My year in golf: Sean Martin

Jhonattan Vegas after winning the Bob Hope Classic, his first victory on the PGA Tour.

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5:57:16 PM ET. 08/22/2014




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I begin my recollection of the past year with this anecdote, shared with me almost a year ago at the Bob Hope Classic. Why? Because it’s easy for us to forget how lucky we are. I’m especially guilty of that.

The story was told by John Fields, the University of Texas men’s golf coach, about his former charge, Jhonattan Vegas. Vegas, who grew up in Venezuela before moving to Texas, was holding one shoe as he walked down Sawgrass Country Club’s 18th hole during his Longhorn debut. He was so appreciative of the free shoes the school had given him that he didn’t dare say a word about their poor fit.

“He got the worst blisters you could ever get on your feet, and the guy never said a darn thing,” Fields said. “He’s just so appreciative of everything he’s earned. And if you really are super appreciative, what do you do? You give your absolute best. And that’s what he does, in everything he does.”

Vegas’ rise to the PGA Tour was incredible and improbable. What makes the story even better is that his younger brother, Julio, has become one of the nation’s best college players. The redshirt junior is No. 16 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, a contender for All-American honors and one of the reasons why Texas is the current favorite to win the NCAA Championship.

Vegas was one of several players who took an improbable path to the PGA Tour winner’s circle in 2011. It was one of the year’s great storylines. Keegan Bradley, Brendan Steele and Scott Stallings can be included in that bunch. All of them played at small colleges before visiting golf’s mini-tours, the Nationwide Tour and finally the PGA Tour. Having spent most of their careers out of the spotlight, they seemed especially appreciative of their current position. It was refreshing to see winners with such enthusiasm.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little kid,” Stallings said after his win at the Greenbrier Classic. “I was that little boy running around, chasing autographs and yelling at guys because they wouldn’t stop and sign my golf balls or so on and so forth.”

The best thing about my beat at Golfweek is I get to cover a little bit of it all, everything from amateur and college golf to the majors. Golf’s Grand Slam events are special. I never dreamed of setting foot on Augusta National or England’s linksland, nor could I have imagined playing in either setting, which I did this year.

Getting to spend time with players away from the course is one of the more interesting parts of the job. You get a better feel for their true colors and see the environment that produced them. Spending a few days with Patrick Cantlay at his home course, Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Calif., was especially enlightening.

Cantlay and his instructor, Jamie Mulligan, practice on a corner of the club’s property, hitting balls into a field they call “The Lab.” The title is a nod to irony, not science. Mulligan stands several feet away as Cantlay hits balls, then offers single-word directives as he helps Cantlay work through a change in his backswing. High-tech, it is not.

When Cantlay is finished hitting balls, he drives off in a cart and shags them himself, flipping them with his wedge into a leather bag. They do things slowly at Virginia Country Club. They’re a contemplative bunch. The pace at Virginia Country Club is a nice change from the frenzied world that surrounds it.

Unfortunately, more and more of us live by this hurried pace and don’t have time to fit this great game into our lives. I’m one of them. I’d love to write next year that I played more golf. I’m not sure it will happen, but I have some ideas about what might help myself, and others, spend more time with the game.

I’ve seen a lot of things at my time at Golfweek. This one blew my mind: mandatory carts at a par-3 course. I also encountered mandatory carts at a 6,200-yard public course, despite the fact that there were no lengthy hikes from tee to green. That needs to stop. I spend enough of my life sitting. I don’t want to do it on a golf course.

Where have the nine-hole and super-twilight rates gone? With 60 or 90 minutes of daylight remaining, I’d gladly spend $15 to try to squeeze in as many holes as possible. Wouldn’t a course operator want that money?

Why not spend the first 75 minutes of each day allowing golfers to play just your course’s back nine? There’s nothing like being first off the tee. Some people only have the appetite, endurance or pocketbook for nine holes, though. Why should a two-tee start be limited to professional events?

Some of my local courses are getting creative. Not enough, though. More are beginning to embrace Twitter and Facebook. Kudos to them.

One morning, a local course sent an email saying their afternoon was light on tee times. They were offering discounted rates for anyone who wanted to play that afternoon. I thought it was a great idea. Golf, at least for me, has become more of a spontaneous activity. Unpredictable work and personal schedules, as well as the fact that playing golf has been pushed down our list of priorities, mean my friends and I no longer plan tee times 7-10 days in advance. I don’t think we’re alone in that regard.

I do know one thing, though. It’s a great game that I feel fortunate to spend my days following.

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