all that they can see or hear anyone. I was seated beside a guy and his 10 year old son as they cheered away at somebody, to no avail, and then he turned to me with disappointment saying “humph, they can’t even give the fans anything can they?” and it did seem to me somewhat petty on the part of the players. This fact makes it such that any player capable of occasional smiles and the odd well-timed wave can become an instant “fan favourite”. If you were a middle to lower tier player you might even considering giving up on serious competition and instead devote yourself to being genial given the flood of advertisers who would walk over each other to have a non-automaton representing their brand. Surely the best at making the fans feel embarrassed to even be there is Tiger Woods. Tiger suffered intense international shame after being attacked with a golf club by his now ex-wife after bedding a Perkins waitress and several dozen other fine ladies. Tiger’s driver’s license says “Eldrick Woods”. Tiger’s former caddy is working for someone else who is now better than Tiger. Tiger’s swing has fallen apart, and injuries have left him a shadow of himself. Tiger is balding. These facts serve to puncture the mystique that was Tiger Woods Incorporated, an athlete who, love him/golf or hate him/golf, dominated his sport to Gretzky-Jordan degrees, and who was long known to all but intimidate his way to victory in golf tournaments as an ever-rotating cast of tomato cans imploded when facing him on the final day of a golf tournament. In spite of the great depths to which Tiger has fallen you can still see the ferocious intensity that made him what he was. He stalks up the course as if looking to exact revenge on some two-bit punk who stole flowers from his grandmother’s grave, with laser focused eyes, ready-to-explode muscles constrained by a well fitted shirt, and projecting a general impression of really and truly not wanting to be there. He betrays no enjoyment at all, and you can’t help but wonder, given his seeming misery and millions of dollars, why he is even out here. The answer is that Tiger has something to prove. He is attempting to dethrone Jack Nicklaus as the Greatest of all Time, and the measure of greatness is the number of major tournaments won in a career. Nicklaus has 18 while Tiger has been stuck on 14 for five years. It seemed like a sure thing that the old man would be left in the dust by the wunderkind, but his abrupt fall off has golf followers second guessing their earlier predictions. At 37 years old he still has several more years in him, but he is now racing against a slow ticking clock, and you can imagine – although he would never, ever admit it – that such a degree of macro-level pressure is getting to him. Trying to beat the other guys on the course is hard enough, without waging a long-term battle against a ghost. When we saw him Tiger was muddling along somewhere in 30th place, and obviously going nowhere in the tournament. He looked angry that he had left his yacht and Olympian girlfriend to hang around with the likes of us, and given those options I’m not sure that I would have had a golf club in my hand were I him.

We Said No Pictures (and keep it down)

As Tiger passes by we experience one of my favourite small features of the tournament: the cell phone goons. Cellular phones are permitted on the course, but their use isn’t. No phoning people, except in the handful of designated phone spots littered around the course. No one seems to have any issue with this, and half the point of being there for many high powered overworked business types is likely having the perfect excuse for having missed that extremely important business phone call. Phones are permitted but cameras most certainly are not, which is a problem because most phones are cameras and vice versa. Picture taking is extremely verboten so as to protect the lucrative business of the small number of professional looking shutterbugs wandering around loaded down with 50 pounds of optical equipment and an unbreakable focus more befitting some dusty overseas war zone than a bucolic country club. These guys are taking serious pictures (of guys in loud pants repeating the same activity ad nauseum). Not surprisingly, though, non-compliance with this important policy is rampant, and the PGA folks generally turn a blind eye to this criminal behaviour, except in certain circumstances. Various important players (and this truly marks whether or not a player has arrived in the top tier of the sport) are shadowed by a crew of goons wearing bright green vests. The vests read “Mobile Device Policy Enforcement” which describes the mission of the goons quite well. These beefy, sweating, buzz-cutted fellows with very thick necks follow their Very Important Player up the course and form a protective aura around him by glaring at the spectators and occasionally pointing at them, so as to intimidate them into obedience. It is generally effective for those in the the immediate vicinity of the goons, whose beady eyes and evident willingness to do a great job dissuade most backtalk, but for the other several thousand people the presence of these thugs doesn’t make much of an impression. They sweep in, swirl around, their guy hits the ball, and then they disappear. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to watch them crack any skulls or otherwise get down to serious business, and I’m sure they were even more disappointed by this fact than I was.

