Ever wonder what professional golfers chat about when the television cameras are off and the galleries are sequestered far away?
Me, too. Until this week at least, when I found myself inside the ropes of the Champions Tour. For a full day, I was like a National Geographic wildlife guide, studying this curious breed of golfus nontigris professionalium at the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship.
Lurking in the shade of the 11th tee box, I spotted our subject - a 53-year-old specimen called Brad Bryant. He was resting on a bench when he took notice of a nearby portable restroom.
"I'll be getting there in a second," he confided to another nearby member of the same genus. "Maybe twice.
"That's one of the toughest things about deer hunting," Bryant continued. "You get up in the tree or whatever, and what are you supposed to do?"
Craig Stadler offered: "Take a bottle."
Said Bryant: "I do. Quart-size."
Stadler responded: "No. Half gallon."
You see! This is how they act in their natural habitat, far removed from the prying cameras and the finely tuned ears of the golf fan. Fascinating!
OK, truth be told, I wasn't exactly on a safari. In fact, around my neck I had a special badge that identified me as an "honorary observer." But it did put me right on top of the action. The only ones closer were the golfers and their caddies. It's a cool program that is unique to the Champions Tour. At this week's championship, there were five groups of honorary observers, usually corporate friends and budding business partners, embedded in the action.
Joining me and the 11:14 a.m. threesome were Joe and JoAnn Velenovsky, honorary observers from Ocean City. "I think this will be cooler than Disney World," Joe told his wife on the three-hour drive up. And indeed it was.
We're not talking about a front-row seat; we were in the huddle, allowed to roam the fairways as Bryant, Stadler and Larry Nelson played. We were close enough to see that the sweat seeping through Stadler's shirt resembled a Rorschach test.
On the second hole, the green looks like a giant anthill. It's 30 yards removed from the ropes, and no fan has an angle on the cup except for us. I would swear, when Bryant's 15-foot putt missed, his heavy sigh was the only audible noise in all of Maryland.
The trio of golfers chatted mostly on the tee boxes, but it wasn't like me and my buddies. Not many curse words and no unsolicited swing tips.
Stadler has long been one of the game's best characters. His wood covers - giant plush walrus heads - reveal why. Listed at 5 feet 10, 240 pounds, Stadler still has the Walrus facial hair framing his mouth like a pair of tusks, though perhaps not as prominent as when he won the Masters in 1982. This week, the Walrus was walking in pain and eventually withdrew from the tournament before the second round.
On Day One, his 115-yard approach shot on No. 5 landed well short of the green, buried in a bunker. "Geezus!" Stadler yelled, slamming his iron onto his bag. We cautiously followed a few feet behind, wearing our safari hats. "Watch it," warned Joe Klein, a tournament volunteer, in a whisper. "Don't get too close. He's already mad."
The grunts and grimaces on the course were entertaining, but it was the small moments far removed from the competition that struck me most. Like when Bryant grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler and delivered it to his wife in the middle of the round.
Or at the turn, when the Velenovskys and I were loading up in the snack tent. Nelson, who has three major victories and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame on his resume, finished his tee shot and joined us. When I looked up, I noticed the golfer was massaging the shoulders of his caddie. "There you go," Nelson, 61, said calmly. Could you picture any PGA player doing this? Turns out, his caddie is 30-year-old Josh Nelson. Last year, the pair won the tour's father-son tournament.
On one hole, Bryant was sitting on a cooler, as the others reloaded on bottled water. "There's soda in here, I think," Bryant said. "There was no Diet Coke yesterday, so I reprimanded them and they got it on every hole today." He laughed, sipping from his third soda of the round.
His wife revealed that he often goes through six Diet Cokes in a round. This might explain the frequent potty breaks. Once sheltered safely inside one of the course's portable restrooms, any trained wildlife observer would notice the ad on the wall.
"Come here often?" reads the sign, an ad for enlarged prostate medication. "Your going problem could be your growing problem."
The entire day provided a unique view, to say the least, the golfus nontigris professionalium as never seen before.
Today and tomorrow, Baltimore Country Club, Timonium