Jun 22, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 40 • By JAY NORDLINGER
No one likes a braggart, but here's a fact: A golf tournament is a much nicer experience with a press pass. And you feel the difference immediately.
You arrive at the Kemper Open, outside Washington, D.C., with thousands of other fans. You get to the public parking lot, where you've always left your car before, but you don't stop. You keep going . . . and going. At checkpoint after checkpoint, you're waved through by smiling young people, all because of the magical pass that dangles from your rearview mirror. When you finally reach your designated lot, you're practically in the clubhouse. No wonder people resent the press.
Then you check in at the media center, where you're greeted by a platoon of eager-beaver volunteers who will ensure that you have everything you need. So what do you need? Everything: programs (expensive to the average Joe), newspapers, PGA Tour paraphernalia, phones, fax machines . . . and the food tent. Ah, the food tent, where you feast all day on sandwiches and pie, exchanging Tour gossip with the grizzled press, some of whom are famous.
When the spirit moves you, you wander over to the practice range, to see who's warming up. Fans have lined the rope two and three deep, but you don't have to stand with them: You head straight for the entrance, where a couple of semi-huffy guards try to stop you. But they can't, because you have that thing hanging from your neck, and, in a second, you're mingling with the titans of golf -- questioning them, joking with them, spying (or, if you like, reporting) on them.
Much of the talk -- no surprise here -- is about women: "I think that deal might have been firmed up last night," says one of the players. "Oh?" says another. "Horizontal?" Another pro, who styles himself "Big Daddy from Cincinnati," is a well-known connoisseur of the nation's strip bars, and, sure enough, he has a blonde with him right there on the range -- and she doesn't look like his wife, or anyone else's.
But there are other scenes, too, best appreciated from a reporter's privileged vantage: swing gurus trying to straighten out their anxious clients; players yakking on their cell phones, inquiring about endorsement contracts; Jesper Parnevik (son of "The Johnny Carson of Sweden") cracking up his friends; Dicky Pride (now there's a name) instructing a portly volunteer who has asked for swing advice; and Justin Leonard -- one of Cosmopolitan magazine's "25 Most Eligible Bachelors" -- being teased about the gaggle of giggling girls waiting for his autograph.
Then, it's on to the first tee, scene last year of a notorious episode. Greg Norman, the president's jerk pal, threw a screaming fit at the announcer, simply because the man had made a gentle reference to Clinton's injury at Norman's Florida estate. The man has since died, and the Kemper people have installed a plaque in his honor. Norman also flipped the bird to one of his fans in the gallery last year. Swell guy, and totally deserving of Clinton.
Out on the course, you hunt down some of the more interesting players, looking for stories. Sandy Lyle is there, a hulking Scotsman who was once the world's top golfer but has been languishing for a decade. His demeanor is admirably stoic, as he struggles to recoup his game. You notice, though, that he says, "Sh --," after poor shots: just as he did on television one year at the Masters (whereupon Ken Venturi, in the booth, said, "That describes it").
You also spot Esteban Toledo, a former lightweight boxing champion from Mexico who has cast his fate with golf. He still looks like he could go 12 rounds with anyone, and his headcovers are -- what else? -- boxing gloves. Just as Lyle is followed by British-accented fans, Toledo is surrounded by Spanish-speaking ones, who shout Viva! after even mediocre tee shots. Toledo may be an average Tour player, but he's a remarkable athlete, adored by his public.
As the parade passes by, you realize that you know these guys embarrassingly well -- from golf magazines and books and interview shows. This one is recovering from a divorce; that one has been to a hypnotist. This one is a fervent Bible student; that one is losing his putting stroke to drink. The caddies, too, are part of the pageant, some of them as familiar as their bosses. They are perhaps the motliest crew on earth -- the carnies of the fairways -- and they don't shy away from your notepad, especially if you have cigarettes to give.