ORLANDO, Fla. — Whenever I’m at a golf tournament in person I’m reminded of the ways in which golfers are different from their public reputations. These are real people, after all, not internet caricatures.
But sometimes the internet caricatures have some truth to them. Sometimes they’re self-reinforcing, too. And as John Daly drove to the par-4 13th tee at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Thursday, I was curious which impression I’d get.
I didn’t have to wait long; I could hear Daly before I saw him. Country music came blaring from a speaker attached to the driver’s side of his cart: “Drunk Me,” by Mitchell Tenpenny. Daly screeched to a stop and chuckled as a fan came up to him with a flag, asking for his signature.
“I can put Tiger Woods’ name on there if you want, tell people you got that one, too,” he said, wielding the fat-tipped Sharpie.
Daly stepped out of his cart and grabbed driver. He wore a bright-green shirt, untucked tails hanging over his fluorescent floral yellow shorts. He stuck his tee in the ground, waggled the driver and sent it over the dogleg, over the bunker guarding the green, over the green itself. The ball settled in the rough beyond, at least a 330-yard tee shot.
In other words, Daly is, at first glance, exactly what you’d expect. He’s the John Daly you came to see, but arguably even more Daly than that. John Daliest. Bright. Friendly. Country. Big-bombing. He still has those soft hands, too, which he showed off with a saucy flop shot from behind the green that died just a couple feet from the hole.
Then came Little John, who was playing in the foursome behind. From beside the green all we could hear was the ping of the driver and all we could see was the marshal indicating that yes, the ball was headed at the green. It landed in the greenside bunker but skipped out at just the right speed, rolled towards the hole, took a peek over the edge and settled some three feet away.
Daly II drove up to the green and grinned when he saw his ball. He hopped out of the cart, his father’s goofy 18-year-old son. “That wasn’t bad, huh?” he told a spotter. “This is a pretty long par-3 though!”
So it went on Day 1 at the PNC Championship. What do you do when you’re at a Tiger Woods event but Tiger Woods himself hasn’t yet arrived? You stroll the grounds. You see the sights. You soak up the sun. You listen for the sounds that make this championship what it is, like Lee Trevino, bantering with his pro-am foursome.
“You guys must own your own business because I can tell — you’re playing a lot of golf!”
“They’ve got my tees up so far I got a nosebleed just walking up to ’em!”
“You know how everybody looks forward to the Masters? We like this one better now.”
I had a few duties scheduling out my day. At noon I did a virtual video hit with Jessica Marksbury as part of our InsideGOLF preview show. At 2 p.m. I joined the media scrum speaking to Justin Thomas and his father Mike. At 3 p.m. Nelly Korda came by with her father Petr. In between I wrote and wandered and watched.
In terms of Tiger Watch, we learned by far the most from Mike Thomas, who played with both Charlie and Tiger last week and went out of his way to praise Woods’ game. The speed, the contact, the progress. He was flushing it.
“It’s crazy how good he’s hitting it and far he’s hitting for what he’s been through,” Mike said. A not-insignificant statement, coming from him. We’ll see if Woods proves him prophetic.
Justin shared a story of Woods giving him a tough-love lesson. Nelly, too, brought up Woods unprompted. The coolest thing about playing this week? Spending time with her dad, she said, but her eyes lit up at the next reason: “Playing right in front of Tiger Woods is pretty cool, too, I’m not going to lie.”
I wrote a couple short articles summarizing the Thomas press conferences (here and here). Then, liberated from my laptop, I stepped back into the Orlando afternoon sun. There were the grinders, the tinkerers, working into the evening. Padraig Harrington, working on the path of his putter, discussing theory with his caddie. Tom Watson, dialing in his Callaway gear, testing on the edge of the range. Vijay Singh, hitting ball after ball, his swing as long and powerful as ever, his patience, too. Someone once asked Singh what he was working on in his swing. “Trying to find the bottom,” he said. Nice.
