By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It had been more than 50 years since I watched an event at Oak Hill Country Club as a spectator.
In 1968, my father and I drove up to Elmira for an early round of the U.S. Open. My memories are a little spotty, but I do remember convincing Dad to follow Arnold Palmer around for a few holes (he was more of a Jack Nicklaus fan, but all fathers learn to make sacrifices). I also recall the famous 13th hole, a long par-5 that went back to the clubhouse, followed by the final five holes that were almost on a separate part of the course.
Dad and I wondered who this Lee Trevino fellow was that wound up on the leaderboard. Trevino went on to shock the world, or least the golf portion of it, by beating Nicklaus by four shots.
That was it for Oak Hill, even though some major events have been held there over the years. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to return on Friday to watch the second round of the Seniors PGA Championship.
My first reaction to my day on Friday was the simplest: What fun.
The course wasn’t too crowded, perhaps surprisingly so. That’s in spite of the fact that it was the biggest Friday crowd in the event’s history. I’m sure even more will turn out this weekend. In the meantime, we could walk everywhere and see everything. Even if these weren’t the top players on the main tour, there were enough recognizable names and faces (if not hairlines) to help make it an enjoyable experience.
Also worth mentioning is that fact that everyone involved in the tournament from a spectator’s standpoint was exceedingly nice and helpful. That included everyone from the drivers of the shuttle bus to the course to the many volunteers working the event. If the signage to the parking lot had been a little better in spots, it would have been perfect. That, though, was a minor inconvenience.
Here are some other notes compiled during about six-plus hours on the course:
* The Champions golf tour is one of the few events in all of sports where it is good to be a rookie. Players are eligible to participate at the age of 50, and many players can’t wait to enter a slightly less competitive class in order to earn some paychecks that are good-sized by anyone’s standards except those on the regular PGA Tour. Steve Stricker is the latest example of that. He didn’t fare that well this week, but ought to do well in his first year on the Champions Tour.
* It’s instructive to take a good look at the players’ physical condition in order to figure out who is going to do well. For example, Bernhard Langer still looks to be in great shape, almost like it was 30 years ago. No wonder he’s usually been a constant threat to win on the Champions Tour. As for the others, well, there’s a reason why Trevino once said he was looking to playing the round-bellies on the Senior Tour as opposed to the flat-bellies on the regular tour.
* The course looked beautiful but tough. At last count, there were about four under-par rounds as everyone struggled during the day. I’m not sure what the problem was, as Thursday’s rain didn’t seem to have much of an effect on conditions and the wind wasn’t blowing. But a flat lie is tough to find at Oak Hill, with feet almost never level with the golf ball because of an uphill or downhill or sidehill lie. The bunkers always seemed to be in the way of approach shots to the greens.
* That brings us to the mental condition of the players. When we watch golf on television on the weekend, usually we see competitors who are doing well because they are among the leaders. A visit on Friday gives the spectators a chance to see guys who are struggling … and those players aren’t happy about it. On a day when birdies were rare sights, there were plenty of grumbling golfers at Oak Hill.
* The price tag for a day at Oak Hill was more than reasonable for a good-sized event: $40 in advance. However, the related items for sale were on the expensive side. For example, the concession stands featured $7 hot dogs, $10 ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and $5 bottles of cola. In the souvenir stand, t-shirts were in the $32-$36 range, while golf shirts were $65 to $85. My back sack was an absolute steal for $10 by those standards.
* KitchenAid was the official sponsor of the tournament, which is a rather interesting marketing move. Golf meets appliances? The company offer a virtual-reality experience of being inside of a dishwasher, as well as cooking lessons and displays of old appliances. How often do you get to pose for a selfie with an oversized blender? It felt like a country fair had broken out.
* The volunteers were always happy to chat when they were waiting for players to come into their area. We asked one of them why there was an extra green behind the real one on the 4th hole. It seems Oak Hill will be doing some remodeling for the 2023 PGA, building a completely new par-3 to replace one that currently is the sixth hole – as if the course isn’t tough enough. We also talked to a man who had served as a driver at the last PGA to be held at Oak Hill in 2013. One of his assignments was to drive Jordan Spieth’s caddy around, and the volunteer reported that he made an unexpected trip to a nearby supermarket. “Everyone in the locker room is talking about bleeping Wegmans, so that’s where I want to go,” the caddy said.
* You need a plan to watch a golf tournament, and we came up with one pretty quickly. The pairings were a little back-loaded in the sense that most of the household names played together in the afternoon on Friday. We figured the Golf Channel wanted them to be together to make its coverage easier. Therefore, in the morning we walked around the course and checked up on some players along the way. In the afternoon, we found an uncrowded spot overlooking the 17th green and 18th tee so that we could see the stars come through. It worked out quite well.
* Who and what did we see? We saw John Daly in loud orange pants, driving a cart around the course as he struggled to make pars before one of the largest galleries of the day. We saw the still-small but powerful Corey Pavin play with Larry Mize, who looked a little less fresh-faced than he did the day he chipped in to win the Masters. We followed threesomes that sounded like law firms (Brooks, Kraft and Browne) and forward lines for the Rochester Americans (Huston, Brown and Petrovic). We saw Miguel Angel Jimenez’s ponytail, and Rocco Mediate’s cigar. We heard Colin Montgomerie warmly received, and heard the roar when Vijay Singh made a rare long putt. And we saw leader Scott Parel go double bogey/double bogey on No. 17 & 18 to turn a one-shot lead into a three-shot deficit; the cause of death for the lead was listed as poor chipping.
The action continues at Oak Hill on Saturday and Sunday; just be sure to check the weather forecast, which may change the schedule around a bit.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)