As I passed my always delightful and animated co-worker Jody in the downstairs hallway at work, we exchanged our usual greetings, but then she suddenly stopped.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I paused, “Maybe a little under the weather.” This was my description of how terrible I have been feeling battling off the side effects of my new and massively increased immune suppressant medications. I have not been tolerating the new meds well. The side effects provide intense muscle pain, nausea, dizziness, weight gain and oh so much more. All of this happened on top of an already broken heart leading from another failed attempt to find a shot at loving companionship.
“You’ve lost your sparkle.” She said with a level of concern I have not generally seen from her normally carefree attitude.
“Did I ever have a sparkle?’
Our conversation was then sidetracked by the interruption of more passing co-workers, which at this job always means some sort of errand will soon follow. There is no way to stay on target there. There are only passing moments of crisis that need immediate attention.
This was an exchange that happened a few weeks ago. Not much has changed since then. I am still battling feeling sorry for myself, still filled with heartbreak and still feeling empty. I am someone in desperate need for a vacation and that is what happened this last week. The LPGA could not have arrived in town for the annual Safeway Classic at a better time. It is something I look forward to every year and have blathered on and on about it here (via Summerside and Numb, and of course via the LPGA website last year, among others) and to pretty much anyone who is around. So after a couple of days of trying to complete errands and to try to take it easy and rest, Wednesday rolled around and it was time to head out to Columbia Edgewater Country Club to fulfill my volunteer caddying gig.
There are two major changes to this year’s edition of the tournament. The first is that the venue has been moved back to Columbia Edgewater from Pumpkin Ridge for the first time since 2008, where it had been held for many years prior. The second is that the tournament has been thankfully changed to the more traditional four round format, as opposed to the three round event it has been. Any chance at more golf with these ladies is a plus in my book.
This would be my first year of going through every round solo. I’m not sure that this is a good thing, because of my tendency to become too involved and lose myself in the proceedings to the point of madness. It seems some levity and perspective nearby would be beneficial. But then again, being solo may be a good thing. It may be best not to have witnesses around to see me go through the emotional rollercoaster that I inevitably will experience.
At any rate, once I arrived at the course on a beautiful sunny and comfortable day, my mind began to let go all of the sadness and dread and started to feel anticipation and excitement. I was quickly assigned to the amateur partner I would caddy for and we found out that we’d be playing with the incredibly amiable Paige Mackenzie, who is originally from Yakima, Washington (which she jokingly calls the Palm Springs of Washington). She was glowing and bright and funny and warm and I did watch her golf for a handful of holes during my first year of attending in 2010. She was memorable, because she’s really pretty and has a unique style. On that day, she was wearing a cardigan sweater, which I have never seen on a golf course before. Anyway, she led us around this amazing course, which I wish I could play someday, but fear that its old money private status will lock me out of such an opportunity. The way this works is that the pro and her caddy play a round of golf and mildly prepare for the tournament ahead and they are joined by four amateur golfers who pay for the opportunity to play with a pro and each of those players is assigned a volunteer to caddy for them. The money raised for this event is put to different charities in the area. Luckily, my guy, Cameron, was a good one with a pretty decent game and we worked well together. I take the caddying job more seriously than most. I know the game, understand the game and though I am not a good player, I know what to do and I actually think I’m pretty good at it. It’s a great way to start the week. Not only does one get the chance to meet one of these amazing women and get to know her in her element, but there’s a chance to see the golf course inside the ropes (the ropes are what keep the fairways and greens separate from the spectators) and learn about the hidden dangers and potential shots the players will face once the real competition begins. Overall, it was a great time and nothing really crazy happened, aside from standing alone with Cameron’s clubs while I waited for him to buy a beer on the 7th hole, and having hall of fame golfer and long time television announcer Judy Rankin come up behind me in a golf cart (presumably for research), stop and say “Hi,” before driving on and finding out that my camera now only takes blurry pictures. Like last year though, I now have a new pro to root for!
my nice camera
Thursday morning arrived with a surprise (to me at least) rain, thunder and lightning storm. We have not had any significant rain for months and lightning is rare in these parts, but here it was. The first tee times of the day were scheduled for 7:15 AM and my girl from last year’s Pro-Am, Jee Young Lee, was set to tee off at 7:48. My plan was to follow her group and then find Paige Mackenzie’s group around 12:30 PM. I showed up at the course at 6:45 ready to go and watched some players on the range and practice green lamenting the failure of my camera and my cheapness, which has left me with 2005 cell phone technology It does have a basic (ically useless) camera, but no email. I went to the huge porta-potty assortment, that was laid out like Stonehenge, for obvious reasons and while inside heard the intensity of the rain increase and an air horn blast signifying lightning in the area and for everyone to seek shelter. As I emerged, I sought quick shelter in a covered patio area next to the pro shop. This area, it turns out is where the players and caddies were designated to go, because before I could react, I was surrounded by about 45 LPGA players and their caddies, all sitting around silently fiddling with their far more advanced cell phones. It was clear that I did not belong there, but I stayed still and tried not to make any sudden movements. Security was in the area and I didn’t want to get tossed before anything had started! A few more weather stops and starts followed, but play eventually began about an hour late.
