Wow. It has come and gone again: my annual journey into the world of the LPGA and the long running Portland Classic out at the stunning Columbia Edgewater Golf Club. Increasingly, it has become not only the highlight of my year, but in many ways the only thing that keeps me trudging through each chaotic and crises filled day. This year proves, once again, that the thrill remains. I simply cannot get enough of this event. It’s overwhelming, like a huge music festival where all of my favorite bands are playing at the same time!
The tournament itself was anticlimactic this year, as the impressive young Canadian phenom, Brooke Henderson dominated over the weekend and went on to win by eight strokes, while setting a tournament scoring record, but it’s the details and moments of triumph and dismay that make the multiple trips around those 18 holes so memorable and intriguing. Once again, I volunteered to caddy for the money guys in two of the Pro-Ams. On Monday, I unknowingly caddied for the mayor of Hillsboro (one of the other caddies looked him up on her phone, so I found out after the round), who was a pretty fun guy that looked a lot like the zany David Feherity. Our pro was the vivacious and pretty Jenny Suh, who continued to prove that these ladies are not just great at golf, but the best ambassadors for the sport period. She was personable, funny, patient, and helpful to the amateurs. She coached local sports radio talk show host Isaac Ropp from wildly erratic play early in the round to a series of great shots by the end. This has been true of all of the other players I’ve encountered so far in this environment. For the Wednesday Pro-Am, I was able to recruit an old friend, Jon, out to join me. He is not a golfer, nor does he know much about the game, so he was nervous and worried about taking part. However, aside from the waiting around part before getting assigned to a group, he did fine and had a great time. Our pro was Lizette Salas, whose heartwarming story of getting to the LPGA is one made for TV (see here), as she came from rags to riches through the hard work and support of her family and her own perseverance. She was quiet, but she began to be more open and funny as the round progressed.
The caddy gig is always a must, especially because of the up close view of these professionals and the chance to see the golf course from the fairways, but the tournament itself is what really gets my adrenaline pumping. As always, I try to follow groups through entire rounds and preferably two full rounds each day. Making the decision of who to follow is getting more and more difficult each year, as I am collecting more and more favorite golfers, plus I am devoted to supporting Jee Young Lee, the pro from my first caddy experience in 2012. I decided to cheer on Jenny Suh from the Monday Pro-Am for the Thursday morning wave and Jee Young Lee for the afternoon. Both players shot rollercoaster rounds of two under par and one under respectively. Jenny Suh started off slowly before a couple of bogeys had her already eight shots off the early lead. Luckily, she rebounded with a stellar second nine holes, which included four birdies.
When Jenny finished I raced over to the first tee to catch Jee Young Lee tee off with her group. There is a lot of exercise and no rest out on the course for rabid golf spectators like me. Like Jenny, J.Y. Lee had a crazy round. She opened with an effortless birdie on the first hole and worked her way to three under par through the first eight holes. But then, suddenly all went awry. She bogeyed the 9th hole, and then hit a drive that bounced over my head and into the trees on the 10th hole, which led to a shot into the water hazard and a double bogey – erasing her progress and putting her back to level. This is one of three shots Jee Young hit directly at me, making me wonder if she was trying to get rid of me. The round continued along a similar erratic pattern, but she managed to scratch out a hard fought one under round.
Friday was the reverse: JYL in the early AM and Jenny in the afternoon, with even less time to connect from round to round. However, it was two of their playing partners who stole the show this day. Caroline Masson, from Germany, continued to hit solid shot after solid shot and then got hot with her putting, leading her to a best of the week eight under par 64 for the day. Jee Young Lee also played well. Early on, her iron play was a bit wobbly, but she kept scratching out fantastic and nerve wracking par saving putts, which twisted my guts into knots each time. Luckily, she started hitting the ball more consistently, and then finished with two nice birdies on her final two holes (8 and 9), including about a 30 foot bomb on the ninth hole. During the round, her caddy introduced himself, perhaps noticing that I was one of two people who followed the group every single hole and after the round he and Jee Young came up behind me as I was studying the pairings guide (tee time schedule). We were all giddy from the finish. We chatted for a few minutes and I was so excited I completely forgot my main goal for the week, which was to leave the tournament capturing a picture of her and I together. I’ve said this every year since 2012, but it has yet to happen. My mind turns to jelly when she is in front of me and I guess I swoon like a teenage girl at a Beatles gig. No picture taken, but a thrill to meet her again, especially under happy circumstances.
Quickly and filled with a buzz, I scooted over to the first tee to see the Jenny Suh group. Again, it was her playing partner, Candie Kung, who shot a flawless round of golf. She wound up shooting a six under par 66 for the day, but it could’ve been so much better – like record breaking better. She missed at least five very makeable short range putts for birdies. She kept placing the ball close to the pin after hitting every approach shot from the center of the fairway. Candie’s caddy was oddly captivating too. He looked like one of those old large size G.I. Joe dolls with the felt hair and beards and would read the greens for Candie with extreme exuberance. He seemed to use his whole body, flopping around, crouching, lying down and circling the hole repeatedly. It was all very strange. Meanwhile, Jenny struggled and was clearly frustrated. She simply could not get anything going. She managed to steal a couple of birdies along the way, but finished poorly and wound up with a one under round. Good news is that both made the cut, so the drama of seeing J.Y. Lee barely miss and barely make the cut the prior two years was avoided.
