By DOUG FERGUSON
ST. LOUIS – Padraig Harrington cleaned out his locker at the TPC Boston, signed a stack of flags from the British Open and PGA Championship, then headed to St. Louis to play on a course that brought mixed emotions.
It had nothing to do with his golf.
Harrington was among the first to arrive at Bellerive Country Club, where he has to finish fifth at the BMW Championship to avoid becoming the first double major winner to be ineligible for the Tour Championship.
Amid whatever pressure he might face, perspective comes easily.
“A journalist asked me a few weeks ago to talk about the golf course,” Harrington said. “Even what little I remember, I can’t even talk about that. Because it all relates to Sept. 11. How can I talk about the golf course when it’s all so insignificant? Yes, it will be awkward to go back.”
The last time Bellerive hosted the best players in golf was seven years ago for a World Golf Championship, and the city was humming. St. Louis had not seen this caliber of tournament golf since the 1992 PGA Championship. The course was in perfect shape. The sun was blazing. Even for a Tuesday morning, grandstands were filled.
Harrington had left his hotel and was headed to the course. Tiger Woods was out early, as usual, playing a practice round with Mark Calcavecchia. Vijay Singh had boarded his private plane in Florida, on the tarmac waiting to take off.
It was Sept. 11, 2001.
“As soon as I got to the course, I went to the locker room and someone said, ‘Quick, come watch on TV. Something has happened,’” Robert Allenby said. “The first plane had just hit the tower.”
Golf never felt so meaningless.
The rest of that Tuesday, players sat in front of the television and tried to fathom what had happened. Some went to the practice range or chipping area to take their minds off it. PGA Tour officials tried to figure out the next step. One day later, the American Express Championship was canceled.
For so many players at the BMW Championship, there always will be an emotional connection to Sept. 11.
“It will be kind of strange,” Allenby said. “I think it’s good that we’re going back, primarily because it’s such a good golf course. But it’s sad we’re going back because of the reason we didn’t play the first time.”
Even for those who weren’t in St. Louis the last time, the golf still might be meaningless.
Singh has won the first two playoff events, in a three-man playoff at The Barclays and with a final-round 63 to win by five shots at the Deutsche Bank Championship. He has a 12,225-point lead in the chase for the FedEx Cup, and could wrap up the $10 million prize this week.
It’s bad enough the drama is missing. So is the No. 1 player in golf.
Just their luck, a big event finally returns to St. Louis in a year that Woods has season-ending surgery on his left knee in June and is out for the rest of the year.
They saw him only briefly in 2001. Woods was on the course shortly after dawn. Joe Corless, the head of PGA Tour security, was walking with Woods and Calcavecchia and giving them updates on the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and a fourth plane that mysteriously crashed in western Pennsylvania.
“The whole day was pretty much a blur,” Woods said earlier this year.
Woods was in the locker room after that practice round when he looked at his arm, filled with goose bumps. The next event on his schedule was the Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England, and so began a debate whether to postpone the matches. They were played a year later.
Also at Bellerive that day was Dean Wilson, the American hardly anyone knew. Wilson had been playing on the Japan PGA Tour, and he finished high enough on its money list in 2000 to qualify for this World Golf Championship.
It was his second time playing a PGA Tour event. It was his first tournament with no cut and a guaranteed check. The purse was $5 million, among the largest in golf.
The next day, after tour officials canceled the event, Wilson was in the parking lot, quietly loading his clubs into the trunk, wondering if he would ever get another chance like this.
“I was excited to play in a World Golf Championship, be alongside all the great players,” Wilson said. “Then to have it come to such a weird ending, it was kind of surreal, being concerned with playing a golf tournament, then being concerned with what really was going on with these attacks.”
Wilson earned his PGA Tour card through Q-school later that year, captured his first PGA Tour victory in 2006, and returns this year at No. 41 in the FedEx Cup standings, hopeful of making it to the final round of the playoffs.
Even now, he remembers leaving Bellerive, the future uncertain in so many ways.
“What are we going to do now? We can’t even fly,” he said. “Then I was thinking about what was happening in New York. I didn’t have a clue to the magnitude of it all.”
Harrington has no qualms about plunging from No. 4 to No. 44 in the FedEx Cup standings after missing the last two cuts. It has helped being at Bellerive so early, a chance to return his focus to golf – trying to get into the Tour Championship, the Ryder Cup in two weeks.
“But it will be hard to think about anything but Sept. 11,” he said. “There will always be that connection for us. There will always be a reminder that there are bigger things than golf events.”