Sunday, June 22, 2014

Behind the Ropes: An Outsider’s Guide to the PGA in New England

“Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.”

Since I have been known to travel thousands of miles for a PGA event, I had no choice but to pull myself away from the World Cup this week to travel to the River Highlands course in Cromwell, Connecticut, twelve miles from Hartford.  The Travelers (no apostrophe) Golf Championship was in my backyard, after all.  So I attended alone on Friday and then with my daughter for the action on Saturday.  I made sure my attendance did not interfere with watching Holland and the United States in the World Cup.  Now some would call me a hacker, but hackers live by hope.  I do not.  As a player, I am hopeless.  I am also a hopeless addict of the game (watching the Irish Open right now…).  I live by suffering and realism instead of hope—it’s safer territory, and I also identify with professional golfers who struggle mightily, the ones who never seem to get the big win.  So, I am something less than a hacker because success just confuses me on the course.  I am a spectator, a thinker, a golf intellectual. 

I love golf because I remain an outsider.  I have coached basketball for sixteen years, and I can barely watch a game now without getting totally frustrated, or shouting out instructions, which is annoying to others, and to myself.  That’s what the insider experience will eventually do to you.  Being on the inside of basketball has brought me pain, even though my overall record is above .500.  So outside is good.  I linger on the outside of the country clubs, and behind the ropes at PGA events.  The ropes keep my relationship to the game very clear. 

The Travelers Championship this year in New England was chock full of no name players.  Even those high on the leader board for the last four days were not household names to serious fans, which I am.   Perhaps this was the result of the U.S. Open being just the week before; many of the big names were missing, and taking a much needed break before the coming summer tournaments.

 As the daily pairings were offered to the arriving fans by volunteers, I overheard a man asking his friend, “Am I supposed to know who these players are?”

I was thinking the exact same thing, and the answer was no.  This field even included a player named Noh.  This prompted dialogue possibilities like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” routine to run through my mind. 
 “Do you know who that guy is?”
 “I wonder if anyone knows.”
 “I told you, ‘Noh.’”
 “Does the PGA know?”
 “Yes, of course, they know, it’s ‘Noh.’”

This imagined dialogue scrolled through my mind for quite a few holes until I got sick of it.  By the way, Seung-Yui Noh hails from Irving, Texas, according to the tournament guide, one that included descriptions of the eighteen holes and a small map of the River Highland course. 

For a golf spectator, even a seasoned one, walking onto an unfamiliar course is always a learning experience.  This course is brand spanking new.  All courses are different, and the map in the spectator guide doesn’t help as much as it should.  You have to get out and walk a bit to get a feel for the place.  You don’t need a plan, just a desire to wander.  Golf is about walking, even for the casual fan, and it should be noted that golf spectators are usually in pretty good shape.  They’re dedicated walkers.  The American blubber condition is not on display, and I saw only one truly overweight person in two days (and five African Americans, so you can make of that what you will).  I wanted to ask the big guy some questions for the blog, but I decided that would be impolite. 

The disorientation of a new course is a wonderful awakening, as you try to figure out what the course designer had in mind: how the natural surroundings and the experience of the player on the holes would fit together.  The disorientation goes away rather quickly: as the layout of the course becomes part of one’s walking experience, and you start to notice the curves and puzzle pieces of the holes together.  At River Highlands, the walk from fifth to the sixth hole is far too long—for both the fans and players, and a fan can’t follow the players from the drivable par four 15th to the popular par three over water on the 16th.  You have to walk quite a spell to reconnect on the 17th with your players.  But every course has its quirks, its secrets, which a television experience can’t really give you.  You have to be on the ground. 

