Homecoming: The 2022 Alpena City Open

Returning the favor, a Tour player traveled to Michigan to caddie for his good friend in what became an eye-opening experience

By Mark Baldwin

ALPENA, Mich. — At 30 feet from the hole, the chances of this putt dropping are small. I’m indecisive because it looks like it could break either way. I read Ryan French’s putt from behind the hole; he stands behind his ball. Over his right shoulder is the house where he grew up, looming over him in the shadow of the par-3 green. The old ruin of a house is almost directly in my view. It could almost be reading the putt for him.

On the tee, Ryan had told me he knew every break on this green, that he used to hop the back fence at night to practice every shot he could imagine. He had hit a 7-iron on the 171-yard hole and found the green like it was academic. It is one of those situations that seems appropriate for the caddie to back off and let his player’s memory do the work. As I walk away, I hear, “What do you see?”

It feels right that my golf season ends here, with my friend Ryan, in a year that has been marked by playing stunningly beautiful golf courses in high-profile tournaments. At one such tournament, with Ryan on the bag, he described his hometown city championship, a tournament that brings mechanics, pawn shop owners, pool cleaners, doctors and cooks together for one weekend. It pits boss against employee, server against customer, teacher against student. Everyone puts their pride on the line in the name of competition. Everyone has the chance to prove something in a simple, unpretentious town that values solitude and like-mindedness.  

During his son’s junior and college golf days, Ryan’s father, Howard, always caddied for his son in the city championship. He was on the bag when Ryan finished runner-up in 1999. But in the decades since Ryan’s last appearance at the event, time has been hard on Howard.

Alpena Open

Dementia has robbed him of many of those memories. Ryan describes the tradition of his dad and him taking on the tournament with excitement, nostalgia and sadness. Ryan has caddied for me often this year. Each time he leaves his family, pushing himself harder and becoming more emotionally invested in my success. So in Ryan’s homecoming to the annual city championship, my primary objective is to carry on Howard’s tradition and support my friend in the same way he has supported me.

Alpena sits on the eastern tip of Michigan’s oven mitt. It looks as if a long-drive champion could send a range ball over Lake Huron into Canada. It’s not an easy place to find, and getting there required Buddha-like patience. Before I landed in Traverse City around 1:30 a.m., 20 hours after I had left Phoenix, Ryan saw the disappointment in the faces of weary travelers who discovered the rental companies were closed as if they had just missed a crucial putt on the last hole of a Monday qualifier.

“No one’s ever seen a professional golfer in Alpena,” he tells me with a laugh. “There’s a parade this weekend in your honor.” Ryan navigates the dark drive to Alpena, dodging deer for 2 1/2 hours, pointing out sets of glowing eyes in the dense forest. “Hello, little sweetheart,” he says too often for comfort. 

I wake up late for our Friday practice round. The Frenches recently relocated to Alpena and are staying in a house owned by Ryan’s brother on a beautiful lake. The property has a view you swear you’ve seen in a film—a place where all summer memories begin. Ryan’s two kids are having the time of their lives. After saying hello to the family, we’re off. 

The city championship is played on two courses: River’s Edge Golf Course (formerly Alpena Country Club) and Alpena Golf Club. The tougher test, River’s Edge is used for the final round. In the glory days of Alpena, when the cement block industry was thriving, Alpena Country Club had 450 members and a wait list, and business was good. Alpena Golf Club is the municipal course where the French family lived when Ryan was growing up. 

The 20-minute drive to the course stretches past dense forest, corn fields and beet farms. We are in, shall we say, a remote area. Aside from a few political signs and a septic system warehouse, there isn’t much else to see. The road is lined with native grasses, where deer hide waiting to cross.

An old sign outside the entrance to the course has “City Championship 7” on it. The long entrance into the clubhouse runs along the 1st hole on one side and the range on the other. Yes, the road and the range are in play. The course looks lush, as if it had rained the previous day. The cart barn crew looks bored as they greet us. I ask whether the course has been busy in preparation for the city championship, and that breaks the ice. “These are the busiest weeks of the year,” comes the reply. “It’s a big deal to the people here. It means a lot.” 

We play with Todd Skiba, a two-time winner of the city championship. His Polish grandparents immigrated to the United States and had 16 children, 14 of whom survived. Between cigarettes, he tells us his family history. The Skibas built a family of 60 strong. Todd says there were so many in the clan that older siblings would come home from college or a trip and ask who the youngster at the dinner table was. ”Why…that’s your brother,” would come the reply. 

We play with Erik Petterson, too. Erik’s father, Bill, won the city championship 19 times and finished third in the Michigan Open. Erik watched his dad win many accolades. He is a lefty who strikes the ball with impressive consistency, knows all the best fly fishing hideouts and cooks a mean burger at his father’s restaurant. In this tournament, Erik is a force. We all yearn for our parents’ approval; Erik will spend the weekend trying to add another trophy to the family collection while working the night shift at The 19th Hole.