Friday the range will take center stage. Team Woods will be there in advance of their 9 a.m. pro-am tee time. They’ll be hitting balls in public for the first time since this very same event last year. It will feel like a big deal in person. I think it might feel like a bigger deal on TV.
I’ll let you know.
Read on for yesterday’s entry:
PNC Championship, Day 0
On a list of life’s simple pleasures, there aren’t many I rank higher than the specific feeling of peering out the window of an airplane, scanning for golf courses.
A mediocre course gains immediate credibility with the benefit of an overhead view. A fancy country club is reduced to its basics; no matter the initiation fee, from above it’s still grass and bunkers and cart paths, a quadrangle of green acreage. Spotting a course that you know well is best of all; there’s familiarity but mystique, too. You suddenly understand it differently when you see the holes laid out, maze-like, from an entirely different dimension. Perspective.
I boarded my plane in Seattle just before 8 a.m. It was 38 degrees and grey, though the rain held off for our departure. The sun rises reluctantly this time of year in this part of the country — 7:52 this morning, my weather app admitted sheepishly — so I peered out the window for signs of first light. There wasn’t much sun to speak of, but as we took off I spotted one golf course, then another, then a comfortable sight: Rainier Golf Club, where my friend Pat plays, a short, tight devilish test with massive pines and slopey greens.
From 14A, I couldn’t feel the chill of the December dawn. I couldn’t see just how narrow that first fairway looks from the tee. It looked simple from here. Full of possibility. The illusion of golf. It made me want to grab a club.
By the time we began our descent into Orlando, the sun was setting into a cloudy horizon. The curse of west-to-east travel, I guess. Where does the day go?
Orlando does not inspire from the sky. If there’s Disney magic in this town, it gets lost in translation from one or three or five thousand feet up. Instead you put away your large electronic devices, return your seat to its upright position, turn to the window and are struck with the distinct impression that Orlando must be the world’s leader in man-made lakes. Planned developments wound through waterways out my window, each house occupying the same footprint as its neighbor. If Orlando was a golf course, there would be water hazards everywhere. Penalty areas, I guess we’re calling those now. A less vivid description.
Why this diary? Because I’ve come from Seattle to Orlando to watch a family golf competition. A terrific family golf competition, to be clear. But at the Masters, the competition rules all. The path to victory is the story. At the PNC Championship, victory is an afterthought, so an analysis of Team Singh’s scramble strategy might not satisfy your expectations.
Perhaps the biggest question of why I’m here is, in fact, this one: why am I here? What am I hoping to see? What do I actually expect to see?
I mulled it over as I waited for my rental car. Nine quick questions wandered across my mind, questions to which I’d like answers.
First, three Tiger Woods questions with concrete answers:
How’s his swing speed?
How’s his gait?
How’s his short game?
Next, three Tiger Woods questions without concrete answers:
How is he feeling?
What is he thinking?
Then three more, non-Woods division:
What does a Team Thomas title defense look like?
Will Nelly Korda and her dad get in the mix?
Who’s having the most actual fun?
Then there’s the 10th question, perhaps the most intriguing but also the most fraught: What’s it’s like to be around Tiger and Charlie? Tiger Woods the father-slash-golfer is the show this week, after all. Still, that doesn’t mean we need to get all weird about it. No need to judge his parenting skills based on his reaction to missed putts nor declare 12-year-old Charlie heir to his father’s professional golf throne. Let’s just play it a tiny bit cool, eh? (Narrator: As he would soon find out, nobody was going to “play it cool.”)
I got a silver Toyota Corolla, a few years old, the kind where you still have to put the key in the ignition. I appreciate the practicality of rental cars. They’re clean and most have a reasonable amount of trunk space and they’re very effective at A to B transportation.
My trek to the hotel was complicated when I was reminded of Orlando’s most impressive characteristic: it’s the largest city in the world with exactly zero cell service. All good; I detoured through a Chik-fil-a, enjoyed a chicken sandwich in the parking lot and eventually turned, victorious, into the correct lodging.
My transformation to Florida Man had begun.