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7 Days on the Range

May 22, 2006
May 22, 2006

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May 22, 2006

SI Players: Life On and Off The Field
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7 Days on the Range

During a week exploring a Tour rehearsal area, the Marco Polo of the practice tee found a complex culture

It's not rocketscience," Eric Baldwin said, and since the upturned brim of therangemaster's bucket hat made him look like a 1950s Borscht Belt comedian, Iwas inclined to believe him. But then I looked around the little tent, itstables and floor strewn with shiny golf balls in brightly colored drawstringbags. It was rocket science! We had started the week with 440 dozen aerodynamicspheres and about 160 self-absorbed space cadets with high-tech launchers. Fromdawn to dusk, seven days running, the latter had filled the northern sky withthe former, tickling the clouds until, predictably, the clouds had had enough.Now Baldwin and his fellow rangemaster, Todd Lawton, were blowing on theirfingers on a drizzly, dreary Sunday afternoon, waiting for a roar from beyondthe trees to tell them that their week's work was done. ¶ But I'm getting aheadof myself. This story started the previous Sunday afternoon, on April 30, whenI walked onto the sun-drenched upper tee of the practice range at the QuailHollow Club in Charlotte. Nobody was hitting balls, but there was an open-fronttent at the west end, in the shade of some tall pines. Baldwin was in the tentfilling drawstring bags with brand-new balls: green bags for Titleist Pro V1s,red for Pro V1xs, blue for Bridgestones, white for Callaways and yellow forNikes. "I have to figure out what to do about the Srixons," he said,pointing to two cartons in the corner. The Srixons, apparently, did not have aTour-designated bag color.

This is an article from the May 22, 2006 issue Original Layout

Baldwin, whomoonlights 51 weeks a year as director of the professional golf managementprogram at Queens University of Charlotte, is a master of the cryptic quip.("They don't like me to use knives since the incident," he mumbled,slicing open a carton with a box cutter.) He listened with a quizzicalexpression as I explained that I had been assigned to spend an entire week onthe practice tee at a PGA Tour event. "I'm not going out on thecourse," I said. "I don't care who wins the tournament. I'm only hereto write about the range."

He said,"Well, it's not rocket science."

I should discloseat the outset that I am not exactly unschooled on the subject of practiceranges. For several years I wrote a Web column called Mats Only, which earnedme a reputation as the Marco Polo--Alexis de Tocqueville of range rats. I havealso spent more hours on Tour ranges than I care to admit. But until I spent myweek on the range at the Wachovia Championship, I was like the Ph.D. candidatewho hasn't sat for orals. I knew, for instance, that Tour players producedistinctive divot patterns when they practice, but I didn't know that TomPernice, with his perfect checkerboard motif, was the Rembrandt of the range. Iknew that a certain well-known player endorses and plays a certain ball, but Ididn't know that he practices with a different brand. I knew that RorySabbatini had game, but I didn't know that he could hit solid iron shots witheither hand while talking on his cellphone.

I alsounderestimated how much business is conducted on the range between Monday andWednesday, when equipment reps, tournament reps, player reps, media reps,charity reps and family reps flood the area between the tee line and thegrandstand. On the Tuesday of Wachovia week, for example, I edged up behind aman in bright red slacks who seemed to be checking the swing plane of veteranpro Craig Barlow. I leaned in to hear Barlow say "king, nonsmoking."Then, whack, he socked a ball downrange as red pants repeated "king,nonsmoking" into a telephone headset. By the time the ball landed, Barlowhad a confirmed hotel reservation in Dallas for the week of the EDS ByronNelson Championship.

"We don'tallow the reps to troll the range," said Tour player-relations head SidWilson, whom I found trolling the range. "They have to be working with aplayer, or a player has to approach them." The equipment guys, inparticular, are asked to show a little discipline. They set up their gaudystaff bags full of prototypes and demo clubs in a neat row about 20 yardsbehind the tee line, waiting for players to take the bait. And the players dobite--especially when the reps have a new product. At Quail Hollow the gadgetdu jour was the Momentus Power Hitter, a weighted driver with a burnt-orangehead.