After wandering the course for a good long while, on a fairway here, behind a tee box there, we decided to take our lunch in one of the large food tents around the periphery of the course. They had a rather efficient system for serving hamburgers, hot dogs, and pulled pork sandwiches: they simply wrapped them up in foil and piled them under heat lamps for the masses to grab and pay for. I found this arrangement confusing and wound up opening a nice pulled pork mess, instead of a warm burger, to my great disappointment. And it set me to wondering when the pulled pork craze will finally end, allowing us to have decent sandwiches again. Let’s face it: it sounds so much better than it almost always is. After a supplementary hot dog we headed back out. All of the top players were now on the course; the leaders going into any given day of a tournament tee off last, such that the early, way-behind players are long finished playing before the guys in contention for victory even hit the course. The action was heating up, or at least, I think it was… Golf is similar to auto racing and marathons, in that a spectator can take in only a small fraction of what’s going on. But unlike those sports (auto racing is way too loud, and nothing interesting ever happens during a marathon outside of people soiling themselves spectacularly) golf is both spread out and quiet enough for you to be able to see almost nothing and yet hear everything. There you are standing around at the sixth hole, midway up the fairway. The shushers of your hole are doing their job and you can hear a Mercedes Benz branded luxury pin drop. And then, shattering that tense silence, comes a holy roar from somewhere. Was that the green on the third hole? The tee box on ten? You know that someone, somewhere, has just done something amazing to work the crowd into a fever pitch, but you have no idea who did it, on what hole, or what it was. Watching golf, then, is a near constant experience of knowing that you’ve missed out on something, or at least well-justified anxiety that you could be missing out on something at any second. You have to be stoic and resigned about the whole business, else you’ll drive yourself mad realizing that you’ve been watching Brandt Snedeker’s caddie towel off a ball and tie his shoes for three minutes while serious action has transpired elsewhere. The phenomenon of things happening out of frame makes an agreed upon strategy within a spectating group extremely important. You simply must be committed to staking out the place you are and following your plan as a unit, or else the first time a mighty cheer bellows off of the 15th green (that’s where I said we should go!) dissent can seep into your party and ruin your entire day. Pablo and I had no such problems, since I didn’t really have a preference as to where we went (though later I would get into the swing of things and deduce the perfect place to go; see below).

The problem of not knowing what the hell is going on throughout the day has, of course, a solution, and one for which the PGA will gladly accept your money. You aren’t allowed to use your phone, of course, but you can rent a small portable TV designed and set-up precisely to keep you abreast of all the latest developments of the tournament. I’ll say that again: you can pay money to attend a golf tournament in person, and once there you can pay more money to watch said golf tournament on TV. As completely stupid as that sounds, it would actually be pretty cool, though as I recall it ran something like $40 a day (with a special price for all four days!), which was just way too much to pay to become an outdoor couch potato. TVs were relatively uncommon amongst the gallery, but a large number of people seemed to be equipped with a small white ear piece. We discovered that these were in-ear radio sets constantly transmitting the latest action. People who had these radios functioned as the course-side oracles, and obviously enjoyed this power. You’ll sidle up to a green, say, and see a ball plunk down near you (you’ll clap, even though you have no idea what’s going on, that’s just what you do). Then you’ll stare at the ball, look imploringly at the guy with the earpiece, and if he’s feeling good he’ll tell you “it’s Dustin Johnson, he’s set up for a birdie, and he’s only three back now”. Thanks man. They will impart this information unto you in hushed tones and with great importance, and there will probably be some other sucker near you craning to hear what the guy tells you. Then you’ll all nod wisely and scrutinize the ensuing putt with a knowing air about you. We spotted the reporters who were actually doing the radio broadcasts in a few places – red faced, sweaty, fat men – and it looks like exactly the job I want. They were just standing around like us but alone and quietly describing everything they saw in an unending stream of consciousness rant, that was especially amusing if you imagined, as I did, that their microphones weren’t actually connected to anything. The margin between serious reporter and deranged psychiatric patient can be razor thin.

Unfortunately we couldn’t figure out how or where to get our hands on one of the little radio receivers, so we spent most of the day ignorant of the major comings and goings, save for when we’d walk by one of the large scoreboards (with manual letters, maintained by a team of eager college students) and figure out who was winning. We asked someone on the bus ride home and found out that the radios were available free of charge at certain kiosks which we’d somehow missed out on, hidden as they were amongst all the other kiosks peddling things at us.

