PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Fourteen people watched Joey Sindelar size up his tee shot on the 471-yard, par-4 fifth hole. But it's easy to get carried away when estimating crowd size, and to be fair the group of spectators included his caddie, the walking scorer, the standard-bearer, one writer and a half-dozen blue-shirted marshals.
It was 8:50 am. Sindelar, five-over-par for the tournament, had gone off first at 8:10, by himself, in the third round of The Players on Saturday. He nutted his drive, which soared high and true down the middle of the fairway, briefly invisible against a flat sky.
"What's all the clapping for?" Sindelar asked, breaking up the group.
"We couldn't see it," someone said, laughing.
Sindelar smiled, and he and his longtime caddie John Buchna walked down the dewy fairway. At the back of the driving range, across a small moat, not 100 yards from Sindelar's ball in the fairway, Phil Mickelson hit balls with his caddie, Jim MacKay, and his new coach Butch Harmon looking on. They were alone except for Ponte Vedra resident Fred Funk, who'd missed the cut, far down at the other end of the range. Someone cracked a joke and Mickelson laughed loudly. He wasn't scheduled to go off for another five and a half hours.
Buchna gave a yardage, and Sindelar hit his approach shot just left and short of the green.
In a profession where the relationships are measured in months if not days, Sindelar and Buchna are in their 24th year together. Sindelar is 49. He has been at this for so long that his wife, Sue, and sons, Jamie (17) and Ryan (14 on Sunday), don't need to be there for every round, not even at the majors or almost-majors. Jamie has his own golf career, having blossomed into a winner on the American Junior Golf Association. Another player approached Sindelar in the locker room earlier this week and mentioned that he'd heard about the big things Jamie was up to on the AJGA. It was Tiger Woods.
Sindelar methodically moved through the course, exchanging banter with the few fans. On the sixth green, after spinning his approach shot to within six feet of the pin, he looked at the scoreboard, which showed his name with Anthony Kim's mug shot. Sindelar turned to the few onlookers behind the green and quipped, "Is that what I look like?" He gathered himself, missed his short birdie putt and walked to the next tee.
Buchna lives in Jacksonville, and some of the fans were friends of his, but he only occasionally and very discretely acknowledged their presence. There was work to do, and with an understated but unwavering focus on his boss, he picked his spots to offer assistance.
"Joe, you want a tend?"
"Joe, you want a Powerade?"
"This green's 23, five right," Buchna said as the two approached the seventh tee. That's one difference between the pros and the rest of us. The pros want to know where the pin is even as they stand on the tee of a 442-yard par-4.
Sindelar hit his drive in the left fairway bunker but got a good lie, and he creased his approach shot to within six feet. Again, he missed his short birdie putt and walked to the next tee. He was nearly two holes ahead of the 8:15 pairing of David Toms and Ryan Palmer.
"Just a nice 4?" Sindelar asked on the tee of the 237-yard, par-3 eighth.
"Yep," Buchna replied.
And so it went, Sindelar and Buchna worked their way around the course, no one in front of them, no one behind them, almost no one watching them in the increasingly hot, still air. They made the turn at even par in 1:30. Buchna's wife, Victoria, showed up to watch them on the back nine, and someone brought up the subject of the Champions Tour, for which Sindelar is on the verge of being eligible. When would that be again?
"March 30, 2008," Victoria said. "John has it down to the months and days."
Sindelar's second shot on 14 rolled off the green and onto a drain cover, and he pulled out his driver and took a one-club-length drop. There was no need to call an official; he knows the rules.
"Is it cooler outside the ropes? Because I'm drenched," he said as he walked up the par-5 16th hole. He was too far left to go for the green in two but birdied it anyway. He got to 17 to find the biggest crowd of the day and calmly hit his drive over the tiny bunker, onto the right portion of the green.
"Go, Horseheads, New York!" someone yelled, acknowledging Sindelar's hometown, and he looked over and smiled on his way to the green, where he two-putted for par.
He found dry land with his final drive and made par from just in front of the green in two, putting his third shot six feet past the hole and making the comebacker. Finally, a made six-footer. Notwithstanding the last, true stroke, the day had been a meditation on missed putts, but Sindelar was all smiles.
"Look at all these people," he said in jest as he walked off the green, taking in the vast semicircle of seats above him. "There must be tens of people out here!"
Like the front nine, Sindelar had carded a lone bogey and a lone birdie on the back and was in with an even-par 72, finishing in 3:15 right where he'd started, at five-over. There had been no water balls, no rulings, little drama. He walked through the tunnel behind the green and stopped in a small, tented area with drinks and food, including homemade brownies, for the players.
"I'm having that brownie today," he said to a volunteer. "These are the best."
"We won't be here next year," she said. "They're getting rid of this."
"What? We've got to write a letter," Sindelar replied. He signed his card and spoke to a small group of reporters. Sindelar is known as a money quote, affable, thoughtful and available.
On the easier pin placements and softer course: "You could be on offense today, you really could."
On the early start: "The toughest pairings are the first, when (fans) aren't ready yet."
On his game: "I wasn't sharp. I'm just not in the scoring thing right now."
And on the many missed six-footers for birdie: "With that goes your momentum, because you know you're not going to get those forever."
Just as Fred Funk is conflicted about whether to play on the PGA Tour or among his peers on the oldies circuit, Sindelar isn't sure how much he'll play the Champions Tour. Thanks to Tiger, purses have grown so large it's a good living even at the bottom of the PGA Tour money list, making it hard to leave. Sindelar is part of the first generation that has to make the choice between being the top dog and being less than top dog but still very well-paid.
"It's a very bizarre time for me," he said, "because when I walk off the green here or at Harbour Town or Wachovia, I don't know: Is that the last time?"
Sindelar pontificated some more on the course changes ("very, very well done") and adjourned to the locker room to get out of his wet shirt. One more day remained. He was tied for 65th.