Reporters andtelevision crews practically camp on the range early in the week. At theWachovia the cameras couldn't get enough of Jay Haas and his sons Bill and JayJr., who were all playing in the same Tour event for the first time, or of JohnDaly, who was flogging a just-published autobiography that laid bare hispersonal problems. The reporter who commands the most respect on a Tour range,however, is the Golf Channel's Adam Barr, host of the weekly What's in the Bag?That's because only Barr, among all the mike clutchers, can devote five minutesof national airtime to a new hybrid iron or a combination putter--weed whacker."Our viewers have an unquenchable thirst for equipment stories," Barrtold me. "If a player changes from a two-yard to a one-yard fade, they wantto know why and how." He then wandered off down the range with hiscameraman, sound man and producer, all of them looking for a fresh clubface.

"Why thisweek? Why us?" The question came from Todd Lawton, golf coach at SouthCarolina Upstate and cochair ("although," Baldwin pointed out, "wedon't sit much") of the Wachovia Championship practice tee committee.

I answered,"Because you have one of the prettiest ranges."

Call me shallow,but if I have to spend seven days taking the pulse and temperature of 12 acresof pampered farmland, they had better be gorgeous acres. Quail Hollow'stree-lined practice facility is 357 yards long and 135 yards wide, with seventarget greens and six pea-gravel bunkers prettying up a valley between. Up thehill to the right, behind the trees, is a short-game complex that I arbitrarilydeclare to be the best in the world.

The touring prosarrived on Monday morning, May 1, and started tearing into this pristine swardas if they suspected diamonds were hidden in the topsoil. "The pros knowhow to take divots," said Owens Sherard, a greenkeeper with 30 years ofexperience who was looking after the range for course superintendent Jeff Kent.Aaron Baddeley, for instance, has mastered what is known as the Vijay SinghStrip--long, straight paths separated by narrow grass medians. Todd Hamilton,on the other hand, produces short divot plumes that flare in all directions.(He changes targets constantly to avoid locking into a bad alignment.) JesperParnevik's divot strip is practically a trench.

No one is prouderof the design of his earthworks than Pernice, who carves rows of perfectdollar-bill-sized rectangles separated by grass margins. "It's mytrademark," Pernice says. "The face stays square through the hittingarea and the toe of the club doesn't turn over during the shot." He shrugsmodestly. "I've spent some hours on this thing."

At the end of theday all those divots have to be filled in. This work is done by elves, who sliponto the range at twilight, after the last player has gone. The divot mix atthe Wachovia was a simple 50-50 combination of sand and soil. No seed wasnecessary, Kent explained, because the players were hitting off a carpet of 80%perennial rye and 20% fine fescue, all of which would soon go dormant. "Thebermuda," he said, "is ready to come out."

The biggestlogistical challenge on a Tour range--no disrespect to the elves, who have toget up before dawn to mow the grass by headlights--is ball picking, washing andsorting. Five thousand golf balls sounds like a lot, but a Tour pro will hitanywhere from two to 10 bags of balls a day, with each bag holding about 38balls. ("You do the math," said Baldwin.) In addition, huge buckets ofbrand-new Titleist NXTs were set out for amateurs playing in the Monday andWednesday pro-ams. To retrieve and sort all that ordnance, Baldwin and Lawtonhad recruited a half-dozen volunteers a day, most of them club pros or studentsfrom their golf programs.

Ball picking,though not rocket science, is at least mechanized. From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.someone from the range crew was either driving a utility cart with a gangpicker attached or pouring oil into the cart's balky engine. Other volunteerswalked the tree lines, tees and greens, the balls disappearing up aluminumtubes into red shag bags. The bunkers, alas, had to be picked by hand, and thiswas not possible when players were hitting. "Sometimes the pros use thebunkers as targets," Baldwin explained, "so you'll have three or fourhundred Callaways and Bridgestones tied up until we can get out there andhandpick them."

Tired of standingon the range, I went out a couple of evenings and helped pick the bunkers. AllI had to do was scoop up as many balls as I could and hurl them down the hill,where the gang picker could collect them in an efficient sweep or two. "AmI doing it right?" I asked Baldwin. He said, "You're coming over thetop."

