08 May 2014

Quail Hollow - In Which The Author Gets Well Fargoed

It’s always seemed a bit odd that the most important dates on the PGA TOUR (I’ll use their self-important all caps construction once) have nothing to do with the PGA Tour (see?) itself. In other words, the Masters, US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship are staged by entities other than the Tour. Each major has its own flavor, traditions, famous stories, champions, etc. The winner’s checks are nice but those players want that trophy first and foremost.

There is justifiable focus on the majors from players, public and media alike, but that still leaves the Tour proper with dozens of events occupying nearly the entire calendar year. Those giant purses don’t fill themselves so sponsors and commercial tie-ins are the financial lifeblood of the Tour. Unfortunately, this frequently manifests itself in a tawdry county fair/football tailgate atmosphere, with food tents, beverage/snack stands and ubiquitous, er, ‘comfort stations.’

Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament immediately springs to mind as an exception. But it’s a measure of the Tour’s money-grubbing instincts that it requires the iron will and year-long involvement of the game’s greatest player to stave off the sideshow.

The Tour’s so-called Fifth Major, THE PLAYERS (here we go again) Championship, is an orgy of excess exemplified by the overrated Stadium course with the lottery staged at its silly 17th hole. Creativity, usually considered the essence of golf in thought and deed, is banned there in favor of luck. The array of hospitality tents at Sawgrass dwarfs a wartime army base during emergency mobilization.

The Wells Fargo Championship, staged (geddit?) at Quail Hollow CC in Charlotte, NC, seems to fall in a very small patch of grey between the tacky and the well-mannered. Perhaps it’s the course, the clubhouse, the geography - with Charlotte serving as a gateway to the South albeit one inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Yankee refugees – or the banking-related sponsor and profile of many members. How long does new money take to become old money? Let’s just say the money has salt-and-pepper hair at this point. But there’s certainly enough of it to pay for redesigns of holes, greens and to handle the expense of a massive clear-out of trees similar to that undertaken by Oakmont CC. In Oakmont’s case, it earned (or confirmed) a US Open in 2007 and another in 2016. Quail Hollow’s makeover was part of a carrot-and-stick scheme that will bring the PGA Championship to the club in 2017 and not before time: 2013 was a disaster as unpredictable and often inclement weather led to a superintendent’s nightmare as fairways and greens alike suffered greatly. The players in last year’s event made no secret of their displeasure. A few made their excuses and withdrew after honoring their pro-am commitment (perhaps they got a sufficient taste of the conditions then) before arriving ahead of schedule for The Players.

The 2014 edition of the course and the weather for the tournament stood in stark contrast to the ’13 nightmare. All was green and bright. A respectable list of names were entered including Phil Mickelson, still the Pied Piper in Tiger’s absence and occasionally in Tiger’s presence, and Rory McIlroy, already a previous winner of the event despite his youth.

A friend of a friend who does business with the Tour provided season-long clubhouses passes i.e. clubhouse access at every Tour stop (!) and with our blue PGA TOUR-imprinted lanyards we made a brave show of pseudo-officialdom as we trudged to the gates.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of modern America and the world beyond that the first encounters at any public gathering will inevitably be with police and private security. The Common Yellow Windbreaker is a species usually spotted at American football games, standing stoically with back turned to the action on the field for hours at a stretch as they stare menacingly (they hope) into the crowd before them. Apparently, this is supposed to prevent bad behavior among ticket holders who have paid handsomely for the privilege of being glared at but someone forgot to tell the ticket holders, because bad behavior still thrives among them. Overconsumption of alcohol is the most frequent culprit, of course, but there are plenty of sober gameday narcissists who believe that a group setting provides camouflage for their boorish antics or that the strangers around them have been waiting patiently to be a captive audience for a stream of filth and/or armchair expert commentary on the sporting action before them. Club seats are nice for the wet bar and private bathrooms, but the ability to watch a live sporting event in peace is well worth the investment.

