My Year in Golf: From the race track to Riviera, and everywhere in between

My Year in Golf: From the race track to Riviera, and everywhere in between

Golf

My Year in Golf: From the race track to Riviera, and everywhere in between

My year in golf started not on a golf course but on a race track.

Out of all the people I met in 2017, Nick Galante definitely has one of the more interesting lives. Not only does he race cars for a living, competing in the IMSA Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge Series, but he also caddies at Pebble Beach during the offseason.

So how did I end up at Daytona International Speedway in January? Well, Galante’s car is co-sponsored by Rickie Fowler. In fact, a picture of Fowler winning The Players was on the hood of Galante’s and co-driver Spencer Pumpelly’s Porsche. One of Fowler’s friends, Justin Bellinzoni, owns the car.

On that day at Daytona, Galante was gracious with his time. I toured his trailer and garage, and even got to sit in the car before the race. (That would be like Fowler letting me swing his driver on the range before a big tournament.) During the race, I sat with Galante’s crew as he and Pumpelly raced to a third-place finish. Well done.

Nick Galante prepares for his race – with Rickie Fowler on the hood!

• • •

Back in 2013, I was at Martis Camp for the U.S. Junior Amateur when I really got to know Doug Ghim and his father, Jeff. You could instantly feel the love Jeff had for his son, who advanced to the semifinals that year before losing to future Texas teammate – and eventual champion – Scottie Scheffler.

Earlier in match play that year, Ghim holed a long eagle putt to clinch his match. The huge fist pump was caught on camera by Golfweek’s former photographer Tracy Wilcox. A couple of years later, I was having dinner with Jeff and his wife, Susan, after one of the rounds at the 2015 NCAA Championship when I saw Jeff’s phone background. Yep, the photo of Doug’s fist pump at the 2013 U.S. Junior.

Over the years, Jeff would often caddie for Doug in summer amateur tournaments. It’s hard to forget the embrace between the two that was caught on camera after Doug advanced to the final of the U.S. Amateur Public Links in 2014. Had Doug won that event, he would’ve clinched a Masters invite. Yet, Ghim lost a 1-up lead through 35 holes, and was defeated on the first extra hole. Tears.

Last August, Jeff again caddied for Doug, this time in the U.S. Amateur at Riviera. With every made putt and every match victory, Jeff’s excitement for his son grew. While some criticized Jeff for being too emotional on the course, I loved seeing that passion. It was all positive.

Even when Doug lost in the final to Doc Redman – in extra holes and after leading 2 up with two to play, no less – Doug and his family showed great sportsmanship. In interviews, Doug remained his insightful self. He was obviously crushed, but he didn’t sulk. Again, all positive.

It helped that he already had a Masters invite in his back pocket courtesy of his semifinal victory a day earlier. Doug attended the 2015 Masters and felt a bit of sadness when he saw Byron Meth, who beat him in that 2014 Public Links final. Now he can’t wait to get back.

Who will be on his bag? Dad, of course.

Doug Ghim celebrates with his mother, Susan, and father, Jeff, after winning his semifinal match at the 2017 U.S. Amateur at Riviera. (USGA/Chris Keane)

• • •

One of the first events I covered for Golfweek was the 2012 U.S. Junior Amateur in New Hampshire. I already knew about some of the bigger names in the field. Jim Liu was a past U.S. Junior champion and medaled on his way to the final that year. Beau Hossler was just coming off of his memorable U.S. Open performance. Andy Zhang also had just played at Olympic Club.

But Maverick McNealy? I knew nothing about the skinny kid from Portola Valley, Calif., except that he had a cool name.

My first interview with McNealy actually came in the parking lot at the Golf Club at New Hampshire. With so many matches and players to keep track of, I missed McNealy finishing up his Round of 16 match. I remember thinking to myself, after I had just chased him to his car, “That was really nice of him.”

Years later, I still find myself thinking that. Even after he won 11 times at Stanford to tie Tiger Woods’ and Patrick Rodgers’ record. Even after he ascended to No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Even after he turned pro and signed big deals with Callaway, Under Armour and KPMG, and earned his Web.com Tour card. McNealy always has made himself available. (The card thanking me for all the coverage of him as an amateur was just icing on the cake.)

I also remember shortly after that 2012 U.S. Junior, I bet a former co-worker that McNealy, who at the time was a little-known recruit who was about to sign with Stanford, would at some point earn his PGA Tour card. He’s just one step away now and for once, I look pretty smart!

Interviewing Maverick McNealy at the Walker Cup

• • •

Personally, it was always going to be difficult to beat 2016 on the golf course. Augusta National. Hazeltine. Oakland Hills. Baltusrol. Those were just a handful of the courses I checked off my list last year.

But 2017 came close.

My annual trip to the NCAA Championship yielded a couple of rounds. First was the 27-hole Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill. With the winds howling, the course, which has just one tree on the entire layout, played very difficult. Still came away smiling, though. Next was Skokie Country Club for Western Amateur Media Day. Originally a Donald Ross course, Skokie was redesigned by William Langford and Theodore Moreau, but it is still very much a Ross-style course. I remember hitting the back of the par-5 18th green with a wedge and watching my ball end up atop the front lip of a front greenside bunker. Golf is hard!

Skokie Country Club

I really enjoy playing municipal golf courses. At home, I frequent Winter Park Country Club, a nine-hole course in Winter Park, Fla. Fitting that my only round overseas in England this year came at Southport Golf Links, a muni that offered us free golf late one afternoon because the people in the pro shop “went out to dinner.” We got in about 11 holes before the sun set. Probably my favorite muni I played in 2017, however, was the Charlie Sifford Course at Revolution Park in Charlotte. Home of the First Tee of Charlotte, the Sifford course is in great shape and offers some great elevation changes. The par-4 fifth green sits about 60 feet below the tee, making the hole drive-able for those who can hit about a 260-yard shot with a slight fade. Miss the green long or right and bogey is very much in play. That’s how a drive-able par 4 should be.

Southport Golf Links

Which leads me to the best drive-able par 4 in the world, in my opinion – the par-4 10th hole at Riviera Country Club, which I somehow was able to birdie this year despite trying to drive the green. Overall, Riviera definitely lived up to its reputation. Being from Florida, I absolutely love getting the chance to play on Poa annua and kikuyu. And after a week of walking The Riv during the U.S. Amateur and playing another 18 holes around it, I can say that it is probably my favorite of all the courses I’ve played.

The 10th hole at Riviera Country Club

• • •

Here is an assortment of other highlights from 2017:

When I first met U.S. Walker Cup captain Spider Miller at the 2015 NCAA Championship, I remember how easy it was to talk to him. He was funny, too. I spent a lot more time walking with him at tournaments in 2017, and enjoyed seeing him go out on top with a big win at Los Angeles Country Club. The next captain, Nathaniel Crosby, has big shoes to fill!

One of the most hilarious moments was this year’s Presidents Cup winner’s press conference. Instead of trying to describe it, I’ll just leave this here:

When I travel to tournaments, I hate sitting in my hotel room when I’m not at the golf course. Some of the best non-golf activities I did this past year include riding the Fury 325 roller coaster at Carowinds and seeing John Mayer in concert in Charlotte after the PGA Championship; seeing three MLB games in a week between Los Angeles and Milwaukee during the summer; sightseeing in Los Angeles with my colleague from England, Alistair Tait; playing a few holes with Tommy Fleetwood at Sage Valley before the Masters, and playing the dormie holes at Sage Valley at night with some of competitors at the Junior Invitational.

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