Friday, March 4, 2011

Getting re-acquainted with the familiar, and meeting the new, on the PGA Tour

So I’m back in golf world this week—the world of golf, not the magazine.

I have to say, it’s always fun. I’ve made a habit the last five years of coming to The Honda Classic, which is the first east coast event of the year. I miss going to the west coast but the combination of basketball responsibilities, family responsibilities and my aversion to flying has kept me from places like Pebble Beach and San Diego tournaments I liked going to in the past.

The Honda, to be honest, is one of my favorite events. The logistics are about as easy as you could possibly hope for. The putting green, the driving range and both the front and back nine are all a few steps from the media room. Walking the golf course is usually enjoyable—it’s not hilly and there’s always a breeze, or this year, a high wind. It isn’t fun to play in but walking and watching is a lot of fun.

The nicest part for me though is being able to walk back in after months away and feel comfortable and, even better, be able to start getting work done right away. There are new faces every year and I always try to introduce myself to people so I can start to develop relationships with them. There is no doubt that being on Golf Channel the last three years helps me with the new guys. I’d prefer that they tell me they’ve read my books or my columns but if seeing me on Golf Channel is an icebreaker, well, that’s fine too.

And then there are the guys who have been around the tour as long (1993) as I have—or longer. On Wednesday I walked into the locker room and within two minutes ran into Davis Love, Justin Leonard, David Duval, Steve Flesch and—of course—Paul Goydos. Actually it was no coincidence I ran into Goydos: he owed me dinner since he had called me ‘an idiot,’ when I told him that Florida State would beat Duke back in January and then had bet me dinner when I suggested he might put his money where his know-it-all mouth was.

Paul knows a lot about basketball, especially Long Beach State basketball. He pays for Spike Lee seats at Long Beach home games and once got tossed from the arena years ago for arguing vehemently with a referee. Paul’s version of that story is wildly funny—as are most versions of any story he tells.

Davis’s son Dru (as in Davis Love IV—quadruple) and my son Danny were born six weeks apart and that’s usually our first topic of conversation. Danny’s now taller than I am and Dru is taller than Davis (who is 6-3) so we both roll our eyes and wonder how that has come to pass since the boys were only born about 15 minutes ago.

I’m really happy that Davis is going to be the Ryder Cup captain. I know how much it means to him, especially since his father was a member of the PGA of America for years until his death in a plane crash in 1988. In fact, the day that Davis was born in 1964 his dad was playing in The Masters. When Davis won The PGA in 1997, one of the most emotional finishes I’ve ever seen to a golf tournament, one of the first things he said to his younger brother Mark (who was caddying for him) was, “now I can be a Ryder Cup captain.”

Winning The PGA isn’t an absolute must for a Ryder Cup captain—neither Arnold Palmer nor Tom Watson (among others) ever won it, but it certainly helps. As it turned out, that PGA was Davis’s only win in a major. He came achingly close on several other occasions but never did win a second major.

Now though, he’s The Ryder Cup captain and I think he’ll do very well because the job will mean so much to him on an emotional level, not just a professional one and because the players like him so much. Davis is one of those guys who is constantly described as, “my best friend,” by other guys in the locker room. There aren’t that many guys you can say that about but Davis is one of them.

He was one of the first players I got to know well when I was working on, ‘A Good Walk Spoiled.’ In fact, it was while talking to Davis that it first occurred to me that covering golf was going to be a lot more fun than covering, say, tennis. We were in Williamsburg at the old Anheuser-Busch Tournament. Davis was staying in a condo right on the grounds and we went there to talk after he played his first round on Thursday.

About two hours into the conversation I began to wonder how much longer I could go. So I said to Davis, ‘how are you set on time?’

He shrugged and said, “you said you were writing a book so I figured you needed a lot of time. I just blocked off the whole afternoon.”

Hallelujah. This came after spending time with tennis players who thought 20 minutes was the absolute limit that anyone should ever spend talking to a reporter. Davis became one of the more compelling stories in ‘A Good Walk Spoiled,’ and has been a go-to guy for me ever since.

