Survey Secrets

Survey Secrets

Ten years ago Sports Illustrated conducted its first PGA Tour survey, anonymously interviewing 70 players on topics ranging from politics to money to the hottest Tour wife. Last year I was given the assignment of asking all the questions during a long week in Hilton Head.

This year my job got more complicated, as we decided to do similar surveys on the Champions and LPGA tours. Ambitious, right? I certainly thought so. Interviewing 210 players over 15 days is no small task, but what could be more fun than safeguarding the pros’ innermost thoughts and opinions? Count me in!

I like to abide by a few rules when I compile our surveys. First, I never want to interrupt a player who is practicing. I try to treat the golf course as the players’ office and usually approach only if they are on the way to or from the range or putting green. I also like to get the survey done before the tournament begins, since no one is really interested in answering fluffy or controversial questions when there is a cut to think about. If I’m forced to ask a few players to take the survey during the tournament proper, I make sure to approach them only after their round is over. Sounds easy enough, right? It was last year, but this time around things were a lot more complicated.

My first stop was the LPGA Tour Championship in Orlando last December. I didn’t realize that, unlike the PGA Tour, the women generally take Monday off, so the surveying couldn’t begin until Tuesday. Uh-oh. That left only two days to get the majority of the surveys done before the tournament began. I got cracking on Tuesday morning and was pleasantly surprised by the friendly vibe. Sure, the girls were a bit wary of my clipboard-wielding eagerness (“Um, is this really anonymous?”), and they were understandably reluctant to answer some of the more pointed questions. (Exactly half of the survey respondents declined to name a nominee for worst-dressed player – how sweet!). But I was surprised by their willingness to answer one of the most dicey questions: whether or not the girls felt more suspicious of non-English speaking players committing rules violations in light of the 2010 controversy with Shi Hyun Ahn and Il Mi Chung. Thirty-three players answered in the affirmative, which was far more than I expected. Ten girls opted not to answer, even anonymously.

Prior to this event, I hadn’t spent a lot of time with LPGA players, but their friendly, laid-back demeanor left a lasting impression. While the pre-tournament spectators were few, the girls made sure to sign every autograph and greet fans at every opportunity. Only one player gave me the stink-eye and said she “didn’t have time” to take it.

By the time the tournament began, I still had to get about 15 more responses, so I decided to approach the girls after they completed their first round. Unfortunately, there was a long frost delay on Thursday, and the first wave of players took nearly six hours to get around the course, resulting in some high scores, pouty faces and disgruntled caddies, one of whom deserves particular attention because he lit into me for approaching his player to take the survey as she left the scoring tent. When I said I was just trying to do my job, he told me I needed to learn how to do my job better (well, in so many words). It was a demoralizing end to a long, tough day. Note to self: avoid players who just took six hours to shoot a high score. I returned the next day and finished my batch of 70 without incident.

Final thoughts on the LPGA: these girls are super-cute, fun, and the majority are good sports. They deserve more support, and I’m looking forward to attending more events this year. No hard feelings, bitter caddy.

Seven weeks later, I landed in Phoenix for my second survey stop: the Waste Management Open. I was really looking forward to the event after getting a taste of the hoopla last year. I feel comfortable on the PGA Tour and have a pretty good idea of which players are approachable and which are not. I headed into the week with high hopes…until I saw the forecast: 30-degree temperatures in Phoenix? Are you kidding me? I was starting to think my presence was causing a weather jinx, but things went well early in the week. So well, in fact, that I had 50 surveys in the bag by Tuesday evening. Twenty more on Wednesday? No problem.

But then the unthinkable happened. The weather got so cold that the officials were forced to close the course for all of Wednesday. With the continued frost problems it took me two more days to get 20 more respondents in the dark and cold scoring area. Let’s just say those players weren’t exactly excited to take a survey under those circumstances, but bless them, they did. This week was certainly tougher than Orlando, but only because of the weather. All of the players were very accommodating, but why wouldn’t they be? This is their 10th survey experience, so everyone pretty much knows the drill by now. This year’s survey also included just the right balance of hot-button and mellow questions, which was a relief. Last year, my first survey experience, I was asking guys I’d never met whether or not they thought Tiger had taken performance-enhancing drugs and if they knew about his affairs before the scandal broke. Can you say awkward? In comparison, this year’s Tiger vs. Phil questions were a piece of cake.

A week later, I headed to Naples, Fla., for the Champions Tour’s Ace Group Classic, the third and final survey stop. Although the end was near, I was acquiring an acute case of survey-fatigue. Standing on the range for up to eight hours a day is more of a drain than I expected. I also wasn’t exactly thrilled about some of the questions in the batch. Did I really have to approach legends like Gary Player and Ben Crenshaw and ask them if they dye their hair? Thankfully, these guys are class acts. Not only did they answer the question, but most of them laughed and took it like the joke that it was. Total relief. And three of them even admitted to it! I’m a proud hair-dyer too, guys! Thanks for being honest!

Hanging out on the Champions tour was the most fun I had on survey duty, by far. The whole experience, from the volunteers to the players themselves, was very inviting. And the weather was gorgeous, finally, all week long. Interestingly, when I arrived at the course on Monday and Tuesday, there were very few players to be found. I guess these guys don’t like to practice like their younger counterparts on the PGA Tour. Or maybe they had something better to do in the perfect weather. Regardless, I still had 70 surveys to get, despite the diminished field size of 81, and after Tuesday I had a grand total of 12.

I was feeling some pressure on Wednesday, so I decided to hang out during the pro-am on a par-3 tee box. While I was loving the Champions Tour, unfortunately not everyone loved me, or I guess I should say, my presence on the course. A disgruntled pro complained to a Tour official that I was detracting from the amateur experience, so I was relegated back to the range. And he wasn’t the only cranky dude around; three Champions Tour players refused to take the survey (a new record!), and one Hall of Famer sniffed that he doesn’t take surveys because “if writers knew how to write, they wouldn’t need to make surveys.” Ouch!

Despite being banished to the range for the rest of the week, I managed to get my 70th guy on Friday afternoon and came away with a very positive impression of the Champions Tour overall. The opportunity to see so many of these living legends in action was awesome, and the fans turned out in droves.

So there you have it, the story behind the survey. I hope you have as much fun reading the responses as I did asking the questions. Read the Three-Tour Challenge survey here