Friday, August 29, 2008

My Day Inside the Ropes with KJ Choi ...

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play golf in the Barclays Invitational Pro-Am. It was the most amazing experience I've ever had. Please indulge me as I relive the experience...

When I received the invitation, I sent Barclays (BGI) my handicap. BGI sent me my info packet that listed directions to the parking lot. My tee time was 7:30AM. At the time, I had no idea who I'd be playing with, but the night before, I checked the tournament website to get a feel for the course. The link is here, and after looking through, I was pretty nervous.

Time to Head Out So I get up at 4:30AM, shower, and load the car up with my sticks and my shoes. I am on the road by 5:45AM and reach Ridgewood by 6:45AM. The attendant in the lot takes my bag and I ride in to the course on a shuttle with the other "lucky amateur bastards". We get to the course, and I have to register. The nice woman gives me two things, a pass for all access that marks me as a contestant, and a sheet that shows who I am playing with and what tee I am starting on. I get to play golf with "The Chairman" -- K.J. Choi. K.J. is the 15th ranked player in the world. Links to K.J. are here, here and here.

Pass for tournament with KJ's Autograph (click to enlarge)

Sheet with Pro Pairings and Starting Tee
(click to enlarge)

my Buddy Jimmy
I sit at the locker they give me in the clubhouse, and I can barely keep my head on straight. The only thing I could think to do is text my buddy Jimmy two simple letters "KJ". I put the cell phone away and head out to look for my bag and the range. Once I find them, I grab a wedge, a 7 iron and my driver and head down to the range. The first person I see hitting balls? Freddy Couples. Next to him? Sergio. It's basically insane. I go to the tent to get my bag of balls, and they have every ball you could want to hit. I grab the bags marked Titleist because I don't hit "Bridgestones", and hit a few, then head back to the cart when they announce the time as 7:25 AM. Oh, on my way back, Phil Mickleson is being interviewed in a chair by the range. That was cool.

So our team heads down to the 17th tee box, still no sign of K.J. though. We're standing on the tee with Stuart Appleby's group, and he's ribbing us about K.J. being late. There's about 14 people standing around including all of our caddies. Honestly, I'm so nervous, I don't really remember what he said. But they tee off and K.J. and his caddie show up and Appleby points to his watch..K.J. just starts laughing.

The Chairman Arrives K.J. is extremely nice and introduces himself. His caddie, Andy, is a Scotsman and he's a freakin' riot. For example, he hands us "pin sheets" and states "in case your firing right at them." We stand on the 17th, and it's time to go. The 17th is a dogleg left, so K.J. tee's off from the pro tees. He nuts the ball with effortless power, which is truly what you realize with these guys. The ball turns around the corner and disappears. I say "good ball KJ" and walk up 20 yards to our tees, the fourth set.

First Tee Jitters I'll save you the suspense... I had hit 5 good drivers on the range, so I felt comfortable on the tee, all things considered. I remember picking out my spot in the distance, lining up, and then trying to stay relaxed and slow. I remember seeing the ball, hearing the ball, and KJ and the group saying, "great ball." We teed off into the sunrise, so I never saw it. We go up, and I outdrove KJ given that I was up 20 yards, and really tried to keep it together because I didn't want to be that dude that tried to show up the pro. But I did outdrive him, and it meant nothing other than my teammates took notice and so did the kid and his dad standing outside the ropes watching our group. You can't imagine how awesome it is to pipe a drive, pick up your tee, and there are people clapping and a pro saying "great ball". Oh, KJ made birdie on 17, I made bogey. Hitting a big drive is like getting a girl's number. You still have to make the call, so all that matters is the shot you hit from there.

