Gary Van Sickle, who played his way into the Senior Amateur, is living the good life

Monday October 6th, 2014
Gary Van Sickle fine-tunes his game before playing in this U.S. Senior Amateur.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- It pays to be a player.

Let’s start with an ocean view from the 15th floor of the fabulous Newport Beach Marriot Hotel & Spa here. I can also watch golfers whiz past in carts below at the Newport Beach Country Club, a classic old-style course that hosts one of the Champions Tour’s better stops.

I’ve got a clubhouse parking spot for my rental car and I can’t get halfway across the lot without at least two staffers welcoming me back to Big Canyon Country Club. I get two more of those greetings as I enter the men’s locker room, a series of spacious rooms with dark wood and tall lockers and seat cushions soft enough to sleep on. My name is engraved on a metal plate that is attached to my locker. It’s a take-home souvenir once you’re eliminated from the tournament.

In the hallway, there’s a massage bed and soon to be a masseuse, and two other tables full of soft drinks, an array of snacks that included a full-size Hershey bar (that mysteriously vanished when I passed), sleeves of Oreos, cheese and crackers, Jolly Ranchers and other vital energy foods. And there was also a pile of geezer stuff -- bandages, Advil, aspirin, tape and forms to change your will. OK, I made up the last one.

It’s one big free smorgasbord. These are just some of the perks I’m enjoying as a competitor in the United States Senior Amateur Championship, which starts Saturday here with 36 holes of stroke play. After that, the low 64 scores advance to match play. Odds aren’t good that I will be among them but you never know. I played in this event three years ago and did not make match play at Virginia’s Kinloch Golf Club.

Nobody ever talks about this but one thing the USGA gets right is running its amateur championships. Some of the credit this week goes to Big Canyon, which is as swank as any club I’ve ever seen. The important thing is, I and every player in the field are getting the full PGA Tour treatment courtesy of the USGA. We are rolling in luxury and pretending to be big wheels and loving every minute of it.

For instance, I arrived at the course one morning just before 8 a.m. I was running late for my 8:25 practice round tee time due to work-related phone calls. After I signed in at the golf shop and paid a $30 cart fee -- OK, that’s not exactly how it works on the PGA Tour -- I dashed to the range to loosen up with a few pitching wedge shots. Each hitting berth on the range had a small stand in front of it and when I arrived, a volunteer asked my name. She was going to put a placard with my name on that stand, just like they do at some tour events, so onlookers can tell who’s hitting balls. That’s a cool perk. I told her not to bother since I had only three minutes to whack balls and I’d be gone. Still, it felt good.

When I checked in the day before, the USGA volunteers had a nice assembly line set up. I got my tournament info kit and player badge at one desk, guest badge at another, posed for a mug shot while holding my name on a piece of paper beneath my chin at another desk and picked up my tournament gift at another. We were given a small wooden jewelry box with the tournament logo and club name engraved on it. But it’s not a jewelry box. Open it up and there’s a clock inside. Nice. The Big Canyon practice facility is superb. I live in Pittsburgh, and few courses have nice practice ranges there because there isn’t much flat land. Even Oakmont’s range flows annoyingly uphill. Big Canyon’s range is somewhat abbreviated. Big hitters can’t use drivers because the range is short but most of us old-timers still can. There’s a gigantic putting green by the clubhouse, it’s really good, two excellent chipping greens with bunkers, and there’s another putting green across the street by the tenth tee.

The clubhouse is a sight to behold. There are terraces, walkways, big picture windows, outdoor staircases and a Tuscan stone look to the whole place. On the far end is a gorgeous swimming pool and a complete health club -- oh yeah, we players are allowed in the pool and in the gym -- plus tennis courts and an area where the kitchen staff grows herbs that it uses in its menu items.

The hallway in the upper floor, which leads to the ballroom, is festooned (god, I’ve waited forever to work that word into a story!) with paintings on loan from some muckety-muck rich person or foundation, I forget which. They’re classy depictions of the area coastline and give the clubhouse a museum feel.

Somebody told me it costs 300 big ones to join Big Canyon. I don’t know if that’s true. All I know is, I’m a member at least through this weekend and I could get used to life in this fast lane.

The golf course is pretty good. A young Tiger Woods played a lot of golf here in his day. The greens are big and sprawling with a lot of slope and a lot of deep bunkers strewn around them. The fairways are pretty generous. What makes Big Canyon resistant to scoring -- no one in my foursome made a practice-round birdie until the 12th hole today -- is the rolling terrain. You frequently have an uphill or downhill lie to a green that is either above you or below you. Factoring in that elevation makes it difficult to hit many shots close to the hole and if you’re not close to the hole, man, you’ve got some figuring to do to get down in two putts.

The course is in one giant canyon and has a similar look to Riviera Country Club for that reason. Big Canyon is also known as “The Big Ditch,” according to an official who came out to greet our foursome on the course. Every green should slope toward the bottom of the canyon, theoretically, but the course designer cleverly built in counter-slopes on them to fool the unwary golfer. In other words, dumb-asses like me. His plan worked like a charm today.

I didn’t make a birdie until the par-5 16th hole and I’m going to need to study these greens a lot closer in my Friday practice round if I’m going to make the match-play part of the program.

None of the par-5s look reachable in two by me so there aren’t going to be any freebie birdies. I will have to earn every one, which hardly seems fair. My gut reaction is that scores aren’t going to be very low and that birdies will be scarce. Or maybe that’ll just be my scorecard.

After I checked in Wednesday, I unloaded two pairs of golf shoes at my locker. My pair of white addidas were not very white. I guess I hadn’t cleaned them after the last few rounds. A locker room attendant happened by and asked if I needed anything and I said, well, these shoes could use some whitening. Sure thing, he said, and took them away. So I put on my backup shoes, a pair of mint-green Kikkors. As I was about to head out, the attendant came back with the white shoes. He’d thought I was going to wear those now. When I said I’d wait and use those in the tournament, he said, good, then I’ll go back and give them a better cleaning. As I walked past the locker rooms, he said something to “Mister Marucci” and I looked back but there was nobody there so I kept going.

So I practice for a couple of hours, hitting balls and chipping and putting. When I return, my white shoes aren’t in my locker. I inquire at the shoe desk and the two guys there were like, h-oh. I told them it was the other guy, who was shorter, who’d taken them. Well, it’s too early in the week to lose a pair of shoes, the one guy said confidently, we’ll find them.

It dawned on me to mention the “Mister Marucci” thing. “Is Buddy Marucci playing in this?” He was. Well, maybe that other guy somehow mistook me for Buddy Marucci, the former Walker Cup captain who once got beat in the U.S. Amateur final by Tiger Woods. The attendant opened the Marucci locker and there were my shoes. Mystery solved. We all laughed.

Do I look like Buddy Marucci? Well, I probably look like everyone in this field. We’re all gray, if we have hair. We’re tan, we’re wrinkled and most of us aren’t exactly lean. Yeah, we are pretty much the same guy.

There’s another practice round today, followed by a gala player’s dinner at Big Canyon. Then the tournament begins for real Saturday morning.

That’s when the real challenge begins, which is -- how long can I stay on this gravy train?

Trust me, it’s fun pretending to be a player.

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