DORAL, Fla. — Over the past 25 years I think I’ve been to just about all the regular Tour stops. Some, naturally, are more intimate than others. Not intimate like Wrigley Field is intimate. Golf really only has one Wrigley and it’s Augusta National, where the clubhouse never changes and on some tees, like the 10th, you’re afraid you could trip into Steve Stricker’s backswing if you’re not careful.
I mean intimate in the sense that many of the players are staying in a hotel on the course, and you see them here and there and everywhere. I’ve always gotten a kick out of that — George Archer and Hubert Green at the Holiday Inn in Coral Springs at the ’85 Honda — and I still do. There was Lee Westwood on Wednesday, watching mid-afternoon football (soccer) on a TV in a bar at Doral that wasn’t even open. When you see the players with their spikes off it’s like a reminder that despite their extraordinary ability to get golf balls to follow instructions they are also regular human beings. They need ketchup for their fries just like the rest of us.
Four hotel-course combos spring to mind when I look at the Tour schedule. Curiously, the four events come in two groups of two in opposite ends of the world. At the first stop of the year, at Kapalua, there’s a super-deluxe Ritz-Carlton where most of the players stay, often with their families. But it’s such a small field and draws so few fans you don’t have a lot of critical mass going there. The next week, at the old Hawaiian Open, now called the Sony, the course is a lovely, lush Seth Raynor gem, Waialae, and there’s a hotel with high ceilings and big fans, the Kahala, across a quiet little street where a lot of the players stay. One year I saw the caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan staying there with his wife and daughter, showing them a good time.
Last week’s stop, the Honda, is a flat, big, kind of boring Jack Nicklaus course at PGA National, with a flat, big kind of boring resort hotel connected to it where many of the players stay. This week is more of the same. The course — the Blue Monster! — and the hotel — the Doral Golf Resort and Spa, a Marriott property! — are overrated Kennedy Era relics. Still, there’s something great about Doral week, and a lot of that has to do with the players, dozens of the best players in the world, staying right on campus.
There was Ernie Els at breakfast the other morning, somehow winding up in a tucked-away breakfast room that is part of some life longevity program at Doral where you can’t get salt for your eggs and you can’t get cream for your coffee. Ernie was amused. “Is that not the blandest breakfast you’ve ever had,” somebody said to him after a proper lunch, with fries and ketchup and salt on the table. “Bland, but healthy!” Ernie said cheerfully.
There was Jim Furyk, walking to his hotel room near dusk, long after a practice round, making phantom swings just like we all do. A passerby said to him, “Bringing the office home?” And he said, “I can do that this week — the kids aren’t here.”
In the space of a half-hour and in different places in the sprawling hotel you might see Rory McIlroy’s parents, Gerry and Rosie, his press guy, Martin Hardy, his agent, Stuart Cage, his agent’s boss, Chubby Chandler, his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald. It’s golf people everywhere. Doral’s a great hangout place.
I’m staying at the hotel, as many of the writers are. I’m in Lodge 8, connected to Lodge 7. When Tom Kite played Doral he always asked to be put in this wing. It’s the closest to the driving range. He could roll out of bed and get in some reps. Now guys would be just as happy to stay near the gym than the driving range.
My room has a view of the parking lot where the equipment trucks were set up in the early part of week. Callaway and Titleist and TaylorMade and Mizuno and all the rest. On Wednesday, in the first light of the day, I saw caddies and players walking over there, putters and hybrids in hand, looking to get something tweaked. Today the vans are all gone. The tournament begins and the tweaking is over and the vans are heading up the road, to Tampa, where they’ll do it again next week at Innisbrook.
Players stay at the hotel on the golf course there, too, now that I think about it. But it doesn’t have the intimacy or history of this place. Maybe 40 years ago, the Tour player Al Besselink went from the hotel to the race track and when he got there he realized that he had left his Tour money clip with $3,500 in it on his bed in the room. He called the hotel, got a housekeeper, asked her to retrieve the wad. No, no, no, Mr. Besselink, there’s no money clip on your bed, he was told.
Thirty-five hundred, gone.
When the football was over the other day, Lee Westwood started watching the races at nearby Gulfstream and wondered about when he could get there. Maybe you never knew that Lee Westwood likes the horses. I didn’t. But at Doral you see the players in ways you don’t anywhere else.