Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Blue Monster

Despite the fact that the Fantasy Golf Report has only existed since June of 2011, you could say that it was conceived on March 9, 1997* at the final round of the Doral-Ryder Open.  (If you smell a self indulgent tale coming on, your olfactory senses do not deceive you).  But this story actually begins few months earlier on a cold night in December in the basement of a rented townhouse outside of Baltimore where about a dozen gambling addicts had gathered with random copies of Golf Digest, USA Today, T.V. Guide and anything else they could find with a reference to professional golf to help guide them through what had to be one of the first ever fantasy golf drafts (Rotonews wouldn't publish its first internet fantasy football report for another two months and it took two more years for Yahoo to start offering fantasy sports games).

"You'll be hearing from our
lawyer for that one."
If we'd just had one guy who knew how to write a computer program, we'd probably all be rich today. Unfortunately, we were nothing more than a genetically inferior version of the Winklevoss twins and all I've gotten out of the league is a comprehensive and otherwise useless knowledge of professional golf and, fourteen and a half years later, the inspiration for this website.

You may remember 1997 as the year that one Eldrick "Tiger" Woods decided to make golf his full time job.  After a dominating amateur career followed by two wins and three other top 5's in his last six professional tournaments of the previous season, I expected him to be the No.1 pick in the fantasy draft but luckily the five guys picking ahead of me weren't as convinced (including the guy who picked 1996 U.S. Open champion Steve Jones No. 1 overall. I still enjoy mocking that pick and there's no better way to disperse a group of people than by saying, "remember that fantasy golf draft 15 years ago when you took Steve Jones with the first pick and I got Tiger at No. 6." Let's get to the point  before that line has the same effect here).  I jumped on Tiger with the 6th pick, took the late great Tommy Tolles** with the 19th and Steve Elkington with the 30th (more on him later as I promise this is all relevant, if not the least bit interesting).

"And for my third round pick I was really torn
 between Elkington and Billy Andrade but I went
with Elkington and oh boy am I glad I did." 
Fast forward to March of 1997 when, as a third year law student,  I was diligently preparing for my class on "Law Before the Romans" by flipping through a book of cave drawings. (I did not make that up.  The third year of law school is the biggest waste of educational energy since driving school. Unless of course you're a woman for whom driving school was probably like trying to learn quantum physics . . . in Chinese. Right Norm? - Norm McDonald on Women Drivers).  Out of nowhere I was saved by a call with an offer to attend the final round of the Doral-Ryder Open that weekend along with the opportunity to play the Blue Monster the following day so I put down my book of cave drawings, grabbed my Tommy Armour 845's and jumped on a plane.

At that stage of my golfing career, I was still relatively new to the game having picked it up in earnest to fill the void that was created when I was excused from my college lacrosse team six years earlier (that's a whole other column, if not a series of columns) but I had gotten good enough that I could post something in the mid 70's on an easy course under ideal conditions.***  I distinctly remember on the flight down making a commitment to myself that I wasn't going to waste this opportunity by leaving my swing in a South Beach bar on Sunday night.  Our plan was to go out hard on Saturday night, spend the day at the tournament on Sunday, grab some dinner, get a good night's sleep and then be primed for our 10:00 a.m. tee time on Monday.  I just needed to stick . . . to . . . the . . . plan.

SUNDAY AT DORAL

Everything was right on schedule until we hit the grounds of Doral on Sunday and met our man on the scene who didn't hand us tickets but instead gave us each a small round badge.  "What do these give us access to?" we asked . . . . "Everything" he said . . . . "Uh oh" I thought.  To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, "the best laid plans of mice and men (who have just been given access to every corporate tent at a professional golf tournament) often go awry."

"I'm telling you it rides like a dream
and the stereo?  Forget about it."  
The next eight hours may have been the most fun I have ever had at a sporting event thanks to the fact that (1) there was a tent with an open bar everywhere you turned (as a law student with no money, I would've been stuffing drinks in my pocket if I could have figured-out how to do it); (2) the tournament was in South Florida right before the era of Tigermania (he would win the Masters five weeks later) so there was hardly anyone there and we could practically walk with the players including guys like Norman, Duval, Vijay and Mickelson (if you love the game, the first time you see the pros play it up close is definitely a "wow" moment); and (3) my man Steve Elkington won by two and I can vividly remember repeatedly telling everyone within earshot that a guy on my fantasy team had just won the tournament.  Equally as vivid is the memory of the disinterested looks on their faces like I had just told them that I was seriously considering the purchase of a used Buick.        

