Notes From The PGA Championship

While attending the PGA Championship, I took copious notes, as well as photos on the last practice day (you can see the photos of Oakland Hills). The edited version of these follows:

The Monster

A repeated story about the 90th PGA Championship centers around the difficulty of “The Monster.”

First, it’s long. And from the ground, many of the holes look longer than they are. Moreover, the distance is increased by elevated greens, and severe upslopes before the green on many holes.

Still, it’s not out of the range of better players. I saw David Toms—not anyone’s candidate for a long bomber—reach the green on the 593 yard par 5 in two—sending the shot over some trees in his way.

The second issue is with the greens. They’re small and tricky and many players cleary were frustrated. Each green has several terraces, and little undulations. But it wasn’t only that the putting was difficult, but also that the balls were rolling off the back into the rough.

Tom Lehman was talking to himself, as was Ernle Els and others.

The difficulty, however, was not of the PGA’s making, but rather one of history. The basics of the course, the approaches and the greens were designed by Donald Ross in 1917. The course surely was shorter in those days, allowing better players to hit to the greens with shorter irons. As I watched each group come through from the fifth hole’s grandstand, it occurred to me that all were hitting longer clubs than they would have preferred. None were hitting those high-drop-out-of-a-helicopter shots that tour players prefer.

Even more importantly, those small, tricky Donald Ross greens worked perfectly fine with the available strains of grass and the less sophisticated mowers of the day. I know that the grass on greens was left much longer on those days. I’d be willing to bet that the stimp on Donald Ross’ original designs was half of what it is at the PGA Championship.

The rough at Oakland Hills did not strike me as extraordinarily long. It does, however, have a peculiar quality (I snuck under the ropes on Wednesday to test it). The top half of the rough is what you’d expect—a thick mass of blades of grass. Under that, however, is where the problem lies. The thatch is a curly, soft mass that just sucks balls down like a boat in a maelstrom.

While sitting at the fifth, it was fun to see the balls roll off the back of the green into the rough, where for a few seconds, they were clearly visible. But they’d then settle and sink, until they were out of sight.

I really wanted a club and a ball to find out just how that rough reacts.

Deceiving The Eye

One nice thing about the way the PGA had things set up was that you could stand in the middle of most of the fairways at the crossings and get a good look at things.

The course design looked very challenging. It’s a lot more hilly than it looks on television. The first hole features a precipitous drop; the eighteenth heads back up the same hill. Nine shoots from hilltop to hilltop; eleven and eight also feature significant elevation change.

Watching replays on television, I’ve found that the camera does a poor job of conveying a sense of the course There’s a lot that’s deceptive on this course, and that you can appreciate only when there in person. Even the overhead views don’t do it.

The water on sixteen, for example, looks much more imposing to the eye on the ground. Nine looks a lot longer than measurements or television would indicate, especially with the hilltop-to-hilltop shot required. From the tee on 18, I would have had a difficult time figuring out at what I was supposed to be aiming. The uphill shot on eleven looks brutal from the ground, and the green especially tiny.

I didn’t find the dissonance to be nearly as strong for the Buick Open at Warwick Hills, or the Ford Senior at Dearborn’s TPC. Especially for the Buick, I thought that what you saw was what you got.

But maybe that’s the genius of Donald Ross’s design—the course is defended as much by the eye’s perception as by anything else.

I have GOT to figure out a way to play Oakland Hills.

Watching The Tournament

There are two ways to follow a golfing event. One involves following a group throughout their round. The other, staying at a single hole and letting each of the groups come to you.

I got a good sense of how the course unfolded by following around the threesome of Anthony Kim, Sergio Garcia and Camilo Villegas. On Thursday, they started on the back nine and struggled for the first several holes. Sergio had driver control difficulties. Camilo got into the rough at eleven and took two shots to get out. Kim played steadily, but unspectacular.

Garcia and Kim both got themselves into the top of the leaderboard.

