Visiting the Ford Senior Players Championship

My ten year old son and I took a trip to the Ford Senior Championship on Friday. It was the first professional golf tournament that either of us had attended and we had a lot of fun.

We arrived just after noon and for a while passed back and forth between the seventh and eighth holes. We saw Peter Jacobson and Tom Jenkins, Jim Thorpe and Wayne Levi, Graham Marsh and Hajime Meshiai, Mike Reid and Bruce Summerhays and then Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez. We decided to follow Player and Rodriguez for the remainder of the day to see the rest of the course. Player’s one of my favorite golfers, and it was great to be able to watch a legend.

The crowd on Friday was completely underwhelming, so it was very easy to follow the action. There were, perhaps, twenty people following the Player group. About the same number seemed to be following the Jacobson group, which was just ahead.

We were able to stand in perfect view of the tee box on each shot, and then quickly move down along the fairway ropes to watch the second shots. The only time that our view was at all blocked was around the par three greens, where larger numbers of spectators had gathered. And on those, someone always moved aside and motioned for my son to move up for a better view.

Almost without exception, the fans were the nicest, most polite and most cheerful people I have ever met at a sporting event. They were chatty, too. At almost every stop, someone nearby would turn and make a friendly comment about a player, the hole or ask for a rules clarification. (And there were a couple of rules issues in the Player-Rodriguez group.) In spite of the heat, everyone seemed to be smiling.

The exceptions were some of the ones along the ropes at the scoring table, and a bunch in the hospitality tents along some of the fairways.

Many of those waiting outside the scoring table were trolling for autographs and were, I thought, quite impolite to the players. Some of them had huge bags of things to be signed, and lists of players in their hands. I am absolutely sure that you will be able to buy those autographed items on Ebay next week. The players, to their credit, took a lot of time to sign autographs—especially for kids with families, but even to the obvious future collectables merchants.

The hospitality tents were a strange situation. Along the seventeenth and eighteenth fairways, there were several bunches of peole standing on the “tent” porches and shouting at the players. The shouting went on even when the marshals raised their hands for quiet.

I suppose that if you are important and wealthy enough to have a hospitality tent on the seventeenth and eighteenth, you don’t have to follow the rules. Or at least the marshals don’t feel like they have the authority to do something about it.

Gary Player played well (especially considering that he’s 71) ending up at minus 1 on the day and even par for the tournament.He hit decent drives and some wonderful shots with fairway woods. Two of the woods that he hit into the par fours landed within a foot or two of the pin. He also made a couple of very good recoveries out of a bunker. What he really lacked,though, was length off the tee. Keeping an eye on Jacobson up ahead, it looked to me like Player was giving up 30 to 40 yards.

Player’s one mistake on the day came on the 455 yard par 4 fourteenth. The tee shot demands a 230 yard carry over swamp and rough to a fairway which sweeps to the left and narrows as it approaches the green. The entire left side is guarded by water and swamp. The right nestles up against the face of a hill.

Player and Rodriguez both hit drives that left them at least 200 to the hole. Not liking the odds, Rodriguez laid up with a pitch to a narrowing portion of the fairway about 150 out.

For his shot, Player elected to attack the green with a fairway wood. In spite of the quality shots that he had made with the woods up to that point, I didn’t think it was a good choice. From his angle, the green was tiny and the shot was all carry. If it was short, it was in the swamp; left at all … in the swamp. Right, it would miss the green and give him a steep sidehill lie in deep rough.

Player’s shot went left, past the hole and into the swamp. At the green, Player and the hole observers conferred, trying to decide if the ball had landed and bounced out, or if it had simply flown out. In the end, they decided that it had never crossed any portion of the field of play and Player was driven back to the point where it had last crossed over into the swamp. He made another shot from there with an iron and planted it close enough to one-putt.

Chi Chi did not have a good day. He was +9 and I think that it could have been worse. His worst moment was when he lost a ball on eleven. With all of the observers in place, I would not have believed it possible. Chi Chi, however, managed to drive it into the one place where the observers couldn’t track it … in the marsh that divides the double fairway. Given the length of the carry, it’s unlikely that he was trying to reach the right fairway; he simply sliced it.

Still, we did get to see one of his patented swordfight celebrations when he birdied a hole.

One thing that impressed me about Player and Rodriguez is how quickly they played. No practice swings for them; they just stepped up to the ball and swung. Both also walked very quickly from shot to shot.

Player did his swing practicing as he walked up the fairway. He was constantly making that motion where you hold your two hands about a foot apart and then go back and forth through the swing motion.

But once, while walking from the tee box on ten, Player came over to the ropes and slowed for a moment to chat with my son. He asked if he played golf and then offered some encouraging words about practicing and staying fit (no worry there, the boy is 70 pounds of muscle and bone—not an ounce of fat on him). “You’ve got to practice,” he said. “and get lots of exercise.”

Chi Chi was chatty, talking to anyone within earshot. His line of conversation was strange, though. He was doing a running commentary on why religion was worthless because the Pope was only in it for the money.

After the round, my son decided that he wanted Gary Player’s autograph and so we moved up to the ropes outside the scorer’s table. One of the future collectables merchants asked my boy if he wanted Player’s autograph, When he nodded, Mr. Collectables stepped out and pushed my son forward to the ropes. Then when Player passed by, Mr. Collectables caught Player’s attention and my son got his autograph. He got Chi Chi’s too.

Thank you Mr. Collectables, whoever you are.

There weren’t a lot of kids there—I actually saw only one other his age—so that may have had something to do with it. Like the players, the fans were mostly older.

There seemed to be two distinct strategies to watching the tournament. One was to pick a group and follow it. The other was to pick a likely spot, sit there, and watch each group as it passes by. The par threes, and the seventeenth and eighteenth greens were the favorite spot for the second approach.

If I were to go to another tournament, I would follow a single group again. It was a good way to see how a round progresses for a player. You know how the group has done on previous shots and holes, and can make some assessments about their decision making process. Watching each group take a single shot and maybe a putt or two doesn’t seem very interesting to me.

I also think that I would get to the course at the crack of dawn to follow one of the first groups for the first dozen or so holes. That would then leave enough time to go back and follow a second group and see how they approached the same holes.



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