Jee Young Lee
The last time I saw Jee Young Lee in person, about 54 weeks prior, she had gone from a player I had barely heard of to my new favorite golfer and I had this to say about seeing her finish last year:
“When she finished (her round), my companion Christine followed me around behind the grandstands, where I shook hands and offered continued support to Jee Young’s father, where he thanked me profusely again for my support. What I really wanted was a chance to get a picture of me with her after the round, since I had taken so many of her with other people. But as we circled around where the players exit the big stage of the 18th hole and where there are generally autograph seekers and such, I saw Jee Young and her caddy alone with their heads down walking directly to the driving range to practice – with her father trotting over the join them. It was that moment where I kind of lost it. I think I confused Christine as I kept walking back and forth and leading us nowhere with lots of golfers and action still to be witnessed. But it was that moment when I knew that this was it. The tournament and the writing gig that I had been building up with anticipation for nearly an entire year was ending and I didn’t want it to. This place is where I belonged! I wanted to race down that hill and embrace Jee Young and help console her and hopefully find a way to console myself. In that moment, I didn’t want to go back to my stressful job. I didn’t want to go see all of my doctors anymore. I didn’t want to go back to my apartment and be alone. Being at that tournament and around those players lifted me to another plane where my illnesses and limitations no longer were a part of my life. My constant daily headaches were barely noticeable, my energy level maintained enough to get me around those damn hills each and every day without fail, and I was filled with feeling and passion and confidence that often drift away from me during regular days.”
It sounds like a lot of hyperbole, but it really isn’t. This is how intense I felt at the time and all of that returned the moment I saw JYL appear on the practice green and then head over to the first tee. She has continued to struggle and play well only in spurts for the last year – but never consistently enough to finish at the top. I wanted so badly to will her to a great weekend of golf. I won’t bore anyone even more by going into the details of the round, except for a few things. Jee Young Lee was playing with young American golfer Vicky Hurst and Venezuelan Veronica Felibert. Vicky Hurst turned out to be interesting, because a retired guy from Southern California named John was there rooting her on, just as I was rooting on JYL. It turns out that he attends the two or three events in Southern California every year to cheer her on and picks a tournament every year to travel to. In other words, he is living my dream. He is free to go see these women play golf when he wants to. We chatted a lot during the round and found ourselves, as is common, rooting for each others' favorite as well. We made plans to meet up again Friday afternoon to cheer on our gals. Veronica Felibert is a really talented player, but she is way too deliberate for my taste. Her pre-shot routine seemed to take days each time. The other significant moment happened on the 13th hole – a short, scenic par 3 over water. It was terrible for JYL, but comically the moment I’ve been preparing myself for since last year when I noticed that Jee Young’s brother caddy seemed to have a quite an antagonistic relationship that was unhealthy. This year, she has gone through more than one caddy (a position I would be more than satisfied to fill!! Maybe that’s why I took the volunteer caddy job so seriously this year!), having left her brother behind. At the 13th, the tee had been moved forward – shortening the hole from the practice rounds – and her caddy did not account for this. In other words, he gave her the wrong yardage. She hit a towering perfect looking shot that curved in over the water from right to left directly at the flagstick, but unfortunately bounded over the bunker behind the green about 20 yards too far. She picked up her tee and gave this new caddy a glare that one reserves for their biggest enemy. I felt a chill run down my spine and a wave of anticipation surge back up. If any time was my chance to jump right in and get a dream caddy job, this was it! JYL walked up to her shot way ahead of everyone else and wound up hitting an amazing shot high up over the bunker from the thick rough onto a steep downhill slope and somehow stopped the ball within a few feet of the hole drawing ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the few of us watching. She sank the par putt, handed her putter to her sheepish caddy and gave him a little punch to the shoulder. She flashed a smile and my chance died right there. When the group went to the next tee, her father (“pops”) came over to me and explained in broken English about the flub up the caddy had made. I told him that I’m ready whenever they need me and we both laughed, even though I was not kidding around. Anyway, the round ended with all three players at 1 under par and they would need to do better on Friday to make the cut and get into the running. As John and I watched our group finish on the 18th hole, Paige’s group was teeing off right behind us on the first. No lunch break for me! I turned around and headed back out onto the course.
Paige Mackenzie’s group included Amanda Blumenherst (who surprisingly had just announced that she was leaving tour tired of being apart from her new husband) and the fantastically silly Tiffany Joh. Apparently, according to Paige’s mom (I got to know both of her parents out there) since Blumenherst was walking away from the game, the LPGA allowed her to pick her group, so it’s no surprise she picked Paige (they’d become friends on tour), since I get the feeling that everyone gets along with her, and Tiffany, because she simply explodes with fun-loving personality. In fact, Tiffany Joh has made several funny music videos and posted them on Youtube (as ‘cupofjoh’), claims to be from Whale’s Vagina, CA on her twitter page (@tiffjoh) and has an incredible website that must be seen (tiffjoh.com). They all played similarly to my morning group and all needed to do better on Friday.