My Random Thouhgts I won't go through every hole, because those who know me know I remember everything due to my photographic memory and really could. But here are some of my random thoughts about the experience:

  • KJ Choi could not have been cooler. He really kept us relaxed, it was hard to believe he was the same intense guy you see winning on TV at tournaments.
  • I've always imagined what it's like being inside the ropes. And you know what? It's exactly how I pictured it. Being inside the ropes beats standing outside the ropes any day.
  • I hit 10 fairways that day, and it was a blast having people watch you tee off.
  • TV doesn't do any justice to what these guys do. Their swings are beautiful, and the shots they hit from the places they do are unbelievable. And putting on PGA greens are heaven.
  • I made 2 pars for birdies in our team's effort.
  • KJ and his caddie were working on strategy the whole round, talking about what clubs to hit on each hole, and looking at the greens since this was the first time many had played at Ridgewood CC.
  • KJ signed about 50 autographs during our 5 hour round. The most inspiring moment was when KJ signed the hat for a girl who walked with two crutches because of a birth disorder. KJ really took time to show he was appreciative that she wanted his autograph. Watching her reaction after he signed her hat and headed toward his ball made me realize how much of an impact we all have on others, no matter what our status in life.
  • Funniest moment of round (for me personally): Walking from 13 green to 14 tee box, KJ was back behind us and signing more autographs. As I come up over the hill towards the tee box, some little kid looks at me and says "KJ, can you sign my hat?" His dad quickly looks at me and says "That's not KJ." It was pretty funny. I quickly realized that while I was inside the ropes, this kid's father reminded me my presence there was temporary.
  • On my 3rd hole (#1), I rolled my ball in for par, and stood off to the side and waited for the others to putt out. My eyes got watery because I realized how far I had come in my life to reach that point inside the ropes, and it has a very humbling moment. Thanks Jim, Duane and Willy for giving me the skills to hang with KJ and play one shot at a time.
  • Saying "good putt" and "nice drive" to KJ and having him look back and say "thanks" never got old the whole round. Thinking about KJ saying "good drive" after I hit my drives off the tee still gives me chills. I can still hear he and Andy.
I could go on and on, but I was on a high for three days. Below is the picture of our team and a signed "flag" by KJ. His agent and he also sent a card that I received this week saying thank you again, it was just classy. When the round was over, I took off my visor, shook his hand and thanked him again for making the day so much fun. I won't ever forget the experience. KJ was a true gentlemen.

Plaque of Our Team (-10 under, tied for 4th)

The Epilogue BGI invited me to play two days later at Liberty National. Liberty National is where the Barclays will be held next year, and the thought right now is that the Barclays will rotate between Ridgewood, Liberty National, and Westchester Country Club. Apparently, Bob Diamond, the president of Barclays, is a member there. Here is a link to Liberty and here.

Liberty National I got to Liberty and met up with my contact and met Bob Diamond in the locker room. Bob was playing in the group ahead of us, and Tim Finchem, the PGA Commissioner was also in his group. (In the picture I took below, you can see Commisioner Finchem in the grey slacks with the black shirt...) There are just some beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline from the course. Liberty that day played much tougher than Ridgewood, no disrespect. There's fescue all around to look at off the tee, and when the wind gets going, it can wear you down. The greens are really crazy too. Should be a great venue next year...!

View from the 16th Tee Box...lots to look at

Finally, a word about the Barclays Tournament
Erin and I went to the Barclays on Saturday. We hung out at the hospitality pavilion, and I introduced Erin to Bob Diamond while there. We followed KJ from the 16th hole on in since he teed off at 9:40 AM. He was -3 under for the day and making a move, and had birdie chances on 16 and 17. I said hi to Andy and we followed their group in. Afterwards, we headed down to the driving range to watch KJ work out. I spoke with his friend who recognized me from Wednesday and introduced Erin to Andy as well. We hung out along the 17th fairway since that was where I started our Pro-Am round and watched VJ, Lumpy, Nick Watney, Sergio, and Phil hit their approaches into 17 green. It was simply awesome being inside the ropes. Kudos to Barclays, what a fantastic week. KJ, if you are reading this, you have a fan for life, ask Erin. She was laughing watching me run around the course following my pro.

Thanks for letting me share this experience. I know it was a long post, but for a once in a lifetime experience, I could've written a book.

KJ's Swing on CBS's Swingvision Slow-Motion Camera

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Great story.