When you last heard from me, I shared the wonderful discussion I had with Tom Kite during our Monday practice round of the PGA Senior Championship. The tournament concluded on Sunday with Tom Watson defeating David Eger on the first hole of sudden death. It was ironic to me that Tom was the champion after the discussion we had in the locker room on Saturday morning.
We found out the PGA had announced that we were going to play the ball down (summer rules) in the fairways at Valhalla. “That’s a big mistake”, said Tom. He was free in sharing his opinion several times, even with the PGA officials in the locker room. I agreed with him, too! Playing Valhalla in the conditions we were facing was hard enough, adding the element of “mud balls” was pretty severe.
My wife, Marianna, and I were planning to leave Louisville for Des Moines immediately after the tournament on Sunday but plans changed when my friend David Frost met me on the driving range before the final round. “What are you guys doing tonight?”, David said, speaking in his South African drawl. “Heading to Des Moines – I’m 4th alternate next week and I have to get ready for the Tuesday 4-spot qualifier”, I responded. “No, you’re not! We’re having a party at Papa John’s house [yes, the CEO of Papa John’s pizza], where I’m staying, and you’ve got to come! We’re playing a fun little 9-hole par- 3 course and having pizza. We’re even going to open a bottle of 1991 Domaines Barons de Rothschild Chateau Lafite. You don’t want to miss that do you?”
When I finished my even-par final round of 72, I quickly called the hotel and made changes. I told my caddie, Cliff, and my wife that “we could have some storms and it might be turbulent, so we better leave tomorrow instead”. Of course, they agreed; they have to agree with the pilot. They knew about the party, but not about the Chateau Lafite. Being a pilot and a tour golfer does have its benefits!
The evening was superb. My friends and fellow tour players Roger Chapman and Gary Hallberg were also in attendance. David shared with me how he and Roger had recently returned from Seve’s funeral. “Only a few players showed up”, David spoke without hesitation! “But I was so glad we went. It was beautiful, held right at the church and at Seve’s house, both on the golf course. I couldn’t understand much since it was all in Spanish, but I found it interesting how Carmen’s (Seve’s ex-wife) family were not allowed to sit with Seve’s family and friends in the pews.” “Because of the divorce?”, I exclaimed! “No, because of the classes”, David continued. “Carmen comes from a very wealthy family. Her father is the owner of the biggest bank in Spain, Banco Santander, and Seve comes from a lower class. They never mix. It’s just the way it is.”
After some delicious Papa John’s Pizza and some great wine, Papa John himself arrived after being at a Nascar race in North Carolina. Papa John loved joining the party. His affection for race cars is only to be out-done by his passion for golf. “Got to drive my 1971½ Camaro around the track. Got it up over 140 mph. Let’s go hit some balls!” He’s a golf nut and carries his need for speed over into his golf. He rapid fired 10 shots at the greens, at the same rate it takes me to hit a single shot. First, he hit the hickory shaft, then his regular 7-iron. We all wanted to try the hickory, so we took turns. Chapman hit it the best. Probably due to his English heritage! David and I then kicked off our shoes and went running out onto the course, picking up the balls. The course was so perfectly manicured, walking barefoot in the dark seemed like the logical way to pick up the balls. It felt therapeutic to my feet, after all, those long rounds at Valhalla.
It was getting late and we needed an early start the next morning, so we embraced everyone and left the party. What a fun night and a great way to end the week. That’s the kind of stuff those poor young guys on the regular tour never get to enjoy. They are too busy consulting with all their consultants after the round, psycho-analyzing every shot, figuring out the next swing change, the next work-out routine, the next healthy meal, etc. Oh, how the Champion’s Tour is so refreshing.
My single-engine Piper Malibu delivered the three of us and our 400 pounds of luggage to Des Moines the next morning without a hiccup. Except for the dead battery that was due to the airport mechanic who forgot to recharge my battery after fixing the landing gear hydraulic problem! A quick jump start was all that was needed and we were on our way.
After landing in Des Moines, where I was able to work on my strong cross-wind landing skills, I called the PGA Tour office. “Sorry, Bobby, no withdrawals yet, you’re still the 4th alternate.” I had signed up on Friday for the Tuesday 4-spot qualifier, just in case I wouldn’t get in.
