My year in golf: Jeff Babineau
Snapshots from my year in golf, and another year in my life:
It’s January, it’s Kapalua, and if there is a more beautiful setting in all of golf, well, this writer has yet to discover it. The wonder of the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, beyond the postcard-ready scenery, is that basically it’s golf’s version of baseball’s spring training. For many, there is offseason rust to knock off, but optimism is high. Everyone has unlocked the secret and is on the brink of a monster, career year.
It’s Friday evening and everyone has vanished into the Maui night except for one man standing on the practice green: Ernie Els. The Big Easy had shot 64 a day earlier, but on this day had a terrible time with the putter, taking 36 putts, and posted a score 10 shots higher. We’d had an interview scheduled, and after a proper cooling-off period, he’s honoring his commitment, chatting away about a wide array of subjects as he putts. And putts. And putts. At 41, he knew the putter would be the club that would define his year – and in the PGA Tour’s new “hot stat,” he’d finish 181st in strokes gained putting. Disappointing season.
However, before darkness ended his session, the strapping South African lit up as he spun forward a few months to his pending induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“Me going into the Hall of Fame? It’s ridiculous. I’m an Afrikaans kid,” Els said. “We were looked down on. We were the apartheid people, the roughnecks. Afrikaans kids would play rugby or become policemen.”
Or, in very, very rare cases, become Hall of Fame golfers. And even those guys shoot 74s every now and then.
• • •
The Tour is nearing the end of its West Coast Swing, and at Riviera, there's a palpable buzz in the atmosphere. For one, Riviera, near Beverly Hills, is just a cool place to be. But the season is starting to pick up a little momentum. Outside the clubhouse that sits atop the hill, an unshaved Matt Kuchar jokes that he has put away the razor for the week in order to get "discovered" by some Hollywood producer. Nearby, a worn-down D.A. Points still is talking about the previous week at Pebble, where he'd won his first Tour trophy and had a large time with actor/partner Bill Murray.
A former sportswriter pal now at Gaylord Sports Management asks me if I have a minute to meet one of the agency’s new rookies, who happens to be toiling on the putting green, minutes away from his first pro start at the Riv. Sure, I say, always happy to meet a fellow New Englander. So I say hello and get a polite “Nice to meet you” in return as the kid extends his right hand. You notice how young he looks, the curly locks bulging from his visor. You notice that he isn’t much thicker than that long putter he is wielding. Geez. Looks like a nice kid, you think. Hope the Tour doesn’t swallow him alive, you think. Hope he survives the year and is able to scratch out a living.
Actually, the kid would do a little better than that. Impressive youngster, that Keegan Bradley.
• • •
Two of my favorite trips of 2011 didn’t involve a PGA Tour stop. One was my annual trek to the Patriot Cup at The Patriot in Owasso, Okla. The combined mission of the Patriot Cup, The Patriot, The Folds of Honor and Patriot Golf Day is to lend a hand to the children and spouses of men and women killed or disabled on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. “No soldier left behind” is one motto of the mission’s energetic creator, Air Force Maj. Dan Rooney, who, since 2007, has helped raise $12 million for the cause.
The Patriot Cup, played over Memorial Day Weekend, is a stirring wake-up call that reminds Americans how fortunate we are to live in such a great country. I’m glad my oldest son, Keith, is along with me to get a taste. Of course, freedom isn’t free, and some Americans pay the ultimate price. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ramon Padilla, who lost his left arm in combat while in Afghanistan in 2007, has used golf as part of his rehabilitation. He says the game is "a big part of my life." His four children will attend college on scholarships from the Folds of Honor. Padilla is on the practice range hitting balls next to Hunter Mahan, one of a couple dozen pros who have generously given their time. I run into former Masters champion Larry Mize at the end of the day. He is holding the authentic leather bomber’s jacket Rooney had given him and seems genuinely awestruck by his visit. He says he wishes his sons were with him to see this day. At The Patriot, everything stops at 1 p.m. daily as a bell rings 13 times, signifying the 13 folds that transform a flag into a triangle. “It makes you well-up,” Mize said, talking about the tears and emotions the day stirred. “We need to well-up more.”
Amen to that.
My other “non-Tour” journey was a quick autumn jaunt to southwest Ireland to celebrate the launch of famed Getty golf photographer Dave Cannon’s new coffee-table book featuring the courses of Great Britain and Ireland. (It’s titled, aptly, “Golf Courses: Great Britain & Ireland.” If you love golf, as many of us do, it’s worth finding.) In a four-day trip, I’d stay in Michael Jackson’s old room at the quaint Ballinacurra House and tee up at Old Head, Tralee and the Old Course at Ballybunion, where I extended my streak to 3-for-3. That would be three trips to Ballybunion, three rounds, three Irish monsoons. This time, the icy rains pelted sideways, winds gusted to 50 mph and we were soaked by the time we reached the fourth green. (Yes, Michelle McGreevy, as you stood high and dry having already finished, I can still hear your laughter!) But we had an absolute blast, and somehow trudged through 18 holes. It reminded me why I love this game, though I could only imagine trying to play in those conditions a century ago, knocking around a Haskell ball with a mashie while cloaked in a wet tweed jacket.
• • •
Working at Golfweek for 13 years has blessed me with so many great adventures, and 2011 offered its fair share, including a year-end swing Down Under to Australia, where it was clear Tiger Woods was starting to find his game again.
But 2011 forever will hold an indelible place in my heart for a far different reason: In August, I lost my my mother, Suzanne W. Babineau, who’d been my compass for 48-plus years. She was a vibrant 73 (she’d kill me for putting her age in print), which was far too young to go. She’d seemed fine earlier in the summer when, on a brilliant July day, she treated my wife, son and me to a whale watch off the eastern tip of Cape Cod, where I’d grown up.
I wish I had an ounce of my mom’s never-ending optimism. On her final day on this earth, when I opened the shades in her hospital room before even the sun had awoken, she looked at me, smiled, and said through an oxygen mask, “I feel good.” I knew she didn’t, but she had a mother’s Ph.D. in uplifting the spirits of others. She did so right to her final hours, facing her fate with incredible courage and a strong faith.
My mom drove me to plenty of golf courses around Cape Cod back in my junior days, but wasn’t much of a golfer herself – though, on a whim, she decided to take up the game one day in her mid-60s. That led to one of the more memorable rounds of my life: I played nine holes on a par-3 layout on the Cape with my mom and my youngest son, Luke, who was about 4 at the time. The round was quite an adventure. I toted my own clubs on my back and pulled their two trolleys. A scene I remember vividly: I’d stayed with Luke as he worked his way up the left side of one particular uphill par 3, advancing about 20 yards a swat with his Snoopy clubs. When we eventually arrived to the green, my mom was standing there, just waiting.
“Need a club?” I asked. “Nope,” she told me. I looked all around. “Where’s your ball?” I asked. “Right here,” she said, displaying it somewhat proudly in her palm. “I’ve already played this hole for 10 minutes, so I picked up.”
Leave it to my mother to single-handedly fix golf’s slow-play woes.
That figures, because if anything ever was broken in my life, she swooped in and fixed it. I think about her every day. It hit me especially hard when I wandered down a Hallmark aisle a week before Christmas and realized I would not be sending her a card this season. Nor would I be receiving one. She sent the most thoughtful cards.
I miss her so much. It’s going to be a tough holiday.
Merry Christmas, Mom. I love you. And if I never said it enough, thank you.