A Stroll Around Southern Hills
The author went wandering at the PGA Championship, finding some unexpected pleasures along the way
By Alan Shipnuck
May 20, 2022
TULSA, Okla. — I took a stroll around Southern Hills on Friday afternoon, without a pairings sheet or a plan. It happened to be my birthday, so I thought I would treat myself to a little fun. And what’s more fun than watching golf?
I began my meanderings outside the clubhouse just as Aaron Wise was trudging up the steps, holding an ice pack to the top of his head. He explained to Joaquin Niemann that he had been doinked by an errant drive struck by Cam Smith. Niemann feigned concern, but as soon as Wise disappeared into the clubhouse, Niemann began laughing and speaking excitedly in Spanish with a friend, who needed clarification: “Pelota?”
I cruised down the 4th hole. Lucas Glover was in the middle of the fairway. Michael Bamberger, my wingman as always, enthused, “Have you ever seen a more beautiful grip?” I said I had, when I was in Seve Ballesteros’s home in Pedreña, Spain, and there was a bronze statue of the great man’s hands holding a golf club. Glover played what looked like a nice shot into the middle of a well-fortified green, but he then leaned on his club for a solid five seconds, sizzling.
The golf course was tilting in Tiger Woods’s direction, so Michael and I headed in that direction, along with colleagues Aaron Adkins and Jake Muldowney. They were grinding on various tasks so I continued alone, which was fine, because being away from my kids and my dog on my birthday had me in a wistful mood. But up near the 8th green I bumped into Grant Boone, who this week is announcing holes 16-18 of the featured groups on ESPN. His shift was over, but he wanted to see more of the course and, like me, breathe in the atmosphere. He was chatting with Jordan Spieth’s wife and parents, who are all pleasantly normal. Family is always around at the major championships; one hole later I crossed paths with Gerry McIlroy, who was walking by himself, his brow furrowed by his son’s struggles.
There has been a lot of conversation this week about the high beer prices but not nearly enough talk about how good the BBQ’d burgers smell! I veered to a concession stand. I was amused that here on the Great Plains they have a veggie burger on the menu. I asked one of the sweaty dudes manning the grill if they’ve been popular. “We’ve sold three or four,” he said. I ordered one to make him feel better, and because I’m from California. (The best that can be said about the veggie burger is that it kept me alive.)
One of the pleasures of this job is that it takes us to places we might not otherwise ever get to know. (I had spent two weeks of my life in Tulsa — the 2001 U.S. Open and the 2007 PGA — and the town has changed a lot; if you need a green juice or a Bánh mì sandwich or an independent bookstore, head downtown!) Eavesdropping on the gallery, I was reminded that folks here really care about Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, although Gary Woodland did get one half-hearted “Rock, chalk, Jayhawk” lobbed his way. The air was alive with talk of spring football and lesser concerns.
It was a lovely afternoon and Southern Hills is a pastoral setting, but real-life messiness still occasionally intruded. Kevin Na’s caddie, Kenny Harms, walked by the rope line in a provocative GOLF SAUDI hat, and not long after that I crossed paths with Lee Westwood, denuded of his UPS logos after a 14-year run, reportedly because of his fealty to the breakaway Saudi league. But mostly it was a day to enjoy simple pleasures: the way Bubba Watson twitches his shoulders after a good shot; how Matt Jones matched a turquoise belt to the stripe on his shoes; Stewart Cink’s affectionate pats on the back for his son/caddie Connor; Richard Bland’s plaintive “stop already…please!” as an errant shot skittered inexorably toward a bunker; cool guy Sam Burns raising his index finger only an inch or two to acknowledge the crowd after a birdie; a fan watching Brendan Steele smash a drive with his homemade swing and remarking, “It looks funny, but it goes;” the elegance with which Abraham Ancer marks his ball, a rhythmic flick of the wrist; the wildly exaggerated practice swing feels of Alex Noren, who, in this matter, makes Spieth look like a piker; Tony Finau’s boyish smile; Denny McCarthy’s luscious putting stroke; the murderous rage that flickers in Tyrrell Hatton’s eyes when he misses a putt; and so much more.
It was nearing supper time when I made the long, hot trudge up the hill at 18. If I’m honest, I was a little melancholy at the start of my stroll. But something changed, thanks to the fellowship of the fans and the joy of watching the best golfers in the world grapple with a fascinating test. It was a good day.