RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — The security guard—a smaller, older gentleman, his posture drooped by time—proclaimed it the best parking lot in golf, which seemed odd. Yes, it was a beautiful space, a sprawled-out field dotted with palms trees hugging the sand and waters. Still, his words sounded ominous in the moment, like a restaurant boasting not of its menu or service or views but its napkins. Thankfully, they would prove to be anything but.
The Puerto Rico Open bills itself as the “most fun tournament on the PGA Tour.” (Shots fired, Phoenix.) A banner greets spectators with this motto in the fan zone, and that spirit is pervasive throughout the grounds. It is an official Tour event that carries alternate status with the WGC-Mexico Championship being played nearly 2,200 miles away. Yet nothing feels minor about it.
Indisputably, things are different, drastically so in some cases, from a “normal” Tour event. Almost all those variances are positive. After spending a week in Rio Grande, here are five observations—more like revelations—from the Puerto Rico Open.
A distilled experience
The ambience of the Puerto Rico Open is less like a Tour event and more like your club’s member-guest. There are no grandstands, just one set of suites on the 18th hole. Only a handful of scoreboards can be seen on the grounds at the Grand Reserve at Coco Beach. Prior to the weekend, on any given hole there are no more than 10 fans to be found … many with none at all. (More on this in a moment.) During Wednesday’s pro-am, players rode in carts. Oh, and there is no media center. Instead, a room in the clubhouse located right across from player dining is the de facto hub. That doesn’t mean much to you, dear reader, but given there’s a bathroom between the two, this layout on a weekly basis would lead to multiple player-writer incidents, mainly them dunking us in a toilet.
Which is not a bad thing! (Not the bullying, but the rest of the paragraph.) Intended or not, the spartan approach leads to a distilled, refined focus on what’s happening inside the ropes rather than out. “Pure” and “professional sports” are rarely compatible in 2020. Puerto Rico is one of the beautiful anomalies.
Tuesday to Friday, there is no Tour stop that has fewer spectators than Puerto Rico. That includes the Hawaii events, the Tour Championship, even other alternate events. Early in the week, I asked a man in the service crew what was going on, and he replied it’s not good for Puerto Ricans to take a weekday off. “We have to work,” he noted, said in earnestness and instantly making me feel guilty for playing hooky the past decade during the first week of March Madness.
This is fantastic news if you’re a zealous fan. No, the big names weren’t there, but you could follow budding star and eventual winner Viktor Hovland; up-and-comers like Maverick McNealy, Kristoffer Ventura, Doug Ghim, Robby Shelton and Will Gordon; 2018 Ryder Cupper Alex Noren; and the man who defies all labels, Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Hell, watching any player good enough to be on a Tour range is mesmerizing. Due to the aforementioned lack of crowd, in Puerto Rico it’s often just you and them. Much as I detest autograph hounds, for those seeking someone’s signature, this is the place to go.
Swag. Oh, the swag
Here’s the dirty secret of Tour apparel: It’s all the same. Same brands, same designs, same colors. The only change week-to-week is what corporate-sponsor logo is plastered on the side of a sleeve or cap.
That is what makes the volunteer ensembles at the Puerto Rico Open nothing short of a masterpiece. The hats have white crowns with the tournament name in neon lettering, hugged by aqua blue netting panels. The bill has palm trees and a sunset, with the commonwealth’s flag plastered on the back. Somewhere, Duffy Waldorf smiles.
The shirts aren’t too shabby either, a strip of palm trees separating radiant green and white. As a volunteer noted, you don’t have to squint too hard to see the design as a beach sequence.
Some may see it as tacky, but it’s distinctive and innovative without getting too experimental or abstract, and perfectly on brand. Your move, Travelers Championship.
What’s on the line
What spurred my trip to the tournament was not entirely altruistic. There’s not much access to players during major weeks, and their availability at rank-and-file events varies. Knowing I’d be likely the only mainland writer at the event, I figured I had the field at my disposal.
However, while many players were generous with their time, I noticed they weren’t exactly taking in the island’s casual vibes. Check that: Most had an edge to them, usually only seen at Augusta (because it’s the Masters, yes, but also because no one wants to get in trouble) or the weekend of the U.S. Open. On Wednesday, I walked with a player who I have a fairly good relationship with and asked him what was the deal.
“No one wants to be here,” he replied. “We are here because we have to be, because we don’t have status for next season. And there aren’t many points or money up for grabs. You have to be good this week, no lapses, to make it worthwhile.”
He is partially right: Only Martin Trainer, last year’s Puerto Rico Open winner, has exempt status after 2020, and he was back because he’s in a slump something fierce, missing 23 of his last 25 cuts, with one of those made weekends at the 34-player Tournament of Champions (he finished 34th). And obviously players would rather be at the WGCs, or already have enough FedEx Cup points to take a week of rest, than grinding it out in an alternate event.
There’s also another component in the equation. Most players who earn their tour card via the Korn Ferry Tour remain low on the priority ranking, only getting into events that those in the FEC 125 or recent winners pass on. There’s also a contingent of journeyman without cards trying to take advantage of one of the few opportunities they get to compete in a meaningful tournament. Innately they may not want to be in Puerto Rico, but they are glad for any tee time thrown their direction. That tension is palpable. Their careers, to an extent, are on the line. To watch who performs, and who panics, in this cauldron is as illuminating a competition as you’ll see.
A celebration, not a commercial
Because the tournament is sponsored by Puerto Rico’s tourism board rather than a company, there’s no product to push or insurance to sell. The island uses the event as a golf and travel vehicle, sure. But the essence of the tournament is a celebration of Puerto Rico.
Mentioned before, the event is relatively quiet at the start. Come the weekend, however, it’s a festival, a mix of golf fans and folks who stumbled into a fiesta. After all, you don’t hang a “Most Fun Tournament on Tour” banner in jest.
They are out to enjoy the weather and express pride that their island is hosting a world-class league. And, unlike Phoenix or other Ryder Cup events, they’re not obnoxious or rude or crass. The only charge is they’re occasionally overstimulated, not sure who to watch when, which leads to some movement in a player’s sight-line. If that’s a crime, lock up 95 percent of fans.
Best of all, come nightfall, the fan zone is rocking. Other events have their versions of this, all of which are nice. Conversely, there’s a lack of commercialism with Puerto Rico’s set-up. It is a party of the people, by the people.
Sitting on a car hood Saturday night, watching the sun escape over the beach as music and spirit permeate the Caribbean air, the security guard’s declaration returned. The Puerto Rico Open does have the best parking lot in golf. And does a lot of other things right, too.