Schmitt: Everyone felt like a newbie when golf returned in Fort Worth
It had been a long time since I was the newbie.
My first newspaper byline — a high school baseball game I still vividly remember — came in 1989 in my hometown newspaper outside Buffalo, N.Y. I typed a dozen-or-so paragraphs on a vintage Brother typewriter, using gobs of whiteout to correct mistakes, all before dropping the finished product in the mailslot of my local paper for staffers to then retype into oversized computers the next morning in advance of a 9 a.m. deadline.
I’ve been fortunate enough to cover plenty of major events ever since. In fact, I’ve been in a room with many of the sports world’s biggest names; Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Jim Kelly, Tiger Woods and Mike Krzyzewski are among those who’ve fielded a question from yours truly over the past three-plus decades, whether they liked it or not. Usually, they were indifferent.
But there was something unique about making the drive from my home in Round Rock, Texas, just outside Austin, to cover the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth last June. It was only a three-hour trip, but at the time it seemed as if I was headed for a different planet. After months of sitting in my home office, this was finally a chance to get back out into society, to interact with athletes and to feel the thrill of competition.
When I got the job at Golfweek, just a few weeks before COVID brought the country to a halt, I’d been thrust back into the position of new kid on the block. I had to earn my spot on a seasoned roster with folks like Steve DiMeglio, Beth Ann Nichols, David Dusek, Adam Schupak and Eamon Lynch. There was no longer a need for whiteout, but the sentiment was the same.
I was the rookie.
The only reason I covered the Schwab was that we didn’t want our reporters to fly cross-country during the pandemic. Colonial Country Club was a quick drive for me, so I loaded up my truck and left before sunrise on a Tuesday morning, making only one pit stop — to snap a photo of the sun rising through Baylor’s McLane Stadium about halfway along I-35 from Austin to Fort Worth.
Being a grizzled ol’ media veteran, a room full of scribes and cameras doesn’t faze me much, but the setting at Colonial Country Club did. First, there was no traffic. None. In fact, I nearly pulled into the players’ lot upon arrival and only realized I’d made a mistake when an officer asked to see my players tag. Since my handicap is somewhere in the low teens, I didn’t have a Tour card readily available.
And even after getting on the grounds at Colonial, the scene was still unlike any other I’d experienced. When I covered the Final Four in San Antonio two years prior, I was crammed into press row so tightly I had to excuse those around me to grab a water bottle from the back of the table.
But at Colonial, they had us sectioned off in distant stations, making small talk next to impossible. There were only about two dozen folks in the media room, and players were somewhere nearby on the grounds during interview sessions, yet we reporters had to stare into laptops to converse with them.
Even for longtime golf writers around me, this was a whole new world.
After a few morning interviews, I headed outside to the practice green and that’s when it really hit me — this might have been unfamiliar territory for me, but everyone was acting like a rookie. The wide smiles. The hearty laughs. The camaraderie.
Practice rounds on the PGA Tour, which I knew from previous samplings, are always lighter, but they typically have a lunchpail feel. Players are enjoying a little sun, but they’re clearly working — finding the most advantageous spots in each fairway, looking for angles that suit their game, studiously soaking up their time on each green and mapping out potential pin placements.
But at Colonial, while there was some preparation taking place in advance of the tournament, this was clearly more about mental well-being. As much as these guys ruthlessly try to rip trophies from each others’ mitts each week, they do it together. Since they don’t have teams, per se, other competitors are the one constant. It’s unlike other sports in that regard. There is no team practice to keep the competitive juices flowing.
The distance, and downtime, was unsettling to many. And at Colonial, they were happy to be together again, acting almost like schoolkids in the process. The only interviews held in-person were by TV crews at the turn, and players even seemed to enjoy this sometimes tedious chore.
Of course, it wasn’t just PGA Tour players who were ecstatic that tournament play had restarted. Viewership on Golf Channel for the opening round of the Schwab was up 160 percent over the previous year. Some like Pat Henggeler who lived on or near the course took advantage by building structures to watch players whisk by.
But I assumed fans would be starving for action. What I didn’t expect was for longtime PGA Tour pros to act like this was their first go-round.
The perch from which fans watched on the 15th green included a makeshift PA announcer, who catcalled players as they came through. In other settings, this would have caused an uproar among players. In Fort Worth, however, they happily engaged with the fans. Phil Mickelson showed off his calves when the group asked, and Bryson DeChambeau waved when the announcer joked that the buffed-up star was “weighing in at 350 pounds.”
Later in the season, I was on hand for the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, the Vivint Houston Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, all great experiences.
But they weren’t the same as the Schwab.
It’s easy to get sucked into the daily grind. It happens to us all — writers, fans and even PGA Tour players.
And while the pandemic has been devastating on so many fronts, it’s also given many of us a renewed perspective. These moments — in competition, in victory, in sadness, in cooperation — are fleeting, even if they don’t feel so at the time. They might seem overwhelming, stressful, even burdensome. But when they’re gone, we’ll all look back and wish we could live through them one more time.
Wide-eyed. Like newbies.
Tim Schmitt is the managing editor of Golfweek. Follow him on Twitter at @TMSGolfweek.