Cliff and I headed out to the site of the qualifier, The Tournament Club of Iowa. The Arnold Palmer designed course was home to the Principal Charity Classic about 7 years before. It was Memorial Day and the course was packed. I was feeling tired and wanted to save some energy for the next day, so I left the clubs in the car. Cliff and I met with the pros in the shop and were given one of those laminated, 4color yardage books with all the pretty pictures that we hate so much. “Can’t write any notes on this one,” I told Cliff. We dug through my golf bag and found a couple of Sharpie pens. That’s the only way to write notes on the laminate.
Working together, we would be able to chart the course pretty quickly. We headed out to the first hole. I couldn’t help but notice Mark Brooks playing with Willie Wood on the other nine. Willie would be qualifying, but what was Mark doing out there? When we arrived at the first green, we noticed that the yellow dot was on the green, indicating the hole position for tomorrow’s qualifier. Cliff was “Johnny-on-the-spot” with his laser leveler and began the process of charting each hole location and the fall-line/slope figures. We finished the course in about 3 hours, got more information than I would have had I played it. The course was memorable, one of the best setups I had ever seen. I wasn’t too impressed with the green complexes, however. I was looking forward to playing it the next day, especially with my friend James Mason. We would be paired together in the final group teeing off
Cliff and I drove to the course early the next morning. Prior to leaving the hotel, I had checked my pgatourlink.com account and found that I had moved to 3rd alternate. “Mark Weibe has pulled out”, I told Cliff. I wanted to get a little extra practice, especially since I didn’t swing a club the previous day. When I set foot on the range I couldn’t help but notice the bucket of battered range balls. Some of them had a few faint dimples remaining. This is not surprising, however, in a qualifier, but it did make for some less effective practice. It’s a far cry from the “Mr. Clampett, would you like to hit Titleist or Callaway range balls today”, which is what we were offered at Valhalla.
Trevor Dodds was hitting balls next to me. “Nice playing last week Trev”, I congratulated him. “Two 67’s and two 75’s for the week; not bad for the first tournament since March”, he responded. PH Horgan (not Hogan) was hitting on the other side of me. PH and I were paired together at Pebble Beach in the old Crosby tournament years ago when he performed a feat I don’t know that I will ever witness again. He chipped in four times in a row! With a chip-in on the 9th hole at Cypress Point from over the green left to a back left hole placement, he started the streak. That was our last hole of the day. The next morning, he was over the green beside the cart path on the 1st hole at Spyglass, to a back left hole placement and chipped that in. On the very next hole, he was short and right of the green, to a back right hole placement and chipped that in. After hitting the 3rd, 4th, and 5th greens in regulation, he overshot the difficult 6th by 10 yards and was faced with the most treacherous of chips to the back hole placement. You guessed it, he chipped in, four-in-a-row!
PH had recently turned 50 and decided to take a break from his sports marketing company in his home state of Rhode Island to pursue his love of tournament golf. PH plays with a lot of passion. The old range balls didn’t seem to be bothering him, so I got to work.
While I was practicing my putting, PGA Tour Official Jim Witherspoon (aka Spooner) delivered the news, “Bobby, two more have withdrawn from the tournament, Scott Hoch and Don Pooley. You’re now 1st alternate”. James Mason, overhearing the news, said , “Guarantee you’ll be in”. “Always get six or so who pull out after a major.”
So I teed off as 1st alternate. I felt confident that I would get in, but I had wrongly felt that confidence before. Earlier this year in Tampa, at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, I was the 1st alternate on Tuesday morning and didn’t get into the tournament. I took the mindset that I better play hard. That proved to be the right attitude. I birdied three of the first four holes. After teeing off the 10th, James’s caddy announced, as he was holding his PDA, “Bobby you’re in! Andy Bean just withdrew, it’s on the website.” After I stiffed a wedge at the 10th, to go back to 3-under-par for the round, Spooner showed up with a big smile and said, “you’re in!” Though elated, my first concern was James. “I’ll play as long as James needs me to play so that he doesn’t play alone.” “The next group is waiting for him on the next tee, so that’s not necessary”, Spooner reported. I could tell that James appreciated the fact that I was willing to play more holes to keep his score.
