Making Me A Convert

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When it comes to sports I love covering, golf usually isn’t at the top of my list—but the 68th U.S. Women’s Open Championship at Sebonack Golf Club made me a convert.When I first heard that Sebonack would be hosting the tournament, I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly giddy at the prospect of spending hours and hours walking around a golf course trying to understand and appreciate the intricacies of a game with which I was not familiar. But as the event drew closer, and I began to make more and more trips over to the course to gather information for preview articles and for our special U.S. Open publication (which I was happy to see in the hands of many spectators at Sebonack last week), I started to develop an affinity for the course and even for the game itself.

I’m sure I’ll never be a golfer—I barely have enough time to participate in the hobbies I already enjoy—but it was impossible not to admire the skill, dedication, focus and determination of the women who graced the greens and fairways at the Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus masterpiece overlooking Great Peconic Bay last week.

Coming into the tournament, I was baffled as to why someone would want to devote so much mental and physical energy to a sport that can be so torturous on the human psyche. The idea that golf “is a good walk spoiled,” as the saying goes, made total sense to me. But as I started to hear the back stories of the golfers in the tournament, how they fell in love with the game and why, I began to understand. Listening to both Paula Creamer and Matt Lauer talk about their backgrounds in the game during the exhibition they put on for fans during practice rounds earlier in the week, I was struck by how much the sport meant to them. For Creamer, it was the vehicle for countless hours of father-daughter bonding; for Lauer, it was a chance to connect with his father and build a relationship that a divorce had threatened to disrupt.

And then there was the course itself and, perhaps more importantly, the people who work there on a year-round basis. Even if you don’t know a thing about golf, you can’t help but admire Sebonack. I looked forward to the days when I needed to take a trip over there for work-related purposes, if only to get out of the office and step behind the clubhouse to be greeted by the breeze and the breathtaking views of Great Peconic Bay. It was instant stress relief.

It might be part of the reason why everyone who works there always seems so happy. From the exuberant Mike Finney, who graciously gave me a tour of the course and patiently explained each golf hole, in terms that I could understand, to the ever-accommodating Garret Bodington, the course superintendent, who was always ready to answer any questions I had, no matter how busy he was preparing for the young course’s big moment in the spotlight. And, of course, Michael Pascucci, the course’s owner, whose love for the game and for the course he dreamed of building for years shines through in everything he does.

At the end of the week, however, the true stars were the women who tackled Sebonack. I vaguely remember covering the men’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock in 2004, when I had been working at The Press for less than a year. Almost 10 years removed from that tournament, all I remember feeling was an intimidation factor, as well as the crush of people that seemed hard to avoid, particularly on the final days.

While I’m sure the women on tour would love to see more fans at their events, the manageable number of spectators at Sebonack made for a great viewing experience. And the way the players treated the fans was impressive as well—players spent time after their rounds signing autographs for fans, they handed signed balls to the standard-bearers, and generally were not afraid to interact with fans.

One of my favorite images is Natalie Gulbis smiling as she grabs the large sign away from the standard-bearer for one of her rounds, carrying it momentarily as she chats with him. I’m sure it made his day, in the same way that interacting with Paula Creamer was a highlight for the girls who watched her, awestruck, as she hit shots and talked about the game at her clinic.

It was also refreshing to see their interaction with each other—the joy that was shared between defending champion Na Yeon Choi, winner Inbee Park, and third-place finisher So Yeon Ryu, as Choi and Ryu sprayed Park with champagne when she wrapped up her win on the 18th green on Sunday. It’s a far cry from the kind of “interaction” we see from male pros like Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.

So, much to my surprise, a small part of me was disappointed when the Open concluded on Sunday. It was a great event to be a part of—and I’m looking forward to the next big golf event in the area, the Walker Cup at National Golf Links of America in September. It can’t come soon enough.

Cailin Riley is the sports editor for the Press News Group.

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