JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Let me make one thing clear before I start: There are real-world problems, there are first-world problems and then there’s what happened to me on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Let’s call it a fantasy-world problem.
That was the day that I, along with two other Golf Digest colleagues, Ken DeLago and Nicole Rae, had been lucky enough to be invited to play in the Northern Trust Pro-Am. Our luck had grown the night before when we drew a tee time with Hideki Matsuyama. But like the Japanese star’s famed swing, our luck paused just as we were really about to get going. Unfortunately, though, that luck never returned.
That’s right, we were rained out. Or really, lightninged out by area storms after only three holes. Technically, even less because Matsuyama still faced a three-foot par putt when the dreaded horn blew. But again, it’s hard to bitch about a free—for us at least; thoughts and prayers to those who forked more than $10,000—round of golf with a former World No. 2 that we were fortunate to be a part of in the first place. It was short, it was sweet, and now that I’ve had a good 24 hours to get over the disappointment, please allow me to tell you about it.
I felt weird driving right up to the front of Liberty National’s glitzy, gleaming clubhouse and having my car valet parked after being relegated to the media lot the day before. It didn’t feel right being escorted around while my media comrades toiled down below in what is essentially a gravel pit, or up above in the very visible One World Trade Center. But … I'd be lying if I said I didn't like being whisked into the locker room past the likes of green jacket winners Patrick Reed and Danny Willett on my way to my own locker. "Sup, guys. See you out there.” Of course, I didn’t actually say that, but I could have. And that was cool enough.
I passed the “gifting area” where I was asked to pick out something from Tiffany’s (Don’t tell my wife, because I'm hoping to save that for Christmas) and an entire outfit from Peter Millar. SWAG! Then Ken, Nicole and I met up for lunch—just slightly better than the media grub—sitting in an open dining area with a perfect view of the 18th hole. Why there's Tiger Woods (in green) and his pro-am group finished up their round:
Little did I know how jealous of that foursome I'd be in a couple of hours. Not just because they were playing with Tiger Woods, but mostly because they had been first off the first tee at 7 a.m. Lucky bastards. Well, luckier bastards, that is.
Anyway, the Golf Digest trio made its way to a packed range of pros and pro-am-ers. Spoiler alert: It’s easy to spot who’s who.
That weird, uncomfortable feeling returned when I was greeted by fellow co-workers and writers from other publications, who stuck around to watch a bit once a spot opened up next to Adam Hadwin. The Canadian was bent over with his hands on his shoulders and saying something to his caddie and swing coach about “creating this angle by maintaining” something else. Suffice it to say, my swing thoughts were a lot simpler. Just don’t hit a shank. PLEASE don’t hit a shank.
Mission accomplished, and I actually walked away from the range feeling pretty good. We met up with our caddies, piled into a shuttle with Lucas Glover, and headed over to the 10th hole where our round would begin. And thank goodness for that. While huge throngs of fans had lined the first hole, there was hardly anyone at the remote 10th tee, which eased my fears of killing someone in the gallery. That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous, though. With driver in my hand on this difficult par 4 (par 5 for members), my internal dialogue switched to Just don’t hit a slice. PLEASE don’t hit a slice. It worked. Just too well. I came over the top and yanked one way left into the fescue. There’s no video, but it was pretty much on this imaginary line:
I'm just glad no one else from Golf Digest had come out to heckle me. More importantly, Hideki, who I met moments before teeing off, drilled one down the middle. As did Ken and Nicole from our forward tees.
We also were introduced to Matsuyama's caddie, Shota Hayafuji, and Bob Turner, Matsuyama’s manager and interpreter. He’s also Hideki’s travel agent, and we chatted about convenient hotel locations for next year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot. (Seriously, Bob, you and Hideki are welcome to stay at my house. My wife is a great cook!) Bob was also kind enough to help look for my opening tee shot, although I waved him off well before the new three-minute limit was up. Not that that mattered. The pace of play in these events is as glacial as I'd always heard it was. I took a generous drop and, well, I’ll spare you the shot-by-shot recount of my (partial) round. In more positive news, Nicole made a fantastic up-and-down from a greenside bunker for a birdie. We were off and rolling!
As for Matsuyama, there was a bit of a language barrier, but he couldn’t have been friendlier. And Bob, who was keeping the scorecard, was a delight. Also a delight? Watching one of the world’s best golfers operate from up close.
Working at Golf Digest for more than a decade, I’ve had countless inside-the-ropes experiences, but there’s something different about actually teeing it up with one of these guys. Matsuyama’s swing gets most of the attention—and rightfully so—but you don’t win five PGA Tour titles at 25 without being able to do it all. On No. 2, he ran a putt from the fringe a good six feet by, but calmly drained the comebacker. On No. 3, he found a pot bunker with his approach but blasted a high, floating shot to gimme range.
