The lights went down, the crowd kicked up and John Rollins was overcome by awe and envy. "You feel that rush? That's what I'm talking about!" he shouted above the din. Rollins, 27, is a third-year PGA Tour player who won almost $2 million in 2002, but last Friday night he was just another face in the crowd when Widespread Panic took the stage at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. Normally people pay to see Rollins perform, but as he grooved to Widespread Panic's blues-rock beat, all he could think was, These guys are good. "I'd rather be a big-time musician than a golfer any day," Rollins said. "As a golfer you're lucky if you hear crowd noise like this once in your career. A guy like Dave Matthews gets to hear it all the time."
Such scenes were repeated all over town last week as the HP Classic of New Orleans was being contested at English Turn Country Club. The Tour tends to take over its host city most of the time, but last week the HP Classic, which was won by Steve Flesch on the first hole of a playoff with Bob Estes, was hardly the biggest show in town. That distinction belonged to the 34th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a.k.a. Jazzfest, 11 days of music, food and debauchery that annually draws about a million revelers to the city. The HP Classic attracted respectable crowds by Tour standards—about 150,000 fans watched the tournament—but that number did not match the 257,000 who, over the same period of time, packed the Fair Grounds Race Course. There, music lovers chose from an array of bands playing on 10 stages for eight hours each day. The party carried on around the clock elsewhere in theaters, nightclubs and the French Quarter.
The people who run the HP Classic know that they can't compete with Jazzfest, so they've embraced the event, encouraging the players to join the party. That's a big reason why a solid field (11 of the top 25 players in the World Ranking) showed up for an otherwise nondescript entry on the Tour calendar. "The people at this tournament understand that when you're on the road 30 weeks a year, it's the little things that can make the difference when you're deciding where to play," said David Duval, who shot 74-75 to miss the cut by 10 strokes.
The HP Classic owes much of its popularity with the players to tournament director Rick George, whom Hal Sutton calls "unequivocally the best" in the business. (This was George's fifth and last year as tournament director. On Monday he began his new job as president of the Champions tour.) One of George's main responsibilities was to make sure that every player, wife and caddie could obtain whatever their hearts desired, from dinner reservations to babysitters to concert tickets. He even provided courtside seats to Games 5 and 6 of the NBA playoff series between the New Orleans Hornets and the Philadelphia 76ers. "People have said we should have this tournament at a time when Jazzfest isn't going on, but I disagree," George says. "It's great to have things for people to do."
For a dozen or so players the highlight of the week was the April 29 fishing trip that George had prepared for by circulating a sign-up sheet at other tournaments during the weeks leading up to the HP Classic. The outing began at 6 a.m., when two Bell 206 Long Ranger helicopters picked up the players at the Louisiana Superdome and whisked them 30 miles away to a fishing hole in Lafitte. "The pilots buzzed around and did a few stunts for us," said journeyman pro Brad Lardon. "They flew low enough that we could see some gators poking their heads out of the water." The players spent the morning catching redfish and trout before being flown to English Turn, the choppers alighting on the practice range at 1:30 p.m.
"Some guys don't go because it interferes with their practice, but they don't realize how important fishing is," said Lardon, whose mind remained in Lafitte well into the afternoon. Looking up from his spot on the range, he waved his seven-iron as if it were a fishing rod and said, "For some reason it seems like I'm casting from the top a little bit today."
While most Tour events are best suited to the Golf Channel, the HP Classic could play on the Food Channel. Three huge crawfish boils were held at English Turn—on Tuesday for the caddies, on Wednesday for the players and on Saturday for the media. And on Wednesday morning about 45 Tour wives attended a cooking clinic and luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Canal Street, with Emeril Lagasse as their instructor. Working on a raised platform with tilted mirrors hanging above to afford a better view of his pots and pans, Lagasse prepared pan-seared snapper and crawfish couscous, at one point hurrying when Jay Don Blake's wife, Marci, called out, "We have some pregnant women back here who'd sure like something to eat."
His performance over, Lagasse, who said he was an 18 handicap "last time I checked," hopped into his black Mercedes SUV and drove the 11 miles to English Turn, where he played in the pro-am with Lee Westwood. (As Lagasse worked the crowds lining the fairways, Westwood's Scottish caddie, David Renwick, turned to one of the other amateurs in the group and said, "Who is this man? He's signing more autographs than the players.") There were food stations set up on every third hole during the pro-am, after which the participants feasted on local delicacies personally prepared by chef Paul Prudhomme.
The Big Easy got even easier once the tournament started on Thursday. Without the swirling winds that typically blow through town this time of year, the players feasted on the short (7,116 yards) English Turn course and its flat, soft greens. Friday's cut came at five under, the lowest in the 55-year history of the tournament. On Sunday, though, the wind returned at a more typical 15 to 20 mph, and everyone's score headed north. Everyone's except Flesch, who made up seven shots on overnight leader Scott Verplank with a brilliant seven-under 65. That put Flesch at 21 under for the tournament and into a playoff with Estes, which Flesch, a non-winner in six years on Tour, won by sinking a 35-foot bomb for birdie on the first extra hole. "The only way I was going to have a chance is if the wind blew hard enough where the leaders might struggle," he said.
The hard part for many of the players was resisting the nightlife, although most of them snuck out at least once during the week. "I've seen a lot of guys out this week whom you almost never see leave their hotel rooms," said Rollins's caddie, Barry Blalock. The golf fans had it made. They could check out the tournament without feeling as if they were totally missing Jazzfest, because George arranged to have bands perform at English Turn after Saturday's and Sunday's rounds.