The joy of the PGA Tour is in the great places it stops, like Louisville, Kentucky
LOUISVILLE -- The pleasure of the Tour, the ultimate tried-and-true pleasure, is the places it goes. That can get lost in the modern chase for updates on Tiger’s back and Dustin’s whereabouts and Phil’s stock purchases. Where it goes and why we go there.
On TV, the course and the tournaments and the “story lines” can all start to look and sound the same. The golfer standing on another riser in a post-round press conference, the various and temporary Golf Channel studios, the tucked pin here, the tucked pin there. The truth is no one place is like the other, when you think about it, and now the Tour docks again at this old Southern river town for the first time since 2000.
WUKY, straight off the UK campus, was playing Johnny Cash’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” at lunchtime on Thursday. The blimp was hovering over Valhalla. The errant players below were playing out of four inches of Kentucky bluegrass. Pride of place.
Down the road, at Louisville Golf, there were still men making persimmon drivers, though fewer men were making fewer drivers than they were 30 years ago. Some of them are graduates of Hillerich & Bradsby, Louisville’s famous bat manufacturer. A growing business for Louisville Golf is hickory-shafted clubs. Interest in hickory clubs is exploding. Well, it’s growing, anyway.
The University of Louisville has its own club, and a guy at the turn is just as likely to order a bourbon as he is a Bud. Matt, in the grillroom there, will be happy to show bottles of Maker’s Mark, Woodford, Bulleit, Blanton’s and several other Kentucky whiskeys. Every so often, a guy will come in and order Jameson or Jack. Matt tries to hide his disdain. Shelby County once was dry, but now it’s moist. Nobody asks for Maker’s Mark here. Just Makers.
You can find a Marriott or a Holiday Inn Express or a Hyatt here, of course, as you can anywhere, but Tim Finchem and others with plated credit cards are staying at The Brown, a gilded hotel with curtains that will give you a hernia and enough mahogany to cover the Titanic. Secretariat never stayed there, but his owner surely did. The Ryder Cup teams stayed there in 2008.
Louisville may not be a great golf town, but it’s a good one. Good golf town, great music town, great horse town, great boxing town. At least, it was for Ali. No golfer this week is going to go to the Muhammad Ali Center this week, down by the river. They have other business to tend to.
Walter Hagen, who won five PGAs in the 1920s, once said, “You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”
Easier said than done. Last year, when the PGA was in Rochester, N.Y., Hagen’s hometown, I jogged by the George Eastman House, but it was closed. I don’t think the Haig was talking about photography museums.
Earlier this year, the baseball writer Roger Angell passed along advice he received from Walter Cronkite on the glossy pages of The New Yorker: “Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.” Somewhere Hagen is smiling.
I didn’t get to play the University of Louisville Golf Club -- is Tiger’s traveling “physio” available for consults? -- but it’s good to be back in Louisville. I was here in ’11 when Tom Watson won the Senior PGA Championship and in ’08 when the U.S. won the Ryder Cup. Years ago, Gary Hallberg found himself struggling on Tour, after one of the best collegiate golf careers ever. His problem, he said, was boredom, and he described the triangle of his life: airport, golf course, hotel. This was a long time ago. He made a vow to start driving more. Whether it helped or not I don’t know.
Fourteen years ago, I bought a beautiful persimmon driver from Louisville Golf. I picked it up from a man named Elmore Just, who ran the company with his brothers, at Valhalla. Unable to control my excitement, I slipped on to the Valhalla range early one evening and gave it a try. Elmore also gave me a little book called The Persimmon Story, with a recipe for persimmon pie, made not of wood but from the fruit of the tree. Elmore died eight months later, at age 53. He was a nice man, and he loved golf and woods made of wood. I still have his book.
At the 2000 PGA Championship, the only player in the field using a wooden driver was Bob Estes. This year, nobody is. As best I can tell, the last player to win a major with a wooden driver was Bernhard Langer at the ’93 Masters. It was made by Wood Bros., legendary Texas clubmaker.
The year before, Tom Kite won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. "I remember on the last hole," Ron Just, Elmore’s brother, told me in 2000, "the TV guy said, 'Looks like Kite's using a three-wood here to play safe,' and then they show the club up close and I say, 'That's no three-wood. That's our driver!'"
A Hogan Apex permission driver, made in Louisville. The sole plate on Langer’s Wood Bros. driver is in the shape of the Lone Star State. In downtown Augusta, 9th Street is grandly called James Brown Boulevard. It’s really quite something, the places golf will take you. It must be pretty cool, to travel by private jet. But there’s a lot to be said for getting lost in a car too.