FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – You have to get up pretty early in the morning to see a guy hit the first shot of the PGA Championship. It’s 6 a.m. on Thursday, and Bethpage Black is astir.
The putting green is busy barely past dawn. Nothing too unusual about that, since the legend of this public course includes the golfers who sleep in the parking lot, so they’re in line for an early tee time. The sign by the putting green: Thank You For Visiting Bethpage State Park. The People’s Country Club. No greens fee-payers this day, though. Only PGA competitors, and the first group will go off at 6:45 a.m.
You can see your breath in the air at 6:14, when Tiger Woods arrives and walks by himself to the clubhouse, hands in his pockets against the morning chill, probably the only time all day he will be alone. He won’t be on the course for another two hours. By 6:20, the players who will be starting at the distant No. 10 hop in a Cadillac to be shuttled over to the tee, like Long Island carpool commuters heading to work. And at 6:35, a 47-year-old club pro named Rob Labritz, who hails from 90 minutes away in Westchester County walks onto the No. 1 tee 10 minutes early. He’s a little anxious. Time to think, to settle the nerves, to get his picture taken by the Wanamaker Trophy, which is stationed this day at the right edge of the tee, reminding everyone what they’re aiming for.
A few minutes later, he is joined by playing partners Beau Hossler and J.J. Spaun. Right at 6:45, Labritz hits the first drive off No. 1 tee in the 2019 PGA Championship, which misses the fairway right. Maybe a hundred people are there to see it. Not quite like No. 10 will be at 8:24 when Woods, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari tee off. “Go get ‘em, Rob!” someone shouts, Labritz turns, gives a thumbs-up, and heads down the hill.
The PGA, which has room for both the Tiger Woods’ and Rob Labritzes of the world, is underway.
Five hours later, Labritz’ birdie putt from 30 feet away on No. 18 hits the flagstick and bounces away. He taps in for a 75, picks up his yellow golf ball and shakes hands with the rest of the group.
“That’s not Bubba Watson. He’s the only one I know who uses a yellow ball. Who is that guy?’’ a fan sitting by the green asks her friends.
That’s Rob Labritz. Club pro.
“No wonder I didn’t know him.”
Nor did she know that Labritz has played in five previous PGAs, and even made the cut in 2010. Or that he has won three New York State Opens on this very course. Thursday was his 70th round at Bethpage Black. He once torched the place for a 65.
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Of course, the other five PGA Championships weren’t so close to home. And the other 69 rounds at Bethpage Black didn’t have rough like this, or greens like this, or a field like this. And one other difference, Labritz said.
First, he assessed his Thursday round. “Up and down. I played pretty solid, missed a few fairways. Out here if you miss a few fairways you’re going to struggle. I definitely played better than I scored. But your score is a total reflection of how you play. So I played 75.
“It’s a crapshoot in the rough lies. You’re either going to get a decent lie or you’re going to have nothing, and I had a few nothings.”
Then, he mentioned how he had 50 to 100 members and friends here to root him on, so there were thumbs-ups to be given on nearly every hole. “They’re all wearing their Rob’s Mob T-shirts, which is pretty cool,” he said.
Then, he described how he had prepared for the day he had looked forward to for so long. In bed by 9:30 Wednesday night. Up with the birds. “I woke up by myself at 4:29, the alarm was set for 4:30. So my internal alarm clock went off.”
Next, he explained why he showed up at the first tee so early.
“I wanted to breathe it in, soak it in, and just kind of get used to it and calm my nerves. Get my adrenaline just . . . chilled. I’m not in this arena all the time, so when I got here, the adrenaline starts to flow and I know when adrenaline flows, you start to swing a little faster, you think a little faster.
“But I’ve played this place so many times, I just kind of stood up there and made a pretty solid swing. I hit it a little right, no big deal. I had a shot into the green and walked away with a nice par.”
This wasn’t even the first time he had hit the first drive in a PGA Championship. He was also scheduled that way in 2013 at Oak Hill. “I’ve been blessed twice,” he said. Blessed? Having to get up at 4:30 in the morning? “One hundred percent. If you can please print thank you (to the PGA). Because that is just an honor I’ll never ever forget.”
And finally, with some emotion in the voice, he tried to say what Thursday meant to him, as the man who led off the PGA Championship, so close to home.
“It means everything to me. You’re going to choke me up here. This is my life, my job, my first love, my second love. I’ve been divorced once. I’ve never divorced golf.
“I want to play well tomorrow because I want to be here for the weekend. I want to experience the weekend."
And then, almost under his breath, "I'm going to take it low tomorrow."
He’ll be able to sleep in, anyway. His Friday tee time is just after noon.
No, Rob Labritz is not Tiger Woods. In terms of national name recognition, he’s in another universe. But this is his PGA Championship, too.