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Southern Hills in Retrospect, Part 1 - Blistering Heat, Historic Feat
Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Jay Flemma just returned to his home in New York City following a week spent at Southern Hills Country Club covering the PGA Championship. Here are some of Jay's thoughts on what transpired in Tulsa.
History already recalls the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills as the hottest major championship on record. As much as this reporter has survived walking 36 holes in 100-degree temperatures in the Arizona desert innumerable times, the "Ring of Fire" in which Oklahoma sits was far more humid, far more oppressive. Imagine a week inside a convection oven. That was Southern Hills. But though Tulsa was sultry, sweaty, and steamy, the Tulsans were, sweet, satisfying and super-nice.
Indeed, Oklahoma loved her close-up and its citizens wowed the world with their friendliness. The rule in New York is "Don't talk to strangers," but like the Carolinas and Oregon, the rule in Oklahoma is "It's OK to be friends." "Oklahoma?" asked native Tulsan Brad Radcliffe, readying his punch line. "We're like the play, but without the singing," he said.
So on that note, let's meet our dramatis personae, send the chorus out to sing the overture, and take one last look at the five-act drama that was the 2007 PGA Championship.
Tuesday & Wednesday
The week began with the usual media drill, just in 99-degree weather. There were the warm greetings between journalist colleagues getting set up at their desks: the bearhugs, "how-ya-beens" and stories of the old days from old-guard writers like Marino Parascenzo and Dermot Gilleece. There was smiling, well-coifed, well-spoken Tom Rinaldi studying like a Duke Law student for the entire week at his desk as though an exam were being administered Sunday evening. Art Spander was in the second row at his desk, his mind as sharp and body as trim as when he was 30, firing away clickety-clack at the keyboard like the lethal marksman he is. Tim Rosaforte was spiffy in his impeccable suit jacket, stylish ties and Bermuda shorts, reminding me of my days at Deerfield Academy when we'd wear the same thing - more to be preppy than to beat oppressive heat.
Some wore seersucker, some sported madras, some saw how cool my collection of shirts kept me and swore they'd order double-spun Egyptian cotton Seize Sur Vingt brand shirts from my outfitter the minute they got back home (the company's web address is www.16sur20.com, for those of you scoring at home). Melanie Hauser on the end of the row, Kathy Bissell in trademark white clothes, Sal Johnson with his backpack: our great cast of offbeat characters were all assembled and ready, though most were furious that we had to pay $85 apiece for our wireless connections. We have to do something about that; this was an unwelcome surprise.
Anyway, those issues got resolved and, soon, all around you life buzzed, hummed and crackled as we tried to get our pre-tournament interviews done while not passing out from heat stroke. No other major I have covered needed such a balance of pacing yourself - blending hard work with restorative sessions in the freezing air-conditioned comfort of the media tent - and overdosing on water and Gatorade. Perhaps no other point hammers home how hot it was than this: nobody was doing quick-quotes interviews. They were harder to get than a virgin in a maternity ward.
But the first two days bore fruit. There was affable Ben Curtis, smiling and willing to talk Xs and Os even after the rough got to him in the practice round. "I'm really having trouble controlling it out of the rough. It'll be tough this week," he noted candidly. "I can't control it," remarked Fred Funk. "[The ball is] squirting all over the place."
"You can't control it," agreed South African Tim Clark. "Just smash it out and hope for the best." One by one, we caught our players and got our angles. A couple of club pros, a few international stars like Adam Scott and Ian Poulter, and American icons like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods; one by one we got everyone's views on the tournament and the Perry Maxwell-designed golf course.
No, it's not as hard as the U.S. Open, as holy as Augusta or Scotland, or as iconic as Sawgrass, but the PGA Championship was set to begin. Players respected the rough but didn't fear it. Fairways were tight but negotiable. Greens were tricky but fair. It was anybody's game. Strap yourself in, because it's Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains and so do golf balls from the greatest names in the game. Sure Woods was a favorite, but this is the PGA Championship. Shaun Micheel has won it. David Toms threw a brilliant coming out party. Rich Beem drove in style to victory. So every player asked the same question: "Why not me?"
As the dawn lightened the sky to a powder blue that the Houston Oilers would have worn proudly - had they not moved to Tennessee - the unlikeliest of heroes gave us a thrill. Big John Daly, loved by so many and pitied by all gave us a curtain call that echoed back to his miracle of 1991. His opening-round 67 and comedy-routine press conference won the last few remaining hearts and minds that had never quite been his before. "I finally get him now," remarked Yahoo Sports writer Michael Arkush, a stalwart desk companion all week in Row L, seats 9-10, the space we shared for the tournament.
I get Daly too, and so now I must stop for a moment and ask us all the most important question to come out of this tournament: More important than Tiger, more important than golf, more important than majors or records or trophies. It's a question of life and death. Why are we doing nothing to save him from himself? I used to agree with many that Daly was wasting his talent. But after seeing firsthand the horror of watching loved ones crumble from addiction, I know I was so horribly, horribly wrong. How can you or I or any of us stand by and let him die?
That's right, I said it. If John Daly dies, his blood is on our hands because whether we truly love him or we are merely watching what we perceive to be a golf soap opera, we are enabling him by helping him on the road to self-destruction, or we are just standing by and doing nothing. Omission is just as bad as commission.
