Tuesday, August 23, 2011


My mind is scrambled. My skin has been baked and my lips are as dry as the crackled desert floor. My calves are tight from being stretched out on the sides of hills and from not getting any rest. I have blisters covering my heels and toes and I have avoided eating an actual meal for days. This is the aftermath of my summer vacation and it was more than worth it! This week I went back to my regular life and my stressful job and my vacation came to an end. What did I do for my summer vacation? Not that anyone cares, but this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve taken a week off from work for a vacation. My vacation times have always been a day or two wrapped around a weekend, or more often sucked up by medical issues. I am thankful that I have had the luxury to take that time off to recover from some pretty difficult moments, but I have never considered a month off from work after a kidney or head surgery a vacation. When I scheduled this particular week off back in January, it wasn’t in order to fly to some exotic tropical location, or to go to some theme park or Las Vegas, it was so I could attend the Safeway Classic LPGA event here in the Portland area without the distraction of work.

Yes, you read that correctly - the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Every time I tell anyone about it, the reaction I get is something between a bemused smile and an uncertainty if they’ve heard me correctly. I have been a fan of golf since I was introduced to it as a small kid playing pitch-n-putt golf at the old Washington Park par 3 by the zoo and a television spectator of the game off and on since Jack Nicklaus’ riveting Master’s win in 1986. I remember trying to make putts into an overturned coffee mug set strategically around the house and putting down stairs, and off of walls, while the pros took care of business on our old incorrectly colored Zenith TV, which blinked in the background.

Why the LPGA? It is currently, the only professional golf event that comes to our area (besides now the reborn this upcoming weekend Peter Jacobsen event, which is just for fun more than for competition) and after my years of watching golf of any kind, I had started to get to know the players of the LPGA. It went from a good thing to throw on TV if I needed to take a nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon, to finding myself drawn into the excitement of the competition. Of course, my interest grew when I developed a crush on the young up and comer Leta Lindley when she was fighting for a win at the women’s US Open in the mid-90s (more on her later). Now I had a player to follow, and over the years, I’ve grown especially fond of many for a variety of reasons – making the LPGA TV entertainment that I seek out, if I am going to be watching sports on a weekend afternoon.

After finding ways to not go to the Safeway Classic for so many years (this year was the 40th anniversary of the Portland event), last summer, over the weekend, I decided to take advantage of the free passes that someone gave to me, and trek out there. At first, I was a bit reluctant, since I couldn’t convince anyone to go with me, but once I was there I was astounded. So excited, in fact, that I wrote a thank you email to the LPGA a week or so after the event. Here is an excerpt:

“This experience was really rewarding and entertaining. I’d like to pass along my compliments to everyone involved in putting on the event. There was a palpable sense of enthusiasm amongst everyone that I encountered throughout the event from the volunteers to the players. It was a nice change from what seems like an increasingly jaded sports world. I have attended countless Trailblazer basketball games, some Seahawk games and I am a season ticket holder for the soon to be MLS Portland Timbers here locally and yet I have never left any of those experiences – not just happy with the inherent drama of the competition and competitive spirit – but with such a sense of community. On that Saturday, my game plan was to witness each group make their way through the 11th hole at Ghost Creek and then follow the final group in to the clubhouse. I have played Ghost Creek a handful of times and have been killed by that hole every time, so I thought it might be an entertaining spot. While there I saw the players interact with the fans casually and comfortably, while making golf look way too easy. It was incredible to see! I remember being especially touched when I witnessed Paula Creamer, a big star on the tour, who was clearly frustrated with her putting and fighting hard to make the cut, still take the time to talk to a young fan and sign a golf ball for him. She did this despite storming away irritated at another missed putt towards the next tee box. I could go on and on, but I will close, simply by saying that I thank everyone involved and will be doing my part to spread the word that these girls do rock and so does everyone behind the scenes! Next year, I am planning on taking much of that week off from work, so I can see more fantastic golf and will encourage everyone I know to take some time to join me!”

