My West Coast bias has been well-documented on these digital pages, but after hanging out at Doral last week, I can no longer deny that the tournament has claimed an important spot on the golf calendar: the first big deal of the year.
Yes, the course is kind of silly and all the Trumpian flourishes are egregiously over the top, but with the increasingly fragmented global schedule Doral has become indispensible. That’s because it’s the first time since the previous autumn that all of the top players convene in the same place at the same time. Last week’s leader board was evidence of the event’s starpower.
The Masters hype can now go into overdrive because the Blue Monster is a pretty good indicator of whose game is ready for Augusta National, given the crazy greens and firm, fast, fiery conditions. But at Doral, much of the best action takes place off the course, as the week is a non-stop schmoozefest for players, caddies, agents, writers, equipment reps and various other hangers-on.
The tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse is a famous gathering spot for golf’s chattering class, but everyone is a little stressed out during Masters week and constrained by Augusta National’s oppressively stuffy atmosphere.
The vibe at Doral mirrors that of Miami as a whole: loosey-goosey. Virtually all of the players stay on-site, so you’re likely to see a sweaty post-workout Keegan Bradley bouncing through the hotel lobby, or Graeme McDowell having a drink at the bar with a mate, or Geoff Ogilvy wandering around in tennis shoes with a magazine under his arm.
No one seems to be in a hurry, partly because the limited field means there are no tee times before 11 a.m. on Thursday and Friday.
In the golden twilight following the first round, Rory McIlroy repaired to the range to hit balls. With nothing better to do, Sean Foley plopped down in the grass nearby to enjoy the show. (I tweeted this scene and lamented not being able to read Foley’s thought-bubbles, leading one wag to speculate: "x + y=a + b...holy s--- that was pure!!!!!!...y2 + x(a + b)...” )
When Rory was done painting the sky with towering draws, he untucked his shirt, signaling the end of his workday. As he ambled into the night I asked if I could throw a few questions at him on the way to his room. McIlroy laughed and said there wouldn’t be time for many; he was staying in a villa about 50 yards from the range.
Getting to observe golfers in their native environment is always good fun, but Doral is also a great place to get work done. There are too many other diversions in Miami, so the tournament crowds are always tiny, which makes for a mellow office place for players and reporters alike. A big part of my job is cultivating feature stories, and that often means months of endless email. Doral is a rare chance to get things done face-to-face, because all of the agents tend to congregate in a corner of the clubhouse. After a couple of days of pressing flesh I now have two stories locked-in and another set in motion. I also got in front of two players I had missed during the West Coast swing. (I can’t identify any of these would-be features because the other golf media outlets have elves who monitor Golf+ Digital to mine our ideas.) The agent for one of these guys had stopped returning my emails (and voice mails and texts and Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages), and the mystery was finally explained: said agent had recently been canned. So this player—a very in-demand recent major championship winner—and I hashed out all the particulars behind Doral’s 18th green.
So, while I find the Blue Monster to be a trite bit of man-made artifice, and seeing Trump’s helicopter parked by the 9th green makes me want to throw up in my mouth, and it’s criminal to charge $8 for a tiny tub of Ben & Jerry’s, and the PGA Tour’s endless self-promotion of the WGC franchise gives me a migraine, I must admit that Doral is becoming one of my favorite tournaments. In fact, I’m already looking forward to hanging out there again next year.
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