In any case, The Common Yellow Windbreaker often believes that to don the uniform is to be transformed into a combination of Lord Nelson, Patton and Alexander The Great. They have power (or so they imagine) and they’re damn well going to use it. The well-heeled attendees at a PGA Tour event at a swanky country club in a highly affluent neighborhood could not rank any lower on the Potential Threat scale but in our modern police state all are assumed to harbor ill intent. So empty your pockets and submit to a ‘wanding.’ The Windbreakers obsessed over their wands as Merlin might have done. Let me wand you. Did you wand him? You can’t proceed until I wand you! Move to this side so you can be wanded! Are you carrying anything metal? Anything dangerous – say, a treatise by Locke? Are you still in possession of common sense? A remaining modicum of perspective? Demographic data that might obviate such foolishness? Never mind! Submit to your wanding immediately! It merely proved – again – Richard Littlejohn’s theory that authority will inevitably be abused by those unworthy of it.

Leaving the jumped-up Wanders behind at last, we stopped at the practice range. It will surprise nobody in this forum that players practice with the brand and model of golf ball they endorse/play on the course. Tournament workers piled a rainbow-like array of drawstring bags on their table; with brands identified by color (Titleist was red, by the way).

Players warming up included the 2013 champion Derek Ernst. Whippet-thin, he hit two or three balls to most of his peers’ one. It seemed less a gradual warm-up and more a dragstrip smoking of the tires. Ricky Barnes, who resembles a linebacker in person with rippling forearms to match, arrived. He chided a swing instructor for spending inordinate amounts of time with a wonder-boy pupil, the name of whom I was unable to discern from the context. Ricky joked that the instructor might need some WD-40 to allow the mystery player’s head to squeeze through doorways. Ooh, snarky! Vijay Singh, also a past champion of the event, warmed up on the far end of the range, alone literally and figuratively. As my uncle says of unpopular persons, they’ll have to hire pallbearers for his funeral. A few other players arrived directly and most spent their time hitting pitches to the 50-75-100-125 signs, which makes sense given the demands on their wedge play vis-à-vis scoring. It’s also a lesson to the 20 handicap who will burn through a bucket of balls hitting nothing but driver and wonder why he’s still a 20 handicap. Last to arrive before we left the range was El Pato, Angel Cabrera. Not since Ron Cey aka The Penguin has a sporting figure deserved his bird-inspired nickname more, for Cabrera’s waddling gait is duck-like indeed. Cabrera chatted away with caddie in their native Spanish and seemed to enjoy the fact that most on hand had no idea what they were saying.

The clubhouse aspect of the passes underwhelmed a bit. As expected, the clubhouse was roped off and chaperoned to a gratuitous level, with many areas deemed ‘players only’ and rightly so. It became more of a tunnel than a house with the restrictions. But we walked through anyway, feeling that we had some obligation to fully test the power of the pass. The pro shop counter, interestingly, was converted to a cocktail bar. Give the people what they want etc.

Determined to see more of the course than I did last year, we walked ‘against traffic’ i.e. from green to tee on the front nine. In doing so we saw most of the pairings with mid-morning tee times. I’ll switch from prose to list for notes on those we encountered:

Rory Sabbatini – definitely in the Camera Adds Ten Pounds (CATP) category. He’s probably concentrated more on his fitness recently but there was a distinct absence of any paunch. His name is mud among many but I’ve always appreciated his let’s-get-on-with-it attitude. He was paired with…

Hideki Matsuyama – taller than one might expect, he was as lithe and lean as most of his countrymen, especially his fellow golf professionals. Trailed by a small army of Japanese TV and still photographers as well as print reporters. It was odd to see his caddie’s notes, which obviously combined Western (Arabic) numerals for distances but all the rest in handwritten pictographs.

Kevin Chappell - could do no wrong on the day (until the last two holes). Got a break or two, including a ball that nestled in the second cut rather than bounce into heavy rough or a water hazard only feet away. Very easy-going; spoke to those he knew in the gallery. Played Nike V-Forged Irons that were quite rusty front and back – obviously very comfortable with and loyal to his ‘gamers.’ When faced with one of these ridiculous 250-yard par-3 holes (even downhill) he pulled out a long iron and hit a high, arcing ball right onto the green in the manner he described to his caddie moments before. Definitely one of those moments that reminds you these players are on a different plane of existence and that neither rusty clubs nor shiny new ones will admit us to Mt Olympus. Paired with…

Mike Weir – we’d encountered Mike and his caddie at a local watering hole the night before…literally water in Weir’s case as he was abstaining that night (and maybe a teetotaler given his BYU background) but had good reason to be there as a good Canadian: the hockey playoffs were on as well as a Toronto NBA game. Had a good yarn with his caddie who praised the course conditions and condemned last year’s. The caddie took a particular and obvious interest in my missus, which I suppose is a compliment of sorts, and it came as no surprise that he stopped to say hello to her again on Sunday. In fact, he stared her down during Weir’s setup and shot (I was monitoring him via peripheral vision behind sunglasses). Again, I took no offense, especially knowing that Tour caddies think about two things and one of them is golf.

