By Rick Firfer
A few years ago, when interest in the PGA Tour began to wane a bit, the folks who ran the tour got the brilliant idea to add a season-ending playoff to rekindle fans’ interest. The way it worked was to take the top players on the tour for that season and have them play against each other in a series of four tournaments that gradually winnowed the number of players down until only the very best were left to compete in the last of the four tournaments for a huge financial reward and the title of Tour Champion for the season.
Over the years, the season-ending tournament, which culminates in one player winning the FedEx Cup and taking home a bonus of $10 million, has produced a number of different champions and has clearly had the desired effect of rekindling interest in the game of professional golf. While the first two legs of the playoff do get a lot of people out to the golf course to watch, it really isn’t until the third leg, when there are only 70 golfers left in the field, that the players and the fans really take a serious interest in what is going on. And if Tiger Woods is still in the field, so much the better.
That third leg of the playoff is now known as the BMW Championship, so called because of its title sponsor, the BMW auto company. Before there was a FedEx Cup, however, the BMW Championship was a stand-alone tournament known as The Western Open, which was always played at a course in the Chicago area. The Western Open was, in fact, one of Woods’ favorite tournaments, a tournament that he played in every year and won more than once. But since the inception of the new playoff format, the name has been changed and the tournament has rotated in and out of Chicago every other year. Furthermore, the course used for many years for The Western Open, known as Cog Hill, has been moved aside and the BMW is now held at a much fancier, new course known as Conway Farms. Although the players used to like Cog Hill very much, a course design change apparently soured their attitude and now they profess to love the new course much more.
This year’s BMW Championship was held in mid-September, under mostly sunny skies and moderate temperatures. In other words, ideal golf weather. The bad news, however, was that Tiger Woods did not make the cut for the BMW Championship this year, and, for the first time in a long time, he was not available to the fans in Chicago for possible autographs or photo opportunities. Given that Woods is a tough autograph anyway, maybe this was not such a huge disappointment for collectors. The good news, though, was that virtually all of the new, young breed of champions was there, and most of them were super nice and willing to satisfy the collectors’ requests. You just had to know when and where to approach them.
For those who normally haunt golf tournaments for treasures to add to their collections, it is well known that the best time to score those important signatures or to ask for the players’ gloves or golf balls, is on the practice days and the pro-am tournament days. Those are also the only days on which cameras are allowed on the course so that you can take pictures of or with your favorite players. It is true that the players will also sign things on tournament days as well, but on those days they will only sign at the 18th hole or the clubhouse, when they are done with their round for the day. The problem with tournament days, however, is that the players’ minds are more on how they played that day and not so much on making sure their fans are happy. On practice and pro-am days, they are much more relaxed and are also allowed to sign autographs and pose for photos anywhere they want, at their discretion.
One other factor that has a huge impact on the fans’ ability to obtain autographs or otherwise interact with the golfers is the physical layout of the course. When the BMW was held at Cog Hill, there were not very many temporary physical structures (such as fan bleachers) that got in the way of the fans. At Conway Farms, however, there were so many structures, ropes and other barriers erected that the ability of fans to encounter the golfers was severely restricted. In fact, unless you astutely studied the course layout and looked in all the nooks and crannies, you were likely to miss finding the best places to stand to get what you wanted.
For example, when the players finished their rounds, they could walk from the scorer’s tent over a temporary bridge right to the clubhouse and bypass all of the fans hanging around behind the ropes at the clubhouse. However, a number of the golfers, particularly during the practice rounds, preferred to use a shortcut at ground level to get to the clubhouse. But if they took that route, they actually had to walk along a pedestrian path, past dozens of fans, to get where they wanted to go. For those who recognized the players, it was an autograph bonanza; however, most of the players, because they did not wear any easily recognizable uniforms or clothing, went completely unnoticed as they walked among the fans. So, knowing the course layout and studying the program so you could recognize the golfers were absolutely essential for collectors if they wanted to have a successful day at the course.
This is not to say that the players were generally ignoring the fans. On the contrary, it is well known among collectors that with the exception of open-wheel race car drivers, and, perhaps, professional hockey players, no one is nicer to their fans than professional golfers. Many of the golfers are known to endlessly accommodate the fans with autographs and gifts of used equipment, such as Phil Mickelson, who always go to the ropes after a round to sign for everyone, and Webb Simpson, who pre-signs a number of golf balls to hand out during a practice round, especially to little kids. In fact, after a pro-am round this year, I called out to Simpson to come take a look at a photo taken of him and me the last time he was in town, and he shouted out that he did not have time to come over but threw me an autographed ball instead. That was a huge surprise.
