HEXHAM, England – For years, golf fans, golf media and even many professional golfers have wondered what it would be like to be a part of an elite golf team competing in an international event. Amazingly, I had the chance to find out.
At the 26th PGA Cup, held at the Hunting Course at DeVere Slaley Hall, Hexham, Northumberland (or as I call it – England), I was able to spend the entire week with Team USA. When I say spend the week, I am saying that I was in virtually every way (other than the ''not playing golf'' part), taking part in everything they did.
I attended dinners and receptions, I went to team meetings, I sat in the team room, I even listened in on conversations on the team radio. I rode around with the captain, walked alongside the team wives and sat in the championship office. I was an ''embedded reporter'' of the best kind.
The goal for the week was for me to be able to relay the intensity, drama, passion and excitement of this event from a unique/insider's perspective. And in a word: "Wow!"
Since my boss probably wants more than one word to justify the expense of bringing me over here, let me note a few events that stood out to me. Of course, the sanctity of things like the discussions in the team room or conversations the captain has with his players are not intended to be for public record. But the willingness and even eagerness of the team to share thoughts and ideas (both on and off the record), include me in offsite functions, recount items of note each day, and simply allow me to be present was the coolest golf experience I've ever had.
I also understood how incredible passionate The PGA of America and especially Captain Allen Wronowski were about keeping/winning the Llandudno Trophy. So much preparation and detail go into this week that it was staggering. I will save you from listing every detail, but the things that go into simply holding one of these events is comprehensive and exhausting.
So as an insider, what did I learn?
* I learned the course. I was able to play the course prior to the matches as part of a pro-am. (Never mind me missing the first hole due to oversleeping/jet lag). I can tell you that this is a championship golf course. However, it also has a few quirky holes – ones where driver can't be hit off the tee and where various local knowledge tips could come in quite handy on blind shots and elevation changes. This would be important for discussion in team meetings (to be discussed later.)
* I sat in on the rules meeting for players from both teams, captains and assistants, caddies and rules officials. The breadth of the rules covered was mind-boggling. I think we all know how easy it would be to throw your club in the wrong bag – especially if the bags look identical. Did you know that if you do that prior to the round, your partner now has 15 clubs in his bag, and that's a penalty?
Have you ever thought about what is defined as a tee box? Because in these competitions, when the rules state that a player has to be on the tee box at his assigned tee time, he has to be within the dots of the tee box, with ball and club in hand at that time, or else face a penalty. This was nearly an issue on Saturday afternoon and I was with PGA Chief Championships Officer Kerry Haigh as he kept glancing at his watch and the tee box as a player rushed from the range to the first tee. (The player in question made it – barely).
We had one rules incident where a player (in alternate-shot format) had a tough shot out of the bunker, and failed to extricate his ball. In anger, he took a swipe at the sand. Now in stroke play, most golfers know that's an obvious penalty. But in foursomes, when you're not the next player to take a stroke, what is it? (It's still a penalty, and a big one – loss of hole).
The rules meeting covered so much ground, and even this group of 20 PGA Professionals had questions about the format and rules that needed to be addressed. And of course, there were a number of times when knowing these rules came into play during the competition.
* I went to the first team meeting in the official Team Room. Team USA was a decided underdog on paper – at least, according to Captain Allen Wronowski. But he absolutely emphasized that as an advantage. He used movie quotes, anecdotes, a video clip from LPGA legend Dottie Pepper and even a phone call from U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Tom Watson to encourage and motivate the team before play began.
The team started to gel and expressed belief and confidence in each other – not necessarily in a ''rah-rah'' way, but in a thoughtful and determined way. Mike Small, who has won three PGA Professional National Championships, took on a leadership role in the Team Room, but not by talking about how he played certain holes or offering any swing tips. Rather, he spent time offering strong words for the players in the room on what to expect in terms of pressure and attitudes of the GB&I team, and how best to deal with it. In that moment, he was nationally acclaimed University of Illinois Golf Coach Mike Small, not the very accomplished player Mike Small. It absolutely made a difference.
* I listened as players gave each other tips from what they learned in their practice rounds. One player offered, "If you hit it into the third fairway, rather than down the fairway on four, the green opens up at a better angle and you take the hazard out of play." Captain Wronowski had one of the assistants go and laser the yardage from various spots on the third fairway to the fourth green. And virtually every member of Team USA played the fourth hole from fairway three.
* I watched the U.S. team members talk openly about the difference between their team and the GB&I team – most notably, the eligibility requirements to make the team – and use that as motivation to not only win, but win convincingly. By the end of the meeting, there were 10 golfers ready to run through a wall to get the matches started. It was a brilliant talk that had the players hoping to play an accomplished opponent simply to claim a bigger scalp.
