My Year in Golf, 2016: Jeff Babineau

My Year in Golf, 2016: Jeff Babineau

PGA Tour

My Year in Golf, 2016: Jeff Babineau

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As 2016 winds down, members of the Golfweek staff reflect on their year in golf. Up next: Jeff Babineau.

• • •

Ah, another year in the books. Thirty-plus years into this business, and the calendars are starting to run faster than Usain Bolt. Here are some scattered thoughts and musings, sights and sounds, from another year hopscotching Planet Earth and chronicling this great game, which I feel quite privileged to do:

• • •

I started my 2016 in the Dominican Republic, at the Latin America Amateur. A 16-year-old from Costa Rica named Paul Chaplet would win, which made you feel for the University of Minnesota assistant who was down there recruiting Chaplet pretty much by himself. Victory and a berth in the Masters can open up some options. (Chaplet later would verbally commit to Arizona State.)

But two stories from that week’s event at Pete Dye’s famed Teeth of the Dog stand out: one was Uruguay’s Juan Alvarez, a stocky and powerful player who’d been mugged only two days before arriving in La Romana. He’s a tiny cannon who gets on a bus to travel an hour each way, every day, just to practice. He hails from a rough area, and golf probably saved him.

The other memorable character was Haiti’s Jacklin Jean, a beanpole of a man whose rounds of 101-97 left him 61 shots off the pace after 36 holes. With Jean, though, it wasn’t about the numbers. A father of five, he’d just taken up golf, hitting balls in a field as some of his children shagged them. He beat five players in a qualifier to get to the LAAC using three clubs: an 8-iron, a pitching wedge and a putter. The staff at Casa de Campo took such a liking to Jean that it gave him a bag with his name stitched on it, and somebody gave him his first full set of irons. Yes, we grow this game one player at a time.

Judging from his huge grin, Jean was happy to be a small part of it.

• • •

The Can’t-Believe-We-Just-Saw-What-We-Saw moment of 2016 happened late Sunday afternoon in Augusta, at the Masters, down at Amen Corner.

Jordan Spieth led by five when he made the turn, went bogey-bogey, then faded his tee shot at the par-3 12th that finished weakly short and wet. It seemed to take forever for him to decide on a spot to drop, and thousands jammed into the corner right of the 11th green and behind the 12th tee stood on tippy toes and craned necks to see his next shot, his third, from way over near the 13th fairway. The glare of the sun made it tough to see his ball; soon, though, there was a collective gasp as more circles rippled in the Rae’s Creek tributary.

Spieth made a 7. Quad. Patrons were shocked. Hushed. They peered to the huge board left of the empty 11th hole, trying to figure out who might be the beneficiary of this collapse. Turns out England’s Danny Willett would be the guy.

Spieth fought hard on the way in, made a couple birdies, but the damage was done. His golf wasn’t very good on this day. His humanity and humility proved exemplary. Can you imagine being 22 years old, blowing the Masters, then having to, in a matter of minutes, gather yourself to slip the green jacket over another player’s shoulders? All in front of a huge crowd and millions more watching on television?

On this day, one of the great traditions of the Masters served up a tough dish. But Spieth handled it like a true pro, making you forget he’s but 22. Impressive.

• • •

For two years, my own golf game has been atrocious. I hurt my left wrist, starting flinching into the ball, and these days cannot find a fairway with the driver. Breaking 80, much like Size-34 jeans, today is but a distant memory. It reached the point where I turned down some nice invites this year to places I’d normally die to play as my passion for playing this game gets tested mightily.

My role as president of the Golf Writers Association of America (the two-year term ends in April) is a nice honor, and it includes the person in office being a voter every other year as the World Golf Hall of Fame selects a new class. To be in that room is special. This was the lineup along one row of the room, against the window, set up in a U-shaped formation: Annika Sorenstam, Jack Nicklaus, Tim Finchem, Nancy Lopez, Gary Player. I mean, with that as a starting point, who else is deserving of a nod to get into the Hall?

We’d meet early on Monday morning, which meant a drive a day earlier (on my birthday, no less) to the tony Bears Club in Jupiter, Fla., where first we would gather to play a little golf.

In my foursome? Lopez, golf’s classy queen, who still hits it well, that lengthy stop at the top of her backswing before transitioning down pausing long enough to tell two stories before contact.

I played very well, found some fairways, putted like Nancy in her Ray Cook-prime days, and made a few birdies. When rain held us to nine holes, it was fine with me. The day could not have been better. And it was topped off that evening with a dinner at a table with Gary and Vivienne Player. It’s always highly entertaining to hear the Black Knight tell his stories. As birthdays go, a pretty memorable 54th, I’d have to say.

