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7 Days on the Range
May 22, 2006
During a week exploring a Tour rehearsal area, the Marco Polo of the practice tee found a complex culture
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May 22, 2006

7 Days On The Range

During a week exploring a Tour rehearsal area, the Marco Polo of the practice tee found a complex culture

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There's always something, some little bit of theater that the rangemasters will mention when they get home late at night. Like the time the host of a junior clinic said something that prompted a couple of hundred shrieking kids to race onto the range and stuff their pockets with balls. Or the time a young man jumped the police barrier, grabbed two bags of Tiger's Nikes and tried to escape. (He didn't make it.) Or the time a caddie asked if he could take a few dozen balls to pay for his week's bar tab.

Sometimes it's simply a weird sight: Charles Howell hitting balls in his stocking feet. ("It's for balance.") Frank Lickliter practicing the caddie-to-player ball toss. ("A little higher ... keep it behind me.") And sometimes it's simply the sublime vision of a world-class golfer striking balls better than anyone has a right to.

Then there are the pro-am days, when hackers with creaky swings and nervous dispositions are given half the range. The amateurs must stay on their side, but sometimes a pro takes a duffer's space, causing the bankers and CEOs around him to gasp for air. Even a Hall of Fame ballplayer like Cal Ripken Jr., who played in this year's Wednesday pro-am, admitted that he was a nervous wreck on the range. "My comfort zone is 50,000 screaming people in Yankee Stadium. This is a different environment," he said. "I get excited. I wonder if people are staring at me."

There was a big leader board on the right side of the practice facility. I mostly ignored it. I was more interested in Range World, the daily soap opera that aired from dawn to dusk. Why was chain-smoking Tommy Armour III, a self-advertised playboy, hitting balls at twilight on Tuesday and again at daybreak on Wednesday? What torment caused David Branshaw to stand under his umbrella on the otherwise deserted range during a Friday rain delay? Who was responsible for the appearance of graffiti on the Titleists--phrases like GOIN' LONG, LITTLE SENORITA AND NORTH AVENUE TRADE SCHOOL?

You want drama? It's not on the par-3 17th, where water comes into play. It's on the range, where John Rollins set a tournament record by hitting 18 bags of Srixons in a single day. ("Did you see his divot pattern?" Baldwin asked with bulging eyes. "As big as a bath mat!") Now it's Thursday, near sunset, and Rollins is battling Marco Dawson for the honor of closing the range. Rollins is hitting driver and hitting it well, but now he tees up his last ball, takes a mighty swing ... and hits an ugly snap hook into the trees. Without waiting for instructions, his caddie runs to the tent for another handful of balls. He knows his man can't walk off the range on a bad shot.

Sunset is a potent symbol, and with a few exceptions-- Singh comes to mind, as does Tom Kite--it is the struggling golfer who beats balls until dark. I stood behind Ian Leggatt, a former Tour winner plagued by injuries, as he hit balls one evening. His caddie, Andrew Pfaannkuche, said, "We haven't been the last ones on the range since...." He feigned difficulty in remembering. "Since Houston!" Two weeks.

"I live on the range when I'm not playing well," said Leggatt, leaning on his club. "I won't leave without resolving a problem or situation, and I'm not a guy who can hit 40 or 50 balls and feel as if I've accomplished something."

A tour range almost always goes out with a whimper. Rarely do you have a "leader in the clubhouse"--who, obviously, is not in the clubhouse, but out on the range, nervously hitting balls in front of a network camera while somebody tries to par the 18th to force a playoff. That happened at the 2004 Wachovia. Joey Sindelar was the pro who got to spend an extra 20 minutes with Baldwin and Lawton, and their relaxed demeanors must have comforted him because Sindelar beat Arron Oberholser on the second extra hole.

My week on the range ended with no such drama. Storms interrupted the final round, but by midafternoon on May 7 all the golfers were on the course and the range crew had cleared everything off the tee. At the finish the only golfers in contention, Jim Furyk and Trevor Immelman, were in the final group. One by one, the assistants said their goodbyes and drifted off, either to watch the final holes or to find a place to curl up and sleep. I would describe the mood in the tent as loose, maybe even loopy. (Baldwin and Lawton kept quoting lines from Raising Arizona, to the point that I'll never again view Nicolas Cage's armed diaper heist without thinking of the range at Quail Hollow.) Finally, a soggy cheer reached us from the course. A voice on the walkie-talkie crackled, "He made it. Furyk won."

Baldwin stood up. "Like I told you before, it's not rocket science, but I think the players and caddies appreciate it when you do it well."

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