* I watched Kari Sullivan, the wife of U.S. player Chip Sullivan, perform one of the most moving and impressive renditions of "God Bless the U.S.A." at a team dinner the night before the matches started.
* I watched U.S. player JC Anderson do a hilarious 10-minute stand-up bit about his team that he could put on pay-per-view and get paid handsomely.
* I talked with team member Ryan Polzin, who was asked to sit out the morning session on Friday, as we watched a few groups come in. He told me he'd prefer to be playing, but this was not about him – it was about the team. Then he told me when he did play, he was going to put on a show. Over the last three holes in the afternoon four-balls, he made about 80 feet of putts as he and partner Matt Dobyns took down the top GB&I duo by one.
* I listened on the radio as the PGA officers and executives helped Wronowski tend to each pairing throughout the day. The updates were important but the banter was tremendous. The pressure to win in these events exceeds anything most people have ever felt on a golf course, but the levity helped relieve some of that. It showed that golf is still fun, no matter the pressure or stakes.
In the first match of the first day, PGA Secretary Paul Levy – who was giving updates over the radio on the group he was assisting/watching – called in a final result: GB&I had won 3&2. Wronowski took a moment and then called back: "Paul, you can take the afternoon off." I hope Mr. Levy was laughing. But the captain and I certainly were. Even more, he used the radio to determine which groups could use some encouragement or a kick in the pants and to talk to the assistants to find out what any player might need in order to play his best.
* I learned how vital it is to have a championship staff on the PGA Championships staff. Tournament officials sprang into action when two of the U.S. players reported they were battling colds they had come down with on the flight over. Driving into town on these crazy roads, working with pharmacies to try and get something that would stave off a virus – the pressure to perform was just as intense off the course as between the ropes. But whatever a player needed to optimize his performance, a tournament staffer was there to support and get it for him.
* I saw PGA President Ted Bishop ask Wronowski about pairings and strategy, knowing that Bishop would be at the helm of the next PGA Cup Team in CordeValle in 2015. I joked that if the USA kept performing so well in the PGA Cup, Bishop's opponents might be named Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter. Not sure he was smiling at that. But each of the officers seemed to be studying what worked, what could be improved, etc. for their turn in that role.
* I learned that the strength of the team might have been the wives: Each day, the players made a point to talk about the incredible support they were getting from the team wives collectively. Playing overseas in front of crowds that are predominantly against you can be tough, but hearing lots of cheers and encouragement from friendly voices and faces can make a huge difference. And it obviously did.
* I heard PGA Vice President Derek Sprague radio in to Wronowski to report a problem with the official scoreboard. His reason for concern? The scoreboard was a wave of blue early on Sunday, and he thought the team needed to see a red number with a lead. The PGA officials made sure it was corrected.
* I saw Wronowski rush from the 18th green after watching JC Anderson hit a critical five-footer for a half-point that meant that a Ryan Polzin win or halve on the 16th hole meant Team USA would retain the Cup. With tears rolling down his face, he walked onto the green and gave Ryan a big bear hug after he halved the hole. Team USA would keep the Cup under Captain Wronowski's watch.
* I felt the frustration of the team when the GB&I squad completed a stunning and amazing comeback on Sunday to pull off a 13-13 tie. The trophy was coming home to the United States, but not surprisingly, several players told me they expected more – especially after the first two days.
* I was in the USA Team Room when Mike Small presented Wronowski with a special engraved plate from the players. The emotion and affection in the room was palpable. There were not many dry eyes.
* And as the team marched out to the closing ceremony, I saw virtually every team member, his wife, and several PGA officers and executives congratulate and thank Wronowski for representing the association and the United States in such a classy and respectful way.
I said before the week started that the PGA Cup was my favorite event in golf. But what I witnessed firsthand was more than a golf event – it was a delta of intensity, passion, competition, respect and emotion. I saw championship golfers deal with pressure they've never experienced. I saw some of the most respected leaders in golf become unabashed cheerleaders, offering encouragement, celebrations and support around a team they didn't even know until earlier this week.
I saw that losing hurts more than winning – and that a tie for the entire match is easier to take when you get to keep the trophy. But most of all, I was able to experience something that no one has really seen other than a player or captain on a major international golf team: the way a team bonds and performs under the highest of expectations and pressures.
Professionally, it was the greatest week of my life. Personally, it ranked way up there, too. The venue was amazing, the support was incredible, but most of all, Team USA became a family – and they allowed me to be at least a step-brother.
I hope some of these insights bring you closer to the game you love and to an event you should love even more. The efforts of the players, coaches and team cannot be adequately relayed in one feature article, but I really hope this is a decent effort. They deserve that and a whole lot more.