Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2020

Pandemic Relief Efforts, Professional And Personal

It was a shot of only 120 yards. The four golfers on the tee, each an accomplished professional, had hit countless thousands of shots of that distance during their careers, from early morning practice sessions on a quiet range to pressure-filled final rounds in front of thousands of fans poised to scream their approval of a well-executed wedge or 9-iron. Yet it is the nature of golf, as it is of so many of our games, that no moment is truly routine. Every situation carries its own unique nature, be it the physical setting or the emotional import. Often, as was the case late Sunday afternoon, the moment is defined by both.

The setting was one of the most exclusive golf retreats in the country. Seminole Golf Club, hidden behind a ridge of sand dunes just off heavily traveled Route A1A in Juno Beach, Florida, was established in 1929 by investment banker Edward F. Hutton, founder of the self-named firm that for decades was one of the country’s leading brokerage houses. Hutton hired Donald Ross, the leading course designer of the time, to lay out Seminole’s 18 holes, and while the course has been tweaked by various golf architects over the years, it remains a recognizable Ross design and one of his most famous. It may well also be the least seen of any well-known Ross course. The corporate elite who have always made up Seminole’s membership value their privacy, so the club’s willingness to serve as host of a made-for-television event was as surprising as it was welcome news to golf fans longing for a peek at a course always ranked among America’s best.

The match was the TaylorMade Driving Relief, an exhibition fundraiser for two pandemic-related charities featuring world number one Rory McIlroy and major winner Dustin Johnson taking on fan favorite Rickie Fowler and PGA Tour newcomer Matthew Wolffe, winner of the 2019 NCAA Division I individual championship while at Oklahoma State University, in a team skins contest. That it was played at Seminole was due in part to McIlroy, whose father is a member of the club.

What fans watching NBC’s coverage saw was a Florida layout that looked benign enough, with several holes that the long-hitting pros could easily overpower. But Seminole has plenty of water, some significant elevation changes that are unusual for Florida (which TV cameras tended to flatten as they do at all golf courses), and of course it has eighteen Donald Ross greens. The professionals wore microphones for the round, and fans were able to hear each talking to himself more than once when a putt that looked like it broke in one direction instead veered off at a different angle once the ball was struck.

In the end the final six holes were all halved, so with light fading those skins, worth $1.1 million for the charities, were awarded by a closest-to-the-pin contest played from the forward tee of the par-3 17th hole. One swing of the club for each of the pros, from just 120 yards. As they were preparing to hit one of the four was heard commenting, “120 yards, everyone at home is saying ‘that’s easy!’”

It was not. The wind could be heard blowing in gusts, and the heavily bunkered 17th green sits at an angle to the forward tee. The pin was tucked on the rear shelf of the putting surface, which was crowned in typical Ross fashion, making the target even smaller. Then there was the considerable amount of cash on the line, an amount comparable to the winner’s share of the purse at most weekly Tour stops. That it would go to one of two foundations supporting either nurses or the CDC and not the players’ bank accounts arguably added even more pressure.

Wolffe was first to hit, and he set a mark for the others when his ball came to rest on the green, 18 feet short of the hole. Fowler followed, and viewers likely expected an even better result, as wedge play is one of the strengths of his game. But the result only reminded golf fans of the fickle nature of their sport, as Fowler’s shot sailed not on a high arc toward the pin, but on a straight line into the sandy waste area well right of the green. Johnson then showed that he too, could hit a poor shot at a crucial time, as his wedge finished short and left of the putting surface. With Wolffe’s initial effort looking better by the moment, McIlroy stepped up and lofted a wedge shot high into the air. It landed pin high and twelve feet left of the hole, on the very edge of the shelf. There, almost in defiance of gravity, it somehow remained, giving McIlroy and Johnson eleven skins and $1.85 million for the American Nurses Foundation, while Fowler and Wolffe finished with seven skins and $1.15 million for the CDC Foundation. With additional contributions based on scores under par, an earlier long-driving contest, and viewer contributions during the match, the event raised more than $5.5 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.

It takes nothing away from the enormous value of that charitable work to say that the shot the four professionals faced on the 17th at Seminole was not the only important golf shot hit on Sunday. Many miles to the north, at a decidedly less exclusive layout, two golfers also faced a shot of only 120 yards a few hours before the Florida drama unfolded. Like the pros, each had swung a club with the intent of hitting a ball that distance an untold number of times – not because they play so often or so well, but simply because the game has been part of their lives for so long.

The 14th at Sagamore on the New Hampshire seacoast has just one bunker, not several, and the wind was little more than a zephyr a few miles inland from the beach. There was no money at stake, and with the necessary restrictions in effect as New Hampshire slowly reopens, the golfer finishing closest to the pin couldn’t even demand that his partner pay for a post-round beer. One shot sailed a bit long, the other hit just short but managed to crawl up onto the putting surface.

Just two shots in the middle of a round. Two shots of, well, of a number, struck during the first time on a course together for two friends in many months. Not noteworthy at all, unlike the fundraising effort at Seminole that was just getting started about the time the two friends finished their round at Sagamore. Except that true recovery will be measured not just in dollars raised or tests administered, but also in everyday wellbeing. For that, finally being able to again experience the comfortable familiarity of golf with a friend was vastly more important than any sporting event on television.

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