The Real Players: Johnny Buck and a slice of heaven at the Jacksonville Beach muni
It's just a seven-mile drive, straight up A1A, from the Stadium course to the Jacksonville Beach muni, and nobody knows the combined acreage better than John Buchna. Johnny Buck caddied for Joey Sindelar in 22 Players Championships and for Mark Calcavecchia in two more, and he's the unofficial commissioner of the weekly Sunday-morning game at the Jax Beach course for a gang known as the Church Group. You put a 20 in a hat, first, second and third get paid, and you're drinking your first cold one by high noon, if not earlier.
Johnny plays the Stadium course once a year, courtesy of Sindelar, who as a Tour member gets 20 rounds a year there. He played it last fall with Joey's son, Jamie, a young touring pro trying to make it to the show. Johnny, a slender and boyish 59-year-old, landed three or four pars that day—about as many as a 90 shooter is going to make there. He likes the course, but when he gets to 17 and looks at the pond, he sees "nothing but drowned Benjamins."
The last big thing at Jax Beach, Johnny told me the other day, came in 2012 when a cranky old golfer got fed up with the bachelor party playing in front of him, floored his golf cart and ran over one of the dawdlers as he stood on the 18th green.
Last year's Tiger-Sergio dustup looks tame by comparison. Life at the Stadium course is close to somnolent, although Johnny notes it is pretty exciting to see old Billy Maxwell, undefeated star of the '63 U.S. Ryder Cup team, on the practice tee there now and again.
You'll see all manner of Tour players on that range. Vijay Singh famously used to live on the back end of it, but less so these days, at age 51 and with his quixotic pain-and-suffering lawsuit against the Tour. Johnny knows a side of Vijay others don't: "In '04, at Wachovia [in Charlotte], we're playing with him on Saturday, and he says to me on the 6th hole, 'I can give you a ride home on Sunday, unless you're in a playoff or something.'" Sindelar won in a playoff. As promised, Vijay was long gone. Do you think Johnny Buck cared?
A caddie can always tell you what a guy is really like. Last year Johnny was caddying for Jay Monahan before he was revealed to be the presumptive commissioner-in-waiting. This was at the Pablo Creek Club, very spiffy, very private, where Tim Finchem and other highly paid Tour executives are members.
"Can you believe," Johnny said mid-round, "that they can't find a sponsor for that Tampa tournament?"
"Thanks a lot," Monahan said. "That's my job!"
About three weeks later an announcement came out, datelined Ponte Vedra, Fla., a four-year deal naming Valspar, manufacturer of fine paints, as the title sponsor of the Tampa stop. Johnny smiled.
It amuses Johnny to drive south on I-95 from Jacksonville and see a giant, tacky sign for the World Golf Hall of Fame high in the sky and another right next to it for Murray Bros. Caddy Shack restaurant. But that's his town. Jonas Blixt, the lively Swede who tied for second at last month's Masters, lives in Jacksonville Beach. These days, however, most of the game's sparkly people tend to be five hours south, in Jupiter or North Palm Beach, all those Swedes and Brits and South Africans, plus Tiger and Rickie and Keegan.
Thirty-plus years ago, when Johnny first came out, the Tour was more Southern than anything else. The players, most of them, had some Southern tie. Your first top 10 was in Tallahassee or you went to college at Furman or your wife was from Mobile, something like that. When the Tour moved to Jacksonville in the '70s, it set up shop in a sleepy Southern town. The grandiose Stadium course at the Tournament Players Club is testament to what the Tour has turned into. The place is like a five-star Marriott. You could have built it anywhere.
For one round a year, and one tournament each spring, Johnny likes the place. But home is the Jax Beach muni, where you'll find our man counting the money and reviewing the cards. The Players is a good TV show, but what Johnny Buck does, seven miles up the street, that's the game we actually play, right?