Making the Cut at the PGA

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GAINESVILLE, Va. — “Finished for the day. Finished for the week.”

I overheard those words from one caddy to another as I was walking from the media center at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, the venue of the Quicken Loans National PGA tournament, recently held in Prince William County. The caddy’s golfer had missed the cut. He will not make any money this week and will go home to prepare for the next tournament, hoping to gain the form that will allow him to play the weekend in his next tournament.

During PGA tournaments Friday is “Cut Day,” and for the journeyman golfer it is the make-or-break day. For the journeyman golfer, making the cut means the difference between making a profit or posting a loss for that week’s work. Professional golfers are independent contractors and, in essence, are small (or large) businesses. Whether to enter a tournament or not requires consideration of the costs and possible revenue…..and the potential for profit. Costs figure in largely. For the journeyman, the biggest cost is the caddy. And, having no permanent caddy, they often hire a caddy at the tournament. For this reason, during the week before play starts, caddies are often seen around the players’ parking lot looking for a carry.

Cut Day can have its own drama, not too different from the drama of the final nine holes of a tournament, but more human in nature. During the final round of a tournament, the issue of making a livelihood is not present; on Cut Day, it is.
There are generally three groups of players during Cut Day: Those who are clearly above the cutline and are jockeying for position; those who are clearly not going to make the cut; and those who are at the cutline and must make the shots that will keep them around for the weekend.

For those not making the cut, the realization that they will not be around for the weekend has settled in, and they may be experimenting or playing at a leisurely pace, more like a relaxed round with their buddies.
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For those struggling to make the cut, the pressure is on. A missed putt can mean the difference between making money that week or not. And tempers can explode. During the Quicken Loans National, a player at the cutline missed a critical par putt that put him below the cut line, and all of a sudden he became very visibly upset. He uttered a sharp profanity and stomped off the green, walking toward the next tee. In the process he threw his putter at his golf bag. He did not watch his co-players putt out, which is considered unsportsmanlike. In fact, he was some 50 yards from the green, facing away, looking at his yardage book and contemplating what had happened. At the next tee, both his co-players had hit their tee shots before he finally joined them to take his. Needless to say, he missed the cut.

These are things that most people attending a golf tournament do not witness. However, covering the Quicken Loans National, I had “Inside the Ropes” access, which gave me insights to the play that most people do not get. The only people allowed inside the ropes are the players and caddies, volunteers and the media. And that is it. Friends and relatives of the players are not allowed. In fact, as I followed groups around the course, players would stop and chat with their friends or family. I remember once when a player who did not expect to make the cut unexpectedly went into a hot streak, and was going to make the cut. As he was playing, he was discussing hotel accommodations with his wife, who was following him around. They had checked out that morning thinking that they would be going home. At the British Open one year, the players were talking to their mates about meeting at the pub after the round.

Another interesting side of following players inside the ropes are the galleries. The “stars” have huge galleries, and in the case of the super stars, the galleries are loud as well. In addition, there are usually security personnel in the mix. This was quite evident while following Tiger Woods. His gallery was huge and supportive. Every move was followed and each shot was cheered. The volunteers were kept busy keeping the crowds silent while Tiger (and his co-players) were addressing their shots.

On the other hand, the journeyman golfers have no galleries, except for friends or family, if they are present. There was one instance where there was no gallery following a particular group. The three golfers simply played their games without a care in the world.

Crowds at golf tournaments vary. Some are rowdy and vocal, others quiet and respectful. At the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, the crowds are known for being loud. I was once walking with a young star who was receiving marriage proposals as he walked between holes. The placard carrier was called, “Sign Boy.” At the Quicken Loans National, the crowds were knowledgeable and respectful. There was really no rowdy behavior. There was, however, one instance where I witnessed a caddy asking for silence from a hospitality suite at a green. He looked in that direction and implored, “You guys have to keep quiet!”

Another interesting aspect of being inside the ropes is hearing the conversations. Caddies often talk among each other. Players generally do not. Caddies are also always talking with their golfers. Most of the time are words of encouragement. I remember one player, who was three strokes below the cutline, saying to his caddy, “I need some birdies!” The caddy remarked, “We’re passed the hardest, the easy ones are coming up. You’ll do fine.”

As the players are going about their business, one thing does stand out: Their skill at playing golf. Looking down the fairway from where they tee off is awe inspiring. The distances are vast and very unlike the distances we amateurs have to deal with. The landing areas are tight. On the fairway, they face targets that are often out of sight. The player will calculate what he needs to do, get confirmation from his caddy, and goes for it. And more often than not, the ball will land where it needs to go, or very near. Sometimes a player will make a poor shot here and there, but he almost always recovers with a good following shot.

The players are also acutely aware of the rules and whenever an issue arises, will discuss it with their co-players. Players acknowledge good shots made by their co-players as well. Courtesy and respect is standard operating procedure.
Although having been inside the ropes on numerous occasions, the experience is almost always unique. I have seen and followed the greatest golfers of the era as well as the journeymen. The dynamics between the players may differ amongst them, but at the end of the day, they are golfers who enjoy what they are doing. Even missing the cut is part of doing business. There is always the next tournament.

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