The Leaders Appear

With playing continuing relentlessly as the afternoon wore on (golf is the only sport I can think of where the fans spend so much more time watching than any individual player does playing), the very last group made its way around, leaving barren fairways in its wake. Hole number three, for example, was a very popular par three (good for spectators because it is relatively short – you can see a lot of what’s going on – and because players can choose to attack it, setting themselves up for exciting shots and near misses). People jockeyed for position around number three all day, but after leaders Jason Dufner and Adam Scott passed through the assembled masses scattered like cockroaches, either to the next hole, or maybe a couple of holes ahead, to get a good spot. Dufner and Scott were a study in contrasts, as Scott seemed loose and, rare amongst the competitors, to be actually enjoying himself. Dufner, on the other hand looked a unique combination of miserable and half asleep. He had broken the longstanding Oak Hill club record the day previous, with a remarkable 63. For the uninitiated a score of 63 is really good, but a score of 63 at a major tournament is incredible, as it has been done only 26 times across the four major tournaments and going back decades. Low scores like this are so difficult at major tournaments because of the pressure on the players and because the courses are configured to be exceptionally difficult, with long rough punishing errant drives and holes placed on the most difficult parts of the greens. Dufner’s day-before performance had put him atop the leader board, and he was now under immense pressure to stay there, especially in light of his score (shooting a 63, setting a course record, and losing the tournament? heart breaking). Dufner’s apparent strategy for dealing with this terrible weight was to enter a semi-comatose, somnambulist-like state with energy devoted only to basic functions like breathing, sweating, and swinging. It worked pretty well for him, as he did indeed go on to victory and minor controversy for administering a celebratory ass-slap to his wife. Tiger Woods notwithstanding, his is what passes for scandal in the world of golf.

As more people competed to stand around fewer strips of green the crowds intensified. The mood changed subtly from that of a pleasant walk in the park to an evolving struggle for land and dominance versus thousands of adversaries. In addition, certain of the fans’ faces were notably redder than earlier in the day, and they swayed, just barely noticeably, as a solid day of drinking and sun exacted its toll. You wouldn’t say that the mood was hostile, but you could feel a change. People now didn’t pay strict attention to the shushers, and the people in the executive, elite areas communicated evermore through yelling, regardless of how far away from each other they stood. An energy swept over the course. Pablo and I attempted, like at least half of everyone there, to “beat the crowd” to the 15th hole ahead of the leaders. Instead we found ourselves trapped between the course boundary and hole 13, which could not be circumvented. There are little pathways across the various holes, usually just in front of the tee area, and when no play is imminent spectators are permitted to cross. When a tee shot is upcoming the course marshals string up a piece of rope to prevent anyone making a run for it. We almost made it across the 13th fairway but the tortoise-speed old man with the rope caught us, and so we waited there for the twosome of the moment to play through. There were a few hundred of us packed there, plotting a breakout, and when at last they lowered the rope we all ran across the fairway full speed trying to secure the best possible vantage point at the upcoming holes. Groups of people yelled out amongst themselves to coordinated the mad dash.

“Go left!”

“16th hole, 16th hole!”

“Let’s go guys!!”

“No, no, this way!”

I got into the action (our plan was to go wide left, sneaking around Niklaus Village and leaving the chumps in our dust) jostling one guy and throwing a bit of a pick on another guy, causing him to break his stride while I appeared to have had no idea he was even there. Rounding Nicklaus Village you had no time to note the aviator-clad guys smoking cigars leaning over the railings laughing. We trotted past, feeling somewhat superior to them at last in that we at least cared about the tournament itself. Hole 15 was an impossible bottleneck and after a few craned neck, tippy-toed attempts at seeing anything we went to plan B, and perhaps my only real contribution to the outing: the outside of a dog leg on the final hole (editor’s note: dog leg is a term meaning that a fairway features a sharpish turn usually around its midway point).

Sharing The Air, And Garbage Can, With Greatness

This area was the most remote on the course, and didn’t connect to any other holes, so it was reasonably uncrowded. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t an American Express kiosk there, because there was. We found what seemed like a good spot and just as we arrived a ball landed just near us. Pablo’s golf antennae were tingling, though, sensing something a bit off. He asked a nearby fellow installed in a chair and armed with an earpiece “where’s Rory’s ball?”.

“It went over there, into the trees or something”. And Pablo took off.

I followed, of course, and we ran fifteen feet or so to a cluster of people back-pedalling, whispering, and pointing. Here was our opportunity at last. Every other person was asking every other person “where is it?” and the news quickly spread that Rory McIlroy well off-course tee shot had rolled and settled under a garbage can. It was genuinely exciting as everyone debated what Rory would have to do, and how bad this was, and so on. Pablo and I nodded at each other enthusiastically, ready for something really cool to go down, and pleased with ourselves since we were in the perfect spot to watch whatever was about the happen. It didn’t take long for a wave of noise and shouted encouragement to wash toward us, and then Rory himself stalked around a tree and headed straight for us. His fiery intensity and purposeful, powerful strides shut us all up immediately. No emotion escaped him as he stood over the ruin surely of his day, and probably of his chances in the tournament generally. There was no getting out of this. His ball had settled not beside or near, but directly under a garbage can. Nobody was yelling “yeah Rory!” or any such thing. He assessed the situation in an instant and summoned a marshal over to him. They talked and he pointed, and then he marched back to the site of the ball. And just like that some fans picked up the garbage can and threw it aside, as the marshal had ruled that there was no rule against moving the obstacle if it could be done. The lie of the ball was still terrible, in long grass, and the route to the 18th green threaded beneath two large and low hanging trees, and what’s more the green was elevated onto a small plateau and ringed by imposing bunkers. We had watched players earlier in the day fail to get there from ideal positions. Hit it too far it was into the sand or rough. Hit it too short and the ball wouldn’t even make it up the steep embankment, or worse would get caught under the lip of a bunker making any further direct approach to the hole impossible. He could at least chip it onto the fairway and resume play.