Other big name golfers who were especially nice to the fans this year were the eventual winner of the BMW, Jason Day, and the eventual winner of the FedEx Cup, Jordan Spieth. On the day before the tournament started, Day finished his pro-am round at the 9th hole and then immediately came over to the crowd waiting patiently at the ropes and began signing everything put in front of him, as well as stepping around the ropes to put his arms around various fans who wanted to take selfies with him. He was especially nice to the little kids, often stopping to make sure they were not going to be crushed by the adults surging forward. Spieth, a rising superstar on the tour, and now the No. 1 professional golfer on the planet, was observed coming to the ropes at the clubhouse after he finished his final round and patiently signing for everyone, even though the television reporters were clamoring for him to do an interview.
Another world class golfer who probably would have been given a pass by the fans if he had just hurried into the clubhouse but didn’t, was Bubba Watson. Although Watson was not as chatty as Day and Spieth, he nevertheless took his time working the crowds after each round to make certain that everyone who wanted a signature got it. He was definitely a class act. Other golfers of note who gained points with the crowd by graciously making the rounds at the ropes on a consistent basis included Billy Horschel, Danny Lee, Kevin Na, Jimmy Walker, Daniel Summerhays, Bill Haas, Justin Rose, Cameron Tringale, Tony Finau, Gary Woodland, Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson.
One golfer who seemed to take great pleasure in signing things and chatting with the fans was William McGirt. When asked at one point to sign a photo of himself, he cheerily signed and asked if the photo was going to be used to “scare away the rats.” Brendan Steele was another player who seemed to revel in the fan interaction, as evidenced by his sticking around after a pro-am round to talk to several fans for quite awhile. He told SCD afterward that he loves hanging with the fans at tournaments and wishes that more of that could take place, if only time allowed. Some players do seem to become jaded after awhile, though, as evidenced by the inconsistent response of Ian Poulter and Jim Furyk to autograph requests. Although they were not ungracious by any means, neither seemed to be enjoying the adulation as they once did earlier in their careers.
The players who seemed to be the biggest disappointments for collectors at the BMW were Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler. McIlroy showed up late for one of his rounds and seemed to do as much as he could to stay out of the limelight. Very few people reported being successful in obtaining a McIlroy signature the week of the BMW. Also avoiding the fans as much as possible was Fowler. Fans everywhere, especially young female fans, were screaming for him to come to the ropes for autographs and selfies, but he generally ignored everyone and appeared to be in a world of his own. That certainly did not please the collectors who were trying to get the complete field on their pin flags, which were the most popular items used for obtaining autographs at this tournament. Second to pin flags were the pairings programs, which had photos and brief bios of the players in them. People would ask the players to sign the programs next to their photos.
One of the bright lights of the tournament was Sergio Garcia. No longer one of the youngest players on the tour, Garcia has evolved into one of the friendliest, and perhaps the funniest, players on the tour. A lot of collectors took to hanging out around the practice green and the driving range on the practice and pro-am days because the players seemed to be looser at those venues and more willing to sign things. Garcia came over to the fans a number of times to ham it up and have fascinating, albeit brief, conversations. He also took a moment to instruct one person on how to take a better photo of him with a fan when he thought the photographer was not getting it right.
A special mention should also be made of Matt Kuchar, another golfer who has been around the tour for awhile, because he did something you don’t often see a professional athlete do. He actually honored a promise to come back out of the clubhouse to sign autographs after telling people at the ropes that he would do so. Most athletes who say, “I will catch you later,” generally ignore or forget the promise and just go about their business. But when Kuchar said he would do it, he actually came back out after awhile and walked to the ropes near the clubhouse and signed for everyone who waited.
Although the majority of autograph seekers at the BMW were little kids who clamored for signatures at their parents’ urging, there were, of course, a number of serious local collectors there, as well as the ubiquitous dealers who like to sell their stuff on eBay. Most of the golfers who took the time to sign were happy to sign for the kids and for the collectors who were limiting themselves to one signature per golfer. As for the eBay guys, however, the golfers were not so eager to sign. Baseball players do not seem to mind these guys very much, but the golfers have a different attitude. They apparently don’t like their autographs and memorabilia being sold. In fact, Mickelson makes it a practice to carefully look at the people he is signing for so that they cannot go further down the line and try to get another signature from him. If he recognizes you, he will not sign a second time.
Finally, it is interesting to point out that with most of the world’s top golfers participating in the BMW Championship and its ancillary events, the most sought after autograph during tournament week was that of a Hollywood celebrity. Bill Murray, of “Caddyshack” fame, was there with a bevy of family members to play in the pro-am, and he drew an enormous crowd that followed him everywhere and continually hounded him for autographs. Murray, who in real life can sometimes be the same grumpy guy he often portrays on the silver screen, did try to satisfy as many people as he could at the golf course. But he also wanted to play a round of golf and the fans were making that very difficult for him most of the day. So, he finally took to being very selective about whom he signed for, and, as the day went on, if you weren’t a little kid it was unlikely you were going to get his signature. He did, however, stay around to do a number of television interviews designed to keep the media happy. Smart fellow, that Bill Murray.