People say he's tried everything. Hogwash, I say. So what, he failed? We all have failed. It's not how many times you get knocked down - it's how many times you get back up.
But therein is the insidious nature of addiction. It strikes from behind. It erodes willpower first, then self esteem and respect, then finally the body. The outer shell won't crumble until the inside rots first. Decay goes unchecked, but worse, unseen. The spiral continues, worsening with each passing day. The addict screams out for help, but is helpless to help himself. People think addicts can just quit, but they can't. They are not ugly, brutish people "who get what they deserve for their self indulgence," as one unenlightened lunkhead said. Sometimes it's genetics, sometimes it's low self-esteem. It could be any kind of trigger, from a cell phone ring tone, to the voice of a woman, to a neon flash of a dim dusty bar out on a dismal highway.
You know what my favorite memory of Daly is? I had the privilege of covering the Hootie and the Blowfish at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate Golf Tournament this spring. There were two wonderful moments. First, during the kickoff concert, Daly surprised us all by walking on stage, grabbing Darius Rucker's acoustic guitar and thrilled us all with Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
That's one forlorn troubled addict singing a song by a far more forlorn troubled addict. It's a song about death, and although it's far more likely that Daly played it because it's a three-chord wonder that any chump can bang out drunk as a goat or high as a Space Shuttle (it was the first song I learned how to play on my old Dreadnaught - that's how easy it is), there is a sad premonition that must not come true.
If not for Daly, than for his tiny three-year-old son. That was my second favorite memory of that night - not Daly playing guitar, but watching Daly dancing with his little boy backstage. He moshed with him during "Get Out of my Mind," he whirled him around in the air during "Only Wanna be with You," he bounced him on his ample, jovial belly during "Hold My Hand." We also saw John let his little boy swing his driver on the practice range. The kids smacked them 150 yards. Sam Alexis who?
If not for John, then let's do it for that little boy. He looks so small, so innocent, so fragile. He looks handsome with his blond bowl-cut. He squealed with delight and his eyes were so bright with love for his father. His youth insulates him from the evils and trouble and tribulations of his famous, fabulous, flawed father. He needs his daddy like we all need ours - you and I. We once saw another tiny, good-looking little boy shed a tear and raise his hand in salute 44 years ago as a flag draped casket rolled by on a dreary day in Washington, D.C. Golf just doesn't need another tragedy, especially one so easily avoidable.
If not us, who? If not now, when? It's both easy and noble to offer to make the effort to help Daly want to help himself. And don't give me that funky jazz about "He has to want to help himself," because that is the worst feature of addiction. It erodes the willpower. It's a vicious circle. Some people parrot unsubstantiated, convoluted logic that maybe Daly's talent comes from being self-destructive and, that if gets cured, his game might never be the same. But they should go sell crazy somewhere else we don't have a market for it. If he's this good alcohol-soaked, think how good he'll be healthy. Moreover, even if it does have a negative impact on his game, is it more important to get a mere few good rounds in exchange for his life? Is his game more important than his body and soul? Of course not! This is bigger than a game or a few casual eyeballs for a telecast or newspaper. It's the right thing to do.
Daly shot his 67 even though he hit just six fairways out of 14. Of the eight he missed, he hit the green an astonishing seven times; so much for all the fear cause by the ball sinking to the bottom of the rough. That feat would be echoed the next day by another player who used it as a springboard to history and, eventually, to the title.
Woody Austin and Padraig Harrington also had excellent success hitting the greens from out of the rough, but don't tell Harrington that. "What are you, the stats guy?" he asked me when I quizzed him on how he did it. "The only stat I care about until the tournament's over is that I shot 69."
Okay, note to self: Ask Padraig - who ironically is an accountant - only softball questions until Sunday. It led to a humorous theme throughout the week. I spent as much time with the Irish reporters as I could. Not only do they write well, but their easygoing friendliness resonates with me. I missed Padraig after his round the next day because I followed club pro Brad Lardon. Paddy apparently missed me, too. When asked about a stat by another reporter, he quipped "Where's my friend?" It led to the following fun exchange:
Dermot Gilleece smiled form under his jaunty cap. "Padraig was looking for you today!"
"Yeah?" I replied. "Was he waiting for me with a big net?" (Laughter)
"No really," said Brian Keogh of the Irish Sun, between chuckles. "He was looking for you."
"Yeah, and he probably meant business too," I replied, doing my best to feign fear and shock. (More laughter)
"No he really missed you," began Karl MacGinty of the Independent. "He wanted to know where you were."
"Tell him I'm wherever good times are had."
At this the table fell apart laughing. I love the Irish. They appreciate sincerity and camaraderie better than the rest of the world combined. Slainte, fellows, and thanks for a great week. Paddy and I finally caught up Sunday and shared a laugh and a slap on the back. Besides, he likes that I picked him to win the British Open. I think he'll keep me.
Nevertheless, the day belonged to Daly, who I understand much better now. He'll fist-bump you on the way to hit the opening tee shot. He'll sign an autograph for any kid. He'll talk golf till the cows come home. He's friendly and accessible, a champion for "everyman." Sure, Graeme Storm's 65 was a lower score, but for one day, Big John was back where he belongs, in contention and swinging with freedom and courage and color.
Coming next, the rest of the tournament.
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.