I don’t think Rory even looked at the fairway once. He asked his caddy to confirm his club choice (he did) and then waved at the marshal to move the spectators blocking the route to the green. He was going for it. Strangers exchanged “whoa, this is really cool” glances and we held our breath. The fans on the intended flight path were rolled back, and a workable half circle around the ball was cleared of people. We were in the very front row, maybe five feet away from the action. Rory walked over to the ball, sized up the shot, took a few practice swings, visualizing the shot, and then planted his feet. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. And then he uncoiled and struck the ball almost without even trying. It flew under the first tree, under the second, and continued on its way toward the raised green, which must have been 150 yards away. The ball landed near the back of the green, plunked down, and rolled back toward the hole as though it were on a string. It stopped maybe two feet away from its intended target. The crowd erupted in utter amazement, and many high fives were spread around. Rory tossed the club to his caddy, pivoted and walked up the course, without remotely acknowledging the awesomeness of what he had just done. I’m obviously no golf expert, but it was just a beautiful thing to watch, and all the more so for me because I genuinely thought, from almost the exact perspective of the player, that the shot was impossible. And there it was, a simple fact sitting on the 18th green, just waiting to be tapped home.

In Conclusion

Witnessing the impossible is the real joy of sports fandom, and that experience can never be reflected in boxscores or won-loss records. Watching a wide receiver jump four feet into the air, twist his body, catch a football with one hand while a strong safety smashes a shoulder into his exposed midsection, and then touch his outstretched toes just inside the thin white line as if it was easy… that’s what we watch for. Those sorts of performances never cease to leave your mouth hanging open, and always make you poke the person next to you, inquiring if they saw that?! Golf doesn’t feature the same breakneck action, grace, or primal violence as my favourite sports, and for that reason it’s often treated dismissively as a lesser athletic activity. And maybe it is, given that it can be performed at an elite level by obese men who pay caddies to perform the only physically strenuous aspect of the sport. In that respect it’s fish in a barrel easy to downplay golf’s worth (no concussions or protruding bones? not interested!), or enter into an Aristotelean-type debate over the true nature of what constitutes a sport, and is golf really one? What about darts? And so on. This sort of debate, I learned on the 18th fairway at the Oak Hill country club, is beside the point. Professional golfers can pull off ridiculous, totally impossible physical feats that no average person could ever replicate. In fact they’re so good at doing so, and so cool and collected when they do it that they do themselves the disservice of making it all look routine and perfunctory. Watch some golf on TV and the shots all bleed into each other; they look similar enough that to the non-specialist observer they look simply average, and only the truly terrible blunders are worthy of any notice. But from where I sat it was a different story entirely. The raw, inexplicable skill required to do some of the things I witnessed is just off the charts, and no open minded person could say that it wasn’t extremely impressive.

Can I say that attending this tournament has made me into a golf fan? Not exactly, no. As a sport it’s just so staid, and slow, and generally lifeless that’s it hard for me to get really excited about it. Nor can I genuinely understand the appeal for people who are fans, or at least not the appeal of watching the sport on TV. In that sense I think golf is more like a sub standard video game whose mechanics and gameplay don’t really work so well, but which still creates a fun world to hang around in for a little while. You can sit on your couch licking the cheezie dust off of your fingers with cat-like delicacy and determination, and at least half imagine the smell of turf and saltwater mist breaking over the shoreline below that bunker over there. Okay so I’m not a golf fan. But the experience was certainly enough to compel me to bike out to a driving range a short while later and hit some balls, which further cemented my conclusion that, yes, professional golfers are way, way better than me at golf. If you get a chance to check out a PGA event, particularly a major tournament, and the price isn’t too ludicrous, I suggest that you do it. At the very worst you’ll get to stroll around a gorgeous private park, and at best you’ll get to drink scotch in a makeshift clubhouse surrounded by obese gentlemen and women with exceptionally large wedding rings. Considered that way you really can’t go wrong.

Posted in: Essay, Journalism