Weir had a frustrating day, dropping three strokes in two holes. He tempted fate, as we all have done, by changing clubs at the last moment – in this case from hybrid to four-wood. ‘I’ll choke up a bit,’ he said without much confidence. ‘Too easy,’ he said regretfully as the shot landed well short of the green. The left-hander snap-hooked his drive on the next hole – so far right that he failed to reach the hazard line and was unable to drop and had to re-tee, only to push that drive into the rough. He had the sprays from that point forward, it seemed.

Martin Laird – was throwing absolute darts all day with nothing much to show for it.

Stewart Cink – I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think people still blame him for stealing (?) Tom Watson’s Open Championship. He received mostly silence for good shots or putts and got a few catcalls at the 18th as he finished.

Brendan de Jonge – 80 first day, course record-tying 62 the next. As you do. Member of the CATP club or not, he is a big lad.

Kevin Na – his worst tendencies seemed contained, although he still gave it a good half-dozen waggles.

Rory McIlroy – that hip flick is even more pronounced in person but the swing ‘a thing of joy and beauty,’ as one of my dear departed friends used to say of good shots. A large following with many from the British Isles, as you might expect.

Pat Perez – has been mostly out of the spotlight for some time but made good on his reputation by uttering only a single word of commentary after a tee shot. I quote him verbatim for accuracy and posterity: ‘F@*#!’

Ernie Els – revise that to the Camera Adds Twenty Pounds, please! Very tall, obviously, but very lean. Could watch that swing all day. Seemed very at ease and of course he had his new Adams bag and clubs.

Angel Cabrera – the aforementioned El Pato was having an off day and had adopted the thousand-yard stare.

Gary Woodland – a fearsome power pairing with Cabrera. Both attempted to cut the corner on a 508-yard par-4 (another ridiculous hole length, downhill or otherwise). Woodland in the bunker, Cabrera in the rough. Neither happy.

I am gratified to report that we heard only a single ‘Get in da hole!’ all day. I still considered a seek-and-destroy mission but the voice sounded as if it came from the second deck of a viewing platform and I didn’t want to climb the stairs. Perhaps this cancer on the game is in remission?

I write this missive with after wearing my everyday trail running shoes to the tournament and returning safely - no injuries, broken bones, sprains or falls despite my reckless refusal to wear golf shoes. In fact, I saw only a handful of golf-shoe wearers all day. All others also managed to remain upright.

Tour wives were readily identified by vertiginous wedge heels, cascades of blonde hair and Titanic-class icebergs on their left ring finger.

It was an entirely cloudless day and while May was only a few days old the sun was quite direct and intense. It earned many – including me – the Red Badge Of Stupidity for capillary-inflaming consumption of adult beverages that only intensified my already-vivid hue although I applied wanton amounts of SPF.

But red was easily outdone as color du jour by orange, specifically the sherbet orange of Rickie Fowler. Although we didn’t see Fowler on the course, his clones were everywhere, mostly in the form of Puma-hatted adolescents with their flat brims. Pictures, digital or film, are lasting, especially with Mom as keeper of the vault, and one day they may regret their sartorial choices the way we cringe at leisure-suited photos from our youth. Still, it must be said that the marketing is working.

And speaking of marketing, the PGA Tour Traveling Church Of The Commercial Plug will now begin its weeklong High Mass Of Self Regard in its own front yard. We have been offered the same credentials for the Players. It’s very tempting, especially to see if the form of these players changes or stays the same week-to-week and, admittedly, to see the rebuilt Sawgrass course (I played it in 2004) but I’m sure that lodging will be remote and expensive, even on the Florida coast where hotels and motels outnumber houses. Perhaps by Thursday I’ll change my tune…