It's known as America's home of golf: Pinehurst. Site of three U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship, a U.S. Women's Open and, in 1951, a Ryder Cup.
And for one week in August, it's also the gathering place for the best young golfers in the world.
It's the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship, and a few weeks ago I exchanged my titles of GOLF.com host, GOLF Magazine correspondent and SI.com reporter for the role of caddie. More specifically, Caddie Daddy.
You see, I'm the proud dad of two junior golfers, Michael, age 9, and Rory, age 7. Both qualified for this year's event, held for the 13th consecutive year at Pinehurst. For our family, it meant a trip to North Carolina. For me, it meant that I'd caddie 27 holes a day in the biggest kids tournament in the world. Here's how it all went down.
We arrived in Pinehurst on Tuesday, after a short drive from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and immediately stepped into madness -- more than 1,500 kids from 50 countries, all age 12 and under.
Now in it's 18th year, "The Worlds" is, even with such robust participation, a well-oiled machine. The event launched in 2000 in Jekyll Island, S.C., shifted briefly to Williamsburg, Va., and settled in Pinehurst in 2005. From player registration, where I saw PGA Tour pro Frederic Jacobsen and his son Max, to caddie supply distribution, where I proudly snagged a bib with ASSELTA stamped on my back, day one was chaos, but also controlled.
After a light practice on the chipping green, it was time for the annual Parade of Nations. Players and their families marched in procession through the Village of Pinehurst. Flags flew from Colombia, Germany, Ecuador and Australia, plus those from every state, including our home state of New Jersey.
Bleating bagpipers added to the ambiance, and as we marched, two things became clear: The people of Pinehurst truly love golf, and the World Championships were a BIG deal. Heck, the parade was streamed on Facebook Live!
Two full practice rounds on the docket, starting in the morning with Michael on Pinehurst No. 1 and followed by an afternoon session with Rory at Mid Pines. We met fellow competitors from Texas, China, and California and got a feel for the two historic courses that Donald Ross had a hand in designing.
The heaving, hilly terrain coupled with mid-80s temperatures and some good old-fashioned North Carolina humidity left me exhausted after 27 holes. Good thing I packed comfortable sneakers. A professional caddie at Pinehurst No. 2 told me that looping for 27 holes is equivalent to a 10-mile walk.
As the sun set over North Carolina, we took part in what would become a nightly ritual: Ping-Pong. The boys hung out with their new friends in the game room and went at it, while my wife, Kimberly, and my stepmom, Chrissy, joined me on the front porch of the Carolina hotel for a few cold Wicked Weed IPAs. Life was good.
Rise and shine for round one. Michael teed off for 18 holes at 8:51 a.m. and Rory was slated for nine holes at Mid Pines at 11:33, so caddying for both boys would be impossible. Luckily we hired the services of a crafty looper from Revere, Mass., most commonly known as "Mimi." Yes, Rory would have his Grandmother, Chrissy, on the bag, while I walked 18 with Michael.
When the starter boomed into the microphone, "Now on the tee, from Ramsey, New Jersey… Michael Asselta," the caddie dad was nervous. I noticed I wasn't even breathing! I can only imagine how my 9-year-old felt over that first tee shot. Later he'd say that he felt "a few butterflies, but nothing big." That makes one of us.
Michael drilled that first shot down the left side of the fairway and we were off. He played alongside boys from England and Mississippi, and all three played great. When you see so many fairways and greens hit in regulation, you almost forget that these are just kids! Jake from London had finished in the top 20 in 2016, and was as consistent as any golfer I had ever seen. Michael also held his own, and after putting out on 18 and stopping by the scorer's tent to make it official, Michael went into the books with a first-round 80. Not bad for a kid who has played a full 18 only a couple of times in his young life.
Feeling both happy and relieved, we met up with Rory and Mimi at Mid Pines and learned that his round had been a bit rocky. A score of 46 left Rory in 67th place out of 127, while Michael's round had him sitting in 61st out of 153. All in all, a good day.
Dinner, IPA's, Ping-Pong, and I was out like a light.
On Day 2 I had better luck with the tee times and was able to caddie for both boys. Rory led off at 10:33 a.m., while Michael would peg it in the afternoon wave at 1:18 p.m.
Rory and I arrived early to Mid Pines to warm up, and it quickly became clear that the little man's swing was out of sync. Now, I'm a decent golfer (a 7 handicap), but swing instruction, especially an hour before his tee time, is not my specialty.
"Dad, what's wrong with my swing?" Rory asked.
I didn't want to shake his confidence, so I repeated our usual pre-shot reminders. "Full swing...Full speed...clip the grass."
We focused on balance and tempo and hoped for the best. Unfortunately the day was a grind, capped off by a trip to a nasty waste bunker on the 4th hole. As a parent I wanted to jump into this bunker and grab Rory's club and blast the ball out myself, but of course he had to do it himself. A few shots clipped the steep lip of the bunker, and a couple of putts later he ended up with a scorecard-busting 10. Rory is usually even-keeled on the golf course, but the bunker debacle produced a few tears, and a final score of 49, his highest in over a year. But Rory still made me proud by finishing his round with a gutsy par.
