At U.S. Open, free of digital devices, such as BlackBerries and iPhones
By Dan Zak,
Plush fairways crest and roll. Men swing at dimpled orbs. Spectating chorales surround immaculate greens and release Handel-esque harmonies of sighs and cheers. The scene is pastoral, precise, graceful. But every few minutes, a spectator will reflexively grope his buttocks, looking for a portal away from the golf, wanting to touch a BlackBerry that isn’t there.
Everyone’s mobile devices are in brown paper bags in trailers marked “Disallowed Items” near the entrances to the Congressional Country Club, site of the 111th U.S. Open. The trailers are like chicken coops, with paper bags chirping, buzzing and hopping around.
“It’s going cuh-ray-zee in here,” says one trailer’s security attendant, who’s in charge of tagging and shelving what feels like “a million” mobile devices.
“I would not want to be in charge of this logistical nightmare,” says one guy in Oakleys as he hands his Droid over to be bagged.
Unlike the PGA Tour, which relented in February and now allows mobile devices at its tournaments, the United States Golf Association will not admit anything to the U.S. Open that takes pictures, emits electronic sounds or otherwise distracts from a golfer’s concentration. This rule applied to transistor radios decades ago, according to a USGA spokesman, and it goes for iPhones today.
No screens. Only greens.
“Do you know how bad it is? Being unhooked from your device?”
Dave Kushner is leaving early on the first day of the tournament because he wants to check his smartphone.
“It’s a nightmare,” says Kushner, who lives in Ashburn and works at a technology company. “I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old at home getting into more [trouble] than you can believe. It’s the anxiety of wanting to check in.”
Yes, yes, the horror, the horror. We’re long past PDA addiction. (An addict can eventually figure out how to do without.) On the links Thursday, the handicap is less golf-ish and more primal.
People can’t research Retief Goosen’s past rankings.
People don’t know where their spouses are.
People aren’t even sure what time it is.
So they watch golf. Look: An entire gallery of people, in bleachers at hole No. 4, staring in the same direction, focusing on Hiroyuki Fujita as he lines up for a short putt. They are intent in unison. There are no bowed heads or pecking thumbs. The scarcity of preoccupation is mesmerizing.
Putt — and he misses. “Ohhh.”
Detachment and concentration, though, beget confusion.
“Three years ago, we came and, of course, we got separated as we were leaving and lost one of our friends,” says Richmond resident Brenda Kyle, who’s wearing a shamrock-colored polo. “We ended up waiting at the gate for 45 minutes. He was mad. You’re totally lost here if you don’t have prearranged times to meet.”
Lost. Or unfindable. Initial separation anxiety aside, the U.S. Open is a spa retreat for the chronically wired.
Real estate agent Greg Phillips tapped away on his satellite-connected laptop the whole ride down from Frederick. Then he put the computer and his mobile device into his friend’s trunk, entered the grounds, got a beer and sidled up to the fairway of the fifth hole, unencumbered.
“My phone’s probably ringing off the hook,” Phillips says. “It’s a little bizarre; I keep reaching into my pocket.”
“It’s forcing us to relax,” says his friend Drew Robertson, who works at a software services company.
“It is quite liberating,” Phillips says.
You are free here.
Free to regard and notice things — the ghastly clash of plaids, the stinky cigar smoke on the breeze, the pointillism of back sweat seeping through a polo shirt.
Free to consider this afternoon not as you want to refract it on Facebook (“Having a ‘ball’ @ Hole 12!”) but as it actually is (muggy, boring, with a 20-minute wait for a dang cheeseburger).
But let’s be real. People still need phones. There are banks of land lines set up around the course so spectators can dial civilization. Lines form.
A girl with gold sandals, on the phone: “So what time do I have to be home by?”
A guy with thunderous thighs, on the phone: “If I miss my flight, I’m screwed.”
A boy with freckles, on the phone: “Hey, Mom, can you come pick Michael and me up?”
In the span of five minutes, people come to a tented phone bank by the clubhouse to accept a job offer, alter airline reservations, arrange pickups, record an out-of-office message and check in on a very pregnant wife.
She’s due in four weeks, says a red-bearded 27-year-old from Annapolis who declines to give his name, and he needs to check in. Apart from that duty, it’s refreshing to be disconnected.
“I came up in the cellphone generation,” he says. “The last 10 or 12 years of my life — you’re always held accountable.”
Not here. Occasionally the land lines ring. Someone from the outside is trying in vain to get ahold of someone on the inside.
“Mitch? Is Mitch there?”
No, Mitch is lost. Unfindable. Perhaps walking over a carpet of browned pine needles between 6 and 7, thinking how nothing here is pixelated. The leaves of grass are in the highest definition possible.
Bubba Watson is lining up a drive at the sixth tee. Par 5. Five hundred fifty-five yards. Course marshals quiet the spectators by holding their hands up. They look like they’re bestowing a benediction on a hypnotized cult.
All eyes are on the tee. Then the backswing.
The silence is broken by the swat of clubhead against golf ball. Eyes follow its ascent toward the clouds. The only tweeting is coming from the trees.