Then there is Alex “Benny” Benson. Benny walks the front nine in flip flops, pointing out various diabolical pin placements between green moguls where he had set the pins for last year’s city championship, having done a stint on the maintenance crew at the club. Benny gets around. He tells a story about how he once charmed Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn at a bar in Aspen, and how he never again paid for anything in that bar.

He goes from talking about a wild night of partying to seasonal fluctuations in the water temperature in Lake Huron. Based on his setup, I never would have guessed he could flush a golf ball, but all the pieces move together in a beautiful rhythm. Our swings are sometimes reflections of us.

The course is like an old friend. Even though I had never seen it, I feel like I had played hundreds like it. Each hole is well-conditioned and most have just enough trouble to keep it interesting. Ryan puts together a remarkable practice round, splitting nearly every fairway with a recently acquired driver.

Ryan French

While I was competing in the Colorado Open a few weeks back, Ryan and I visited the GOLFTEC headquarters. GOLFTEC is one of my sponsors, and the company had set up Ryan with clubs to use while in town. The Titleist driver he used never made it back to headquarters, and not so curiously, now resides in his bag. Ryan has joked on Twitter about how hot his stolen driver is, and I don’t think anyone is more thrilled about it than our friends at GOLFTEC. 

Ryan shoots a 1-over 73, and we’re confident his preparation for the city championship is paying off. Golf is a deeply and irrationally superstitious game, and although it is never uttered, “the practice round curse” might have been a thought. At the 3M Open a couple of weeks before, Bryson Nimmer shot 57 the day before the Monday qualifier, playing the greatest round of his life one day too early. Each year at the Masters, we’re reminded that no one has won the par-3 contest and the green jacket in the same year. As a player you’d rather be playing exceptionally well the day before the event, but there are infinite examples of the practice round curse.  

Maybe it’s because of the three-hour time change, but when the morning of the first round rolls around, I am completely disorganized. Upon our arrival at Alpena Golf Club, I realize I had forgotten the rangefinder, an unpardonable offense even for the Alpena City Open. What begins as a diplomatic mission to the pro shop to borrow a rangefinder ends with successful pleading. The shame of making such a rookie mistake hangs over my triumphant return to the range. Despite having lost various items of importance while caddying for me, Ryan takes no pity. If Benny hadn’t shown up looking like Cam Smith on a bender, I would have turned into a punching bag for the rest of the day.

Benny arrives at 8:41 for his 8:50 tee time and stands on the back of a pickup. He recounts a wild night of drinking that had ended just before 5 a.m. I hadn’t seen him drive into the lot, but I also know Uber isn’t a thing in Alpena. Ryan films him warming up on the range in a collared shirt that is turned inside out. Benny slips on the wet grass in his socks and flip flops. “Are you going with flip flops today?” Ryan asks after Benny hits a shot. “That one…a little chunky, might need the height from the shoes, but I don’t know,” Benny says. Ryan captures it all on video. Benny announces his warmup will consist of three 8-irons and a 4-iron. And like that, Benny becomes Golf Twitter famous. 

As Ryan hits old, broken range balls, his supportive parents arrive. Ginny is decked out in Monday Q Info attire, and she and Howard hug their son. Ryan’s wife, Stephanie, had never watched golf live, but today she will follow and cheer his every shot. The city championship has turned into a family affair for the Frenches, and Howard stands quietly with a satisfied smile as his son warms up.

Dementia has robbed him of many memories, but today, with his family and familiar surroundings, he recalls caddying for his son in years past. When I ask him for caddying advice, he says his philosophy was always the same: “Stay out of the way.” With that, we head to the tee. 

There’s something different about golf competition. No matter the event, for most people who enter a tournament, it gets real on the 1st tee. Your breathing gets shorter, your heart races and your head floods with thoughts. I can tell Ryan is experiencing this sensation as he looks down the fairway. This is a shot he has hit hundreds of times, yet it is like he is seeing it for the first time. In an attempt to calm the nerves, I repeat the line Ryan always says to me before we tee off at the outset of a tournament: “Let’s have a day.”

Ryan opens cleanly with four straight pars. But the early optimism melts away. Nerves take over and he becomes less consistent, and by the middle of the back nine, he is fighting an internal battle. Skiba, our playing partner, throws fist pumps or clubs, depending on the outcome of the shot. We feel years removed from the relaxed atmosphere of the previous day’s practice round. The quirks of the municipal course design lead to some bad luck and lost composure. Ryan almost holes a 40-footer at the last, but he settles for par and signs for a birdie-free 83. 

Benny is waiting behind the green, beer in hand, having just posted an even-par 72. Upon hearing he’s an Internet sensation and that 90,000 strangers had watched his unusual warmup, he cracks a smile. “That’s cool,” he says. I can’t quite tell whether the response means he expected it all along, or didn’t fully grasp the meaning. Most of the competitors have finished and are recounting their rounds over a beer.

We’ve had a camera with us all day, and although some had viewed it skeptically in the morning, it is clear they are all intrigued now. People are happy and accepting. While they may have heard about it earlier, most are now curious about what one of their own was doing on Twitter. 

