The U.S. Open at Bethpage Black is a major in every sense of the word: a major venue near a major city with major crowds where following a popular player or even getting to the course can be a major headache.
That's why many fans prefer attending the practice rounds, professional golf's version of a minor league baseball game, where you can follow your favorite guys in a more relaxed setting. You can take pictures, get autographs, overhear a couple jokes and even get an unobstructed view of Tiger Woods if you're lucky things that are impossible to do once the tournament begins Thursday.
Add a day off from work and a couple cold beers and you'll understand why Tuesday's mix of gray clouds and scattered sunlight didn't get any of the fans down.
Ted Ropiah, 46, of Staten Island spent the day watching practice rounds with a couple pals. With his dark mustache, Jets shirt and New Yorkese accent, he looked like he walked out of central casting for Bethpage golf fans. But Ropiah said he'll only go to one practice round this year after seeing the actual tournament in Shinnecock on 2004 and Winged Foot in 2006. Why? Well at $40, a practice round ticket is a better deal than paying the $100 tournament grounds pass each day, but Ropiah also likes the laid-back atmosphere.
"It's much more enjoyable today than being in a crush of people on Saturday or Sunday," Ropiah said. "Plus, one of my friends likes taking pictures and the players are really nice, signing autographs and talking."
Anybody who's been around a major knows that even the nicest player in the world greets fans like Stevie Williams greets a Canon come Thursday. Or Ropiah puts it Staten Island-style, "Thursday they don't want to know nothing from nobody."
The accessibility of the players is what brought married couple George and Jen Rafferty out to Bethpage from Bergen County, N.J. Each wore a hat tagged with more signatures than a Queens subway platform.
"It's just too long a drive to come back later in the week," George said. "We like the practice days for the autographs and being close to see the players. We got autographs from Goosen, McIlroy and Sabbatini. They all were great, especially McIlroy."
McIlroy played in the most-watched group Tuesday afternoon with fellow Europeans Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell, and his drives were punctuated with "Ro-ry!" chants that will only get louder as we move toward Sunday.
If you're really into the game and people who deal with the logistical hassles of getting out to Long Island with 40,000 other people usually are watching a practice round gives you a better sense of who the players are than the tournament ever will. They chat and joke more before Sergio's playing partner Gonzalo Fernandez Castano played his drive from an alternate tee box, he asked, "Hey, Sergio, do you mind if I play from the ladies' tee?" and you're close enough to see how they carry themselves. If you're a believer that people show their true selves on a golf course then a practice round is irresistible for armchair psychologists.
Interacting with players is one of the cool things about attending a practice round, according to Shane Decamp, 37, of Long Island.
"I asked Justin Leonard how the rough compared to 2002, and he said it was much easier," Decamp said.
A tough-looking guy with tattoos down both arms, Decamp looked more like a roadie for Bruce Springsteen than the typical USGA member, but he and his pals are huge golf fans and players. He said he was enjoying the scene at Bethpage on Tuesday, but added that the atmosphere can't compare to what it will be like this weekend.
"I was here on Saturday in 2002 when Phil made his charge and it was like a Jets game, just crazy," Decamp said. "It was great because golf can be kind of lame and boring. No offense we all love the game."
Decamp loves it enough to come back later this week, but for some fans one day is enough. Dave Zimmerman, a New Jersey businessman, followed the European group on the back nine and then called it a day.
"This is enough for me," Zimmerman said. "When I'm resting on my couch on Sunday and watching the Open on TV I'll say, 'Hey, I was at that hole.'"