I could havevolunteered to sort balls, as well, but I was content to watch. All day long,range assistants would take one scrubbed ball after another out of a wirebucket and toss it into another wire bucket, according to brand. This remindedme of certain Chinese restaurants, where the staff sits around a table in theafternoon, shelling peas and folding wontons. (When Tiger Woods plays in atournament, the range workers have to separate his Nikes from all the otherNikes. "They look the same," an assistant told me, "but his ballshave a little tw on them.")

On Thursdayevening the range crew sorted balls so late that they had to use the light fromtheir cellphones to tell the Pro V1s from the Pro V1xs.

"Was it lastyear when the dog bit the assistant?" Baldwin asked.

"No,"Lawton replied. "Last year was when the trick-shot artist flattened the guyat the end of the range with his drive."

There's alwayssomething, some little bit of theater that the rangemasters will mention whenthey get home late at night. Like the time the host of a junior clinic saidsomething that prompted a couple of hundred shrieking kids to race onto therange and stuff their pockets with balls. Or the time a young man jumped thepolice barrier, grabbed two bags of Tiger's Nikes and tried to escape. (Hedidn't make it.) Or the time a caddie asked if he could take a few dozen ballsto pay for his week's bar tab.

Sometimes it'ssimply a weird sight: Charles Howell hitting balls in his stocking feet.("It's for balance.") Frank Lickliter practicing the caddie-to-playerball toss. ("A little higher ... keep it behind me.") And sometimesit's simply the sublime vision of a world-class golfer striking balls betterthan anyone has a right to.

Then there arethe pro-am days, when hackers with creaky swings and nervous dispositions aregiven half the range. The amateurs must stay on their side, but sometimes a protakes a duffer's space, causing the bankers and CEOs around him to gasp forair. Even a Hall of Fame ballplayer like Cal Ripken Jr., who played in thisyear's Wednesday pro-am, admitted that he was a nervous wreck on the range."My comfort zone is 50,000 screaming people in Yankee Stadium. This is adifferent environment," he said. "I get excited. I wonder if people arestaring at me."

There was a bigleader board on the right side of the practice facility. I mostly ignored it. Iwas more interested in Range World, the daily soap opera that aired from dawnto dusk. Why was chain-smoking Tommy Armour III, a self-advertised playboy,hitting balls at twilight on Tuesday and again at daybreak on Wednesday? Whattorment caused David Branshaw to stand under his umbrella on the otherwisedeserted range during a Friday rain delay? Who was responsible for theappearance of graffiti on the Titleists--phrases like GOIN' LONG, LITTLESENORITA AND NORTH AVENUE TRADE SCHOOL?

You want drama?It's not on the par-3 17th, where water comes into play. It's on the range,where John Rollins set a tournament record by hitting 18 bags of Srixons in asingle day. ("Did you see his divot pattern?" Baldwin asked withbulging eyes. "As big as a bath mat!") Now it's Thursday, near sunset,and Rollins is battling Marco Dawson for the honor of closing the range.Rollins is hitting driver and hitting it well, but now he tees up his lastball, takes a mighty swing ... and hits an ugly snap hook into the trees.Without waiting for instructions, his caddie runs to the tent for anotherhandful of balls. He knows his man can't walk off the range on a bad shot.

Sunset is apotent symbol, and with a few exceptions--Singh comes to mind, as does TomKite--it is the struggling golfer who beats balls until dark. I stood behindIan Leggatt, a former Tour winner plagued by injuries, as he hit balls oneevening. His caddie, Andrew Pfaannkuche, said, "We haven't been the lastones on the range since...." He feigned difficulty in remembering."Since Houston!" Two weeks.

"I live onthe range when I'm not playing well," said Leggatt, leaning on his club."I won't leave without resolving a problem or situation, and I'm not a guywho can hit 40 or 50 balls and feel as if I've accomplished something."