That afternoon, Ryan and Stephanie take me on a tour of Alpena. Downtown is small. Tiny even. Many buildings seem largely untouched from their original construction. From a distance, it looks like the perfect location for a film set decades ago. Parts of “Die Hard 2” were filmed here. Ginny worked as an extra in a scene that didn’t make the final cut. Thunder Bay is a mile from downtown, and it’s beautiful. The waves gently lap against a protective rock wall. Grassy parks line the water’s edge, and people are taking serene walks. A band is setting up for an outdoor performance. A man with a long beard and a cutoff T-shirt walks by blasting Kelly Clarkson from a speaker that dangles from his belt. 

We drive only a few miles to get to the north side of town, but it is like we are a world away. The crisp lake air crosses over into an industrial smell of rotting vegetables. The homes aren’t maintained as well. Towering over everything is a massive cement plant that sits along the lake. It seems to cake everything in a thick coat of light brown. It looks nearly abandoned, and the surrounding pine trees appear to be encrusted in dirty snow. Besser Company was once the main source of jobs and an economic engine for the town. The company makes cement blocks, and the giant warehouse was bustling when the company thrived. Now the first letter of the company’s name is missing from the side of the warehouse.

As we drive by, only a few cars are parked in the lot. It’s a story familiar to many Michigan towns, and it makes me think of the fall of the automobile industry in Detroit. Alpena is a town struggling to maintain economic viability. This becomes more obvious when we stop by a restaurant, where the average age might be described as “young great-grandparent.”

The final pairing on Sunday at the city championship features Benny and Erik, who would celebrate his opening-round 71 by toiling over a hot grill in his dad’s restaurant. We had gone back to the spotless kitchen and watched him work on Saturday evening. Erik is kind and generous, always smiling, always offering whatever he has. He is upbeat about the prospects of the final round and speaks excitedly about the day he and his brother, Adam, will take over the restaurant. Erik hopes his golf game the following day is as hot as the kitchen. 

Sunday gets off to a promising start. I remember the rangefinder, and despite a horrible forecast, the skies are pleasantly overcast. On the 1st hole at River’s Edge Golf Club, Ryan flares a drive along the club’s entrance. We find the ball behind a tree with a thin trunk. Ryan has a full backswing but knows a shot at the green will end with a broken 9-iron. He doesn’t hesitate, commits to the swing and immediately after perfect contact, the 9-iron snaps in half! The ball flies with a true flight and stops 20 feet from the hole. We laugh all the way to the green. 

Our playing partner is Justin Page, a rail-thin mechanic who likes to talk about the details of every shot he plays. After a double bogey on the 2nd hole, he pulls a bottle of Jack Daniels from his bag and makes himself a nauseatingly stiff cocktail. To his credit, he almost holes the next shot. A few holes later, having seen a cloud of smoke around his cart, I ask if there are many skunks in the area. “Oh, yeah,” Justin says. “I got this one family that follows me wherever I go.” 

Ryan plays a nearly perfect front side. With his parents looking on hopefully, he has a 45-foot putt up a steep hill to save par at the 9th. When the ball is 10 feet away, it doesn’t look as if it has the speed to reach the hole. As if propelled by his parents’ hope, the ball rolls far enough to tumble over the front edge. What an exhilarating moment. He finishes the front with eight pars and a lone bogey.

The back nine doesn’t go as well, but Ryan greatly improves on the previous day. He taps in at the last for a second-round 79 and hugs his family. Although there were highlights, Ryan hadn’t played his best. Still, he had played well for the majority of the tournament and finishes tied for eighth. Erik and Benny falter, but they cheer on one another through each shot.

Playing in the group ahead, Nate Swinson will eagle the last hole to win by two. Watching Erik and Benny cheer each other on up the last, not knowing they didn’t have a chance to win, is a joy. Ryan’s dad smiles upon hearing Ryan had broken 80. Competitive golf is hard, and it’s never truer than when you haven’t experienced the vise of competition for decades. Ryan’s parents are proud of him. That is all the validation Ryan needs.

Alpena

Ryan stands behind the 30-footer and across from the house where he grew up. The house may have been in disrepair, but for this one moment, it beams beautiful memories from his youth. I wonder how many times had young Ryan hit this exact putt in the day’s fading light? Perhaps never, he would say later, but Ryan sees the putt breaking left. I back off and let him work from memory.

The putt starts on line but breaks to the right at the hole. Surprised, he walks up and taps in. Things have changed since the last time he was here. And although Ryan didn’t make that putt, the city championship and the town of Alpena are brighter because he has come home.

15 thoughts on “Homecoming: The 2022 Alpena City Open”

  1. A really great read ,we all have memories from club– city championships , long gone ,but the memories come back .

  2. Hauntingly beautiful writing: “Based on his setup, I never would have guessed he could flush a golf ball, but all the pieces move together in a beautiful rhythm. Our swings are sometimes reflections of us.” Thank you, Mark.

  3. I notice it must be a little dusty in my office just now, something in my eye. Not many people are fine golfers and fine writers, too. Mark you are both and, I can tell, a damn fine human being and friend.

  4. Just a fantastic read…very well written…had me wanting to visit the area and play the courses in the near future. Looking forward to the video.

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