Tour de Golf Tours: The PGA Tour
Show of hands – How many of you think I picked the PGA Tour to wrap up my Tour de Tours because it’s the best of the four that I covered?
OK, it’s an intelligent guess…but it’s wrong.
I came to Hartford for the final round of the Travelers Championship for much the same reason that I started my mini-journey with the Futures Tour’s City of Hammond Classic. It gave me an opportunity to go home. And while the Futures Tour represented going home professionally, the Travelers Championship involved going home personally.
For back when golf was played with hickory sticks and cowhide spheres stuffed with feathers (in other words, when I was a young) this Sports Fan used to caddie at Ellington Ridge Country Club, just a niblick or two outside of Hartford. And on one particularly fine summer day, I had the opportunity to caddie during the Monday qualifier for the Greater Hartford Open – the predecessor of today’s Travelers Championship. My golfer didn’t make the field for that year’s tournament, but it didn’t matter. I was hooked on tour golf, and rarely missed a GHO from that point until I struck out for warmer pastures.
In the days before UConn became a national men’s and women’s college basketball power, the GHO was THE sporting event of the year in northern Connecticut, and everyone from corporate chieftains to…well, to lowly caddies, sat side-by-side in the grandstands and stood on the hills overlooking the 18th green straining to get a better look at the Who’s Who of past GHO champions: Rik Massengale…Rod Funseth…Mac O’Grady…Phil Blackmar. OK, not necessarily a parade of golf legends, but it was good enough for us.
Fast forward to the present day, where on an unseasonably hot and humid June Sunday I arrived at TPC River Highlands in suburban Cromwell, CT. Brother-in-law Rick was with me, seamlessly assuming the role of forecaddie that had been so capably handled the previous two days by good friend JC.
This was the last stop in a tour of four golf tours in five days, with the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach tossed in the week before as a warm-up. And this is what I learned. Apparently, male golfers under the age of 50 are the only group of pros whose game will completely fall to pieces at the sight of a palm-sized camera or cell phone. Everyone else miraculously manages to tough it out.
The LPGA Tour puts up a good front, but they didn’t seem to be all that concerned about rogue communication devices, even if they had the dreaded photographic capabilities. The Champions Tour doesn’t even bother to ask. Bring a camera into a Futures Tour event, and the players will pose for pictures and ask you to email a copy to their Mom – who may then invite you over for supper.
But the PGA Tour…not so much. We got the full shake-down, metal detector wand, etc. I foolishly ventured onto the property with a money clip in my pocket, setting off the detector. Quite naturally, I was hustled immediately into a small dark tent with a single naked light bulb swaying overhead. I cracked immediately, coughing up the money clip, a couple of quarters and a shiny gum wrapper that I had been trying to smuggle in. I understood the need for all of this though – for if someone successfully attaches a photo to a text message sent from inside a PGA Tour event, the terrorists win.
Once re-dressed and inside the gates, the practice facility beckoned. As opposed to many tournament sites where you have to really want to see the pros warm up to justify the effort to find the range, this one was large and quite visible. The tournament leaders were just starting their practice routines, so we stopped by.
While Rick focused on the swings, I took a look around. And the first thing I noticed was a colorful sign advertising an “Autograph Zone”. This intrigued me, for I had not seen anything like that at a PGA Tour event before. Fans are a necessary evil to these guys – not somebody you actually interact with. For God’s sake, you could catch something! But there it was. I decided to investigate, and immediately found the catch. In much smaller print size was the qualifying legend “Reserved For Kids 15 And Under”. If you can drive, you can’t get a PGA Tour autograph. Sorry. I wonder how you get ID to prove you’re NOT yet sixteen…
What the PGA Tour lacks in approachability, it makes up for in technology. Years ago the Tour began to invest heavily in developing a program called ShotLink, with the goal of collecting, analyzing and packaging statistical information on virtually every golf shot hit at every tournament on its schedule. The output was initially popular among golf media types and assorted stat wonks, who pored through this information on the Tour’s website. Now however, with the advent of high definition scoreboards, ShotLink has really hit its stride.
Attend any PGA Tour event and position yourself within view of one of their huge ShotLink fueled video boards, and you will be the beneficiary of a rudimentary “broadcast” of the tournament that supplements what you are watching live. As each group passes through the hole on which you sit, key stats about that group appear on screen, updated in real time. During the time between groups, relevant scores and data from elsewhere on the course is also presented.
The true beauty of ShotLink though, is that it costs the Tour a relative pittance to operate. For at each tournament venue, the grunt work needed to collect the vast array of raw data is done by volunteers. In fact, people line up for the right to operate the ShotLink equipment. This after paying a Volunteer Registration Fee to acquire the requisite uniform, credential and parking privileges. That’s right – people pay for the right to work at a PGA Tour event. Somewhere Tom Sawyer is grinning broadly.
As we wandered down the 10th hole, we came upon one such gentleman who was operating a ShotLink laser tracking driving distance. Within seconds after the tee shots of the group that we were following came to rest, the exact distance of each was projected on the fairway video board, along with pictures of the pros and other assorted info. Our man on the job beamed as he pointed this out. He was living the PGA Tour dream for the day, and spoke wistfully of wanting to be able to travel with the Tour and do this on a regular basis. “If I wasn’t married…” he said.
It has long been a trend that golf courses wishing to host a PGA Tour event have invested in course redesigns that include a new set of back tee boxes that extend their course to 7,000+ yards – a playing distance manageable only by the elite of golfers in the world. From one of these back tees I would need a driver and a wedge just to reach the tee that I normally start from.
That’s why it was odd to witness a situation in which a course was redesigned to make holes shorter. But this was the case with TPC River Highlands. The 15th hole is a 296-yard par four. The 16th, a 170-yard par three. And the dogleg 17th hole checks in at a pedestrian 420 yards. Of course, the short distance of each hole requires the use of other ways to make it more challenging to the best golfers in the world. In other words, although the term is taboo in the polite society of golf course architects, these holes have been “tricked up”.
Why? Because this configuration exists within an area of the course that contains a natural amphitheatre – thus creating gobs and gobs of real estate for VIP Hospitality structures. And as I sat baking on a steep hillside overlooking it all, I couldn’t help but notice that for the most part, if you weren’t holding a ticket to one of these tents, you were…well, baking on a steep hillside. And as you might expect, those of us doing this “roast and slide” were well-supported by concession stands that charged more than double what I had paid for water the previous day at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open.
Funny, but this caste system was not exactly the way I remembered the Greater Hartford Open of my youth. Where’s Phil Blackmar when you need him?