Nicole made an easy par on the par-3 11th. She played college golf, and I wanted to ask Hideki or Bob how to say “Ringer” in Japanese, but alas, never got the chance. I also never got to ask Hideki about his filthy curveball. Or really much of anything. Thank goodness Nicole took some photos or I’d have none. My phone battery was getting low and I wanted to wait until Liberty National’s particularly scenic holes. Sigh.
Liberty National's views are spectacular, but we were reminded that it's built on a landfill when the wind kicked up on No. 12. Up ahead on the green, though, I was only concerned about my 20-foot birdie attempt (no big deal). But as Matsuyama marked his ball after that tremendous bunker shot, the horn blew signaling a delay in play. Hideki hilariously imitated the noise twice (We were starting to get tight!), but obviously, it was no laughing matter. With a suddenly darkened sky, our round was in danger of being over. Anyway, the good Lord would never disrupt the best game of my life! Right? Wrong!
With Ken and Nicole in a bit of trouble, I decided to go ahead with my birdie putt, sending it right online and . . . about three inches short despite Hideki rooting for it to find the cup. Darn. A tap-in par, but possibly a net birdie. Bob had the card, but Bob and Hideki were also quickly on the move back to the clubhouse as rain began to fall. The Golf Digest crew, however, couldn’t fit in the first round of shuttles. After huddling inside a TV tower for a few minutes, though, we made a short walk to a nearby hole to get picked up and taken back to the clubhouse as well. Womp womp.
Having been separated from our pro, we were a bit jealous to see Jason Day yucking it up with his pro-am partners when we got inside. But those guys had a tee time an hour after ours so I’m not sure they even hit a shot. Rough. The Aussie is in the background here. Just waiting around for the weather to clear up like everyone else.
Ugh, that outfit I had on was straight fire, too. Scripted by Adidas for my annual golf trip the week before, it had gotten such rave reviews from my friends that I put a laundry rush on it with my wife. Now I had sullied it for three freaking holes?! What a waste.
Although, at this point, we still held out hope. It was barely 2 p.m. and there was plenty of daylight ahead of us. I had waited my whole life to play in a PGA Tour pro-am so what’s another few hours? Plus, Ken (The guy above in the white Nike hat not named Jason Day) had an app showing "just a small bad patch” that “should blow through quickly.” But did I mention Ken is an art director and not a weatherman? I should have never listened to Ken.
Anyway, it was a crowded scene in the clubhouse and in the locker room. Shane Lowry was receiving congrats left and right for his recent Open Championship victory. Rickie Fowler posed for photos with young fans. Joaquin Niemann, who looks like a young fan, was asked for his ID before being allowed downstairs. Lucas Glover ate an ice cream sandwich from player dining (man, that looked good), while Tony Finau got a haircut and Patrick Reed got a massage. At least, the naked guy face down on a table just a few feet from my locker sounded like Patrick Reed.
We made our way back to the bar with the breathtaking view of No. 18, but things looked a lot gloomier with no one out on the course. It was time to get a drink and wait some more. Then we noticed tour pros working their way into the room to talk to us normal hacks. Wow! That’s so cool! we thought before realizing this was a bad sign. The players were stopping by to say goodbye to their pro-am partners. Play had been called for the day. What. A. Dagger. And What's the big deal with the weather? we wondered. It didn't seem so bad …
Whoops. Never mind …
(Side note: Participants who played fewer than nine holes were offered the chance to play in a future outing at Liberty National—minus the tour pros, of course. I’d consider it, but I need some time because this memory is still pretty raw. Eh, who am I kidding? I’m in.)
Walking down the steps to the first floor, we crossed paths with Hideki and Bob, who broke the news to us again. We exchanged a few pleasantries—Hideki said through Bob he hoped to play well enough to get into our magazine (again)—and that was that. The GD3 commiserated for a bit and then it was off to find my clubs and car.
“Are you the Subaru?!” a valet called out moments later while asking for my ticket. “Yes,” I whispered, wishing the guy had kept his voice down. Ugh, how embarrassing. Mr. Ferrari himself, Ian Poulter, was standing right there.
As I drove away into the storm (I should have told Ian my Legacy is one of the only sedans that comes standard with all-wheel drive) and back into Jersey traffic, my mind wandered to what it said in the fancy tour-caliber yardage books we received upon registration. The day had been billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” and having only experienced just a small fraction of that, I sincerely hope that’s not the case. Still, as far as Wednesdays go? Yeah, I really can't complain … too much.