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PGA Championship in Minnesota: Prairie Home Companion for Golfers
Cybergolf's Jay Flemma has been in Minnesota all week for the 91st PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska. Here are a few of his thoughts after the third round.
A long, slow kiss of a sunrise lit up Minnesota in magical hues. Pale streaks of watery light illuminated the land, first in deep blues and greens, then cheery cherry reds, and then, finally, a glorious gold which made all nature rejoice at being alive. Author P.G. Wodehouse would have called it a morning when all nature called "FORE!" and John Updike, Herbert Warren Wind and Grantland Rice would have raced for their clubs and jostled each other to get to the tee box.
Outside the Twin Cities, farms stretch over the rolling hills. Columns of soybean line up like soldiers in orderly ranks and files, corn stalks stand sentinel behind them, combines rumble down lonely two-lane roads and tall bulbous water towers with "Edina," "Le Center," and, of course, "Chaska" emblazoned on them loom over tumbledown barns and ramshackle farmhouses. The countryside awakens, stretching green and golden arms of her own from horizon to endless horizon.
As we get closer to Hazeltine National Golf Club the blithe town of Chaska greets us enthusiastically, people beaming as brightly as the sunshine. Where once there was nothing but rural hinterland - Dan Jenkins quipped that in 1970 there was so little here, he had to stop to ask a cow which farm they were playing - now strip malls, schools, coffee shops, cafes, bistros and businesses all form a humble urban sprawl.
For this week Chaska was the epicenter of the golf world and it seems the whole state of Minnesota is here, with all its Garrison Keillor-esque, Lake Wobegonian charm is on display. They were reputed to love golf with all their souls, and it showed. Slender golf moms in Polo shirts and saddle shoes bring homemade chocolate chip cookies to the volunteers, dads bring wide-eyed sons in Vikings jerseys to the ropes so they can get a glimpse of their Sunday superheroes, and Tiger Woods has the fans lined up on the practice range lined up 20 deep as he hits towering shots with laser-like precision at the same five-foot diameter circle.
Meanwhile, outside the clubhouse, a beautiful young brunette in a Golden Gophers T-short shouts joyously to David Feherty, "Daviiiiiiiiiid! I love you!"
"You have low standards," he retorted. "You must have hamsters for pets." The crowd falls apart in chunks laughing. Feherty just keeps going. "I'm still out here after all these years. God must have a sense of humor."
This is the friendliest major I've ever been to; they're even nicer than the Oklahomans, and that's saying something! With all the atrocities I see every day in the concrete jungle I call home, you'd think the anti-Christ would appear every morning with breakfast. But in Minnesota, they are kind-hearted, good-willed people with folksy charm.
"People are what we call 'Minnesota nice,' welcoming, caring, and sincere. It's a Midwestern ethic. You can feel it everywhere you look," said Jock Olson former PGA master professional at Interlachen and the 2002 PGA National golf professional of the year.
"It's remarkable their love of golf. They not only want, but need to get out and take advantage of the weather," he continued. "Our per-capita ratio of players to population is one of the highest in the country, and we were the first state to host all 13 USGA. national championships."
"You can definitely feel the Midwestern charm," agreed 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson. "The roars have been deafening, and the sheer numbers have been a testament to what a golf-rich state Minnesota is. I hope we come back soon and often."
"They were tremendous everywhere," added defending champion Padraig Harrington. "Every green, every tee box, there was just an extraordinary amount of cheers, clapping and support.
With a first-class, blue-collar work ethic to the way they approach their lives and their businesses, these people could make friends at an IRS audit. They joyfully welcome spring after Siberian winters. Trees are budding, birds are singing, life is returning and buoyant hearts rescued from winter's chill cherish pleasant summers, even though they say the mosquito is the state bird.
Sure, there are a few hazelnuts out: Canadian Mike Weir fans scream between Labatt's Blues, and a few rude creeps wear "Mr. Kelly Tighlman" T-shirts - as if! - but for the most part, the tournament has been a time capsule example of the ethos and virtue of the game, with the Minnesotans playing the part of gracious hosts.
Their grace and class has been rewarded with a dramatic competition. Tiger Woods, golf's greatest rock star, opened with fireworks, a stunning 67, and then raced to a four-shot lead after Friday's play. For the first two days he surgically dissected the field, looking like a man eating a fish. First he stripped off the skin, then he removed the bones, then he ate the fish, one sweet morsel at a time. Seeing Woods at his best is worth diamonds.
But Saturday, the howl of the wind rose an octave, moaning like a ghost, flitting ephemerally through the trees. It recalled memories of the 1970 maelstrom that whirled through the course, blowing balls to Manitoba and scores to perdition. Wind befuddles Woods. We saw that at Muirfield, Turnberry and Bethpage.
Moreover, the Golf Gods are as indiscriminant as Zeus with women. No one knows whose side they are on. We saw chinks in Woods's armor, and he played not to lose - too conservatively and watched his lead evaporate by mid-round. On the iconic 16th he hit a big hook for his approach - in Minnesota known as an apple turnover - and was only saved from tumbling into Lake Hazeltine and a wet double-bogey by heavy rough. He scraped out a par. But at the end of the day, he led by merely two over defending champion Padraig Harrington and Yong-Eun Yang who, after a sparkling 5-under 67, looked like the second coming of Tony Jacklin.
Sure, Woods is 14 for 14 in majors where he had the 54-hole lead, but he and Yang went head-to-head in 2007 in Shanghai. Guess who won . . . Yang! This head-to-head match-up felt like 1971 when Lee Trevino and Mr. Lu dueled at Birkdale, or 1980 when Jack Nicklaus held off Isao Aoki. I don't think Yang will fold up like a gunmetal grey chair. If he wins, all South Korea will sing, "everybody Yang Chung tonight."
And so the sun fell, and darkness advanced in the east, blue to purple to black, and all that was left was the broadest sky on the clearest night, a still night of silence and solitude, with the moon hung low and blazing gold, and a crescent of a thousand iridescent stars gleaming with prismatic light in an obsidian sky. Soon, I'll return to New York City, hot as an oven and dirty as a pig sty, but for now, all nature sings an Angel's song from Heaven and, like the Minnesotans, I gratefully drink deeply from the Well of Life in a far greener country.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.