On the spur of the moment my friend telephoned to say that he had just got two tickets to the Traveler’s Championship Golf Tournament — corporate row seats above the 18th green. Would I like to go? He could swing by and pick me up in an hour.
Outside of a handful of names of great professional golfers, my knowledge of the game of golf is slim. I understand it flourished in Scotland during the 19th century; the links of Saint Andrew’s are said to have defined the modern 18-hole course. Mark Twain called golf a good walk spoiled — presumably because during an otherwise pleasant stroll over several miles of manicured turf you have to take time out periodically to strike a small white ball with a club and follow wherever it may land. Once you deliver it into the cup on the green, you’re free to repeat the process ad infinitum 18 times. This helps to develop your vocabulary, the strength of your voice and subsequent control of your emotions.
Given my rudimentary knowledge of the sport, I decided it was high time I applied myself to learn something more substantial about this activity which seemed to have captured the hearts and minds of so many of my contemporaries. The lawn would have to wait another day to be cut. I told my friend I would go.
“Wear a hat and comfortable shoes,” he told me. “Put on a dab of sunscreen. You might consider short pants; it’s going to be hot and humid.”
I rooted through the closet and found my old Banana Republic straw fedora. I pulled on a white cotton polo shirt and grabbed my sunglasses from the car. True to his word, my friend swung by at the appointed time to pick me up, and we were off.
Years ago when I went to New York City for the day with a friend and his brother to see a show at the Met, I learned that the secret to an enjoyable afternoon in the big city is going with someone who knows his way around. This same principle applies to attending your first golf tournament outing.
My friend ignored the suggestions of personnel directing traffic and scooted into the parking lot marked “Media.” From there it was a short walk to the entrance, where we presented our tickets. A large sign listed prohibited items: backpacks, cameras, coolers; cell phones were to be silenced. We were stopped at a security check point where an electronic wand was passed over our bodies. The bar codes on our ticket stubs were electronically captured a second time before we picked up programs and headed to corporate row.
A policeman and several young men in plastic vests screened us at the entrance of the walkway. We pushed through the doors into the air-conditioned Greenside Club and suffered one last check point, where we were given wristbands that identified us as clubhouse guests.
The room was laid out with scores of tables covered with white linen cloths. Along the back wall stood the bar, and to the far right a buffet luncheon. Any number of folks were milling around with drinks in their hands, making polite conversation or sitting at table to eat. Outside in the banks of chairs we found seats to watch the latest threesome putt out on the 18th green below.
My friend knew the course well, having played it several times himself. He described the lie of several holes, noting their par and strategic approaches. He digressed a bit, telling me of other courses he had played on, mostly notably Morefar Back O’Beyond, Weyhill and Hilton Head.
“Morefar was built by C.V. Starr, the founder of AIG,” my friend said. “It’s a fabulous course, bronze statues dot the fairways. They only allow five or six foursomes on the greens a day. You play the first nine, then stop off at the clubhouse for a gourmet brunch before picking up the back nine.”
“Weyhill is one of four courses in Saucon Valley, the former Bethlehem Steel country club outside Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Weyhill was purposely laid out with 100-yard walkways between each green and the next tee. It was over the course of those walkways that many business deals were cut.”
My golfing education was progressing into full swing.
The favorite at this year’s championship was a 19-year-old amateur from UCLA, Patrick Cantlay, who currently led the field by 12 under par. The day before he had logged a 60, the lowest score by an amateur in PGA Tour history. We decided to stroll down to the 14th hole to see if we could catch up with him.
No sooner had we left the clubhouse than we were hailed by two colleagues from my friend’s former institution. They invited us in for a free drink. Once inside the pavilion we elected to try the chicken tenders as well. We sat down at table and were soon joined by a middle-aged fellow, who struck up a conversation about golf as he had played it in his youth on Hilton Head.
He knew the courses, he knew the holes, he knew the hotels and the restaurants and the bars. He knew the lay of the land, knew where the prime real estate had been developed. For nearly half an hour he spun his stories while we munched on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream popsicles. He had a golf app on his cell phone and showed us the current standing of the pros in the tournament. The sign at the entrance prohibited the use of cell phones, yet here was this fellow who seemed to hold the golfing world at his fingertips.
We tore ourselves away and headed out to the 14th hole in time to see Cantlay hit over the hill. We followed his threesome to the 17th tee and watched as his shot found the water. The crowd emitted a collective groan. In spite of having to drop a stroke, our favorite hit onto the green in two, only to miss the final putt by a hair.
Walking toward the last hole, we met another acquaintance — a former member of our swim group. He was there for the day with his brother-in-law. Each sported an official looking badge draped from the neck which read: “Honorary Observer.”
“It’s been great,” they said. “We’ve spent the afternoon inside the lines, right there watching the pros putt out — absolutely fabulous. How about you guys?”
“We caught up with Cantlay and followed him through the last four holes — the water gave him some trouble on the 17th.”
Corporate row was closing down by the time we trucked up along the final green. We picked up copies of “Life & Leisure,” the official publication of the PGA Tour’s TPO network, and once again made our way down the walkway, where we ran into our erstwhile golf bum.
“Hey, you guys — golfers, right? — great stories. What a great time — you gotta love it.”
I noticed a slight list in his bearing as he sauntered up the path.
Huey Lewis and the News played in concert that evening in the fan zone. We stood in the crowd and clapped and sang along for several numbers. From the day’s pedestrian traffic the field under our feet had turned to mud .
Halfway through the final number we left, strolling up the long hill by the tee at the first hole. Up along the crest you could see the lights coming on in several houses. Groups of people lounged at porch rails, drinks in hand, listening to the band belt out their final number.
“Are those houses part of the course?” I asked my friend.
“No, they’re privately owned.”
I thought a moment. “Who underwrites the cost of the tournament?” I asked.
“Corporate sponsorship. Each company pays $100,000 for their pavilion on corporate row. Travelers is the main sponsor — they kick in $4 million.”
“How much do the players earn?”
“Top 125 pros — probably somewhere around $1.5 million a piece.”
In 1457 James II of Scotland, through an act of the Scottish Parliament, issued an edict that banned the game of golf. Subsequent bans were imposed in 1471 and 1491, where golf was described as “an unprofitable sport.”
The game has come a long way since the links of Saint Andrews, I thought, as we ducked under the flags and headed back to the car in the fading evening light.