By Rob Canady; Photos by Rob Canady
MAMARONECK, NY -- They say you can learn a lot about a person’s character by playing a round of golf with them. You can also learn a lot about people by sitting with them all day at a golf tournament, like I did at the 2006 United States Open, at the famed Winged Foot Golf Club.
During a round of golf a person’s integrity will earn several opportunities to show its true colors. For example, did your college educated friend who holds down a VP job suddenly forget how to count past eight, when in fact he gives himself that five-footer for a ten?
Or you may find that your friend who always expects you to drive to your golf outings, also automatically puts his clubs on the passenger side of the cart, leaves you to replace the flag (even when he was the first to hole out), runs toward the beverage cart while you’re still replacing the flag he forgot – and then comes back with only one beer and a look of surprise on his face, saying, “What, you wanted something?”
|Michael Campbell was the surprise winner at Pinehurst in '05, but missed the cut at Winged Foot.|
I found these ‘look into your soul’ opportunities to get to know your fellow golf partner also spill over to seeing the sport as a spectator – which was all too apparent during the first round of the US Open, where I spent the better part of ten hours in the bleachers at the 18th hole.
The Scouting Mission
As a bit of background, during the previous day’s practice round, I determined the closing hole would be the one worth watching, for several reasons. It had huge bleachers on both sides of the green, a leader board, and of course -- that famous false front to the green that caused many pars to turn into bogeys or worse.
At most PGA Tour stops, the course is set up for fans to flow easily throughout the property, following the action as it occurs. Galleries at a ‘regular’ tournament may top out at 25,000 to 30,000 people per day, but at a major, the crowds often approach 40,000 or more. Therefore, the USGA has done an outstanding job at making the US Open spectator friendly, by installing bleachers at most holes on the course. They’re also first come, first served seating – which doesn’t prioritize one guy’s badge over another.
|Tiger Woods putts on the 18th green during a practice round. Tiger's putting, like his driving, left him searching for answers as he missed his first cut at a major championship as a professional.|
They’re also easy to get in and out of, which encourages people to sit for awhile if they like, then get up and find somewhere new to watch.
The ‘alternative’ viewing strategy (favored by the couch potato, sedentary type) is to find your favorite hole, stake out a spot and lay claim for the entire day. Though I wouldn’t exactly include myself in the latter group in everyday life, I think it’s the best way at a big event. One potential problem -- the back of a US Open ticket says that seats may not be saved. Yeah right, and Phil Mickelson didn’t really double bogey the 72nd hole of the US Open, it was just a bad dream.
Oops, getting ahead of myself. If you think seats can’t be saved…try approaching an 80-year-old woman from Atlanta wearing a hat bigger than Texas Stadium and wielding an umbrella (with a sharp point), and tell her you’re taking the aisle seat next to her. You’ll all of a sudden decide the seats a couple rows up don’t look so bad after all.
Not only did I want a seat in the bleachers, I wanted a certain seat. Not all seats are created equal! Noticing during the practice round that the bleachers on the shady side of the 18th hole were filled by about 2:00 , I knew we’d have to arrive early to get the spot that I salivated over. From the far left of the bleachers on the 18th hole – not only was it in the shade, you could also see the tee for the 10th hole. Sweet… we’d be able to see golfers hit their first tee shot of the Open, full of optimism, and then two hours later see them trudge up eighteen thinking the next nine holes have to get better.
|David Love III's victory at Winged Foot during the 1997 PGA Championship was pure magic. But he couldn't solve the rough during the 2006 US Open, and missed the cut.|
Implementing the ‘Plan’
If you’ve ever been to an Open -- or a major -- you know the process of getting from your hotel to the course is much like the adventures in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. You’ll drive to a remote parking lot about a 25-minute ride from the club, and then board a tour bus that’ll drop you off at the Main entrance to the course. Notice I said entrance -- not the clubhouse, not the first tee, not even the practice range. You’re dumped at a bus staging area about a ¼ mile walk to the course.
It was a good thing we’d decided to sit the whole day. Imagine facing that march to the bus after being on your feet all day.
Early arriving crowds at a major are much like the early arriving crowds at Disney World -- you enter the gate with a plan. Whether it’s to head directly to The Pirates of the Caribbean or the 18th hole, you’re determined to beat everyone else there. You won’t be delayed by the kids wanting to stop and have their picture taken with Mickey or your fiancé wanting to stop and see Vijay Singh bogey the first hole – you’re on a mission.
|The first three photos were of players who missed the cut, and this picture shows it all. These guys don't look like they have any feet. If you hit it in the rough, it was a very severe penalty at the '06 US Open.|
Finally reaching the 18th hole, I felt the thrill of victory as I noticed a very sparse crowd taking up just a few of the prime vantage points. Position A1 would have not only offered the two views mentioned earlier but also the green of the par 3 tenth hole – but that was taken. But there were plenty of good ones left, including a spot that I knew would be envied by thousands around 3:25 p.m., when Tiger Woods came through.
So with the clock having just struck 8:00 a.m., that seven-plus hours of waiting would seem like no time at all! Players that teed off on number ten would be coming through the 18th green in about and hour and a half. I was set, so I thought.
