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Golf Press Perks: Making the Rounds Part 17

The Author & Jay Flemma with U.S. Open Trophy at Torrey Pines
The Author & Jay Flemma with U.S. Open Trophy at Torrey Pines

This column features recollections of the author’s 34 years as a golf writer. These installments stem from his many travels and experiences, which led to a gradual understanding that the game has many intriguing components, especially its people.

There’s something gratifying about being invited to big parties. There’s the impending excitement of meeting friends and forging new connections, all while schmoozing, dining, and drinking in the moment. For golf writers, such experiences are different in that you’re often unknown to hosts who sense you might make their shindig a success.

Getting invited to various “parties” is one of the perks of being a working member of the golf media. Your reputation may stem from the attention you’ve previously brought to golf, and are being rewarded with a coveted press credential, usually a badge attached to a lanyard.

As a semi-retiree, my felicitous days of being a hot invite are likely over. But I won’t forget the experiences of being on someone’s A-list. Over the years I’ve attended many “bashes,” including tournaments large and small, grand openings of courses, and other events orbiting around the Royal & Ancient Game. Critics have called these “boondoggles.” Smiling smugly, I respond, “Well someone has to do it.”

Press passes provide a personal breadcrumb trail that helps re-trace former stops along my career path, such as the following.

Custom-made U.S. Hickory Open Credential Replica - circa 1930s (Thanks to Jim Davis and Rob Ahlschwede)
Custom-made U.S. Hickory Open Credential Replica – circa 1930s (Thanks to Jim Davis and Rob Ahlschwede)

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In the mid-2000s, I – along with six other Seattle-area golf writers and reporters – was flown on a private plane to Coeur d’Alene Resort in northern Idaho. The purpose was to play and write about the golf course (the one with the famous floating green), which had just completed a major remodel that, among other things, added 500 yards to its modest original length. Both the plane and resort were owned by Duane Hagedone, who passed away in April 2021 at the age of 88. Hagedone was a visionary who amassed a fortune in newspaper publishing and real-estate development. He astutely foresaw that a full-service resort – which debuted in 1991 on the northern shores of its eponymous lake – would draw folks to the Gem State’s Panhandle.

Around 8:00 one morning, us ink-stained wretches met up at Boeing Field just north of SeaTac Airport and boarded Hagedone’s sleek jet. Less than an hour later (by car, the 312-mile trip takes six hours), we landed at the local airport and exited the craft in Hagedone’s immaculately tended, personal hangar. Within minutes we were swept to the first tee, and along with forecaddies, played the revamped layout. After the round, we received a fine lunch spread, info packets, and speeches from executive staff. At 3:30 that afternoon we re-boarded the jet. I was back in my Seattle home at 5:00 p.m. Now that’s the way to golf travel!

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I covered the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines with fellow Cybergolf (and current Golf Course Trades) contributor, Jay Flemma. It was about an hour-plus-long bus ride (i.e., twice the duration of the Seattle-Coeur d’Alene flight) from our hotel to the remote course. But the trip went quickly as we chatted with writers from around the world, including two Golf Channel stalwarts, Jaime Diaz and Tim Rosaforte.

The press center’s scuttlebutt that year was Tiger Woods’ damaged leg. Yet the ever-tight-lipped No. 1-ranked player in the world played it coy about any injury. (After completing four regulation rounds and 19 extra holes in defeating Rocco Mediate to secure his 14th major title, Woods underwent knee surgery and missed the rest of that season.) This was a period when Woods and Phil Mickelson were at the height of their feud. Since the two were paired with Australia’s Adam Scott on Friday, I ventured over to the driving range before their second-round began to look for any signs of a gimpy Tiger.

