Inside the Ropes With Travelin' Joe at the Humana Challenge: Round 3

Inside the Ropes With Travelin’ Joe at the Humana Challenge: Round 3

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Tour winner Harrison Frazar and Golf Magazine's senior travel editor Joe Passov at the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif.
Courtesy of Joe Passov

Harrison Frazar’s head is stuck in a grapefruit tree. My partner for round 3 at the Humana Challenge has sailed his second shot long and to the right at La Quinta Country Club’s par-5 5th, our 14th hole of the day. We could use a birdie, but as I’ve now butchered the hole, it’s looking unlikely. Oh, how I underestimate PGA Tour professionals. Frazar takes a few practice swipes from the rough, resigns himself to his fruit-afflicted fate and strikes the ball. It pops out perfectly, lands on the edge of the green and trickles S-L-O-W-L-Y downhill, finally stopping one inch from the cup. The 20 or so onlookers clap their approval. I smile. We get another birdie. And yes, these guys are really, really good.

Day 3 at the Humana Challenge was the best of all. After a fine Mexican meal, with celebratory margarita, the night before at La Quinta Resort & Club’s venerable Adobe Grill, I arrived completely relaxed at equally venerable La Quinta Country Club. One of the old-time Bob Hope venues, La Quinta dated to 1959. Then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower performed the ribbon-cutting. Andy Williams had a home there. Matt Kuchar called it the toughest of the three Humana layouts for him because its tree-framed fairways placed a strong emphasis on precise driving. La Quinta was old school golf, easily walkable, with perfect greens. I couldn’t wait.

I started off banging shots on the range with the kind of authority that I left Tim Mahoney’s lesson tee with at Kierland, five days prior. My caddie, Sandy, gave me one of those friendly “Where’s that been all week?” jabs. It was a gorgeous day, with a bit more breeze than the previous days. I made my introductions to Frazar and to our other pro, Lucas Glover, and their warmth and enthusiasm practically ensured we were going to have a good day.

Standing near the first tee, I reacquainted with my fellow amateur in the group, Bill Strong, the investment banker from Chicago. He couldn’t have been better company for three days. So, we’re chatting away and suddenly, I realize our caddies are gone. So are our pros. For crying out loud, we’re supposed to be at the 10th tee. A volunteer points the way. We hustle behind grandstands, over cart paths, between more ropes and finally arrive. Yep, if there’s a way for me to raise the tension level where none should exist, I’ll find it.

Hey, let’s amp up the stress a little more. The dogleg-left par-4 10th is by far the tightest driving hole I’ve played in three days. All the other guys hit irons or fairway metals. At the last second, I consult with Sandy and change from driver to 3-wood. Indecision leads to tension. Tension leads to bad shots. You know what else leads to bad shots? Your embarrassment when the broken tee you’ve now selected for your 3-wood to start the day won’t support the ball, then splits further after another effort. Somebody offers to throw me another tee. Has anyone ever been nailed for a slow play violation for trying to get his ball onto a tee?

I manage to flare one out to the right, leaving me a long second, but a good angle in, and we’re off. La Quinta proves to be a soothing tonic. It’s an old-fashioned placement course, grass everywhere, a smattering — rather than a plethora — of water hazards and slick greens that slope back-to-front. This will be the round, I’m sure, where I’ll finally relax and play my game.

As proof, I stick a 5-iron to eight feet at the par-3 12th, our third hole. Easy putt, uphill with a slight right-to-left break, whammo — center cut. Birdie 2. I wasn’t getting a shot, but the hole marshal congratulates me, stating that there was only one group left to play the hole, and it had yielded only one previous birdie, from Graham DeLaet. Ah yes, I got to daydreaming. DeLaet and Passov, superb ballstrikers, supreme with the iron game and…and then Harrison Frazar and I managed to make a best-ball 7 on the very next hole, the par-5 13th. I choked on a 60-yard wedge shot and the reality slap hit me hard. I was no Graham DeLaet. More Graham Cracker. We both crumble under pressure.

I punched a 7-wood to 15 feet at the par-3 15th (our sixth hole) and two-putted for par, impressing Lucas Glover. “You’re pretty good at these par-3s,” said Glover. “You should see me at putt-putt,” I responded. After an even-par front side, our team rebounded on the back. I drained a nice downhiller for 4 net 3 at the second hole, then trotted out the trusty 7-wood again at the tough par-3 third and made another two-putt par, net 2. Glover was effusive. “You are the par-3 man, the legend.” Sweet music, for sure.

Frazar, meanwhile, finally started rolling. His citrus-tinged birdie was the first of three in row. We’re on the quiet side of the course, with few spectators. One of them was GOLF Magazine Top 100 Course Rankings Panelist Dick Conway, who winters in the area. He was kind enough to lend support and it really worked. I was totally relaxed. Finally. Frazar, Glover and I got to talking courses and design. Frazar’s involved in a new Coore-Crenshaw project in Dallas, called Trinity Forest. We debated the Pinehurst U.S. Open setup and they asked me about Chambers Bay. Glover uttered my favorite line of the week. I asked him which U.S. Open setup he liked best. “I can’t stand any of them,” he said. “And I won one of those things.”

Naturally, I managed to cut a 6-iron over the water to a far-right pin at the par-3 7th, planting it 15 feet. “You’re an animal,” said Glover. “A par-3 animal.” I’ve been called worse.

Frazar and Glover were so engaging, so willing to chat, I almost tried to avoid them at times, just to stay out of their way. Glover actually shot 66 amid the distractions, holing a bunker shot at 4 and Frazar fought hard to get back to even-par 72. I knew Frazar had been derailed multiple times from injuries and unfortunately, he’s got hip issues again. I saw the talent and envisioned what might have been for the former University of Texas great, who won one time on Tour, the 2011 FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. We shared stories about my wife’s 2010 surgery for a torn labrum in her hip — he had the same procedure from the same doctor eight years earlier. We talked college football, and whether the new coach at Texas would work out. We walked up to a par-3 with Glover and showed off our array of celebration gestures and waves. I mentioned I had never mastered Jim Colbert’s gestures after he would sink a big putt, and both Frazar and Glover showed their best impressions. It was almost silly. It was totally fun.

It dawned on me that I wasn’t all that different than these guys, except that they were great golfers and I wasn’t. In truth, under pressure, I was worse than I imagined. So be it. For three days, I felt like a kid that finally got to sit at the grown-ups’ table at Thanksgiving. It’s an honor, but it comes with a new set of responsibilities.

The Humana format reminds me of a scavenger hunt. With simultaneous action at three courses, you’re off in your own world, mostly unaware of how the other guys are faring, except for the occasional leaderboard. Yes, there was a tournament going on, with Kuchar and Mickelson and Haas and Erik Compton, but it was somewhere else. For the amateurs, Humana brings it all together at a Saturday night gala, where they present the division winners, with their 33-under sorts of scores. Hmmm … I guess those folks weren’t as nervous as I was. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was in the house and he presented the man himself, President Bill Clinton. That was cool, even for the many Republicans in attendance.

This was an amazing, likely once-in-a-lifetime experience to be this far inside the ropes during an actual PGA Tour event. I’ll leave it to Harrison Frazar to sum it up. When we approached the 18th green, finishing our front nine, I pointed out my wife Betsy and mother-in-law Peggy in the small grandstand, waving to me. “Those are the only two people who care about how I do today,” I said. “Well, I care how you do,” said Frazar. And he did. That was pretty special.

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