When I was around 16, I caught-up with a group of friends who were playing the back-nine of the Eureka Municipal Golf Course. I don’t recall how exactly this happened and it’s much more likely that I ran across them while exploring the surrounding woods than that I met them at the front door of the club. Regardless, I went out on the course and joined them, watched as they drove balls off tees and heaved heavy pleather bags of clubs onto their shoulders, alternating between patting each other on the back and swearing like sailors while using terms like ‘hook’ and ‘shank’. At some point, my friend Rocky, not exactly one prone to violent outbursts, was so enraged by a particular shot that he walked over and bent his driver in half over a fence post. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this sport?
I even attempted to play a few holes with the bottom half of his bisected club. This memory is my sole encounter with the game of golf. The legit game that is. Of course I’ve played the mini version, occasionally sober. I also have experience with hitting golf balls, but using a baseball bat and hitting them over a freeway at my home town mall. I had also spent time on that same Eureka course doing anything but golfing- riding ice blocks down hills, cutting through as a shortcut in the middle of the night and getting terror shakes from a neighbor’s peacocks shrieking, playing a fun game of ‘run out onto the green and stealing player’s balls when they were out of view’, you know… kid’s stuff.
In short, the golf bug is one I am thoroughly immune to. I have no draw to try playing and I also don’t see the appeal of spectating. I do understand the skill involved and I’m open to trying to drive at some point (it’s even on my list), but I’ve got to be honest: I don’t get it. Yet, around 8% of Americans play golf. That’s around 25 million people! That means (according to the 2010 census) there are nearly twice (1.6x, actually. What can I say? I’m aggressively rounding-up to illustrate a point. Everyone knows 86% of all statistics are made-up on the spot) as many golfers in the United States than there are Asian people (4.8%). This boggles my mind. My sample size is limited, but my wife is Asian and she doesn’t play golf either.
Long prelude. I know. Just want you to understand that this was another situation where I would be a tourist visiting a foreign country: Golf Country.
List item: Attend a televised professional Golf tournament
My tour guide was my neighbor, Shawn. While I’m not sure if he grew-up playing golf, I know he’d immersed himself in the world for the past few years by joining a local country club, where he’s currently secretary of the club’s Men’s Golf Association.
We headed-out at 6:30am. Our target, The Desert Classic (or the American Express, formerly the Desert Classic, CareerBuilder Challenge,Palm Springs Golf Classic, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and the Humana Challenge) PGA Tournament in La Quinta, CA. 133 miles East.
After a stop at Ruby’s, the 50’s diner near the Morongo Casino, where we saw someone who looked like he must play in a Motley Crue cover band (alternatively, perhaps it actually was Nikki Sixx), we arrived at the parking lot. First unexpected element? Being approached by a ticket scalper as we got out of the car. Are you telling me people actually drive out to a sold-out golf tournament and spend 10 bucks to park without having tickets?
Leaving the parking lot, we joined the other attendees on luxury buses, where we rode the approximately 3,000 feet to the entrance of the PGA West Stadium Course. Everyone we met was extremely pleasant and offered advice when we told them this was our first tournament. Apparently traffic getting out Friday (the night before) was a gridlocked nightmare. Stevie Nicks was playing and there was some serious bad planning: “We left the concert 6 songs in to avoid traffic and sat in parking lot for 2 hours for a 10 minute drive home“.
According to the event’s web page, there are two primary styles of watching golf: ‘Parade Style’, where people stay at one hole (usually at the tee-off or at the green) and watch all the golfers as they come and go or ‘Cross-Country Style’, where you follow one player or group (this was a pro/am event where each professional was grouped with one amateur. Each group was two pros and two ams). Upon entering the venue, we made our own game-plan: We were going to follow some of the big-name golfers for a few holes, then jump ahead to see more of the course, eventually seeing more of the big names and seeing the full course.
The most striking element of the event was the scale. Clearly there is a massive budget being spent. This was a televised event and NBC Golf was everywhere- enormous camera towers, telemetry equipment on all the greens to instantly tell spectators how far away each player’s ball is from the hole, and entire temporary buildings that can support hundreds of people upon scaffolding over the undulating landscape.
We made our way to the 1st hole to watch Rickie Fowler’s group tee-off. Scanning the names of the golfers, he and Phil Mickelson are the ones that even I have heard of. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I did not expect a guy in a suit and straw hat to announce each golfer in an almost professional wrestling tone. “Introducing, from Murrieta, California, originally hailing from Jupiter, Florida, Rickie…. FOOOWWWLLLLLLLEEEEERRRRR!!!!”
It was a perfect day, weather wise. There was a light cool influx from local snow-capped mountains, but otherwise a cloudless, sunny day. Warm, but not hot, almost no breeze and stunningly silent. This was especially noticeable just before the golfers hit the ball. All around the area, volunteers in navy jackets raise their arms, some holding up signs reading ‘Quiet’ and *almost* everyone in the area stops talking and stands as silently as possible. It’s almost eerie. But the quiet is violently ended when the golfers drive- I was not expecting how loud a solidly hit drive can be. Like a gun shot in some cases (depending on the length of the hole)
For the those unfamiliar with the rules of golf, here is a brief segue to give you a layman’s background: you probably can’t see in the image above because I reduce the size, but on the board in the back, this hole is listed as having a distance of 445 yards and a 4-par. This means it should take 4 hits of the ball to get into the hole. Ideally a couple long-drives and a couple decreasingly distance putts. Professionals need to make it in with less hits to win. Indeed, after two days of playing (36 holes), the leaders were 21 under-par meaning they had hit below par on around 60% of the holes. In golf, “sub-par” is the ideal of excellence, which makes it all the more confusing that we use the term “sub par” for “below quality” in everyday speech. Further proof that English is terrible.