Cliff and I headed immediately to Glen Oaks Golf Club to start our pre-tournament preparations. Knowing I would be taking Andy Bean’s place, including his tee times in both the Wednesday and Thursday pro-ams, I knew my window to see the course in a practice round was narrow. Though I had played the tournament last year, I do like to play the course in a practice round, especially to feel the speed of long putts. But after getting to the course, I realized I would not have enough time since I had committed to giving an Impact Zone clinic to the Iowa PGA Section of teaching pros at Wakondaa Country Club. But I did get to register, have lunch and hit some balls.
I sat down to have lunch with Trisha Eager (David’s wife). The previous week at the Senior PGA, David had just lost in a play-off to Tom Watson and had told me earlier how exhausted he was. I understood completely. I felt tired, too, and I had finished T31st.
Lying down beside Trisha was her dog Baxter, a beautiful giant Schnauzer with a gorgeous silky black coat. Baxter was military trained in Germany. He’s so calm and loving, but when Linda Ann (David Frost’s friend) came in with her 3-pound Yorkshire Terrier, Sammy, Baxter was clearly excited to see his little friend. Suddenly “player dining” had entertainment.
Mark Brooks joined our table. “I see Willy shot 6-under today,” I commented. “Yes, Bobby, he just called and is concerned whether that will qualify.” I responded, “Qualify, there’s no doubt. That’s got to be the lowest score!” Willy ended up winning the qualifier. He was joined by Jeff Hart (-4), Roger Chapman (-3) and Joe Daley (-2) as the four qualifiers for the event. “Must have been that lesson you gave Willy yesterday in practice”, I half-joked. “No, he’s playing good”, Mark answered. “Why were you out there in those strong winds, the day after a major?”, I asked Mark. “I just love to play golf, and Willy asked me to join him.” That’s pretty cool. I was not surprised on Friday when I looked up on the leaderboard and saw Mark Brooks in the lead with a 6-under par 65. “Brooksie” loves to play golf! And then he went on to finish 2nd in the Des Moines tournament, after Bob Gilder sunk a 30-foot birdie putt on 18. Goes to show what a difference attitude makes. When you love to play, you just play better.
The rules of qualification to get into Champion’s Tour events are strange and far from perfect. I felt sorry for my friend Eduardo Romero who has finished in the top 10 in his last two events (both Senior majors) and that didn’t qualify him to receive a top 10 spot into the Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines, which was the tour’s next stop. Top 10 exemptions are only for regular Champion’s Tour events, not majors. But as fate would have it, he ended up getting into the tournament anyway, as Bernhard Langer withdrew after Andy Bean, and Eduardo was the next alternate. Now back to my lunch, coincidentally, Bernhard joined Mark Brooks, Trisha and me. He was on the phone and apologizing for being on the phone. Then he whispered to me, “the thumb is still hurting, I’m going home.”
I met a lot of great people this week in Des Moines. Dinner Saturday night with Tom Lehman’s old college buddy was a blast. Tom was staying with him and invited Marianna and me and some others over for steaks on the grill. Over dinner, I asked Tom if he likes to keep a particular bunker style in his course designs. “No, I try to feel what best suits the land and the project. But my favorite style of bunkering is Seth Raynor’s because of the odd shapes he uses.” Frosty (David Frost) came to dinner and of course brought a bottle of his wine. He’s the ultimate houseguest. He had been dehydrated the day before but as s the day went on, his strength returned. We hit balls together on the range and he was striping 3-woods one after another and had to show me. “See if you can see anything different in my swing. I’ve made a change.” “No”, I said, “looks exactly the same to me.” “Rats, I’m trying to cross the line at the top and you can’t even see it!”
I finished the week 3-under par. I played solidly, but never got the scoring game going. I can’t wait for next week at Rock Barn! Like Mark Brooks, I, too, love to play. That’s why when Tour Official “Joe T” showed up on the first tee Sunday morning and asked for a volunteer to play in next Thursday’s pro-am, I was quick to respond. Now I’m off to fly the Malibu to Lyndonville, Vermont for my son’s high school graduation on Monday morning. Happy Trails!