It’s a Wonderful Life: Traveling the World on the Golf Beat

December 9, 2015

I am typing this poolside on New Providence, an island in the Bahamas. It’s 81°, and a pleasant breeze is tousling my hair ever so slightly. I am perched 15 feet from the edge of the sea; occasionally a wave crashes with enough force to spritz me with a refreshing mist. The sunshine caresses me…wait, hold on a second, I need to accept a mai tai from (and flirt with) my waitress, a green-eyed beauty with a lilting accent. Um, where were we? Oh yes, the rigors of the golf beat. I am here in the Caribbean for you, the reader. It is a life of service.

There’s a reason the Ben Hogan biography was called Follow the Sun — professional golf is a warm-weather sport. The PGA Tour visits nice places, and we ink-stained wretches get to tag along. If you cover the NFL, you spend a lot of time freezing your Spaldings off in Green Bay or Buffalo or Foxborough or Cincinnati. NBA writers are compelled to winter in Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. The first five months of my year typically go like this: Maui, La Jolla, Scottsdale, Pebble Beach, Santa Monica, South Beach, Augusta, Hilton Head, St. Augustine. This year’s majors included glorious trips to the Pacific Northwest and St. Andrews. I’m not a fan of the FedEx Cup, but I always try to cover the Barclays, just because I like to hang out in New York. In 2015, feature stories took me to Las Vegas and Austin, to say nothing of a second trip to St. Andrews. All because the readers have a right to know.

Believe it or not, my travel used to be even more decadent. Around the turn of the century, Sports Illustrated had an unlimited travel budget and seemingly endless pages to fill. There was no boondoggle too extravagant, no destination too far-flung. In late 2000 my wife, Frances, took a year off from teaching so we could travel together. Thus, we hang-glided in Rio en route to the World Cup in Buenos Aires and scuba-dived at the Great Barrier Reef on the way to the Match Play Championship in Melbourne. Later, I came up with the hard-hitting idea of a travelogue about golf in Lake Como. My expense report included a week at Villa D’Este, at $600 a night, and my managing editor congratulated me, saying he had never spent so much money on a hotel.

Trust me, I know what a lucky bastard I am, and I know how annoying it is to brag like this. But since I remain a servant to the reader, it’s important for you to know that all of this travel has shaped my coverage in innumerable ways and led to a series of big features. It was during a trip to Spain in 1996 that I discovered a couple of charming young European Tour players, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, just as five years later in Portugal I would profile two unknown kids, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter. Watching Lorena Ochoa play in front of adoring throngs in Mexico City gave that story a depth and sense of place that was impossible to replicate in the U.S. To truly understand Angel Cabrera’s remarkable rags-to-riches journey I had to poke around his humble hometown of Cordoba, Argentina, just as it was necessary to make a 10-hour drive to tiny Ayr, Australia, to crack the case of one of golf’s most implacable competitors, Karrie Webb. To feel the shadow that Hugo Chavez cast over the life and career of Jhonattan Vegas, it was essential I go with him to Venezuela, where machine-gun wielding soldiers almost arrested us for doing a photoshoot on the edge of a sensitive government site. It was at the 2006 World Cup in Barbados that I was greeted with the unforgettable sight of Miguel Angel Jimenez prowling the beach sporting nothing more than a phallic cigar, porkpie hat and black Speedo; thus began a fascination with the man that culminated in a feature on him this year that is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever done.

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It gets harder all the time to gain access to the top players, which is why a couple of years ago it was worth it to schlep to China to chase Rory McIlroy; that trip included a private flight during which Rory and I had our best and most relaxed conversation to date. My trip to St. Andrews last May was nuts. Crowbarred in between a couple of other assignments, I spent barely 48 hours in Scotland, but a good chunk of it was with Tom Watson, including a stroll around the Old Course where he took me to the spots of some of his most memorable shots.

Golf has never been a more global game, and to cover it the right way you can’t camp out in Orlando or Connecticut. I’m blessed that SI has offered me the resources and the trust to follow the sun so far. I’ve flown more than 1.5 million miles and have teed it up across six continents and 37 countries. I’ve visited 48 U.S. states. (Maine and Rhode Island, I’m coming for you!)

Of course, you can’t be everywhere. This season I missed out on events in some of my favorite places, such as Napa and New Orleans and Sea Island. There’s always next year.