Friday morning arrived warm and sunny and my groups had switched tee times. The morning would start out with the Paige Mackenzie group and finish with the Jee Young Lee group. I learned a lot more about Paige through her mom as we strolled around the course. Turns out that Paige has been struggling with a hand injury and back issues (She broke her back in college) and has only grossed around $42,000, which considering the expense of playing, traveling, paying for a caddy, agent, living, and who knows what else, isn’t very much, so she isn’t in a position to take time off to heal, because she needs to earn a living. How can I not root for her?! She wound up playing well, shooting a 4 under round and easily making the cut, which landed at 2 under (The ‘cut’ is when the field is cut in half for the weekend. Those who do not make the cut do not earn money). Neither Tiffany nor Amanda made the cut, as they both struggled on Friday, but Tiffany still gave me a funny grin as she exited the last hole (the 9th) and headed toward the locker room.
Paige Mackenzie and Ji Young Oh signed hat
This time I was able to sit down for a few minutes and grab a quick bite to eat and send annoying text messages to a few unfortunate individuals about the proceedings. They all humored me as I stood by and watched Jee Young Lee practice her putting. This is the part of her game that seems to elude her. She is so talented (they are all talented) and has all the tools to be a consistent winner. During the three rounds I have watched her play; she has hit three of the most remarkable shots I have ever seen by anyone. These shots that have made tears well up in my eyes and be thankful that I had sunglasses on to hide them. But she struggles to sink putts consistently, which is the path to victory.
The afternoon round with JYL, Vicky and Veronica was rough from the beginning. They also started out on the 10th hole (and would finish on the 9th) and shaky putting and missed shots were contagious in the group. Vicky started out strong, but absolutely fell apart down the stretch. Veronica couldn’t hit the ball anywhere near where she wanted and started to play slower and slower, which led their group to fall behind pace, which brought a warning to speed up. Failure to do so can cause a 2 stroke penalty, which would make this all the more troubling. Vicky and Jee Young were clearly flustered and were playing way ahead of Felibert, but it didn’t seem to encourage her to play any faster. JYL had managed to get herself to 2 under par, but bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes and spent the entire second nine fighting back through the slow play and her failing iron play (she started hitting a lot of shots left and into trouble) and she lipped out no less than five putts and also had one miraculously and unbelievably sit over the edge of the hole, but not take gravity’s course and fall in! Six putts she could’ve easily made. One of those birdie attempt lip outs happened, and I shit you not, when some muffler-less truck gunned down the side street that runs adjacent to the 7th hole, blaring Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” just as she started her backswing. She then lipped out a putt for birdie on the par 3 - 8th after a really solid short iron put her in fairly close, after which she smacked her leg so hard that I was worried she might’ve damaged something. I fell to my knees (not a good thing in my decrepit condition, because I may not be able to stand again) and buried my face in my hands. John, my two day cohort, who had already lost hope with Vicky Hurst, but still maintained his composure put his hand on my back and quietly said: “There’s nothing you can do.” This missed birdie putt meant that Jee Young would have to sink about a 160 yard approach shot for a two on the par 4 and difficult 9th hole – she was stuck at even par for the tournament. Any sign of a sparkle that I had gained in the rain the day prior dissipated as I walked alongside the 9th fairway watching her chances of winning or even earning money for this long trip fall away. It is so difficult to watch this all unfold in person. It was so difficult to watch all three of these players fighting so hard to make it, but all for naught. Unlike most other sports, there is no guaranteed contract. As Jee Young pitched the ball from just left of the green and tapped in for par, she hugged her caddy and immediately grabbed three golf balls from her bag, signed them and gave them to the Oregon Junior Golf kids surrounding the green.
Jee Young Lee signed golf ball
The remainder the tournament was exciting and fun, as expected, but I had put too much energy into cheering on JYL to fully enjoy the rest. I cheered on Paige Saturday & Sunday and she did well, finishing overall in a tie for 23rd at 10 under par. After she and Ji Young Oh finished up on the 18th hole, I raced out to watch the penultimate group to catch young Thai golfer Pornanong Phatlum in her 70s cop sunglasses with her caddy brother in matching crazy skirt and short combination (how can I not cheer for her? I can say this about almost all of these players). She had a chance to win her first ever LPGA event going in to the day, but the pressure got her and you could see the tension increase in her arms with each putt. In the end Suzann Pettersen won for the second time in the last three years playing spectacularly again. There’s always next year for Jee Young Lee and Paige and the rest of my favorites, who I am not always able to watch while out there. And for them there’s always the next tournament and I will be there in spirit, wishing I could be out there with them.
Pornanong and Pornapong Phatlum