• • •

There were plenty of fun and warm times in 2016. The day after the epic Henrik Stenson-Phil Mickelson Duel in the Sun II at Troon, in Scotland, the Golfweek gang made our way down to St. Andrews. That meant lunch with Jack and Sheena Willoughby at The Dunvegan, one of our favorite spots on the planet, and a round on the Old Course. I was joined by Golfweek cohorts Jim McCabe and Alex Miceli and my Florida Southern fraternity brother, Marco Dawson, who happened to be on his way to Carnoustie to defend his British Senior Open title. We had a great time (though, come to think of it, Miceli still may be inside Hell Bunker, trying his best to swat his ball over the tall sod wall).

There was cool golf to walk along and witness. Hometown hero Nick Carlson at storied Oakland Hills, nearly making the finals at the U.S. Amateur. Underdogs Jim Herman and Billy Hurley III winning on the PGA Tour. I walked inside the ropes for all 18 holes of the Rory McIlroy-Patrick Reed Sunday singles duel at the Ryder Cup. The atmosphere was incredibly tense, with McIlroy egging on the partisan crowd, and Reed answering.

The scene on the eighth green at Hazeltine is one of the coolest I’ve ever witnessed in this game. McIlroy first rolls in his 70-footer for birdie, prancing around like a prizefighter. And when the crowd hushed, Reed, needing to make from 25 feet, knocked in his answer, turning to Rory and wagging that finger again. Uh-uh, Rory. But what made the moment truly great – and makes our game great – is what happened next, with McIlroy waiting for Reed at the back of the green. A smile, a fist bump, a return pat on the back from Reed. Terrific stuff. They knew they were delivering a show. Afterward, McIlroy said outside the media center at Hazeltine that he was completely spent after that putt fell. It was all the gas he had. Reed won, 1 up.

By the way, that huge breeze that just moved the drapes in your living room? That was an audible, tangible sigh of great relief from a meeting room at PGA of America headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The U.S. owns the Ryder Cup again.

It was a year of great losses, too. Peggy Kirk Bell, golf’s matriarch at Pine Needles. Gary Planos, the extra-kind host extraordinaire at Hawaii’s Kapalua for so many years. (He peppered his island visitors constantly with, “What can I do for you? Can I do anything for you?”) Our old pal Kenny Carpenter from Golfweek.com’s early days, a free-thinker and generous soul who tried single-handedly to bring the Olympics to his beloved Cleveland. I’ll never forget the kindness and faith shown by the parents of 5-year-old Hudson Lais (his dad, Barrett, is an assistant coach at Arkansas), who trusted me enough to openly share their emotional story of an incredible young boy who made an impact in his short time on earth.

There’s another guy who we’re really going to miss. There are two indelible scenes I’ll carry with me for some time that involve Arnold Palmer. The first is the sight of watching Arnold seated in his cart alongside the grandstands left of the 18th hole at his beloved Bay Hill, site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in March. He was watching World No. 1 Jason Day complete his victory.

Since the mid-80s, I’d always try to stand somewhere nearby Palmer on Sunday when the winner came off, to hear the words of wisdom and encouragement the King would offer his newest champion. Mr. Palmer appeared frail when Day shook his hand, but he gave him the trademark smile and thumbs up. A real trooper.

Moments later, as the crowd thinned out, I also shook Mr. Palmer’s hand as I left the green to head to the press tent, barely able to get these words out: “Thank you, Mr. Palmer. For everything.” It needed no more expansion than that.

• • •

Some six months later, golf gathered as one in the blue-collar town of Latrobe, Pa., to say farewell to the game’s greatest ambassador. Already, the autumn leaves were changing colors, and more than 100 private planes flew into the town’s tiny Arnold Palmer Regional Airport on that foggy morning, running on a tight schedule like trains out of New York.

Time, we know, is undefeated, and nobody lives forever. We just thought that if anyone would buck that, it would be Mr. Palmer. He was the King, but did so many things, and touched so many people, with a heartfelt commoner’s touch.

At the reception afterward, former PGA Tour player Robert Damron, one of Mr. Palmer’s longtime Bay Hill neighbors and frequent golf and card partners, told a story about Palmer helping to get him into the old Bob Hope event in Palm Springs. Damron played well in his first round in the desert, and had barely signed his card when an official told him there was a fax waiting for him. (Remember those?) Damron unfurled it and saw it was from his Bay Hill pal. “Great playing,” it read. A small gesture that sums up Mr. Palmer’s caring and kindness. Damon choked back tears telling the story.

Tears fill my eyes now just thinking of Arnold Palmer and all that he did for every one of us who has any connection to this game. And while player of the year accolades in 2016 are divided among Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and the like, my nomination is Sam Saunders, Arnold’s grandson. Without a single note written down (that’s how his grandfather, who he called “Dumpy,” would do it), Saunders delivered a eulogy directly from the heart, talking about the last time he spoke to him by phone.

“There wasn’t a big difference between the man you saw on TV and the man we knew at home,” Saunders said in describing his famous grandfather. “We are all here for the same reason. We all loved Arnold Palmer.”

He’s right about that. There will not be another like him.

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