On Board the Seoul Train

I was awake early one recent morning enjoying a cup of coffee in my home in Carmel, CA when my cell phone buzzed.  My caddie, Cliff, had just sent me a text message.  “You’re in the Songdo IBD Championship. Dan Forsman just withdrew.”  I woke up my wife Marianna with the great news!  Minutes later the PGA Tour called to give me the good news again.  They were shocked to find out I already knew.

“Forsman just called 20 minutes ago. How did you find out”, asked a puzzled Suzie Barber who runs everything for us at the PGA Tour Headquarters.  “That’s Cliff – he’s always on top of things”, I responded.  Cliff and the other Tour caddies stay very closely connected.

The commitment deadline for this event had been nearly two weeks before.  Though I was the 8th alternate at the time, I suspected I could get in and better be prepared.  I created a lot of “intention” about playing.  I sent my passport away with a $425 check to get my Visa.  I asked Cliff to reserve a flight to San Francisco to meet the chartered Korean Air 747.  Marianna and I were committed to being at the airport, even with my only having status as an alternate.  Last year, three players didn’t make the trip at the last minute and they played a shortened field. The Songdo IBD Championship offered the biggest purse of the year at $3 million; I needed to play.  As it turned out, John Jacobs and Graham Marsh were alternates, just in front of me, but since they didn’t get their Visas done in advance, they weren’t able to make the trip.

Those earlier visions of being stranded at the airport with Cliff, Marianna, and all our luggage, waving goodbye to all the players as they boarded the chartered Korean Air flight, never came to fruition, thankfully.  J.L. Lewis would meet that awful fate.  But that’s golf on the Champions Tour.  I would be the last man to get into the field.

Checking in at the airport went smoothly.  There were no baggage limits, so I brought some extra “Impact Zone” books and a few bottles of our favorite wines.  We were given our seat assignments, 16 F and H.  When I boarded the flight, I went past row 15, hitting the next section, which suddenly started with row 25.  I asked the flight attendant, “Where’s row 16?”  “Go upstairs”, she responded.  Upon climbing the stairs, we discovered our own little first class section.  The seats reclined to a wonderful horizontal position.  We each had our own personal TV as well as a power charging station (important for our laptops).  Dinner would be served soon offering a choice of beef tenderloin or Chilean sea bass.  We were literally riding high!  In less than 12 hours we would land in Seoul, South Korea.

Though we left at 3:30pm on Sunday, September 11th, we would arrive Monday evening around 7:30pm, September 12th.  Chip Beck, who sat across from us on the flight, didn’t seem to mind that he was only going to be able to celebrate a few hours of his birthday September 12th.  Of course, Chip has never complained about anything in his life!  He’s always Mr. Positive!  Jeff Sluman, born on September 11th, would be able to celebrate most of his birthday.

Clearing customs in Seoul was a breeze.   We headed for the Hyatt Hotel at the airport.  Korean Air was a sponsor of the event and provided rooms at the Hyatt (which they own) and the ground transportation for the players and their families.  Shuttle buses were provided every 15 to 20 minutes to transport everyone to the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in New Songdo City, the area called Songdo IBD (International Business District).  www.songdo.com We would cross the new $3 billion bridge to New Songdo twice daily.  Stan Gale, the tournament sponsor, and owner of Gale Development, had been developing this new city over the past five years.  Originally part of the bay surrounding Seoul, Stan had created this vision of filling in the bay and creating a city on a new island.  Today, New Songdo stands 32 feet above the bay (protection against a 1,000-year flood) and is already an active city full of high-rise skyscrapers.  The Nicklaus course is the only one in New Songdo and is rumored to have cost over $100 million to build the course and the clubhouse.  (Memberships are available for $1 million, in case you’re interested.)

And how Koreans love their golf!  Just turn on the Golf Channel to see how the women are absolutely dominating the LPGA.   It seems everyone in Korea plays golf.   Those that can afford to join a club or pay $250 for an average price greens fee actually play.   Others that can’t afford those prices take advantage of the many driving ranges.  I heard there were over 500 ranges in the main part of the city.  And those driving ranges are high-tech!  Balls automatically are placed on the tee after every shot and the height of the tees are even adjusted electronically.

After a rather restless first night’s sleep, I was eager to get to the course.  I was wide awake at 2:30 am.  On the 30-minute bus ride over the New Songdo Bridge, I was taken by how clean and perfect everything looked.  There was no trash anywhere, everyone seemed well dressed, and no one was overweight.  It looked like a place of no crime, which apparently it nearly is.  I felt as though I was dropping in on the Truman Show.  When we arrived at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club nothing was different. Everyone was dressed in uniform and gave us a respectful bow as we exited the bus and entered the clubhouse.  Helpers were there to unload our clubs and help us with our shoe bags.  We were treated to a delightful buffet breakfast in which I was able to sample some Korean specialties like the sausage which I liked, but not as much as the Jimmy Dean brand back home!  Heading over to the driving range, I witnessed perfectly mowed fescue and rye fairway grass, brand new Titleist Pro V1x balls, and yardage markers that showed perfect yardage!   Clearly, we were being given special treatment.

