My Year in Golf: Jeff Babineau
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Can it be that we’re really here already, one more chapter gently closed and a fresh year awaiting at dawn like glistening dew on a morning green? Why, it seems like only yesterday that we were standing behind the first tee at Kapalua’s Plantation Course on Maui, one of the game’s must-see five-star vistas, waiting for a PGA Tour event to begin on a Monday, which happened to be the very day it was scheduled to end.
That was our beacon-like signal right then to know that 2013 would not always be set squarely on its axis, but hey, that’s our wonderful game, right? It’s as refreshingly unpredictable as a John Daly tee ball. New venues, new faces, and always – always – new tales to tell and stories to share. The memory certainly isn’t as sharp as it once was, but here are a few recollections that still simmer when thinking about the year that was:
• • •
It’s a crisp February morning at PGA National in south Florida, and the world No. 1 is wishing he was anywhere but here. Rory McIlroy’s early 2013 bank account is looking quite prosperous as the robust Nike checks begin to clear, but his confidence is waning, his game is a mess and his patience is wearing thin. He no longer is looking like that mopped-haired little kid who wants to step out and play 36. Not on this day.
The errant shots are piling up, and it’s getting tiresome reaching into his bag to get new golf balls. So after he rinses one more shot short and right of the green at the par-5 18th hole, only his ninth hole of the morning, he will reach into the bag no more. He bypasses the area where a drop awaited, shakes the hands of suddenly stunned fellow competitors Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, and never stops as he marches with purpose directly to the parking lot.
There are only three reporters there as his clubs go into the trunk, and there are tears welled in his eyes as he tries to explain his pent-up frustration. “I’m not in a good place mentally, you know?” he sighs.
We know. That’s how we mortals feel practically every time we tee it up, kid.
• • •
In addition to watching Phil Mickelson play stand-up comic alongside second-year Tour player Jonas Blixt at a Tuesday night dinner at The Players, there are two contrasting Mickelson scenes that spring to mind from 2013: First, there’s the indelible image of Lefty fielding a few questions after watching another U.S. Open slip away at Merion. This makes a six-pack – count ‘em, six – of silver runner-up medals for the big left-hander at his national open, and this one seems a little different than the others. Painful. In '99, the impending birth of his first child – daughter Amanda – eased the sting.
At Winged Foot in 2006, where he bounced a 72nd-hole drive miles left off a tent, he was angry at himself. Here at Merion, after getting outclassed by Justin Rose in a tournament he thought he’d win, that was his to lose, he is simply, well, crushed. Gutted. He’d say later it took two days to get out of bed, and you wondered seeing him as dusk approached how long it might take to bounce back from this setback. This is the tournament he wants more than any other, and Phil left Philly a devastated man.
A month later, a different snapshot emerges, this one across the hotel television as I watch from my youngest’s baseball tourney in Myrtle Beach. At a place where he’s experienced mostly futility, the Open Championship, Mickelson has just finished the round of his life at Muirfield to become “champion golfer of the year.” His faithful sidekick, Jim “Bones” Mackay, is in tears as the two walk off the final green, and Bones is not alone. The big left-hander will return stateside with the Claret Jug. Wow. That’s how true champions rebound. A few weeks later, prior to the start of the PGA Championship, Mackay is walking around Oak Hill with his player's prized trinket, the most awesome winner's jug in golf, tucked away in his backpack, discreetly showing it off to some folks in the media. It’s pretty cool to hold that jug, to see champions ranging the Who's Who gamut from Mungo Park to Ben Hogan. Very cool. Thanks, Bones.
• • •
Mickelson, of course, is regarded as our game’s modern-day Arnold Palmer, a champion of the people who gives of his time and treats his fans well, spending hours after play honoring endless requests for autographs. But in September, there was a memorable day with another modern-day Arnold Palmer. As in, um, The Original himself, AP, at his summer home in Latrobe.
One trip around Latrobe Country Club and it’s easy to see how the place groomed and polished one of our game’s true greats. One has to drive it straight, hit accurate irons, putt across ultra-fast greens, and walk up and down some pretty rugged western Pennsylvania terrain. A perfect setting to groom a King. It’s here that when Palmer was a young boy, one female member would pay him a nickel to drive her golf ball across a ditch on a par 4. Arnie was 6.
“I made a nickel, and man,” Palmer said, smiling, “I was there every time she was.”
The September occasion was the inaugural Latrobe Classic sponsored by JetBlue and Golf Channel, one of so many charitable efforts to which Palmer has generously lent his time and supported through the years. Funds were raised for the Arnold Palmer Medical Center, which comprises the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, in Orlando, Fla., where Palmer has wintered since the 1960s.
This Orlando-based writer has had the privilege of seeing Palmer at Bay Hill since the mid-80s, but it was truly special to see him in Latrobe.
“This is home,” he said while seated in the clubhouse lounge on the eve of his 84th birthday, twirling an evening cocktail. “On a day like today, it’s perfect.”
He was right. It was.
• • •
OK, one last jog – well, these days, a brisk walk – down 2013 Memory Lane wouldn’t be complete without a mention of a favorite summer stop, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y., a time capsule of a place where decades stand still – and that’s a great thing. Short-but-stout Merion gave us not only a great show for the U.S. Open (gee, and they said it couldn’t be done), but a cool trip through the upstairs club archives and a day-after round to boot. We made our annual visit to Tulsa, Okla., for the Patriot Cup, which benefits the noble Folds of Honor. It’s a rarity: a one-day stop where PGA Tour pros show up for no fee and leave town feeling quite richer (Reminder to all: Our freedom isn’t free. It warms me that my three boys would rather spend a day there than at Augusta, which is saying something.)
There was an 11th-hour call from our Events Department bullpen to step in for my esteemed and understandably travel-weary colleague Bradley Klein in leading a group of dedicated (and fun) Golfweek Raters through Ireland in September, which proved thoroughly enjoyable, including my first dry round at Ballybunion Old, a special place, and first-time visits to Lahinch and Doonbeg. And another whirlwind year was made complete in Columbus, Ohio, in September, when I decided to venture out onto the golf course on a deathly slow-paced Sunday at the Presidents Cup hoping to encounter a little color. And yes, it arrived in spades when, standing a few feet from U.S. captain Fred Couples as Steve Stricker and Ernie Els got to the 17th tee, a female streaker jumped through the ropes next to us, darted to the tee, greeted the mild-mannered Stricker, juked past a police officer, and dashed down the fairway to spice up the proceedings. I mean, how else can an old guy like me make it onto the pages of the New York Daily News?
After all, as we’d discover only a few days into 2013 at Kapalua, this would be no ordinary year. And here’s hoping that 2014 is just as thoroughly unpredictable.