Everything is sponsored. This is far from surprising since it’s the same thing everywhere, from corporate stadium names to advertisements on the little rubber dividers used at grocery store check-out treadmills, but worth pointing out. As mentioned above, the tournament is called “The American Express” (co-presented by FedEx). Rolex is the official time-keeper of the PGA. Nike, Titleist, and Ping logos are scattershot around the course as well as being embroidered across competitors and spectators clothing alike. The Commissary was supplied by three major grocery store brands (Vons, Albertson’s and Pavilions). For fun, you could use little putt-putt setups near an outdoor bar- sponsored by Corona Premier.
Another strange thing (to me) is that the golf course runs through a neighborhood. People live in between the holes. Neighborhood traffic is another factor needing to be coordinated (and silenced). It’s not unusual to see people sitting on their back porch as they watch the player’s play. I realize this is probably a way to subsidize the gold course and benefits homeowners and the course both. Still, my mind immediately constructed some bizarre eminent domain scenario where a neighborhood found itself suddenly absorbed into a golf course. The Real Estate Blob.
Another big differentiator between watching golf and other sports is how close you can get to the athletes. While front-row seats at basketball games are generally reserved for millionaires, Shawn and I found ourselves within a dozen feet from the players on several occasions. In the picture below, we were listening in on Phil Mickelson as he talked to his amateur partner about his “wellness coffee” that he’s apparently putting on the market in April (this was written in 2020). We heard all about the ingredients. Cinnamon and Himalayan pink salt for starters. I’ll stop there so I don’t find myself murdered in my sleep with golf clubs. The group ahead of this tee were slow on the green, so there was plenty of time to hang-out here. While his younger professional group member, Tony Finau, was using the delay to scope-out the hole and strategize how to attack, Phil was talking-up his side business. It wasn’t until just before his turn that he finally turned to his caddy and asked, “what do you think?” as if the golfing were an afterthought. That’s an experienced professional.
I mentioned before that there were cameras everywhere. This was not an exaggeration. Throughout the course, there were large camera towers, poised to capture the action by rotating to cover multiple holes:
There were also crew out on the course recording sound:
Finally, there was a cameraman situated 80-90 feet atop a centralized crane tower who had the best, yet most terrifying, seat in the house:
I mentioned the Stevie Nicks concert at the start of this write-up, but didn’t mention that Saturday night also featured a concert, this time by country superstar Luke Bryan. The concert started at 5pm and golfing finished-up around 4-4:30. While the crowds of golfing spectators grew throughout the day, there was a very noticeable influx of attendees as the day got later. And it was fascinating. At some point I commented on how generally fit the golfing audience was. We saw some incredibly fit people of all ages and, with the exception of older men with their beer guts, a noticeable dearth of obesity-level body-types. In fact, it was only after passing one individual whom I would classify in that category that this observation was made. It was the exception here. This all changed, however, when the Luke Bryan fans started coming in. I am not saying that they were all heavy, that is absolutely not true, just that the demographic of Luke Bryan fans and golf tournament fans didn’t seem to have much overlap. More heavy people for sure, but also very different style of dress, many more young people, bandanas, cowboy hats, and American Flag prints. All those ‘quiet’ courtesy moments when even people walking past golfers would stop walking to not make distracting noises? Concert-goers weren’t concerned. Not that they were purposefully rude (we did see one teenage girl yell to a friend across an open space, but one of her friends immediately said, “you can’t yell at a golf course!”), just unfamiliar with the situation. It was a culture clash on an event scale. We saw long lines of people heading directly to the concert space while the big-name golfers were on their exciting drive toward the end of day two.
The day before going out to see my first-ever golf event, I was riding an airport shuttle from LAX with some of my co-workers. We were all tired from a whirlwind trip to North Carolina and were discussing our approaching 3-day weekend plans. I told them I was going to watch a golf tournament. One of them paused and then said, “that sounds boring”. Just then, the only other passenger on the shuttle whipped around and asked me where I was going and got all excited when I said La Quinta and started talking about how fun it’ll be. I’m not sure I’d describe the day as ‘fun’ in the same way that I might describe a day at an amusement park, but I did enjoy myself tremendously in the way that only having positive new experiences can provide.
Difficulty: Moderate. Finding a PGA tournament nearby will be a big challenge for many. The tickets were expensive and could be problematic. The drive was long, the effort to walk all day and not run people down in the parking lot while trying to get home took a lot of energy.
- Enjoyment doesn’t require passion – I was able to enjoy my visit to golf country, but I’m still immune to any desire to play. An open mind and curiosity for the unknown is much more valuable to a good experience than the subject matter.
- Shared experiences have more meaning – Important to the day was Shawn, my neighbor. We get along really well, but don’t see each other very often and in fact it’s been a very long time since we have hung-out longer than a middle of the street catch-up. The fact that he is well versed in golf and seemed to enjoy educating me plus this being his first tournament experience and the fact that we haven’t seen one another in so long made him the perfect person to go on this adventure with. Yet another reminder that new experiences are great and valuable, but made all the better when shared with others. How many times do I need to learn this lesson?
- When in Rome… – This applies to any visits to foreign lands- have respect for those you’re visiting and be forward (but gracious) with your ignorance. People were so happy to share once they saw that we were legitimately interested. This is a sub-set of the bigger principle: “talk to strangers”.