PITTSFORD, N.Y. - Being a fan who had never seen a pro golf event in person, the PGA Championship sure was a sweet way to start. I had tickets to Friday's second round for the better part of a year and traveled to Oak Hill Country Club with the simple goal of soaking it all in - see the course, watch the players up close, and hopefully, see Tiger and Phil in person. How did I do? Ten things come to mind.
1. Rain, baby. Despite rain never being in the forecast it had started overnight and was in full downpour mode when we arrived at the course at about 9am. Luckily play was never delayed but the deluge was pretty consistent for about three hours. It didn't take long for the gallery areas around Oak Hill to become mudpits - it wasn't very country club-like, but at least I wore old (and comfortable) shoes.
2. Major Sighting. We entered the course through a gate near the 11th hole. As we found our bearings and walked to the 12th, I cashed in on one of my goals right away - the year's major winners were playing through. The pairing of British Open winner Phil Mickelson, U.S. Open winner Justin Rose and Masters champion Adam Scott had a huge gallery following them and there was electricity in the crowd as each hit their approach shots.
3. Seriously, no photos. The spectator guide that was sent to us said that taking photos was not allowed. And yet, cellphone calls and texting from the course was allowed in designated areas. So I figured that people would be trying to sneak shots here and there when they could. Well guess what? There were staff at the course in green marshal shirts marked "Mobile Device Enforcement" scanning the crowds for those brave enough to try. And it worked. I heard "Put it away, please" several times. Seriously, no photos.
4. The Range. Having seen the Canadian Open several times, my travel mates swore that this was the place to be to get the best up-close look at the players. And boy were they right. While the crowds on the course were four and five-deep trying to track approach shots, the practice area was relatively lightly attended. But it was truly something to see. In the space of about 90 minutes we saw Ernie Els, Lee Westwood, Brandt Snedeker, Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Davis Love III, and many more. Matt Kuchar and Padraig Harrington walked right past me to an elevated tee area. Martin Kaymer launched rockets alongside fellow former PGA champions Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel. And later, Miguel Angel Jimenez showed up after his round smoking his trademark cigar. Fantastic.
5. "These guys are good". That's an old PGA Tour ad promo but it's absolutely true. Watching these guys hit in person shows why they are the best in the world. Players start with sand wedges and hit short bounce-bounce-stop shots that are nothing short of trickery. Bounce-bounce-stop. One after another. Irons are hit for accuracy, distance, and with unbelievable arc. Drivers are belted so far that you lose track of them for a second or two before they re-appear on a bounce more than 300 yards away. That's the part you can't truly appreciate on television.
6. The Dufner Dips. Ten guys from Ottawa made the trip with bright red custom-made t-shirts and called themselves the Dufner Dips. Their goal was to find fan favourite Jason Dufner and give him his own red shirt for luck. For the thousands of fans who attended, they were the only ones I saw all day who dressed alike in support of a player. I stood next to them on the range while they did interview after interview with the media. One fellow said they had been interviewed nine times that day. When Dufner appeared at the other end of the range they went to track him down - I can only imagine he was thrilled to accept their gift.
7. Out of the sky. Walking the par-4 10th hole, a golf ball, literally, dropped out of the sky in front of us. Sergio Garcia had whipped his tee shot right and into the trees - it hit a branch above us and fell into the muddy gallery area. We never even heard "fore!". We circled the ball and Garcia showed up minutes later to take stock of the situation. He summoned a rules official, who determined that Garcia could take relief of one club because the ball lay in "damaged grounds" because of the gallery. After taking a drop he asked us to remain "very quiet please", then calmly hit an iron off the mud, over the trees in front and up near the green. Unbelievable shot. From there he got up and down to save an unlikely par. And it all happened from about six feet in front of me.
8. Ticket Envy. All spectators at the event were asked to wear their hanging tickets at all times. Mine said "Grounds" but I quickly learned that there were plenty of other kinds. "Wannamaker Club" looked good. "Clubhouse" was pretty solid. But I have to admit that "Mercedes Box" or "American Express Club" had me at hello. Still, "Grounds" got me around the course just fine. But without free snacks.
9. Parking. Several homes around the course were selling lawn space for fans to park on. And these were not small homes - they were beautiful houses with massive lawns. We parked on a lawn for $30 that could probably accommodate 30 cars. Quick calculation: $900 per day for four days, $3,600 plus whatever they made earlier in the week for the practice rounds. Sweet gig - too bad the PGA is played at Oak Hill only every decade or so.
10. Ah yes, Tiger Woods. The world's No. 1 golfer arrived about an hour before his tee time and you could hear the buzz in the crowd before you saw the man. He did an interview and then proceeded to the practice area, where I was able to watch him hit for about a half hour from 50 feet away. He was hitting alongside Love and Stewart Cink, but to the gallery the two former major winners were practically invisible. Tiger didn't say a word. He barely acknowledged the crowd. He was dialed in, preparing for his round. I watched him hit drive after drive, thinking about all the things that have made him one of the biggest celebrities on the planet. Was I star struck? I have to admit that I was. And from 50 feet away, I could only think about how I was fortunate to cross off one of the bucket list moments of just about any golf fan - to see Tiger live.