A tour rangealmost always goes out with a whimper. Rarely do you have a "leader in theclubhouse"--who, obviously, is not in the clubhouse, but out on the range,nervously hitting balls in front of a network camera while somebody tries topar the 18th to force a playoff. That happened at the 2004 Wachovia. JoeySindelar was the pro who got to spend an extra 20 minutes with Baldwin andLawton, and their relaxed demeanors must have comforted him because Sindelarbeat Arron Oberholser on the second extra hole.

My week on therange ended with no such drama. Storms interrupted the final round, but bymidafternoon on May 7 all the golfers were on the course and the range crew hadcleared everything off the tee. At the finish the only golfers in contention,Jim Furyk and Trevor Immelman, were in the final group. One by one, theassistants said their goodbyes and drifted off, either to watch the final holesor to find a place to curl up and sleep. I would describe the mood in the tentas loose, maybe even loopy. (Baldwin and Lawton kept quoting lines from RaisingArizona, to the point that I'll never again view Nicolas Cage's armed diaperheist without thinking of the range at Quail Hollow.) Finally, a soggy cheerreached us from the course. A voice on the walkie-talkie crackled, "He madeit. Furyk won."

Baldwin stood up."Like I told you before, it's not rocket science, but I think the playersand caddies appreciate it when you do it well."

I was sure theydid, the rats.

View this article in the original magazine



Range Report

A day-by-day estimate of the number of balls hit and retrieved during Wachoviaweek, and the identity of the last pro on the practice tee each evening, with acomment from Quail Hollow rangemaster Eric Baldwin.
DAYBALLS HITLAST PRO
Monday19,000James Driscoll
"He was here until 8:30. He washitting cross-handed pitching wedges because Chris Couch won with that in NewOrleans."
Tuesday22,000Tommy Armour III
"He'll spend an hour hitting twobags, smoking cigarettes, twirling the club."
Wednesday24,000Bill Haas
"We got out early. Everyone was doneby 7:40."
Thursday31,000Marco Dawson
"In a photo finish with JohnRollins."
Friday22,000Bart Bryant
"He ended with short-game stuff,little shots out to the yardage signs."
Saturday15,000Dawson
"He seemed extremelyfrustrated."
Sunday20,000Driscoll
"He came out in the pouring rain andhit balls for two hours. He hit all the TaylorMades and then switched toBridgestones. When we picked the range, the balls were all over the place. Wecouldn't tell what he was aiming at."
The reporter who commands the most respect is the GolfChannel's Adam Barr, host of What's in the Bag? Only Barr can devote FIVEMINUTES OF AIRTIME to a combination putter--weed whacker.
Aaron Baddeley has mastered the VIJAY SINGHSTRIP--long, straight paths separated by narrow grass medians, while ToddHamilton produces short divot plumes that flare in all directions.
When Tiger Woods plays, the range workers have toSEPARATE HIS NIKES FROM ALL THE OTHER NIKES. "They look the same," anassistant told me, "but his balls have a little TW on them."
One evening Ian Leggatt's caddie, Andrew Pfaannkuche,said, "WE HAVEN'T BEEN THE LAST ONES ON THE RANGE SINCE...." He feigneddifficulty in remembering. "Since Houston!" Two weeks.

 

THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg BALLISTIC
Sabbatini (bottom left) hit and yakked, while volunteers separated andbagged--by color code--440 dozen balls.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg FEETDON'T FAIL ME NOW
Howell tried the old Sam Snead drill: hit shots in your stocking feet toimprove your balance.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg FREESTUFF
Monday through Wednesday the tee is lined by equipment reps hawking things likethe Momentus Power Hitter.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg WORKINGSPACE
The 12-acre Quail Hollow range is 357 yards from front to back, with seventarget greens and six bunkers.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg SIGNHERE
At Quail Hollow, as at most Tour stops, the back of the practice tee was a hotspot for autograph hounds.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg GOCART
From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Lawton and others were either driving the ball picker orpouring oil into its balky engine.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg TEACHING PRO
For 51 weeks of the year Baldwin directs the pro golf management program atQueens University of Charlotte.
PHOTO Photographs by Fred Vuich and David Walberg IRONARTIST
Pernice takes pride in his trademark dollar-bill-sized divots. "I've spentsome hours on this thing," he says.