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It's not rocket science," Eric Baldwin said, and since the upturned brim of the rangemaster's bucket hat made him look like a 1950s Borscht Belt comedian, I was inclined to believe him. But then I looked around the little tent, its tables and floor strewn with shiny golf balls in brightly colored drawstring bags. It was rocket science! We had started the week with 440 dozen aerodynamic spheres and about 160 self-absorbed space cadets with high-tech launchers. From dawn to dusk, seven days running, the latter had filled the northern sky with the former, tickling the clouds until, predictably, the clouds had had enough. Now Baldwin and his fellow rangemaster, Todd Lawton, were blowing on their fingers on a drizzly, dreary Sunday afternoon, waiting for a roar from beyond the trees to tell them that their week's work was done. � But I'm getting ahead of myself. This story started the previous Sunday afternoon, on April 30, when I walked onto the sun-drenched upper tee of the practice range at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. Nobody was hitting balls, but there was an open-front tent at the west end, in the shade of some tall pines. Baldwin was in the tent filling drawstring bags with brand-new balls: green bags for Titleist Pro V1s, red for Pro V1xs, blue for Bridgestones, white for Callaways and yellow for Nikes. "I have to figure out what to do about the Srixons," he said, pointing to two cartons in the corner. The Srixons, apparently, did not have a Tour-designated bag color.
Baldwin, who moonlights 51 weeks a year as director of the professional golf management program at Queens University of Charlotte, is a master of the cryptic quip. ("They don't like me to use knives since the incident," he mumbled, slicing open a carton with a box cutter.) He listened with a quizzical expression as I explained that I had been assigned to spend an entire week on the practice tee at a PGA Tour event. "I'm not going out on the course," I said. "I don't care who wins the tournament. I'm only here to write about the range."
He said, "Well, it's not rocket science."
I should disclose at the outset that I am not exactly unschooled on the subject of practice ranges. For several years I wrote a Web column called Mats Only, which earned me a reputation as the Marco Polo--Alexis de Tocqueville of range rats. I have also spent more hours on Tour ranges than I care to admit. But until I spent my week on the range at the Wachovia Championship, I was like the Ph.D. candidate who hasn't sat for orals. I knew, for instance, that Tour players produce distinctive divot patterns when they practice, but I didn't know that Tom Pernice, with his perfect checkerboard motif, was the Rembrandt of the range. I knew that a certain well-known player endorses and plays a certain ball, but I didn't know that he practices with a different brand. I knew that Rory Sabbatini had game, but I didn't know that he could hit solid iron shots with either hand while talking on his cellphone.
I also underestimated how much business is conducted on the range between Monday and Wednesday, when equipment reps, tournament reps, player reps, media reps, charity reps and family reps flood the area between the tee line and the grandstand. On the Tuesday of Wachovia week, for example, I edged up behind a man in bright red slacks who seemed to be checking the swing plane of veteran pro Craig Barlow. I leaned in to hear Barlow say "king, nonsmoking." Then, whack, he socked a ball downrange as red pants repeated "king, nonsmoking" into a telephone headset. By the time the ball landed, Barlow had a confirmed hotel reservation in Dallas for the week of the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.
"We don't allow the reps to troll the range," said Tour player-relations head Sid Wilson, whom I found trolling the range. "They have to be working with a player, or a player has to approach them." The equipment guys, in particular, are asked to show a little discipline. They set up their gaudy staff bags full of prototypes and demo clubs in a neat row about 20 yards behind the tee line, waiting for players to take the bait. And the players do bite--especially when the reps have a new product. At Quail Hollow the gadget du jour was the Momentus Power Hitter, a weighted driver with a burnt-orange head.
Reporters and television crews practically camp on the range early in the week. At the Wachovia the cameras couldn't get enough of Jay Haas and his sons Bill and Jay Jr., who were all playing in the same Tour event for the first time, or of John Daly, who was flogging a just-published autobiography that laid bare his personal problems. The reporter who commands the most respect on a Tour range, however, is the Golf Channel's Adam Barr, host of the weekly What's in the Bag? That's because only Barr, among all the mike clutchers, can devote five minutes of national airtime to a new hybrid iron or a combination putter--weed whacker. "Our viewers have an unquenchable thirst for equipment stories," Barr told me. "If a player changes from a two-yard to a one-yard fade, they want to know why and how." He then wandered off down the range with his cameraman, sound man and producer, all of them looking for a fresh club face.
"Why this week? Why us?" The question came from Todd Lawton, golf coach at South Carolina Upstate and cochair ("although," Baldwin pointed out, "we don't sit much") of the Wachovia Championship practice tee committee.
I answered, "Because you have one of the prettiest ranges."
Call me shallow, but if I have to spend seven days taking the pulse and temperature of 12 acres of pampered farmland, they had better be gorgeous acres. Quail Hollow's tree-lined practice facility is 357 yards long and 135 yards wide, with seven target greens and six pea-gravel bunkers prettying up a valley between. Up the hill to the right, behind the trees, is a short-game complex that I arbitrarily declare to be the best in the world.