My year in golf: Jeff Rude
What I’ll remember and cherish most from 2011 was Jan. 24. It was my first day on the road in the new year. It was among my longest days of the year, but it clearly was the best.
The alarm went off at about 4 a.m., and the trip to the Orlando airport began about 45 minutes later for a cross-country flight to San Diego. There are better times of day for a night owl. There are easier flights than Orlando-to-San Diego.
But it didn’t matter because I eagerly anticipated one meaningful experience and one special lifetime moment that day in perhaps America’s best city.
The first was a long interview with Barry Jaeckel, who had let The Players Championship slip from his grasp 30 years earlier, in 1981. Right after that came one of my favorite times ever: Celebrating my son Scott’s engagement while watching the sun go down from a sea wall in nearby Del Mar.
The doubleheader meant I had to get busy fast upon landing. Job 1 after driving up to La Jolla was downing a Red Bull or two for necessary energy. Job 2 was buying an engagement card, two premium cigars and a bottle of champagne for the surprise celebration. Job 3 was getting to the Jaeckel interview at the Torrey Pines Hilton on time during early afternoon.
Remarkably, I lucked into one-stop shopping. I somehow found a place in La Jolla that basically sold all necessary items for Jobs 1-2: Red Bull, card, stogies, bubbly and ice. My kind of place. Later, a nice woman at the Hilton would lend me two champagne glasses for the day.
Jaeckel was in the Hilton lobby when I arrived at the appointed time. After I had made several calls to him and wore him down with persistence, he had agreed to meet with me, partly for nostalgic reasons. I had left this message on his answering machine at least once: “I’m the reporter you had dinner with before the final round of the 1981 TPC, and I’d like to catch up to do a story on you 30 years later. I’m curious what it’s been like for you.”
He liked the idea, finally called me back and arranged a meeting time and place. So he and his wife drove over from Palm Desert.
You might say it was a reunion. Thirty years earlier, I covered the Jaeckel story as the golf writer at the now-defunct Jacksonville Journal. When the fourth round was postponed until Monday because of bad weather, I tracked him down at his beachside hotel on Sunday night and had dinner with him at a little beach diner across the street called The In Place.
He was the unlikely leader by three strokes after 54 holes, and he was nervous. So nervous that he spilled a glass of water all over the table during dinner. If I’m not mistaken, the water did a good job of drenching my brown corduroy pants.
Jaeckel couldn’t have been more gracious back then – that Sunday night and the next afternoon after missing a 7-foot putt on the 72nd hole and losing a playoff to Raymond Floyd. And he couldn’t have been nicer during our Jan. 24 visit that lasted almost three hours.
It was the first time I recalled seeing him in three decades. He was pleasant, funny and candid, just as I had remembered him. Even though it was a reconnection with an acquaintance from just one interesting, long-ago week in my life, I left feeling as if I had caught up with an old friend and closed an unfinished chapter.
Then came the main event.
A couple of days earlier, in Miami, my son had proposed marriage to a great woman whom he had met years before through high school golf and dated the previous three years. The good news is, she said yes.
A field producer for Golf Channel, he also was in San Diego that week, working the Farmers Insurance Open. So right after leaving Jaeckel, I called him and said, “Meet me in downtown Del Mar in 10 minutes.”
So we met there and drove a couple of blocks and pulled off on a side street. I pulled the champagne out of the back seat and got the cigars, card and glasses out of the trunk.
“We’re here to celebrate and talk and watch the sun go down while sitting on that sea wall over the there along the ocean,” I said.
So we did. It was a glorious, peaceful time – father-son bonding at its best. And it came, I believe, on the same sea wall where five years earlier Tom Lehman and I shared a bottle of red wine and talked about what Ryder Cup captain ideas he got from a recent visit with former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
Scott and I followed the sunset toasts with dinner down the street at a cool restaurant on the ocean. He told me at dinner their preliminary invitation list for the wedding featured about 450 guests. The only thing I could think of saying was, “I like that you are reaching out to everyone, but who’s paying for it?”
You might say the list is much shorter now, six months away from the nuptials.
Anyway, I finally got to bed late that night. That means I was up almost 24 straight hours. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a beautiful merging of tired and happy.