Looking Back To 9/11

September 11, 2007

Tiger Woods, Mark Calcavecchia, Joe Corless (from the right) on September 11, 2001.

I was on a flight from Atlanta. We landed in St. Louis, like it was any other day, any other morning. We turned at the end of the runway and taxied toward the terminal. But instead of turning right, into our gate, we turned left, alongside another commercial jet. I had the bulkhead on the window, and lined up, one after another, looked to be about 20 airliners. The pilot's voice came on the intercom. There had been a Federal air stoppage. All planes had been grounded. He would be back to us with more information.

Cold silence, followed by the impulse to hit the speed dial, but the nation's cell towers were locked in overload. I couldn't reach my wife. Finally, Ron Sirak picked up at the Golf World office in Connecticut. He described the second tower at Ground Zero going down. Sirak was a New Yorker, with friends and family in the city. He told me to be careful and we hung up. I got off the airplane and walked through the terminal. Somehow Avis still had a car available. I checked into the Marriott and there were images on a television set in the lobby of New York's skyline, a gaping hole in it, a plume of smoke rising into an azure blue sky.

To this day, I'm not sure why that Delta flight out of Atlanta on Sept. 11, 2001, wasn't diverted into Memphis or Little Rock, or why we reached St. Louis, site of the American Express Invitational. Out at Bellerive CC, Mark Calcavecchia was in the locker room with Tiger Woods just after the first plane hit the North Tower at the World Trade Center. On the six-year anniversary of this day in history, I called Calc. He was in a courtesy car, driving up to the gates of East Lake GC in Atlanta. On my TV screen in Florida, every news station was showing images from Ground Zero and re-airing footage from 9/11.

"The first plane hit at 8:43," Calcavecchia recalled. "I was on the way to the course. I didn't know about it. I walked in locker room and everybody's mouths were hanging open. I was watching on TV. Tiger sitting was in there, and we couldn't watch any more."

The gates opened at 7 that morning and 10,000 people were on the property. It was the first tournament in St. Louis since Nick Price won the PGA Championship in 1992. Tiger arrived the day before for an American Express Clinic. The town was golf-starved and buzzing, but in stark silence they watched Woods and Calcavecchia go through the motions on the back nine, as Tiger was updated through the head of his security team, Joe Corless.

"Fifteen minutes later, the other plane hit," Calcavecchia remembered. "Then another plane was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. We kind of played nine holes but we both were shocked and didn't have a whole lot to say. It dawned on me walking up the 18th fairway next to Tiger Woods that it was probably not the best place to be. There are nut cases everywhere, especially on that day. I think he was a little scared, too."

Calcavecchia returned to his hotel room to watch on TV, went to a movie with his caddie that week, Cubby Burke, rented a car, and drove home the next day to Phoenix, 1,700 miles non-stop. Tiger was in a car almost immediately, in sunglasses and a baseball cap, driving all the way back to Orlando by himself.

I'm remembering this because the tournament director at the Tour Championship, Todd Reinhardt, was the tournament director at Bellerive six years ago. On his office wall in Atlanta is a photo (above, right) of Calc and Tiger from that day. They're on the 10th tee, Tiger with his face buried in his hands. In the big picture of things, you realize a bad set of greens is not that big a deal. Not when six years ago at Bellerive, the giant screens at Bellerive carried the images of President Bush's news conference.

There is some poignancy and irony in Reinhardt being so heavily involved in this week's Tour Championship, as there is Calcavecchia qualifying to play at East Lake, at age 47, and Tiger arriving as he did six years ago, the favorite to rule. Everybody was all worked up over some over-cooked greens for the FedEx Cup finale, and really, that should be the least of our concerns.

They're playing for $7 million this week and somebody, probably Tiger, will be holding the trophy at week's end--in his case, maybe two: one for the Tour Championship, one for the FedEx Cup. And just like 1987, when he arrived in San Antonio at the very first Tour Championship, Calcavecchia is hungry for a big piece of the pie. He finished fifth in his first one, when Nabisco was the sponsor, and made almost $69,000. But he hasn't played in one since 2005, so this year represents either a bounce back or one final ride to the big pay window.

This is Calc's fourth straight tournament and his eighth in nine weeks going back to the British Open. That would be hard in a cart, let alone walking, lugging a few extra pounds and the demons that are like anchors after two decades of missing putts. Calcavecchia won at Innisbrook this year and started the playoffs strong, with closing 65s at Westchester for a T-4. Since then, he's had a rough ride, with a T-72 in Boston and a solo 65th at the BMW Championship.

I was in Chicago last Thursday and wanted to catch up with Calc about 9/11 and being the only qualifier at East Lake to play in the first Tour Championship, but timing is everything and this day mine was bad. Calc shot 77 and, having known him when he was 37 and 27, I can tell you nothing has changed. He runs hot, which means he cares. I made a half-hearted pass and he gave me a half-hearted blow-off, both of us knowing it wasn't anything personal. Besides, life--as we've come to be reminded this week--is too short.

The first thing he did Tuesday morning was apologize.

"I was under the influence of golf," he said.

I laughed, having been there myself.

He talked about the latest surge of new life to his career, of finding something on the back nine at Cog Hill on Sunday, about playing four straight during the Fall Series, the Shark Shootout then getting ready for Kapalua and 2008. And when we concluded, I asked him if putting on a bad set of greens was really that big a deal, all things considered.

"The way the tour made it sound, I thought we'd be putting on nothing but dirt," he said. "There's actually a decent amount of grass on them. They're slow, not great, but I guarantee I've putted on several hundred worse greens in my life."

Brenda, his wife, had just sent him a text message.

"9/11 really affected her and she knew I'd be bummed out," he said. "She reminded me that two years ago I won the Canadian Open on 9/11. Sunday two years ago was a good date for that."