When the tournament was over we worked our unlimited access for as long as possible by sitting on the clubhouse patio a couple of tables over from Elkington as I barely resisted the urge to walk over and tell him how much his victory meant to me on a personal level. At one point, a Golf Channel reporter with a cameraman in tow (his name was Scott Van Villet or something) came over to talk to us as he knew a member of our crew (cool but a distant second to my Winn McMurray encounter at last year's U.S. Open - The U.S. Open Update).  As the sun went down we were kindly asked to move on at which point we realized that our car was about a half mile away on the other side of the course.  Luckily for us, we stumbled upon a four seated golf cart with the keys in it and, after a quick look around to make sure the coast was clear, we jumped in and started it up.  We made it approximately four feet before we were surrounded by security guards. Apparently our badges had expired.

At that point we were completely spent so we drove back into South Beach and went out for another five hours. All I remember is that we ended-up in an apartment somewhere downtown that had an all black toilet (funny how you remember the color of the toilet when you spend about ten minutes with your head directly above it). My last thought before things went dark, "I'm breaking 80 tomorrow."

THE BLUE MONSTER

"Hope you brought your
"A" game big boy."
"DUDE WAKE UP WE'RE GOING TO MISS OUR TEE TIME!"  Not the words you want to hear when you're supposed to be mentally preparing for the round of your life.  For the next 45 minutes as we raced through a fast food drive thru and then to the course, I felt like Jonah Hill on the limo ride to the Today Show in Get Him to the Greek.  When we arrived, we were surreptitiously ushered to the starter and it became very clear that we may or may not have been on the tee sheet.  Just as I thought this round wasn't going to happen, we were told, "Ray Floyd and his group are going off now and I'm going to try to slide you in behind them." . . . "Can we hit balls? . . . "No!  Just be ready to go when I say go and oh yeah, we're playing from the tips."  Between the sudden urgency, playing behind Raymond Floyd and the unabsorbed remnants of last night's effort, I looked and felt like a Shake Weight.

For those who watched this past weekend, you know that the first hole is a very short downwind par 5.  I either somehow managed to steady myself or I made so many mistakes in my swing that they all cancelled each other out because I pounded my tee shot down the middle and then did it again with my 5-wood.  The next thing I knew, I was staring at a 30 foot eagle putt to start the round.  After looking at it from at least eight different angles, I left it 15 feet short.  (Noooooooo!!!!!!!!!)  Then I stepped-up and drained the birdie putt (Yaaaaayyyyy!!!!!!!)  Here is everything else I remember about the next five hours:

1.  I hit into 19 bunkers (I know this because I started writing them down after the 8th one in the first 7 holes);
2.  The 13th hole is a 245 yard par 3 that was playing into the wind so I hit driver, popped it up and had a full 9-iron for my second shot;
3.  At one point, one of my playing partners got so frustrated that he played an entire hole just walking along whacking his ball one-handed with a 6-iron like a polo player without a horse;
4.  I split the 18th fairway with my tee shot, then hit a 5-wood onto the front edge and promptly three-jacked it to shoot 98.  (I'm mentally exhausted just remembering how I felt on that 18th hole).

I gained a whole new respect for tour players, especially the guys like John Daly and Roger Maltbie who used to do it week in and week out under the same adverse conditions that I faced that day.  I got another crack at the Blue Monster seven years ago.  This time I played it from the blue tees but didn't fare much better as evidenced by the fact that my 5-iron is at the bottom of the lake to the left of the 10th fairway after I sent it in looking for my ball (FGR, February 10, 2012).  I guess I shouldn't feel too bad considering one of my picks for this past weekend, Adam Scott, did the same thing on the 8th hole on Friday (with just the ball, not the club).  From there he shot 74, 71 on the weekend and lost by 7. He should have splashed the club on Friday.  At least then he would have had a story to tell.                                       

ENDNOTES

"Take a straight and stronger course
to the deep end of the pool . . . "
* March 9, 1997 was also the day that Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles. I only know this because when I googled "March 9, 1997" to make sure it was a Sunday, a story about Biggie's death was the first entry. I don't want to paint the picture that I was the kid from the suburbs who longed for the edgy lifestyle of the hip-hop scene. On the contrary. We were perfectly happy playing tennis all day and getting bombed on Milwaukee's Best while listening to The Yes Album. In fact, I can remember walking out of a summer matinee of Boyz in the Hood with three friends in a state of total petrified silence before someone finally said, "hey, let's go windsurfing" after which everyone breathed a sigh of relief.    

** There are not many golf careers as curious as that of Tommy Tolles. He finished 2nd at the '96 Players, 3rd at the '96 PGA, 3rd at the '97 Masters, 5th at the '97 U.S. Open but never made the cut in a major after '97 and has spent most of his time since toiling away on the Nationwide Tour. He's golf's version of every actor in The Breakfast Club.

*** My fairly rapid rise (descent?) to a single digit handicap was a direct product of (a) working at a golf store (that's also several other columns) with an indoor hitting cage for three years and (b) shamelessly milking the family membership at my dad's club as a student until the pro asked me how many times they were going to let me repeat my senior year. It was always a little dicey on those midweek afternoons in October when he'd ask "how's school going?" and I'd respond "great, thanks" and then put my head down and walk to the first tee.

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