Here I was, about to take my week off. I had considered going to the golf course early that Sunday morning to volunteer as a caddy for the Pro-Am tournament scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, or even as a caddy for one of the players who do not use a regular caddy. However, instead I was invited to attend an amazing birthday event for my friend Ann in Boise, Idaho. It was a farm dinner, served outside during a beautiful sunset on a warm evening in the company of wonderful people with good wine and unbelievable food. What a start to the vacation!

After that quick weekend jaunt, I returned home to make a bit of progress with getting my apartment in order and getting my little car to stop sounding like a World War II bomber. With these things taken care of, I was set to attend the pro-am. With that, I was able to get up close to the players while they practiced on the driving range, and practice greens. I was able to see them prepare their strategies for several of the holes, as they mapped out yardages and the breaks on the greens. I was able to see Brittany Lincicome smash some drives way past her male playing partners; Paula Creamer turn from intently trying to figure out possible pin placements for the upcoming tournament, to casually sinking a birdie putt for her team and celebrating with them; then watch recent major champion Stacy Lewis describe to her amateur playing partner, in her Arkansas via Texas drawl, how best to play the hole they were on; and then watch defending Safeway Classic champ Ai Miyazato smile her way to a 30 foot putt on the 8th green. This is also the spot where I saw my old favorite Leta Lindley give what looked like a quick chipping lesson to a woman lucky enough to play in this event, who then hit her ball to within a few feet of the cup from about 60 yards away. After that I was off to play some golf of my own with Ryan and we had a blast! I regaled him with my bizarro observations of my morning with the ladies and did my best to learn from the little tidbits I picked up.

The next morning was the start of the tournament, so I raced out to the course to catch the first tee time just after 7 am. I watched favorite after favorite tee off and start their tournament with great hopes of winning the big prize on Sunday. However, after seeing Leta Lindley in person for the first time the day prior, I decided I was going to follow her and her playing partners around the course for the entire 18 holes. Leta has had a win in her career and a few close calls in some major championships, but she is not a high profile player. In her 16 or so years on tour, she has taken the bulk of two seasons off to have and take care of her children. She has always been consistent enough to grind out enough high finishes to keep her playing privileges on the tour, but has always been quiet, unassuming and under the radar. This was reflected in the fact that I watched her play 34 of her 36 holes over the first two days of competition and was often the only person standing nearby as a spectator – clapping my obnoxiously loud clap and trying to will all of her putts into the hole. The lack of spectators around her and her playing competitors saddened me, especially since the attendance for this year’s event was an all-time record of over 88,000 people – though somewhat understandable since none of these particular players were in contention after the first round.

Speaking of that first round, Leta, finished and made her way to the official’s tent to sign her scorecard, after a rough 18 holes of 7 over par (after a very promising start to her round). I found myself, after a quick trip to the porta-potty, standing in front of her as she headed to the locker room. I wanted so badly to talk with her. I wanted to let her know that she’s been my favorite golfer for a long time, but I panicked! She looked in my direction, seemingly recognizing me as the guy who clapped so loudly from under the trees every time she did something great. She smiled, despite being upset with her performance. I stared back blankly and she passed me by. I didn’t know what to do! I have never been one to be star-struck and I haven’t asked for an autograph since I was a like 9-10 years old when Jon and I would go to the Blazers rookie games and get autographs from the new players, Jack Ramsey and always the chatty Bill Schonely. I have picked up a few autographs from authors and musicians since then, but only when I am buying their product in a store or at a show when the artist is in the room. I didn’t especially want Leta’s autograph (so happy to have it though!), what I really wanted was to talk with her, but how else could I do that without seeming like a stalker?