A ‘day’ takes longer than I thought
Time slogged on a bit, however, as the cold and breezy weather dealt us an unpleasant surprise – having intentionally left warmer clothing at the hotel. My ‘trooper’ fiancé braved it for awhile, but after enduring several accusatory ‘insensitive’ nasty looks from those well-bundled fans around us, I broke down and bought her a nice black Winged Foot windbreaker. Cha-ching! My wallet hurt. Won’t be forgetting a wrap the next time!
|Sergio Garcia was definitely a crowd favorite during the practice rounds. He too missed the weekend.|
That’s another thing – bring money to an Open. A wad of cash wrapped around a credit card is always a good plan.
With fiancé safely warmed, we found ways to pass the time, waiting for the first group to play through. Amazing the things you’ll find to talk about when you’re trying to keep your toes warm, anticipating the arrival of the main event to help stave off intense boredom. There was a lady near us that was from where I grew up – ‘oh, really?’ Then there was a couple from where I live now – ‘oh, really?’ I never knew there were that many people from that many places who wanted to sit in the same set of bleachers with me on the 18th hole at the US Open. Makes you feel like we’re really not alone in the universe.
Then there were the ‘types,’ like the golf know-it-all, the tournament neophytes who didn’t know the difference between black and red numbers (or what the asterisk means next to a player’s name), the people you’d never talk to at any other venue, and the stogey-smoking chimney who you hoped would only be there for a few groups – and then prayed that he wasn’t saving seats for more of his kind.
The day went on, and besides the golf, there were other amusements. One guy was obviously oblivious to the ‘unwritten’ rules about saving seats, and when he came up to our area and tried to scam a couple prime spots – only to be told ‘someone is sitting here,’ he finally stormed off in frustration, saying loudly for everyone to hear “The marshals will tell you, you can’t save seats.” Get a clue, buddy. Most of these people have been here for hours – who needs you to upset the ranking order.
|Another favorite of the ladies was rookie Camilo Villegas. He made the cut, but a 3rd round 79 took him out of contention.|
There were several moments of bleacher bliss, like when Phil Mickelson’s group came through. Phil even provided us with a thrill when he sank a difficult 20-foot putt for birdie. It was the first real gallery roar of the tournament.
Having experienced other US Opens and been a few holes away when you hear a roar, the typical guessing game commences as everyone studies their pairing sheets to figure out who may have caused such a roar. Then there’re discernable differences in roars from the gallery – roars sound as different on a golf course as a penguin’s parents do to their offspring.
Okay, too many trips to the beer hut – but you get the idea.
Whispers of Tiger in the bleachers
|Rich Beem signs nearly every scrap of paper sent at him, which endears him to the crowd. But if he doesn't start playing better, he won't be seen at many more majors after his exemptions run out (after 2007).|
There’s no mistaking a Tiger birdie roar, which will squelch even an eagle cheer from Lee Jansen. I felt a bit of pride knowing we knew what the ‘roar’ was all about (for Mickelson). Hey, it was ‘our’ roar, we’d waited all morning for it!
Armed with that knowledge, we figured the absence of Tiger ‘roars’ meant he wasn’t doing so hot. When Tiger teed off at 1:25, his name went up immediately onto the leader board at the 18th hole. Over the next two hours the black number next to his name steadily increased from 1 to 5.
With each bogey the discussion in the bleachers was not so much about the action on our hole, but would Tiger be in danger of shooting himself out of the tournament before he even reached us in about three hours? We now know the answer was a resounding yes. But over the course of the afternoon, our section followed his score with intent interest. He eventually made par at the 18th for a 76, and the bleachers emptied faster than a New York minute, pun definitely intended.
The remains of the day
|Kevin Stadler tees off during a practice round.|
After Tiger blew through, we noticed our little neighborhood stood alone in the vast emptiness of the grandstands. When we took stock of the leader board, we noticed that somehow David Howell had quietly managed to take the lead at four-under par, and he was on the 15th hole. Being true golf fans (and having a great spot!) we felt the leader of the US Open deserved to have some folks around when he finally reached the last hole.
As Winged Foot would do to so many over the next four days, the course took its toll on Howell as well – he ended up shooting four over on his last three holes, including a devastating double bogey right in front of us. We still gave him a nice ovation, as he was only one shot behind first round leader (and soon-to-be tragic character) Colin Montgomerie.
A sudden emptiness that matched the surroundings of the course came over me as we stood to depart the bleachers. We’d seen nearly 156 golfers play hole eighteen in an average of 4.76 strokes. We had seen birdies and triple bogeys. We’d seen the carnage. It was like having the high observation ground at a battle, and now it was over. We knew what the pros were thinking – because we do dumb stuff all the time on a golf course.
But best of all, we didn’t hear a single shout of ‘you da man!’
|Former Masters Champion Mike Weir was in contention up until the final round, but ended up three shots back in a tie for sixth.|
We bade our goodbyes to our new neighbors, the same gritty warriors who’d survived the cold, then the heat, the boredom, the know-it-alls, the pricey food and merchandise… and the dirty looks, the scowls of the frustrated (in the stands, that is), and the ebb and flow of a round at the world’s greatest golf championship – or at least the most challenging.
Better yet, we’d do it all again the next day. And I’d remind my fiancé to bring her new windbreaker, too.
Golf enthusiast Rob Canady is a Contributor to GolfTheMidAtlantic.com, and will share his unique perspective on things whenever he gets the time.
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