When I arrived at the practice area it seemed like there were 15,000 people crammed in to watch the marquee threesome. Frustrated and view-blocked by the horde, I firmly gripped my media badge and wove through the crowd to the roped-off entry area manned by beefy, stern-looking marshals. I revealed my magical credentials. One of the marshals instructed the masses, “Make way, make way,” and lifted the rope for me to walk into the lion’s den. I sat down with my back against the grandstand for an unobstructed view of the drama. Tiger was at one end, Phil as far away as possible at the other, and Adam in the middle of the sprawling teeing area. It was just me, the players, and their caddies – and no one else in this sanctuary. The media indeed has its privileges.

[As a sidenote, when the threesome headed off to the first tee the gathered fans quickly evacuated the area and followed them out. Observing this exodus, PGA Tour veteran Jerry Kelly, playing in the next group, hollered as he walked onto the driving range, “What am I – chopped liver?!”]

Some of the Author's Tournament Badges
Some of the Author’s Tournament Badges

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In addition to the 2008 U.S. Open and other PGA, Senior, and LPGA tournaments, another “major” event I attended was the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah outside Chicago. That one was stress-free because I attended as a spectator with my wife and Al Rauckinas, the father-in-law of our niece, Lisa. Al, who was born in Lithuania (one of about 200,000 Lithuanians living in the Chicago area), was a serious golf fan but had never been to a big-time tournament. And this one was right in his backyard. We happened to be in town visiting Lisa and family, so I bought three tickets. There’s nothing like the color and patriotic fervor of a Ryder Cup. Though the Europeans stormed back on Sunday – winning eight of the 12 singles matches to retain the Cup in the “Massacre at Medinah” – it was a special time because Al had such fun and was so thankful for being there.

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Other events included more U.S. Opens and U.S. Amateurs – both men and women, as well as many Northwest and junior tournaments. I enjoyed them all but developed a particular affinity for college conference championships. There’s something about the involvement of the coaches walking alongside golf-bag-packing players to boost their spirits, the excitement, and disappointment of team play, and the sublime skills of players on the cusp of bigger and better things, whether on the golf course or not.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

At the opposite end of this spectrum: While I was the media director of the two-day Fred Couples Invitational in the 1990s, John Daly promised Freddie he’d come to the 1992 tournament (the year after “Big John” came out of nowhere to win the PGA Championship). I used his appearance to hype the event at Inglewood Golf Club north of Seattle, and we sold nearly 20,000 advance tickets. But Daly – for unspecified reasons – pulled out less than 24 hours before the first round. Freddie and tournament director John Bracken were upset, and I had a lot of explaining to do with over 100 credentialed media. Daly later apologized and said he’d make it up to Couples the following year. 

Again, we sold a ton of tickets for the 1993 event at Inglewood. It was clear that Daly was quite different from other Tour players, many of Freddie’s PGA Tour friends (Mickelson, Palmer, Love, Feherty, Els, et al), who were friendly and easygoing. Daly had a “posse” of two guys who stood around the locker room smoking cigarettes and, like punks, glared at people, including the pros. It was weird.

The week before, Daly played in Peter Jacobsen’s two-day Fred Meyer Challenge at Oregon Golf Club. During a clinic involving Daly and Jake, the Arkansan suddenly dropped a ball on the turf (not teed up), turned around to face the 5,000 spectators sitting close by in a tall, natural amphitheater, and hit the ball – with his driver! – over their heads. He missed the onlookers in the top rows by inches. 

“I can’t believe he did that,” said Arnold Palmer, who regularly played in the event. “It was ridiculous. He could have killed someone.” Daly was fined $30,000 by the PGA Tour, the largest of the many penalties he incurred over his checkered career.

Daly entered the Inglewood media room after his first round and took a seat on the podium. Bob Robinson, the longtime golf writer for the (Portland) Oregonian, was there. “Robby,” who was in his 60s and had covered over 30 majors over a stellar career, pointedly asked Daly about his actions in Portland, which Bob had witnessed. Daly responded by standing up and screaming, “Don’t you know who I am? I can get you banned from any PGA tournament!” Equally angry, Robinson arose from his chair and pressed ahead with his pointed questioning. The whole episode was surreal. I thought Robbie was either going to have a heart attack or I was going to have to break up a fistfight. Thankfully, Daly stormed out of the media room with his posse in tow.