That evening, after watching another group of players make their way around the course (no one can tell me that watching golf live isn’t the most active of all spectator sports!), I felt sick with myself. How could I let Leta pass me by without saying a word - without letting her know that she was so inspirational to me when I would watch her play golf on TV while sitting in my dialysis chair back during those dark days? This was especially true after seeing a clip of an interview with her, where her positive words helped shift my focus during the early days of my life without kidneys from simply trying to survive to striving to feel strong enough to get back out on the golf course and do my best to enjoy those moments. And these are things I achieved! In fact, despite losing much of my strength, flexibility and stamina, my golf game improved during this period of my life. I committed myself to watching her play the second day and rooting her on to a better day of golf and a chance to make the cut. Making the cut is vitally important to those who are not familiar with golf. In these tournaments, the field of around 150 players gets cut down by approximately half – the half with the best scores, while the rest are invited to exit. What this means, is that those roughly 75 players have no chance of making money for that week. This is extremely harsh when one factors in that these players often have to pay their own travel and lodging expenses. Golfing is not necessarily as luxurious as it may seem for the casual observer. I witnessed a young player, who was fighting to earn her first paycheck ever on the LPGA, bogey her final hole after she found water with her drive. She was reduced to tears as she realized that a par would’ve put her inside the cut line. It can be a brutal game and unfortunately, after 36 holes, Leta, who fought to a very solid one over par 72 in her second round (once again in front of an audience of mostly me), came up one stroke short of the cut line after barely missing a chip for birdie on the difficult finishing hole. I was heartbroken, while she put on a tight-lipped smile and again went to sign her scorecard knowing that she had no chance of earning a dime after traveling all the way from Florida.

When I found myself, once again, in front of her on her way to the locker room, I was again reluctant to say anything - even though I had vowed to myself that I would not freeze up again. But how does one approach someone who has just missed out on such an opportunity? The season is nearing an end and maybe she needed that paycheck to keep her playing status going forward, along with all the other important reasons that we all work to try and earn a living. In other words, I was afraid to bother her at what might’ve been a very frustrating life moment. It’s not like an NBA player missing a buzzer beater that brings a loss. That guy still gets paid and paid a lot more than these women do (I'm sure she's fine, but I am amazed at how little many of these talented women get paid as compared to their male counterparts). Yet, there I was mumbling a warbled “hello” to this woman, asking her for an autograph, and feeling like a little kid. She graciously agreed and seemed genuinely touched when I informed her that she has always been my favorite player and that it's been an honor to follow her impressive career. She apologized for her poor performance and thanked me for my compliment. I know that she would’ve allowed me to talk about all of those things I mentioned earlier about her inspiration to me and all that sappy stuff, but I didn’t want to take up anymore of her time. I settled that matter and was late for the Timbers game, which had just started and I was 20 miles from the stadium!

The tournament ended the following day with an exciting playoff resulting in a win by Norwegian Suzann Pettersen. An impressive final day comeback and someone who deserved some good news, since she had a friend pass away on her last week and also had reportedly gone to school with that guy who killed a bunch of people in her home country. She was easy to root for. Christine was kind enough to join me for the long walk around the course in the hot sun watching a bunch of golfers she doesn’t know, play a game she doesn’t know much about. I cannot say in words, how excited I get about attending this event. I used to imagine mashing up all of the tumors and cysts and cancers together into one big gooey disgusting ball that have haunted me and my mom and my brother and everyone else over the years who have been burdened with them and bury it deep under the earth’s surface out of harm's way. In this case, I wish I could physically infect people with my adrenaline and enthusiasm for this stuff. It is so fantastic! Yet, now the future of this tournament is up in the air, as Safeway’s sponsorship deal has ended. They could renew, or some other corporation could take over as the title sponsor, but if this event is lost, it will truly be a tragedy. This is the longest running event this tour, besides the US Open, and one of the best attended. The LPGA has been hit hard by poor governance in recent years and the terrible economy. They have been making positive strides, but this would be a terrible blow to lose this event and a terrible blow to my new favorite time of the year.