Meet me in St Louis as big names spark big-game fever among fans
In a postcard from St Louis, Brian Keogh sees this sports-mad city embrace Tiger and some Irish ‘Beef’
IT brought back memories of the bad old days of the M50 toll booths – a 30-minute traffic snarl-up through a dizzying maze of freeways and overpasses to the banks of the Mississippi. If I was looking for a stress-free start to my week at the US PGA, this was not it. Rush-hour on a hot and sticky Monday morning is not the best time to see The Gateway Arch – a 192-metre high stainless steel monument that dominates the skyline of the midwest city where the pioneers and would dock on their way west to seek their fortune.
The tallest man-made monument in the western hemisphere, officially dedicated to the American people, it glinted in the misty morning sunshine in the corner of my right eye as I battled to get in lane, my vision alerted by a dashboard alert telling me I had just 24 miles worth of fuel left after the 300-mile drive (with an overnight in Lincoln, Illinois) from Chicago to Missouri.
The Pony Express, the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fé Trail and California Trail all began in Missouri, the point where the south meets the midwest – a state that’s given the world the likes of Harry Truman, Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Chuck Berry and, as Rory McIlroy joked his first media conference, the rapper Nelly.
“Mmmmm you can find me in St Louie
Where the gun play ring all day (nanana) Some got jobs and some sell yea’
Others just smoke and f**k all day”
(‘St Louie’ by Nelly)
A huge sports town, St Louis hosted the 1904 Olympic Games and is home to the St Louis Cardinals baseball team, winner of 11 World Series.
It’s also got a strong Irish heritage with many immigrants moving to an area between Mullanphy and O’Fallon Streets downtown, known as the Kerry Patch, or to Dogtown, on the west side.
Bellerive Country Club, situated on the west side of the city, hosted the US Open in 1965 when Gary Player beat Kel Nagle in a play-off, as well as the PGA Championship in 1992 when Nick Price claimed the first of his three Major wins.
While it hosted the US Senior Open in 2004, the BMW Championship in 2008 and the Senior PGA Championship in 2013, the venue did not get to host the
WGC-American Express Championship in September 2001 when the event was abandoned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the morning of the Tuesday practice rounds.
Tiger Woods will never forget that day.
He recalled: “Yeah, 2001 was a very surreal time, at least for me anyways. I had done an American Express clinic there, here in town, and I played a practice round with Calc (Mark Calchavecchia), and the tragedies that happened transpired.
“We tried to play the next day. I believe I was playing with Wiersy (Mike Weir). One of the towers had fallen on the American Express building and a lot of people lost their lives.
“The people at American Express were struggling at the time, and I think Tim (Finchem) made the right move in cancelling the event.
“That was on the 11th, and I drove home on the 13th... 17 hours to get back home to Florida. It was a very surreal time for myself on that drive and a lot of reflecting.”
St Louis waited 17 years for Woods to return for the event they call ‘the Major with no ego’.
The blue collar, midwestern city embraced the event with a passion packing the venue from early on Monday to such levels that just moving around the areas near the clubhouse, the driving range and the huge merchandise pavilion was a struggle.
With the temperature pushing into the 90s fahrenheit with 83pc humidity, it was no surprise when thunderstorms forced the PGA of America to evacuate the course on Friday when thunder rumbled, and a thunderstorm further softened a long course already hit by an inch and a half of rain last Tuesday.
That didn’t dissuade the fans from making the pilgrimage to see Woods in the flesh, lining the fairways ten-deep or more to catch a glimpse of him tee it up alongside young guns McIlroy and Justin Thomas.
The PGA of America does not release attendance figures of the event, but it was expected to smash the 200,000 barrier for the week.
“They have been unbelievable,” Woods said, while former Master winner Charl Schwartzel suggested: “I don’t think I’ve seen so many people at a golf tournament. It’s been amazing.”
Few were veteran golf watchers, but that didn’t curb their enthusiasm.
“Let’s go, Beef,” they shouted as the bearded Shane Lowry raced into contention with rounds of 64 and 69 on Saturday. “Get ’em Beef!”
Lowry still grinned, looking for all the world like one of those hardy pioneers who headed west from St Louis to forge a new frontier in America.
Fans watch Tiger Woods play a shot on the 15th tee during Saturday’s round of the PGA Championship