Lanyards & Nametags are Common at Most Golf Events & Exhibitions
Lanyards & Nametags are Common at Most Golf Events & Exhibitions

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I’ve attended around 100 grand openings of new golf courses. During the 1990s and early 2000s, new tracks popped up around North America like crocuses in spring. And we folks in the media were asked to herald their arrivals. Besides the developer and new staff, local dignitaries and other poohbahs are usually in attendance at these gatherings.

These are generally cheery, uplifting affairs that usher in a new recreational outlet for the local community. There’s excitement in the air and a sense of anticipation. Following months of physical transformation, a place for fun has now replaced what was once a barren chunk of ground. Most golf-course grand openings are celebratory – a fiesta for the hosts, attendees, and even the media.

But not all are like this. One particularly memorable grand opening took place at Echo Falls in Woodinville, outside of Seattle. I’d estimate over 200 folks were assembled in the brand-new, spacious clubhouse. The event was emceed by Pat O’Dea, a legendary local disc jockey who created Concerts West, a national music-promotion company at the time. I grabbed a seat in the second row behind one of the co-developers (who I had previously walked the as yet unopened course with and interviewed) and his wife, along with the spouse of the other developer and the course’s architect, who shall be nameless.

All was hunky-dory until the final speaker, the architect, got up to say a few words. With a beet-red face, he stood in front of the crowd, slapping a folded newspaper angrily against his leg. Without uttering a word of welcome to the audience, he launched into a tirade about an article by a local newspaper reporter, who’d written a generally positive review of the course except for the need to take an elevator up to a hill-perched tee. “Is that *$%&# [reporter’s name] here?!” he bellowed. I watched the people before we squirm, glance furtively at each other, and slowly slump in their chairs. That was one odd grand opening moment.

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As you may have noted, I’ve been on both sides of the golf-media equation – both as a media director and a writer. I understand both areas quite well. One of the biggest parties of the year for our group is the Masters. Sadly, I never received an invite. Trust me, I tried over the years but struck out every single time before finally throwing in the towel.  

At its peak in the early 2000s, Cybergolf attracted over 2 million visitors a month, making it one of the largest golf-content websites in the world. I thought such a readership would make me a shoo-in for golf’s first major of the year. Uh-huh. At the time there was an elderly Southern woman (let’s call her “Martha”) overseeing the issuance of all Masters’ press passes. The tournament was still very old-school at that time (certainly not so today – all 18 holes are televised AND the action is live-streamed on the web!). Traditions were then quite important to the green jackets and staff of Augusta National.

“Martha” was known for her loyalty to small-town newspapers and their reporters, guaranteeing each a treasured spot in a small media room that today is much more spacious. The internet was rather new then and it was up to me to justify my place at this hallowed press-room table.

Mario Parascenzo, a Cybergolf contributor after retiring from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette honored in 2008 with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America, advised that I speak directly (and sweetly) to the lady in charge. I even dropped Mario’s name and those of other well-known golf writers with whom I knew and worked. No soap. Her priorities were elsewhere. Rules are rules.

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My press-pass breadcrumb trail took me on a journey with many stopovers along the way. Most were fun, some were gasp-inducing, but they always had compelling and intriguing people who made things interesting.

Jeff Shelley has written and published nine books as well as numerous articles for print and online media over his lengthy career. Among his titles are three editions of the book, “Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest.” The Seattle resident was the editorial director of Cybergolf.com from 2000-15. He also co-founded the Northwest Golf Media Association in 1995. For seven years he served as the board president of First Green, an educational outreach program that is now part of the Golf Course Superintendents of America and Environmental Institute for Golf.

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