After following the Kim-Garcia-Villegas threesome, I spent a good deal of time on hole 5, a 490 yard par 4 made famous by TC Chen and his double hit in the 1985 US Open. The hole is tight, lined on both sides by trees. It has a bend in it that to the eye looks more severe than it does on either a map or on television. It’s magnified by the shallow angle from off the tee. You don’t have to be very far off to end up in the trees on the inside of the bend.

Do the math on that one. A 300 yard drive still leaves you 190 on a slight uphill to a relatively small green. And that’s assuming that you hit it accurately. The angle is such that it was easy for players to get caught Few players were able to hold the green with their balls.

You don’t want to hit it too far, though. A creek crosses the fairway about two thirds down.

The fifth looks different than in 1985: a greenside tree is missing.

Among the groups that passed while I sat there were: Darren Clarke, Tom Lehman, Shingo Katayama; Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera, Padraig Harrington; Bubba Watson, Rocco Mediate, Nick Dougherty; David Tomes, Vijay Singh, John Daly; Henrick Stanson, Brandt Snedeker, Woody Austin; Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Fred Couples; Kenny Perry, Retief Goosen, Justin Rose; Rory Sabbatini, Ian Poulter, Chad Campbell; and MikeW Weir, Alex Cejka and Andres Romero.

All had trouble with the green, either in keeping it on the green, or in putting once it was on.

If you’re going to a tournament, be sure to study the course map, and go to a practice round to get a feel for the layout. Doing this at Oakland Hills helped me to identify several vantage points. For example, from one central location, I could watch players tee off on nine and see them putt on eight and eleven. There was another central nexus where you could in very short order, watch a group tee off on 18 and eleven, and watch them putt on 10 and 17.

Combining that knowledge with a list of tee times and pairings (and the American Express Championship Vision device—more about that later), I was able to hop back and forth to see a lot of different action.

Players

Without a pair of binoculars, from the grandstand I had to try to identify the players at 200 yards out. I found it was not terribly difficult. For the most part, the players have an identifiable body silhouette, swing or walk.

You can pick out Davis Love by his walk from 300 yards. The same with Villegas, who always looks to me as though he’s going to fall over backwards. Cabrera has a distinctive body type. Ditto Jimenez (who is one of the oddest looking individuals I’ve ever seen). Els was the biggest by far in his group—up close, the man is a giant. Kenny Perry is just shaped differently from Retief Goosen and Justin Rose. And so on.

While watching Kim, Villegas and Garcia (and others), it struck me as to how young some of these guys are. Given the temperament required to play golf, I think it’s a wonder that anyone in their twenties manages to win. I remember how I was when I was a twenty-something, and it wasn’t pretty.

One thing that television doesn’t do a good job of is showing the facial expressions of the players on anything but putts. From much closer—and with a teacher’s practiced eye for such things—I saw dejection and frustration in many a younger player’s faces. My guess is that they’d deny it, but I know it when I see it.

(Davis Love, on the other hand, always looks as thought he has eaten something sour. He also wears white ankle socks under his long pants.)

Maybe the advantage that Tiger has always had is that he’s got the physical skills of a 20 year old, with the mind of a 40 year old.

People complain about the pace of play on Tour, but for the most part, they play quickly. They certainly walk quickly from shot to shot. The real time sink is on the greens. Players walk to their ball, set a marker, then move back and circle around, and take a few practice strokes, and go back to the marker, turn the ball a few times to get the right side up, and then stand back and make a practice stroke, and then circle around again and on and on and on.

Worse, is when they have a short shot greenside. Then, more often than not, it’s an excruciating exercise in club selection … the wedge, or the putter, or a chip or a putter or a wedge or a chip and so on.


Caddies

Those bags are huge. I can only hope they’re made of some lightweight material. I’m pretty sure they’re all leather, though.

A wide variety of player-caddy relationships were on display. Some players tossed their clubs aside (especially putters), expecting the caddy to pick it up. Others treated them with more respect, either handing the club over, or in some cases, heading down the fairway (or on to the next hole) with the club still in hand, until the caddy caught up.

If my player threw a club at me, he’d need someone from the crowd to help him finish the round; I’d quit on the spot. In my mind, a caddy is a partner, not a servant.