The weekend began with disappointment. Because the PGA Championship was also this last weekend (congratulations to Jason Day for the big win! Well deserved.), Golf Channel scheduled their television coverage of the Portland Classic during the time the live coverage of the men’s tournament was airing on CBS, so they could free up air time for their repetitive and endless post game breakdown. The result being the players played in threesomes and teed off both the 1st and 10th tees to condense the field. This is something normally employed for weather delayed tournaments to try to squeeze play into the scheduled days. It was frustrating because it left me with only one chance to go around the course with a player. As a result, Saturday was pretty non-descript overall, as Jee Young Lee really struggled with her iron play and only managed an even par round, which was a bit of a miracle considering the trouble she kept getting into. Her round included a lipped out putt on the 7th green that went on to slowly trickle down the slope about 30 feet away – apparently the hour or so of rain (finally!!) the previous day had not taken the fire out of these lightning fast greens. This was also when Brooke Henderson grabbed complete control of the tournament – eliminating any final round drama. The bright side is that my friend, Christine, joined me out there, driving in from Moscow, Idaho to see the final round and a half.
Sunday was different. We arrived comfortably in time to see Jee Young Lee’s group tee off. She hit three fantastic shots into the par 5 tenth hole, and as I stood next to the 10th green, Lee looked over at me, smiled, and mouthed “hi.” I immediately melted. All of these years, I was never sure if she even remembered who I was, as she has always held a pretty strong game face intensity during each round, and our language barrier has kept our post round interactions pretty limited. She then stepped up and rolled in a birdie. What a perfect start to the day! I could not have been more excited. It’s a good thing Christine and Jon were both there with me, otherwise, I may have floated off into the atmosphere. The entire round was like this. Jee Young Lee was smiley and chatty with her playing competitor, Ryan O’Toole, and her caddy Steve. She had such a relaxed demeanor. It was surprising and fun to see. She played pretty well and finished the tournament at six under par overall, but this is when a creeping panic started to settle into my chest. The tournament, the thing that keeps me going, one of the only things that inspires and energizes me anymore, was coming to an end.
Thankfully, my friends were with me, when Jee Young Lee and her caddy emerged from the scoring tent after her round. Steve handed me Jee Young’s game ball, signed, and told us that she is retiring from golf. She is going to move back home to South Korea, marry her fiancé, and start a family. Christine was sure to snap a picture of JYL and me together – not allowing me to lose my head and forget, as usual, especially with this sudden news leaving me dazed. Jee young Lee was kind enough to spend those few moments and say goodbye. I am thankful for all of the great memories and thrilling moments and highs and lows she and her golf have provided over the last few years, but I will miss her. I will miss following her progress on the LPGA.com leader board throughout the year from faraway tournaments.
Looking at this picture now, I see her as a person relaxed and happy with her decision to move on. Meanwhile I look terrible. I look sick. I look like someone in pain - physical pain from the cyst slowly growing in the base of my brain, which feels like someone has jammed a walnut through my skull, and the emotional pain of someone who does not know what to do to find contentment or happiness anymore, except out on the golf course watching a player who I will never see again.
Two years ago, after this tournament, I made a decision. I realized then that the excitement and life-affirming joy that I always feel while climbing the hills following these wonderful women around a golf course was a feeling that was completely lacking in my personal and professional life. I envy all of the people out there, from the players to the caddies, to the coaches and the LPGA events staff, for having a dream and going out and finding a way to live that dream each day. Don’t get me wrong, I know that everyone involved has their issues, gripes, hassles, downfalls and nightmares – we all do. This was when I decided that instead of complaining about my job day after day, I’d do my best to make my job better.
I began the long process of studying potential software systems that could really enhance and streamline the processes of the non profit organization I work for. I’ve struggled through bureaucracy, gotten involved with RFI’s and RFP’s, contract negotiations, and stuff way above and beyond my pay grade all in order to essentially change my job into something that moves beyond the day to day putting out of fires, all of which could be easily prevented with decent planning and consistency in place. During this time, there have been massive delays and road blocks and what feels like either devolving management, or my own diminishing ability to deal with the constant unnecessary chaos, or both. Somehow I have continued to push forward with this project, but the fulfillment has not yet been forthcoming. Instead it has been a battle that I have a lot of wounds from. I am losing the ability to believe that any kind of system can ever be implemented with any success, because the entropy of my work place seems to always lead to a confusing mass of disorganization and nauseating stress.
As I have mentioned in previous examinations of these annual LPGA events (New Life, Sparkle in the Rain, and Numb), I am increasingly discouraged with the direction of my life and am not sure where to turn. As I return to work after my week long LPGA adventure, I return to piles of work that has been left undone during my absence, and to tons of needed preparations and information gathering for this big project as the implementation finally begins to come to fruition. But there will be no available time to work on any of it due to the mess. Part of me is tempted to walk away, though I have no plan for how to make a living as a back up. Part of me wants to grind this out and see this damn project through, but I’m realizing more and more that even if I manage to get this thing to work and work well, it’s not a dream or something I am genuinely passionate about. Will the effort be worth it?