The most pleasant surprise was seeing Nick Price. When people ask me who are the nicest people I’ve ever met in sports, Nick is right at the top of the list. He’s just a genuinely warm, kind human being. He was also the No. 1 player in the world in 1993 and 1994. He won three major championships. A few weeks ago he called Ken Kennerly, the Honda’s Tournament director, wondering if he could get a sponsor’s exemption to play. The Champions Tour is off this week and Nick lives practically next door to PGA National. He’s been feeling good about his game and wanted to see how he could do against the kids since he hasn’t played the regular tour since turning 50.

Kennerly, who is a good guy, told him he really didn’t have any spots, that he had commitments to a number of younger players and international players. Remember we’re talking about someone who is already in The World Golf Hall of Fame. We’re not talking about some guy who won a couple times on tour, we’re talking about a three-time major champion. Nick just said, “I understand Ken, no worries.”

Then he decided to use his one-time exemption for being in the top 50 (29th entering this year) on the all-time money list and not only play Honda, but a few other events this year. As he walked up and down the range on Thursday morning, he introduced himself to younger players; said hello to old friends—players, caddies, media—just the most regular guy you’ve ever seen. That’s Nick.

The first time I met him was late in 1993 when he was No. 1 in the world. He had no idea who I was but told me he’d be glad to talk to me for the book. He said he really didn’t know his schedule for 1994 yet so could I call him in about two weeks because he’d know by then. He gave me a phone number.

A couple weeks later, I called, expecting to get his agent’s office or an assistant or some kind of tape. Nick answered. “Hang on one second John, I’ve got a guy at the front door.”

He’d given me his home number. The No. 1 player in the world—to a guy he had just met. That’s Nick Price.

That’s why it is always nice to come back to the tour.


Matty said...

When I was 10 or 11, my dad took me to day two of The International (1989 or 1990, I think). It was my first time at a real golf tournament. After following Azinger's group for a while, we stayed at the 18th green for a while to see people finish. My dad let me go over where the players walked to the scorer's tent. The other kids shouted at the players to give them balls, tees, etc, which still bothers me. When Nick Price approached, I said "May I please have a ball, Mr. Price?" He stopped, handed me the ball, shook my hand, and thanked me for my good manners. I'll never forget that moment. What a gracious person he is. I've been a big fan ever since.

I also miss The International.

Anonymous said...

Similar story. A few years ago, a friend and his son and I went to Cog Hill on a Wednesday for the Western. The son approached Nick Price with a hat and felt tip pen and politely asked for an autograph; Mr. Price did so graciously. A dozen other kids surrounded him, and he signed all sorts of items with the same pen. Then he turned to the son, thanked him for his patience and manners, signed a ball and a glove, and gave same to the son along with the pen. Bravo Nick Price.

Gordon said...

For goodness sake Fienstien you are so soft! The drive to Pebble Beach is ONLY 3990 miles from your house.... ONE WAY! What could be better than watching Chris Berman play golf..... other than a root canal sans novicane. Sadly gone are the days of the Crosby Clambake. Replaced by a bunch of B listers who think that they are the story.

The odd thing about DL3 is that he such a contradiction. Seemingly always sour regardless of of it's the US Open, Ryder Cup or Heritage Classic he is actually a really nice guy.

bigflyer said...

From his facial expression, I had always thought DL3 craved Metamucil on the course.
However near the tee at last year's CVS Classic at Rhode Island CC, I happened to be standing next to a young boy who had a cast on his right forearm. DL came over and asked about the cast. The boy said he had broken it playing soccer. DL asked him if he played golf; when he replied that he did, DL told him to tee up a ball and slowly swing, using only his left hand as a drill. DL gave him a ProV1 and wished him a rapid recovery. What a nice man!

Anonymous said...


I hope you get this post. I just saw where the CEO of the Fiesta Bowl was fired for possibly stealing 2 million and that others involved in the bowl were committing similar offences. Could you please write about the need to dissolve the BCS and the only reason these bowls still exist in their current format is the greed of the Bowl and the Presidents. Eveyrone wants some sort of playoff. Please make it happen in my lifetime.