TPC Sawgrass


This week the Players Championship is being held at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  Watching this tournament is particularly interesting for me as I know the course very well, having spent a very bizarre year of my life working there as the range ball picker upper guy.  For some reason I was convinced that I needed to take a year off after highschool and go live somewhere all by myself and do nothing but golf, and that’s what I did.

I didn’t do as well as I thought at living the life of an eccentric eighteen-year-old hermit.  I spent a surprising amount of time at night on AIM, reconnecting with people from Morgantown, some of whom I’d barely known while living in Morgantown.  I would sometimes even save the “interesting” conversations and read back through them like an old grandma flipping through a photo album.  I’m pretty sure reading back through your old instant message chats is the definition of lonely.

I played golf, practiced golf, worked at the golf course, drank red Powerade, ate at Subway, and drove the range-ball picker, or “picker” for short (I don’t think that machine has an official name).  My life skills are minimal now, so at that time we were in the danger zone.  Early on, I put the wrong soap in the dishwasher and the entire kitchen filled up with suds while I watched Sportscenter in the other room.  I then cleaned up the suds by wiping at them with paper towels, as I did not have a mop or functioning brain.  Sometimes I would treat myself to a nice steak at the grocery store (sirloin), marinade it in A1 sauce, and pan-fry it with no sides (yum).   One problem – I thought “marinade” meant to pour your sauce over it while it’s cooking in the pan, so that firy liquid A1 balls jump out of the pan at you and sting you as you duck and dodge and curse the difficult marinade process.

TPC Sawgrass is one of the most corporate golf courses in the world, and the staff is huge.  There were at least two-hundred people on staff, and the range ball picker is the lowest ranking position, right beneath cart barn guy.   Sometimes you’d have to attend a giant staff meeting, and the director of operations would refer to us as a “team” which sounds fun at first, until you realize the corporate version of “team” is not the same as the “team” you’re used to.  At first you think, “Great, I’m on a team. Let’s go guys, let’s win this fun game that we’re playing!”  But then soon you realize you’re just a role player on the team, and your role is to pick and bag and clean thousands of golf balls, and none of your teammates know your name or pass to you, and there is no other team that you play against – it’s just you, all by yourself, against the golf balls.

It’s one of those weird teams where you have to show up to a cart barn in the pitch black at 6 am, and there’s this sixty-five year old Vietnam veteran named Bobbie Sauers barking orders.  I believe his official title was “Head of Cart Barn” which meant that he was my most direct boss, though there were also about twelve assistant pros, a head pro, and two head cart guys who were also my boss.  Bobbie had glazed over eyes and bushy grey nose hairs that came down to his lip.  His happiest moments were at 6:30 in the morning, when all of the carts were lined up and ready to go, and in those rare moments of quiet, he would sit back, chew his tobacco, and reflect with great nostalgia on various French prostitutes he’d known, as though being at war was the best time of his life.   He had the posture and demeanor and raspy voice of Golum, from Lord of the Rings –hunched over at the shoulders with dangling arms and a hungry look on his face and a constant chewing motion from the tobacco.

At 6:30 a.m. I would drive off in my golf cart to the far end of the driving range, to the shed where the picker was parked.  That shed was like a second apartment for me – a nice quiet hiding place far from the corporate bustle of the club house and cart barn – and the time between  6:30 and 7 ( after preparing the carts but before the course got busy) was the best part of the shift, because I had the whole private back range to myself.   It was strictly forbidden to hit golf balls at the back range as it was the private area where the tour pros practice.  It was an immaculate practice area – one of the best in the world – and for that thirty minutes, hidden from the rest of the staff, I had it all to myself.

And then came 7 o’clock, when the range fills up with members, and tourists warming up for their big day playing the famous stadium course – home of the famous 17th island green.   I realize being a range ball picker sounds fun in theory, but I promise it’s grueling – especially working at a golf course that is extremely corporate that takes everything so seriously.   During the tournament I worked 110 hours and afterward I slept for 17 hours straight, which remains my personal record.  My official title was “practice facility” which means that was also my name.    I had to carry a walkie-talkie like I’m in some war against golf balls that only Bobbie Sauers wanted to fight.   I would receive the call from Bobbie every hour or so: “Cart barn to practice facility.”
“This is practice facility.”
“Ranger is low on balls, do you have balls?
“Got balls coming.”
“Alright, over.”
That was the conversation.  There is a strong element of Sisyphus to the work of the range picker, at a busy range.  You are doomed to an eternity of collecting golf balls, cleaning them, bagging them, and delivering them to the driving range, only to have them immediately unbagged and returned to the place you just got them.  I’m assuming Sisyphus didn’t have a 30 minute lunch break though.  Wow, if you hate your job, you love your lunch break. I’m no scientist, but there has to be some correlation to the obesity issues in America.

Life in the picker consists of two primary thoughts: 1) My back really hurts and 2) I wish people would stop practicing.  The initial awe of watching famous tour pros practice wore after finding out my primary interaction with them would be them asking me for more balls, and me being like, “sure, here are your balls.”

The positive thing about a crappy job, is that everything you do after seems awesome.  As a freshman at Davidson I couldn’t believe how easy school work was.  Davidson prides itself on giving students a heavy work-load and the Princeton review ranked it number 1 for “Students who never stop working” so I would often hear gripes about all of the homework, and  I’d think, “Are you crazy?  When you do homework you can sit down in a chair, with a cushion, and listen to nice music.    You don’t even have to have a walkie-talkie – homework is the best!”

Excited to watch the final day coverage on Sunday.  I’m going to say Matt Kuchar wins, and Kevin Na hits in the water on seventeen.  I’ll also go out on a limb and say Rickie Fowler places second and dresses in a plum color.

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