I found the course to be one of the most complex I had ever played.  Jack Nicklaus had been given a flat canvas in which to create his masterpiece.  He was told, “Do what you want”.  That’s music to any course designer’s ears!  The course had parallel routings of nine-hole loops.  Aerial photographs must make the course look like a pair of spectacles.  I had heard the players speak about the slopey greens from last year’s event, but I had no idea just how far that description would go.  Easily, these were the most complex, confusing and sloped greens I’ve ever seen!!  Even most short putts had a double break.  Most of the greens were designed like a modified cloverleaf with each petal being shaped as a catcher’s mitt.  Hit the ball stiff to the flag, you’ll probably make birdie.  If you don’t, you’ll have a difficult par.  This contributed to my making six bogies in the first round, five in the second and a week’s best three in the final round.   There were times (like the par 3 17th on Sunday) when I would hit what I thought was a great approach only to discover my ball landed on a downslope and rolled over and down a large mound leaving me with a 50-foot putt up and over a seven-foot mound that broke 40 feet.  Good luck!!!  I need to work more on that one!  Yes, that was one of my three bogeys on Sunday.  Sometimes I had putts that were impossible to stop near the hole unless I chose to aim 70 degrees away from the target and attempt to roll the ball through the heavy rough so the ball would be trickling when it hit the green again.  I even once attempted to putt the ball 25 feet past the hole and catch the backstop to roll the ball backward to the hole.  That was another first and that didn’t work either (another bogie)!  I could have easily complained, but Cliff will confirm that I chose to look at the course design as ingenious and most challenging rather than the way many of the players’ comments indicated they felt about the greens.

Marianna spent one day shopping in Seoul with some other Tour wives.  She discovered a number of very reputable stores but found one that had a revolving wall (much like in the days long ago of Prohibition in the U.S.) with all the black-market goods available for negotiated prices laying behind the wall.  Needless to say, she didn’t buy anything there.  Other tour wives went on a tour to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North Korea and South Korea and returned with stories about all the North Korean propaganda.  So much so that what they could see of North Korea was what appeared to be a city with no cars.  It seems to have been nothing more than a Hollywood-like set of a city with fake buildings.  Truly amazing that such a country exists in today’s modern world.  As we tuned into CNN in the hotel room, one of the latest stories in the international news was about the even direr situation of  the starving population of children in North Korea.

In the second round, I was paired with the low Korean player, Sang Ho Choi.  We finally had a gallery!  I was amused when he hit a poor opening tee shot and his enthusiastic friends and fans went wild with excitement anyway.  A good number of them were obviously not golf experts, as they had a hard time discerning a good shot from a bad one.  But it made for some great entertainment for my fellow competitor, Ronnie Black, and me.

Huge crowds arrived on Sunday; it was like an entirely different golf tournament.  All the parking lots were full.  We even had a good gallery following our group.  Perhaps they were spilling over from Tom Watson who was playing in front of us.  When he was announced on the first tee, the South Korean fans went absolutely wild!

Maybe some of the fans came to follow our group as a result of what happened before the round.  I was hitting some flop shots to the chipping green, as I often do.  The first one (a semi-flopper) nearly went in and drew a large reaction from some onlookers.  I decided to play more of a full flop and the ball landed very near to the flag and stopped on a dime.  “Ooooohhhhhh”, went the crowd!  Now I started getting into it and told Cliff (my caddie) and Butch (Tim Simpson’s caddie), who stopped by, “watch this one”!  I pulled the super-flopper and flew the ball very high above the level of the trees in the background that again landed near the flag.   “Ooooohhhhhhh, Woooooowwwhhh”, roared the crowd!  We all started laughing.  “They haven’t seen anything yet”, I told Cliff and Butch.  Then I hit the super, super-flopper with the all-out full swing.  The ball popped straight up in the air and again close to the flag only 15 yards away.  “Oooohhhh, Hoooo, Ghhhhhhhh, Yuhhhhhh, Hoooooo”!  We could hear one man nearly choking in excitement.  Mark O’Meara and John Cook witnessed the impromptu exhibition.  We were all laughing, but for me, I was crying in laughter.

After the round, we headed into the player dining room for lunch.  In came Peter Senior after shooting 8-under par in the final round (three shots better than anyone else).  “What a remarkable round”, I congratulated him.  After Mark O’Meara and Jay Don Blake birdied 17 (how did they do that?!) to catch Peter and John Cook, a four-way playoff would ensue at the par 5 18th.  For a while, we remained in in the player dining area watching with many other players.  But then Marianna said, “Let’s go find Marcie Blake and Meredith O’Meara and watch the playoff”.  Though I was reluctant at first, Marianna’s idea proved to be a good one!  The playoff was one that would seemingly not end and grew in excitement with each hole as it turned out to be the longest playoff on the Champions Tour this season.  All players notched pars on the first three holes, then Peter and Marbogeyeded the 4th playoff hole (the 10th) leaving Jay Don and John Cook to battle it out.  It’s ironic that these two were involved in a playoff earlier this year in Tampa where John came out on top.  When Jay Don sank the 7-foot downhill birdie putt on the 5th play-off hole (the 10th), he looked up in the sky in a delayed disbelief that he had finally won on the Champions Tour.  After over four years of working his way through Q-School, Monday qualifyings, writing sponsor letters for exemptions that rarely returned good news, the struggle would be over for at least a year.  He is such a good player and we’re very happy for our friends.

The next morning we were back in our same assigned seats, on board the 747 Series 400 for San Francisco.  What an amazing week it was at the Songdo IBD Championship in Korea.  I can’t wait to go back.  I hope they can find a tournament sponsor for next year so that we can!  In addition to learning about Korea, partaking in their culture and experiencing the beauty of the people, I was most touched by the quality time we spent as a group of 56 Champions Tour players hanging out together for a week.  Next year, I’ll be more prepared to handle the greens.  But one thing for sure, I’ll be working hard on my iron play for the SAS Championship back in Cary, NC coming up next!

Until then, thanks for your continued support.  Live big!  Bobby


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