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Padraig Harrington demonstrated a flop shot while Zach Johnson and a large gallery looked on Monday at The Mid Ocean Club. (Photo: The PGA of America)
Padraig Harrington demonstrated a flop shot while Zach Johnson and a large gallery looked on Monday at The Mid Ocean Club. (Photo: The PGA of America)

Grand Slam raises golf's profile in Bermuda

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Bermuda's golfers and its business community are rightly enthused about the PGA Grand Slam of Golf's staging this week. On Monday, though, the real excitement was seen in the wide-eyed faces of all the youngsters at the Champions Clinic.

By John L. Byrwa, Managing Editor

TUCKER'S TOWN, Bermuda -- It's difficult for an outsider to put into words how much playing host to the 25th PGA Grand Slam of Golf means to Bermuda. After all, this tiny island of 65,000 residents in the Atlantic Ocean last saw a professional golf event of this magnitude grace its glistening shores in, well, never.

"This is by far the biggest golf event we've ever had in Bermuda," said Dr. Ewart Frederick Brown, the proud Premier of Bermuda, whose 22 total square miles of paradise sit 650 miles due east of North Carolina.

"The whole island is extremely excited. We had a senior event here maybe 10, 12 years ago, but, yes, this is by far the biggest."

No need to tell Evan Heyliger that. The wide-eyed expression on his 8-year-old face told you he had never seen anything like what he had just witnessed. One of about 50 members of the Bermuda Junior Golf Association who were at The Mid Ocean Club on Monday for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf Champions Clinic, Heyliger and his friends saw up close and in person things they'd only seen before on TV.

Or in their dreams.

They "ooohed" when Argentina's Angel Cabrera, the reigning U.S. Open champion, played a low pitch shot from just off the front of the 17th green that flew past the pin, bit into a backstop-like hill behind the hole, sucked back and nearly hit the pin before sliding past the cup.

They "aaahed" when Iowa's Zach Johnson, the proud owner of a prestigious green jacket following his surprise Masters victory back in April, played two lovely touch flop shots over a bunker to a downhill-sloping green that trickled toward the hole before stopping two feet away.

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They cheered wildly when Padraig Harrington, the first Irishman in 60 years to have his named carved into the coveted Claret Jug, played back-to-back 45-yard bunker shots from far below the green that each flew high and landed soft a couple feet from the hole.

They groaned when Johnson tried the same bunker shot and left his first attempt in the sand.

And they clapped politely when Brian Whitcomb, the president of the PGA of America, opened the proceedings by presenting the BJGA with an oversized check in the amount of $10,000.

"Fascinating," said Heyliger, who joined the BJGA earlier this summer. "I saw Zach Johnson putt it and it almost went in. I like hitting the ball. I hit my driver 100 yards."

For all the impact this event will have on Bermuda, from the exposure to a worldwide audience watching on TNT and GOLF CHANNEL, to the economic boom such an event brings to local businesses, to the general sense of civic pride, nothing will come close to its impact on young golfers seeing four major champions display their skills right before their eyes.

Early Monday morning, while Johnson and Harrington warmed up on a makeshift range that normally serves as one of the forward tees on the 18th hole -- Cabrera was a late arrival due to his landing in Bermuda at 2:00 a.m. local time, and Jim Furyk, the former U.S. Open champion and fourth member of this grand foursome, was due to arrive Monday night -- the juniors were in awe watching shot after shot fly into the clear sky and disappear over the hill. They saw how the players prepare for each shot, how they check their alignment, grip and posture, how they analyze their divots for clues.

Stuff these kids rarely, if ever, get to see on the television.

"I think this is a great experience for them," said Quinton Sherlock Jr., the vice president of the BJGA. "A once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, really, to see the best golfers in the world out there. For these youngsters, some of who have just started playing the game, to see these great players here is a wonderful experience.

"I think this will serve as platform to expose golf -- mostly what they see here in the news is football, what you call soccer, and cricket -- but this will catapult golf to the forefront and a lot of young children will see it and hopefully make them want to try it out. I really think this will serve as a catalyst to create new interest."

Sherlock, 28, knows well of what he speaks, as well as how to set a positive example for his pupils.

He cut his golfing teeth in the BJGA, improving to the point that he earned a full scholarship to Grambling University in the United States. He transferred to Alabama State, where he earned his bachelor's degree, then went on to Auburn for graduate school. Three years ago he returned to his native Bermuda.

Today, Sherlock is a respected college teacher and an even better golfer, evidenced by his earning low amateur honors Sunday in the Bermuda Open.

"Obviously, we're a bit disappointed that Tiger (Woods) didn't make it," Sherlock said, referring to the reigning PGA Champion who regrettably pulled out of the PGA Grand Slam to spent time with his new daughter and wife. "But the Grand Slam is still a huge event for these kids.

"For them to see anyone from the PGA, let alone four major championship winners, to see how they hit the ball, to see the flight of the ball, to hear what the ball sounds like when it's hit well, that is just a fantastic opportunity for them."

When you consider that many of the youngsters at The Mid Ocean Club Monday have never played an entire 18-hole round, let alone seen in person a real, live PGA TOUR professional hit a golf ball, you really can't appreciate the thrill. Imagine, before joining the BJGA, most of them thought an iron was used only for pressing clothes.

"I think it's great," beamed Cavon Raynor, 7, who has been playing golf for two months. "You get to go up high on different levels and hit shots. I hit from the tee yesterday, three times to 75 yards."

And it's not just on the course or the practice range where these kids are reaping the benefits of golf.

"He's focusing more," said Raynor's mother, Claire-Anne. "He's always been very intellectual, but he focuses a lot more in school and he's very conscious of what's around him.

"I think golf is a great way for him to make contacts, to be around people that he needs to be around."

Mikus Ming, 8, picked up golf a year and a half ago. Clutching an official PGA Grand Slam of Golf program, on which he proudly displayed the autographs of Johnson, Cabrera and Harrington, Ming came away Monday with a new appreciation of what it takes to master a game none of us ever will master.

"I think that you need a lot of encouragement and focus," he said.

Now those are pretty good words to describe what all this means to Bermuda.

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