No one seemed to do more talking to his caddy than Phil Mickelson, but from a brief experience, I’ll bet Fred Couples is a close second. Greenside on the fifth, he and his caddy spent a good five minutes discussing the shot, which was a tricky little short sider from the frog hair. Fred switched back and forth between a wedge and a putter several times. I was just a few feet away and I think that the caddy won that argument. Couples finally used a wedge.

On the greens and in the fairways, most players got an assist from their caddies. It was clear that they were getting yardages. Most also assisted in lining up putts.

Still, there was a significant number who just stood aside while the player did his thing.

I thought it interesting how caddies shared duties. I first noted it when John Daly tossed his ball to Vijay’s caddy, who dutifully wiped it off and gave it back. There’s JD being JD, I thought. But then I noted the same thing happening with other groups. I also noted that often one would rake bunkers around the green, while another would wipe balls. I saw another carry two bags to a better location around the green.

Is all that legal? It must be.

The Practice Tee

There may not be a better place to see your favorite player than on the practice tee. The crowds are smaller than on the course, and they tend to stay in one place for a long time.

Oakland Hills had three practice areas set up, all on the North Course. There was the range, a short game area, with several bunkers around a green, and a green set aside for putting.

Behind all of that, the equipment tour vans were set up to make adjustments and repairs.

Players arrived at the practice tee with their caddies, picked up what I would call a small bucket of Titleists and proceeded to a spot with their name on a placard.  There was no rush to any of this; time at the tee was leisurely for the players I saw. If some like Vijay who reportedly hits hundreds of balls, he was going to have to move at a much faster pace.

I saw Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer put on a short game clinic. They both had tossed a score of balls into one of the practice traps and methodically went about splashing them out.

Kaymer was methodical about placing the balls in the sand. He had a bucket and after raking the sand, carefully located them in ranks and files.

A good many players had their “gurus” with them. Justin Leonard had a guy watching his short game practice; Sergio had a putter guru. There was a guy in a Sikh headdress watching and giving advice to two Indian players.

It stuck me as odd that professionals need and get so much help. In what other profession does the worker get a set of aides to help prop him up? Golfers have caddies, full swing guys, short game guys, personal trainers, dieticians shrinks and who knows what else.

I wonder if I could get the school district to provide me with my own personal teaching guru to help me on those days when I feel things just aren’t right.

And don’t tell me that golf is harder, or that there’s more pressure than on a teacher. I play a decent game of golf, but none of them would last a day in a classroom of thirty eight unruly, uninterested and uninteresting teenagers.

Golf Crowds

I didn’t see a single black face at Oakland Hills, with the exception of the volunteers and workers and a few PGA members (not players, club pros, who were identifiable by their shirts). Since no one asked my race when I bought my tickets, I know there wasn’t any discrimination there. Its just evidence that—in spite of Tiger Woods—golf hasn’t made significant inroads in the minority community.

It also seems to be mostly a guy thing. It’d be interesting to know the male-female breakdown of the crowd.

I think that many spectators were at the course to be seen rather than to watch. That’s especially true of the many older man-younger woman combinations I saw. The guys invariably had round bellies and grey balding heads, and were wearing typical weekend golf attire (often including the golf shoes with spikes). The accompanying lady, on the other hand, was typically wildly inappropriately dressed in a uniform that included one or more of the following elements: miniskirt; sleeveless tops; low cut tops; cork heels (on a golf course!); bejeweled sandals; designer sunglasses (lots of Prada); bleached blonde hair; enough jewelry to attract a mugger; alcoholic beverage in hand.

Corporate Trophy Wife is the only thing I can figure.

There also was a pack of white teenage hip-hop wannabes. You could pick them out by the gold embroidered baseball caps worn at an odd angle. I’m sure they thought they were cool.

One of the things I hate about attending sporting events is the groups of middle aged mens reliving their frat days by consuming large amounts of alcohol and behaving boorishly. I saw none of those at Oakland Hills.

In fact, everyone, however, was very well behaved. There was silence at the appropriate time, and respectful applause after. I did not hear a single “IN THE HOLE.” A few well-meaning losers shouted encouragement at the players—“Good Luck Jim”—from the fairways, not knowing or caring that the players wouldn’t hear them.

