WEEK FROM DELL
Days in life of a spectator at Austin golf tournament
Let me tell you about my Week from Dell. Four days of sunshine, and one wet one. More $6 hot dogs and $7 Michelob Ultras than I’ll admit to, and what is now totally useless knowledge about where to find porta-potty stations on the 180 acres of hills, plateaus and river bottom of Austin County Club for this year’s WGC Dell Technologies Match Play. Forty-five bracing hours of camaraderie with close friends and family members who walked with me, and with scores of strangers in ball caps and shorts. Up-close views of Phil and Jordan, and Dustin and Bubba.
And an unapologetic assault from K.T. Kim. More on that later.
First, an Oreo analogy. Perhaps years ago, when you were young and irresponsible, a perfectly good intention to have two or three of the cookies somehow turned into a binge, and before long nothing was left but the blue package. Too much of a good thing, right? Now try doing that five days in a row. That was me from last Wednesday until about 1 p.m. Sunday, when my wife and I decided to head for the exit after the semifinal
matches were done, rest our weary bones and watch the final between Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm on television.
I had come into the tickets (two each day, out of the 10,000 that the World Golf Championship Dell Technologies Match Play Pizzeria and Muffler Shop sells) somewhere around Dec. 25 last year, a huge surprise. I decided to take a different person with me each day.
As March 22 approached, nerves set in. I had been to pro golf tournaments a few times, but always in oneday bites. And those treks were many years ago, in younger skin. It occurred to me Tuesday night that I was, in effect, about to walk to Temple. Uh-oh.
As it turned out, the cumulative steps came to about 88,000, or 40.3 miles. So it was like I marched to Jarrell instead.
But half of the club’s 18 holes sit on a 100-foot bluff above Lake Austin, which is great for television and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, but not so good for those of us getting around on two legs. And the primary entrance for spectators is down by the lake, while the first hole is atop the hill, so each day began with a long and steep trudge. Then several of the holes have significant up and down to them (I’m talking to you, No. 8 and No. 9).
For the week, according to my phone, I climbed what amounted to 139 flights of stairs. I’m either bragging here, or whining. Take your pick.
Golf is a weird sport to watch in person.
Unlike football, basketball, soccer or almost any other athletic contest, where all the action takes place right there in front of you, golf is broken into 18 scenes. Or really more, because if you’re on the green of a par-4 or par-5, you can’t see the tee shot.
In the case of the unusual match play format of the Dell, where for the first three days 64 players were playing one-on-one rounds, there were 32 contests going on during the day. By definition, you’re missing 96 percent of the event at every single minute. So a fan has to make a choice, or really a full day of choices: Do I sit my butt down on one particular hole and just watch the parade of players going by, or follow a favorite player all day from hole to hole over the 7,100-yard course?
Or maybe you craft a strategery, to quote a great Texan (or Will Ferrell playing him, anyway), and flit all over the course grabbing bits and pieces of favorite players while keeping abreast of the scoring on video boards or a phone app. My daily tourney partners and I took this more strenuous approach, which is how I ended up walking to Jarrell in five days. Terrific fun in that beautiful setting, but exhausting. I was pretty much zombified by each evening.
Golf is also a strange combination of intimacy and emotional distance. The players are often quite close to you, particularly when they hit an errant shot and end up in what is normally spectator territory.
I stood about 10 feet from Jordan Spieth on Wednesday when he hit from the rough on No. 5, and eavesdropped as he and his caddie analyzed what he needed to do.
On the other hand, golf requires intense and consistent focus out of the players, especially at that level of competition.
The moment one shot rolls to a stop, the silent planning for the next one begins immediately during the walk. So while Phil Mickelson is there a few yards from you, and might exchange fist bumps with fans on the way to the next tee, you can see that his mind (like that of all the players) is far away.
And the scene is oddly quiet, much moreso than on television. No whoosh of the club when you’re 50 or 60 yards away, just a low thump sound or perhaps total silence, and maybe a smattering of polite applause.
In all, it’s like a long walk in a spectacularly groomed park, interspersed with some celebrities happening by now and then to swing a stick. Relaxing.
But there were a couple of unexpectedly intimate moments.
My old friend Mark Jones and I were sitting off the fairway of No. 9 in the trees on Thursday, feasting on fine pork products in buns when Mark noted that Kim, a South Korean player, was hitting his second shot from the opposite woods way up on the hill. Mark had just made this observation when we heard the crunch of a ball cutting through limbs, followed by a whack of a Titleist.
Kim’s ball glanced off my right shoulder, my legs and Mark’s foot, and came to rest about a foot in front of me. I was now officially a part of the competition, an obstacle. And totally unhurt; I think the ball was going about 3.1 mph when it first struck me. Lee Lane, a tourney volunteer, immediately approached to make sure Kim’s ball remained undisturbed (and, I suppose, check on my well-being). I told him that he and the PGA would be hearing from my lawyer.
After Mark grabbed a cellphone picture of this epic scene, we all scooched back to make room for Kim. He arrived a few minutes later to puzzle over the predicament, and then chipped to the green. He remained blissfully unaware of my encounter with his golf ball.
Not so with Bruce Puckett, an Austin financial advisor whom I met Sunday. He was at the tournament with David Armbrust, a lawyer and a member of a transportation board that I cover. Armbrust chatted with my wife and I briefly along the 10th fairway before golfers Bill Haas and Rahm, playing in a semifinal match, hit their tee shots from a distance spot.
We were all minding our business, wondering when the next ball might plop down in the fairway when instead one slammed into Puckett’s right cheek. At considerably more than 3.1 mph. Somehow, other than a red mark, Puckett came through the incident in good health and good humor.
And Haas, when he arrived, ended up taking off his golf glove and, using a Sharpie I guess his caddy keeps on hand, signed the glove and wrote “Sorry.” The moment, we were told later, ended up on the Golf Channel broadcast. All I got was a good story. No, check that. Five days of good stories. And a few blisters.
This ball from South Korean golfer K.T. Kim ricocheted off a tree and grazed Statesman reporter Ben Wear, who emerged from the contact uninjured.
Austin financial advisor Bruce Puckett (right) and Bill Haas shake on it at the 10th hole a few minutes after an errant drive by Haas hit Puckett in the check.