INSIDE THE ROPES

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For the avid golfer, there are many ways to get your fix of professional golf.  Watching TV or reading magazines are probably the most common ways to soak up the sport. But nothing beats being a spectator at a PGA tournament, except for one thing, volunteering “inside the ropes” at a PGA Tour event.
 
    This is a story about a golf nut stepping inside the ropes for the first time. And for this duffer, it was like entering a world where time almost stood still. Where slow motion rules the day.

    It was like stepping through the looking glass where movement and sounds were playing at half speed. A place where time slows downs and a deliberate calm descends over all who are inside the ropes.

    And it is contagious. I found myself walking more slowly, even breathing more slowly, as if it’s custom when inside the ropes. Just seeing the pros up close, watching every meticulous movement as precise as the previous, seemed almost robot-like.

    Routines that are almost palpable, from tee shots, to sliding markers under balls on the greens, the air was thick, demanding slow and calculated motions as if directed by a metronome.   

    The air outside and inside the ropes is palatably different. It has an air of octane that fuels the brain for those who find the groove. After all, the game at this level is played between the ears. For the most part, they operate in a kind-of Goldilocks Effect, not too hot after hitting a bad shot, and not too exuberant after a cracker of a shot. To witness their mental strength up close is mind-numbing.

    I came away from volunteering at this year’s Pacific Links Bear Mountain Championship in Greater Victoria with a whole new appreciation of how the game of golf should be played. I have been to a few PGA tournaments over the years, but watching from outside the rope is not the same as being inside the ropes.

    To be standing two feet from Sir Nick Faldo or Tom Lehman or Colin Montgomerie or Bernard Langer or John Daly or David Toms or Freddie Funk, well you get the idea. From seeing facial features up close, to making eye contact, to even making some quick chit-chat, there is no other fix for a golf addict, short of playing a round with one of them.    

    These guys are not only talented athletes, but their pride in the game of golf is steeped in sportsmanship, respect and tradition. And it is not lost on this fan!

    Take Dan Forsman’s tee shot on the 2nd hole on Friday where he sliced his ball deep into the woods. All I heard was the rustling of leaves and branches as the ball cut through the junk. His playing mates tried to convince him – and the Marshall – that he should be dropping in a much more favourable spot. But Forsman would have nothing to do with the courtesy shown to him. He dropped his ball in a hay patch because the game of golf is about integrity and honour.

    Or when John Daly was standing over his putt on the second green on Sunday about to drop a birdie, the ball moved ever so slightly causing Daly to step back and assess himself a one stroke penalty. His playing mates were quick to convinced him not to hit the putt until the Marshall arrived to explain to John that the rule had changed this year, eliminating the penalty stroke if he did not cause the ball to move. Daly may have missed the birdie, but there was no missing the calibre of these guy’s character while inside the ropes.

    And on Friday, when Cory Pavin’s approach shot on the 18th hole found the bottom of the hole for an eagle, high-fives and fist-pumps were had by all, as if everyone walked off with an eagle.  There are countless more examples of this sportsmanship which separates golf from many other professional sports.

    And the relationship between fan and player is a ritual grounded in gentleman-ship. Grateful fans are acknowledged with a tip of the hat or a polite “thank you.” But really, what fans come out to see is that “risk and reward” shot which juices the soul. On this weekend, I got to witness the best shot I have ever seen at a PGA Tour event, by none other than Mr. Grip It and Rip It – John Daly.

    In a true Jack Nicklaus designed course, there are always holes to tease your mettle. The 17th hole on Bear Mountain is such a hole. It is a drivable par 4 at 343 yards downhill with a severe slope from right to left.  You can imagine how the crowd went nuts when John Daley pulled out his driver, as only a couple of other golfers on the Champions’ Tour would even dare to try.  Oh, did I mention that out of bounds ran the length of the hole on the left?

    John cranked the perfect shot that found a landing area in front of the green about the size of an average living room carpet. His ball then rolled around the undulating green to rest about 20 feet below the hole. The crowd went berserk and John sauntered off as if he had just eaten a cheese burger. He may have missed the eagle but I bet it was one of the best birdies these fans have seen.

    Don’t get me wrong, not all of these players are sugar and nice. But you rarely hear a disparaging word, except for under their breath, when some moron yells “in the hole” after a tee shot on a par 5. Even the indignant Colin Montgomery has softened his stance. He even wished me a good morning in which I returned the gesture and thanked him for coming to Victoria, even though he was obligated to defend his title, having won the tournament last year.

    This year’s winner was Jerry Kelly who duelled it out with Lee Janzen and David McKenzie down the final stretch. But unfortunately, Kelly will probably not defend his title at Bear Mountain next year. Smart money has the tournament moving back to China. But that is a whole new story.

    As for this story, spending three days inside the ropes has its risks and rewards. I did not get hit by a ball but I was rewarded with a renewed takeaway.

    Sportsmanship, respect and patiences bodes well in sport and in life.

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