The crowds look much bigger on television than they seemed to me in person. Part of that is due to the fact that people cluster around the greens, and follow the marquee players. Those, in turn are the shots we see most often on television.

But my perception was that there are vast areas where there are few, if any people around.

The Pecking Order

There’s an internal class structure among patrons at golf tournaments. Most of us had the basic ticket That meant we parked twenty minutes away from the course, and were packed on buses to be dropped off. We had our bags inspected for illegal paraphernalia, including phones, cameras, and ipods. We had to empty our pockets before entering.

Once on the course, we had the right to buy $4.00 snack bags of chips and other overpriced food. When the course closed for a weather incident, we were herded off the course en masse (there’s a lightening danger in open fields, and the course doesn’t want the safety liability) so we could stand in a open parking lot waiting for buses.

The upper crust doesn’t suffer such indignity. As I was leaving, the parties in the corporate tents were continuing.

Corporate patrons seem to get lots of free food and beverages (ok, the corporations were paying, but the individuals weren’t forking over cash). They get primo elevated balcony seats along the fairways; they get air conditioned tents in which to escape the heat.

And they apparently don’t get harassed about cameras and cell phones. I saw plenty of cameras clicking from the corporate balconies on sixteen. And there also were a lot of cell phones on the course. Every time I saw one in use, I looked at their badge: inevitably, it said said Souchak, Conroy or Hagen—the names of the three rows of corporate tents.

Maybe by the next time a Major rolls around to Michigan, GolfBlogger will be big enough that I can buy a tent. It’ll be a haven for all of the golf bloggers in attendance.

Logistics

From a logistical point of view, the PGA Championship is amazing. The only thing I can liken it to is a temporary Disney World. Throughout the entire event, I had the sense of being outside of reality.

The main entrance to the event was a carpeted boardwalk, lined on either side by plywood walls decorated with large photos of the past few years worth of PGA Champions. There was a gateway to the practice area just off the main.

To get to the course itself, you crossed over a main street—which police had shut down for the week—and passed the huge American Express / PGA Learnign Center. There, you could get tips from PGA professionals (not players, the teaching pros) on the indoor putting green, at the indoor chipping area, or in one of half a dozen golf simulators. You could schedule a ten minute lesson, too.

For the geeks (like myself) at the same location, American Express had small portable televisions—about the size of two decks of cards—called Championship Vision. These devices allowed you to watch the television coverage of the PGA Championship, to locate players on the course, check the leaderboard, look at every player’s current scorecard, get an analysis of the hole you were watching, listen to radio and play video games (to entertain the kiddies, I suppose). These were available to anyone with an AmEx card.

The exterior holes—and especially near holes 1, 16 and 18—were lined with dozens of large gleaming white corporate tents, all elevated and with balconies overlooking a portion of the fairway. My guess is that the tents were 800 to 1,000 square feet each on the interior.

The biggest tent was the PGA Championship Golf Shop, which had to be the size of several football fields. The vast majority of the merchandise was apparel, from every major manufacturer. Women’s apparel was on one side of the tent; men’s on the other. Like a department store, the products were separated by manufacturer—an area for Nike, staffed by Nike reps; an area for Greg Norman, staffed by Norman reps, etc. Everything was emblazoned with the PGA Championship logo.

I thought that it strange that there were so few non-apparel items available. There were perhaps 70 feet of shelving along the back side of the tent with stuff other than clothing. Packed in this area was some glassware, bag tags, towels, postcards, posters, some beanie baby bears and tigers, umbrellas, key chains, logo balls and tees, some luggage, blankets, wallets, and playing cards. That sounds like a lot, but it really was lost among the apparel.

I picked up a Greg Norman shirt, a ball cap, a tumbler, and ball marks.

