You Gotta Have Hartford

September 04, 2005

Happily, there are still two places on earth where cellphones must be surrendered at the door: prison and PGA Tour events.

Of these two leisure options--hanging around Sing Sing or hanging around Vijay Singh--prison isn't alwaysthe better venue for quiet reflection. Not if you forsake golf's four majors and attend one of its 44 minors, like last week's Buick Championship, from which Singh, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were all absent. That field promised plenty of silence.

It's like going to see Blood, Sweat & Tears when none of them show, not even Sweat. Without golf's Big Three--and with only one golfer (Kenny Perry) ranked in the world's Top 10--the TPC at River Highlands near Hartford hosted a collection of Roman numerals: Frank Lickliter II, Charles Howell III, Tommy Armour III. (And not even golf's most famous Roman numerals, like Davis Love III or Ernie Els's Gulfstream IV.)

And yet, the Buick was a minor revelation. Who knew how much fun it could be to watch Tjaart van der Walt in the beach while Phil Mickelson was at the beach? It was fun for the golfers, too. "With those guys in the tournament," Dean Wilson said of Lefty, Tiger and Vijay, "you're automatically finishing fourth. So this is a chance to move up." Wilson is better known as Annika Sorenstam's playing partner in the 2003 Colonial. "I need to win," he said, "so I'll be remembered as the Guy Who Won a Tournament and not the Guy Who Played with Annika."

Indeed, discovering new faces is part of the charm of the nonmajor championship, where the Tour motto alters slightly from "These guys are good" to "These guys are ... who?"

Some you know, like Jason Gore. He challenged for the U.S. Open in June, when he captivated America with his humility, humor and physique. (Let's just say his favorite iron is waffle.) The Buick was his first event as a member of the PGA Tour, after he had won three straight tournaments on--and a battlefield promotion from--the Nationwide tour. "This is the most important week of my life," Gore said in Hartford, before finishing in a tie for 73rd. And that is a wonderful thing about golf: Every week is the most important of somebody's existence.

Or the least important. At the Buick you could idly doze under an oak tree at the 18th green, where every acorn that fell was like Newton's apple, bringing a new epiphany. For instance: Many of these guys would be golfing this weekend even without a multimillion-dollar purse at stake. Although, as pro J.J. Henry pointed out, "I would rather play for $5 million than take five bucks off my buddies." Touché.

Otherwise, the pros are just like you and me. On Thursday, Jerry Kelly broke his putter while violently jamming it into his bag and had to use a five-iron and a three-iron to putt on the back nine. The difference: Kelly played the final six holes in three under, while you and I sat in the gallery, eating pulled pork sandwiches.

That gallery in Hartford is annually among the biggest on Tour. Fred Funk was followed by a knot of young men in T-shirts that read FUNK'S PUNKS, in the twadition of Tway's Twoops. (Pardon me while I remove the headcover from my tongue.)

Funk's Punks were just slightly less fun than Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke. (Northern Ireland native Clarke was fartin' through tartan in plaid pants all week.) Last Saturday, England's Westwood--wearing black pants and a cream-colored shirt, his hair frothing forth from his visor top--really did resemble a pint of stout. They were at the Rolling Stones concert in Hartford on Friday night, Clarke and Westwood: Frank Flicklighter I and Frank Flicklighter II.

But then the whole week was a symphony in a minor key. Its high note was Michael Putnam, who was preparing to play in the U.S. Amateur at Merion when he won a sponsor's exemption into the Buick, at which time he abruptly abandoned the Amateur and his amateur status. (Why is it that golf announcers--and golf announcers alone--always pronounce that word amaturr instead of amachoor?) Putnam spent his first day as a professional taking a four-hour Amtrak ride from Philadelphia to Hartford. "The Philadelphia train station is huge," marveled the 22-year-old from Tacoma, before realizing he had nothing to compare it with. "Or it might not be. I've only been on two train rides in my life." Putnam finished in a tie for fourth and won $177,733.34, all the while comporting himself--and transporting himself--like Sam Snead.

Alas, the Tour's TV contract expires after 2006, and the following seasons may be shortened considerably so as not to compete with football. This may mean the end of several nonmajors, imperiling Tour mainstays like Milwaukee and Greensboro and Hartford--a tournament host since 1952--where Brad Faxon won on Sunday by beating van der Walt in a playoff.

Faxon didn't get a green jacket or a claret jug or a Wanamaker Trophy, just a winner's check of--gasp--$774,000. It looked pretty major to me.

• If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Who knew how much fun it could be to watch Tjaart van der Walt in the beach while Phil Mickelson was at the beach?

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)