The Department of Homeland Security dog, head held high and tail straight, sniffed along the edges of the van as it entered the secure gate at the top of the hill. As the hordes of people marched seemingly in solidarity from one point to another below, I caught my first glimpse of the battlefield, an expansive pit carved out of the side of a elevated shoreline. Bunkers aplenty, and a huge body of water patrolled by the US Coast Guard, but nary a forest to fret over.
Welcome to the US Open of golf at Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Washington.
From the outset, I knew this would be unlike any other golf tournament that I’ve covered, even if I have covered plenty of them. I mean, this was the 115th US Open! The National Championship! One of only four major tournaments! The first ever held in the Pacific Northwest! My very first, which, of course, kicks the anxiety glands into overdrive.
All of which made me more of a virgin than Mary herself when it came to big time golf. Nervous? Yeah, enough to consider a quick black market Prozac run in beautiful Tacoma. But the real kicker, the truly troubling task to be tackled by me as part of the venerable Sports Illustrated team, was……[I’m going to pause here while you find a killer drum roll on Spotify….WAIT! Screw Spotify! They don’t pay their artists crap. Try Apple Music instead]………got it? Cool, cue drum roll please……………
Perfect! A golf tournament where I don’t have to shoot the golf tournament. To hell with shooting the backswing, I’ll shoot the backstreets, bleachers and beards (it’s Washington, so there’s no shortage of men, and probably even some women, sporting biker beards). Besides, I thought, I don’t need no stinking backswing.
And so it went. My assistant, Kyu, and I spent plenty of time putting around the course with no intention of shooting anyone putting. And when I heard Robert Beck and Kohjiro Kinno, two masters of action, were handling the tournament coverage, I decided to skip the Prozac run, even if I could score right next to the media hotel.
Any photographer worth his weight knows the best way to discover the unknown is to get lost. And there are a lot of overweight photographers, so clearly we know what we’re talking about. In fact, I’ve been told to get lost so many times on assignments that I’m convinced it’s a unspoken rule of an assignment. We started to stroll the massive confines of the course, though Kyu would likely take exception to my use of the word stroll given that his iPhone fit app recorded a 15 mile stroll on that first day. So maybe stroll isn’t the right word. Let’s say we ambled.
As we ambled about, one thing immediately struck me as somewhat comical in this world where guys talk incessantly about their shafts, balls and “making the cut.” This whole thing is like a cowboy ranch. Ever spent time on a working ranch? I have. Guys amble about slowly, carry branding shafts and pen up their herd so they can make the cut, leaving Mr Bull a bit pissed off about losing his manliness. Ambling up a grassy hill inside acres of fenced in grass, I noticed the cattle, er, fans, being herded through chutes and penned in by guys with ropes.
The cattle mooed and the cowboys who are supposed to be called Marshals shooed them to be quiet. Clearly, the cows didn’t like the restricted access and preferred to roam free on the range, and I half rooted for them to bust out of the pen and make a mad dash for freedom (damn that would make great photos!). But the gentlemanly decorum that is professional golf apparently prohibits resistance to authority. More than a few bulls were heard complaining about the lack of freedom to roam the ranch to see their favorite cowboys swinging shafts.
Speaking of freedom, man this assignment had freedom! The editor pretty much told me I could do whatever I want, just provide a look at the atmosphere in and around the Open. So, naturally, the first chance I had, I left. Headed straight for the exit. Bolted! Told Kyu to lace-up them shoes because we were about to put the course in the rear view mirror. But freedom is a double-edged sword, and the sharp edge is a reminder that I had to produce something from nothing. That’s when I gave second thought to hittin’ Tacoma for some Prozac, but I figured I’d first wander the streets near the course and see if there were any, ahem, “budding entrepreneurs” working on the fringes. I had already seen local businesses looking to cash in on the influx of tourists, but I’m not sure the St Vincent Thrift Store or the adjacent salmon wholesaler were drawing crowds with their signs. But the massage parlor offering “US Open Specials”, well, that had potential! I considered going in on purely a research mission, but punked-out when I realized I’d never get the receipt past corporate bean counters. Beside, I wasn’t sure if the “US Open Special” was a special massage, or a special price. Or maybe both. I thought about sending Kyu in to get the 15 miles of strolling massaged out of his feet, but I let that thought go without telling him. He said he had a nice girlfriend, so I’d hate to screw that up.
A drop off location for fans was a few blocks away, so I followed the signs and came across a couple of ticket scalpers doing business. Turns out, it was a pretty brisk business with nearly a thousand bucks exchanged right in front of me. I got to thinking that I should be a ticket scalper. These guys were making some cold hard cash standing in the shade of a tree-lined street, smoking cigarettes, talking on their phones and falling hand over fist into cash. I was getting pissed off watching them make money so easy, so I told them the photos wouldn’t ever be seen by the cops before walking away and bee lining straight for the first trooper and mentioning that scalpers were around the corner. Nah, just kidding. I thought about it, but that would be unethical and I’m all about ethics. I just moved on.
That’s when I found Vi Diamond, a 16 yr old intent on making some summer cash. He was pulling his cooler loaded with drinks through the neighborhood hoping to sell fans some water or soda before they headed in.
But business sucked. Turns out that drinks weren’t permitted through security, so Vi went to Plan B which entailed a bit of smoothing over of local authorities before implementing his tactics.
He chatted up the local state police who clearly had no intention of stopping a kid from making a little summer money. Then Vi hopped up on a wall and stood over the fence surrounding the course, waters in hand and pitch ready. “Hey, mam, you want to buy a water?” he’d ask in his nicest voice. Waters were almost $3 inside, so Vi figured golf fans would be happy to pay only a $1. After thirty minutes and one sale, Vi grumbled about the overall intelligence of golf fans and defected to a nearby corner to join forces with another young entrepreneur. Together, they clowned on fans walking by. Now, you have to love kids like that!
As the week wore on, I discovered a town that was named some weird name but should have been called Mayberry. Straight out of Andy Griffiths show with perfectly maintained, flag waving homes and a bucolic park across the sparkling Puget Sound with a clear view of the course. Too creepy for me, so we kept wandering. Eventually, we ended up in Seattle about fifty miles away to shoot a waterfront US Open viewing area before heading back.
Back inside the cattle ranch things were getting interesting. Jordan Spieth was leading and that’s big news since he won the Masters earlier this year. I decided to cover his daily press conference to get a sense for the media presence. Jordan spoke, I didn’t listen, and he quickly left. Some golf official announced that Ben Martin was speaking next.
But suddenly the media horde vanished so fast I assumed free beer and ice cream were available in the media center as the afternoon snack. I stuck around to shoot Ben Martin’s press conference which amounted to about four guys, three of whom were probably plants to make it seem like people cared what Ben Martin said. Poor Ben, I felt sorry for him. It did make for an interesting photo, but I have feelings too and genuinely wished they’d planted more fake reporters to make him feel more important.
With that done, I bolted for the media center only to find the severely underpaid, likely-to-be-out-of-work-soon masses with their heads down glaring into their phones like 15 yr olds, no doubt playing Candy Crush. There was no beer, no ice cream either. I was pissed. If there was no beer or ice cream, maybe I should splurge on the US Open massage special after all? Nah, the media shuttle would probably frown on dropping me off on the way, what with keeping up appearances and all. Time to head back to the media hotel next to the Rescue Mission for a good night’s sleep.
Jordan Spieth went on to win the 115th US Open. Or, to be accurate, Dustin Johnson went on to lose the 115th US Open by missing a easy putt, a putt that, as fate would have, I was in position to capture and led the inside coverage in the magazine.