There is an amazing amount of activity on the course that never makes it on television. Consider for example, the dozens of people employed at picking up scraps of trash and changing out trash bags. Or the volunteers (at least two per hole), who stand at the fairway crossings, opening and closing the ropes to allow spectators to pass to other holes, while still allowing the players to proceed umimpeded. There were emergency medical personnel at various locations as well as police and other security. I counted eight major food concession stands, and probably twice that in ice cream stands.

Each group of players of course had a “sign boy”, as well as a couple of others walking with them. One was making notations on clipboard; another was recording data on a pda. Each hole also had several people assigned to it to handle crowd control and to ask for quiet.

More logistics you never see: at various locations were fleets of GMC Suburbans (all black) along with drivers waiting to evacuate players from the course, as indeed they did on Thursday evening. Portapotties are there by the score, all hidden from camera by screens, and by being in out of view corners. There were first aid stations in shelters between a couple of the holes. Marshalls were legion along the holes.

There are cameras everywhere, many on towers behind the greens, but also mounted on golf carts, or on free standing hand operated booms. Wires run just under the ropes along the length of the fairways.

Golf carts ferrying supplies and people are running over the place.

CBS Endangers Patrons

A word about about the carts. The CBS tech guys driving them are morons. Far too many of the CBS carts were careening at top speed without regard for the safety of anyone in their way. I was personally knocked down by a CBS guy when he sideswiped me with his cart from behind. He didn’t stop. Fortunately I was unhurt. I considered complaining, but figured I wouldn’t get anywhere.

In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t. If I showed off my bruises, I might have had a nice little lawsuit.

And what if—instead of a healthy 40-something male—that guy had knocked over a senior, a kid or a pregnant woman.

Disgusting. CBS needs to talk to those guys.

On Thursday, I saw Paul Goydos chew out a CBS guy (I think it was the same guy that hit me) in a cart for revving the engine while he and Hiroyuki Fujita, and Don Yrene were teeing it up on sixteen.

Final Thoughts

I had a great time at the PGA Championship, and only regret that I’m unable to be there for the weekend. In scale, attention to detail and atmosphere, it was a very different experience from the Buick and the Ford Senior.

A few things I’d do differently:

I’d take a pair of binoculars—small ones.

I’d tuck a few Cliff Bars into my fanny pack. I think I could get those past security, and they’d be better and cheaper than the food. To that, I’d add a couple of packets of those sport drink mixes that you can add to a bottle of water. That’d end up being lots cheaper than the on-course gatorade (and you’ll need the gatorade to keep from getting so dehydrated.)

I’d take a small folding stool—one with a shoulder strap.

And finally, I’d pay attention to the various charities sponsoring tents and events in the weeks preceding the tournament. I found out too late that there were a couple of charities where, for a donation of $200 or so, I could have had nearby parking (or a limo shuttle), access to a tent or a course side home, free food, and other perks.

Things I did right:

I wore a wide brimmed hat and lots of suntan lotion.

I made sure I had lightweight breathable shorts and shirt.

I had a packable rainshirt in my fanny pack.

I wore comfortable walking shoes. There is a lot of walkig and standing involved.

I took an extra pair of socks. As a longtime Boy Scout and backpacker, I can tell you that on hot days, a dry sock exchange is just the thing to avoid blisters.

I had scouted the course on a practice day. I also got all my souvenirs then, avoid the crowds. A practice day also is a good time to try out the different activities, see the exhibits, and watch guys at the range.

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4 thoughts on “Notes From The PGA Championship”

  1. Thanks for the excellent blog. One of the better I’ve read for a long time. Not often one can read such a LONG blog and hoping it would keep on going.

    I guess now you don’t regret going to the much rain delayed Saturday.  But it possibly sets up a very interesting Sunday.

    Reply
  2. Rick Reilly in “Who’s your Caddy?” talked about how when one caddy is raking a bunker, it is an agreed-up responsibility for the other caddy to assume ball-cleaning duties for the group.

    I played with Ken Duke in the late ‘90s when he was on the Canadian Tour and in town for an event. My favourite sports story. To make a long story short, I chipped in on the first for a birdie and my buddies saw me hitting first on the second tee, with Ken and Ian Legett waited their turn!

    Priceless. And only happened once that day.

    Reply

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