Saturday, August 05, 2006

A peek into the putting world

My experience with golf is limited to courses with little windmills, fiberglass dinosaurs and loop-the-loop obstacles.

I’m pretty good at it, too. Much better than my two disastrous attempts on a driving range, where I couldn’t convert a softball swing to a golf swing. Ugly would be a kind word. Hazardous to others might be more accurate.

Which made me a good person to help cover the Buick Open when it rolled through the Flint area each August when I worked for the paper there. I wouldn’t cover the actual tournament, mind you. We had qualified sportswriters for that, people who could tell a driver from a four-iron.

No, my job was to find the stories that happen in and around the tournament. It was fun, because I could observe the goings-on in a detached manner.

The event played out this weekend in Grand Blanc, Mich. Sadly, it’s pronounced "grand blank" and not "grahnd blahnk" and we’d enjoy hearing the guys on SportsCenter screw it up. Tiger Woods won it for the second time.

I always enjoyed these assignments because they were a welcome break from covering schools and a peek into a different world.

Personally, I have no idea why or how someone would watch a golf tournament. I noticed some people would spend their time at one hole and watch everyone pass through while others would follow one group of golfers around the course. Seemed to me like you would miss a lot of the action either way.

I also never knew what or when to cheer. I remember one guy getting really excited yelling "Go ball!" after putts. I realize that him yelling at the ball has the exact same effect as me yelling "Go Carlos!" to Mr. Beltran -- none whatsoever -- but at least I’m cheering for a person and not an object.

So I would look for something fun or topical, hopefully something that hadn’t been done a hundred times before. One time I was a marshal for a day, flashing one of those "Quiet please!" signs. Another time I wrote about the people who try to get autographs and what the golfers thought about them.

I tried to spend as little time as possible in the press tent, which just isn’t a very fun place.

It’s divided into two sections. One has rows of tables for reporters to set up their computers, all facing a massive, hand-painted leaderboard that was meticulously updated throughout the day. It was a thing of beauty.

The tent was populated by all sorts of media types from around the world. But the curmudgeons would hold court.

Every sports section has the old-timer columnist who thinks the world went to hell around the time typewriters went electric. The Buick Open draws people from the papers all over, too, so you have are a bunch of curmudgeons sitting together.

Before long, a sort of a curmudgeon competition would break out, starting with rants about how the wussy golfers of today can’t compare to the real men of links past. There would be stories of how Arnold Palmer would march up to the 18th green with both wrists broken, gripping the putter in his teeth and still making par.

This would go on until they restocked the huge bowls of pretzels and potato chips, and the conversation would change to how press tent food in the old days was so much better.

This would be disrupted by golfers completing their rounds and stopping into the second part of the tent for a group press conference. There was a small riser with two chairs in front of one of those backdrops with the PGA and Buick Open logos.

The golfer would sit down with a PGA spokesman, who’d ask some basic questions to get things started. Then the assembled media would pitch in.

There are only a handful of types of questions — and questioners.

1) Lazy Guy: "Nick, take us through your round today."

This is not an actual question, but a demand. And a weak one at that. Golfers tended to go into a catatonic stare and discuss one hole or another.

2) Golf guy: He would ask an endless and complicated question intended not to get an answer -- because no answer was actually possible -- but impress both the golfer and other reporters that he actually knew something about golf. Except that instead of impressing the rest of the press corps, there would be much eye-rolling and head-shaking.

3) Television Guy: TV Guy would typically ask a question that has already been asked -- or at least a slight variation -- but with his cameraman filming him asking it. This also would produce much eye-rolling and head-shaking from the print contingent.

There were people asking some decent questions, too, but they were out-numbered.

I was in kind of a strange situation because I was doing those issue stories and would have to ask the same questions to all the golfers throughout the day. This brought much eye-rolling and head-shaking from all the others.

The golfers, however, seemed to like the issue questions because they were something different. I remember Greg Norman, in particular, perking up for the question about the autograph-seekers.

They seemed like nice guys, for the most part. Nick Faldo was a little chippy to everyone, but the golfers, for the most part, seemed like nice guys.

It was usually a fun week, but when it was over, I’d happily slip back into the world of schools.

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