WEEK FROM DELL

Days in life of a spec­ta­tor at Austin golf tour­na­ment

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Ben Wear Com­men­tary

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.

CON­TRIB­UTED

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.

CON­TRIB­UTED

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.

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