Understanding the course layout is a kind of epiphany, a kind of invitation.  But for me the true moment of invitation is when an errant shot comes my way.  This happened for me when Charlie Wi, one of the no names, nearly hit me on the first hole.  His ball landed in the rough just a few feet from my station behind the ropes.  Suddenly the tournament was personal, it had really begun.  These errant shots truly charm my daughter Beatrice as well.  The foul ball in baseball is a similar moment (likewise with potential danger), but no baseball player walks into the crowd to play the next shot.    
Golf is just different in many respects.  No other sporting event demands library conditions for the work of the players as volunteers and marshals hold “Quiet” signs.  Total silence and zero movement are required when a player is taking a shot.  The Quiet signs look like they could be used as paddles if you refuse to follow orders.  Cheers, almost always positive, are acceptable once the ball is struck.  “In the hole!” is the popular cry, but there is the bizarre and yet regular “mashed potatoes!”  No one knows why people shout this, but I threw in a “crème brulee!” just to keep things lively in the same vein.  No one seemed to think this was funny, so I gave it a rest.  A high percentage of golf fans (and players) are Republican, so maybe they thought I was too far out of the box, some kind of subversive who supports the current president, which I do.  But I suspect a high percentage of the GOP really likes crème brulee.  Personally, I love the stuff, can't get enough.  

Despite all the quiet and respect for players’ concentration, there is also quite a lot of freedom on the course.  The librarian law and order government yields completely at some other interesting points.  You can certainly drink on the course (hard liquor is often available if you look for it).  There is also no stigma if you think you need a beer (or Bloody Mary) at…eight in the morning.  Of course, I avoid these hazards.  And, amazingly, you can smoke wherever and whenever you want.  Stogies are plentiful, so your cigar smoke can waft over players on the green.  That’s kosher as long as you’re quiet and don’t move, and can wait until contact to shout “mashed potatoes” or “dry martini.”  I happen to roll my own cigarettes, which I consider to be a hobby, and this drew none of the usual looks of concern.  In other venues, people think I’m firing up the wacky, and I casually explain (for giggles), “It’s medicinal.”  This is just how the Native Americans thought of tobacco, by the way.   You can look it up.

The spectator experience at a PGA event eventually demands a fundamental choice: seeking or dwelling.  Do you want to see most every golfer from the same spot?  If so, you are a dweller.  Or do you want to get maximum exercise by traveling with a group and seeing the whole course?  Then you are a seeker.  I am a seeker (no relation to Harry Potter).  I am on a spiritual quest.  Seekers travel six to eight miles by following a group, sometimes dealing with steep inclines along the way.  For two days I followed Billy Hurley III, one of my three favorite golfers.  I have a soft spot for service academy athletes, which may seem strange for me as a proud West Point dropout.  But there it is.  Hurley not only graduated from the Naval Academy, he taught Quantitative Economics there for two years.  He served on two ships during his full five year commitment, and now he has made it to the PGA Tour.  Jason Dufner is my all time favorite golfer, but he took the week off.  Dufner is like an unmade bed, a shaggy dog, a pair of old shoes that you can’t throw away.  He’s the guy in your fraternity whom you actually liked.  Dufner struggled for years on the lesser tours before winning a major last year at the PGA Championship in his late thirties.  He also chews tobacco quite openly while playing, and I’ve been up close when he pops out his big wad of chew.  I admire any sport where you enjoy a tobacco product while competing at the highest levels.  My last favorite is Lee Westwood.  The man has won forty times in the United States, Europe, and Asia, but he is invariably asked about why he hasn’t won a major.  Westwood always answers politely.  I want him to hoist one of the big trophies before he retires.   

Seekers on the course will have a story of the tournament that is particular to the player followed, one strand on the great narrative web of the players competing against each other.  A dweller can see nearly everyone with a narrative of the tournament as a whole, but they haven’t experienced the course.  You can always seek by following the leaders, but that’s not my style, unless my player happens to be in the lead.  Then it all comes together, and the grand story of the tournament will be precisely my own.  That’s when the seeker and the dweller become one, in the golden moment for the spectator behind the ropes.  I’m at an age where being faithful is more important than being successful.  The golden moment, the holy grail, didn’t happen for me at the Travelers, but the stories of the seeker are always successful in their own way with the details of the course—and a good walk unspoiled. 

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