Little did I know it was a sign of things to come.
After a visit to the scoring tent and a cold Arnold Palmer (the boys' new favorite drink), it was time to race over to Pinehurst No. 1 to meet up with Michael.
Golf is often filled with highs and lows and, well, on this day Michael took a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone. It began on hole 6, with a deft approach shot to 2 feet for an easy birdie. He backed it up by burying a 25-footer for birdie on 7, punctuated by a fist pump and a loud "Yeah!"
On 8 he laced a 5-iron to 5 feet and canned the putt for, yes, a third straight birdie. Heading to the 9th tee, Kimberly asked me to reapply sunscreen on Michael. "No way!" I said. I didn't want to break the streak. "We've gotta leave him alone."
Surprisingly, Michael wanted to chat.
"Dad, I've never had three straight birdies before! Can you give me some beef jerky from the bag?" he said. You gotta love 9-year-olds!
Michael turned in even-par 37 and strolled to his 10th hole of the day with a bounce in his step.
But as we know, the golf gods have a funny way of messing with us. A few loose shots coupled with the uncontrollable emotions of a kid produced a 45 on the back.
My Caddie and Daddy skills were both stretched and tested over the homestretch. I tried to keep him focused on the next shot, but trying to manage a 9-year-old, read putts, choose clubs AND keep the tears from streaming all while he's in a rut, is quite a challenge.
His final score of 82 was still solid and good for 72nd place. But, oh, what could have been.
Dinner, IPA's, Ping-Pong. Time to rest up for the final round.
With the sky outside my window still pitch-black, Rory woke me up early to declare: "We need to get to the range early. I have a lot to practice." And so at 6:45 a.m. we were off … for our 9:18 tee time.
As we warmed up on the range, something new was happening with Rory's swing. Whether it was nerves, or a kink, or something else, it was gone. He was striping it. We practiced the shot that had been giving him trouble, the 40-yard pitch, and it was clear Rory was getting his confidence back. "Dad which flag do you want me to aim at? Red, White or Blue?" I alternated flags and he knocked over each pin. After one last pure shot, he declared, "I'm ready."
We moved to the first tee and he was off. After three straight pars, we returned to the infamous 4th hole, where a bunker derailed the round one day earlier. This time Rory made a beautiful up-and-down for par, and we both waved goodbye to "The Bunker," vowing never to return.
Rory reeled off four more pars, leading us to the final hole of the tournament, at even par on the day.
After blasting out of a waste bunker and over-shooting the green, we faced an extremely difficult shot, even for the most seasoned golfer. It was an uphill chip off a tight lie that needed to reach the top of the green before running violently downhill to the hole.
I turned to Rory and asked, "How about we putt it?" His reply: "I love it."
He putted to the crest of the hill, and as the ball nearly came to a complete stop, so did my heart. It looked like the ball would roll back down to our feet, but instead it took one extra rotation forward and caught the crest of the hill. Off it went towards the hole, coming to rest 5 feet from the cup.
Rory calmly drained the putt, finishing the day with nine consecutive pars and a score of 36. Bounce back round of the year: Jordan Spieth at Birkdale or Rory Asselta at Pinehust? The little guy moved up 37 spots on the leaderboard.
But there was no time to celebrate, as I was off to Pinehurst No. 1 for Michael and his 1:54 tee time. Remember those highs and lows I mentioned? It didn't take long. His opening drive went left, deflected off a tree and onto a patch of pine straw, two inches out of bounds. An official on the scene was hopeful that we would dodge a penalty, but Michael and I confirmed what we saw: O-B by 2 stinkin' inches.
The round brought a little bit of everything, but Michael hung in there and finished with a solid 86.
As we hopped in the shuttle to take us from the 9th hole back to the clubhouse, I finally exhaled. It was over. I should've felt relieved, but instead I was overcome by sadness. It was over. I was done caddying, and we were finished with the 2017 World Championships.
As the sun set on Pinehurst that warm summer evening, I began to reflect. The boys had reached their goals. Rory, age 7, finishing in the top half -- 54th out of 127. Michael, age 9, cracked the top 100 -- 95th out of 157. But more importantly, we had reached our goals as a family: to soak in the experience, enjoy the walk, and take the lessons learned back to the course in New Jersey.
US Kids Golf honored the 2017 World Champions with a rollicking awards ceremony. Phillip Dunham from Jacksonville, Fla., won the 9-year-old boys (our new buddy Jake from London finished third), while Japan's Yuuma Nemoto claimed the 7-year-old boys division.
That final night, Kimberly, Mimi, and I celebrated the week the only way we knew how.
Dinner, a few IPA's and, of course, some Ping-Pong.