A major golf tournament is being born this week at a new golf course, Avenel. The birth has been painful and joyful.
Heat and humidity, torrential rain, yellow mud and traffic that stopped a town in its tire tracks have had to be endured. But by Friday, when the sun came out -- and if (a big if) you had beaten the single-lane gridlock -- what could have been more enjoyable than walking the hills of Potomac horse country watching some of the best professional golfers in the first Kemper Open to be held at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel?
True, Avenel has an unfinished look about it. Crossing a piece of macadam between the fifth and sixth holes during Wednesday's pro-am, Lee Trevino said, "Is this supposed to be a two-lane road or a drag strip?"
All the grass hasn't grown in and houses along the fairways still are being built. This week at the Kemper, the hills were alive with the sounds of hammers and saws. But the pros say give the course a few years. And who wouldn't want to live in that house -- when it's completed -- with the big windows overlooking the 17th green, with the lake nearby and the clubhouse in the distance?
For now, Avenel is in its first hours of pro tournament life. Most of its history is commemorated by a stone marker near the third tee, where last Sept. 2 and 3, during a week of seniors play, Arnold Palmer made back-to-back holes-in-one. People walk by the monument on the par-3 and, bending over to look at it, say things like "unbelievable" and "of all the people in the world to have done it, Arnold Palmer. . . . "
But there's more to Avenel than the third hole -- and the years to come, when the infant grows, promise still more. To see it, you'll have to climb. Whoever said every hill has its valley never saw Avenel.
Really, all you need is strength for walking hills -- and a good pair of shoes. There's downhill -- you'll see, if you can make each crest.
In fact, walking down alongside the ninth fairway is almost a vertical descent. A small, understated sign says, "Proceed With Caution. Steep Slope."
A woman slipped in the tall, wet grass there on Thursday and injured her ankle. It swelled immediately and she couldn't move until a cart came to run her back to first aid, presumably on level ground. "I heard it snap just like somebody snapped their finger," she said good naturedly, as she lay in the grass.
One man kept to the paved cart paths, saying he was sticking to "the highway, not the scenic route."
But, generally, it's healthful walking the course, and there's something exhilarating about reaching high ground. What Civil War general didn't want the high ground?
There's a piece of high ground at Avenel perhaps not worth fighting for, but worth at least putting an NBA-type elbow into some stranger's ribs, then, while excusing yourself, claiming the space. The precious turf -- and it could be quite valuable by late today -- is a ridge between the 18th fairway and the 17th tee. When the term "stadium golf" is mentioned, this must be what the inventors had in mind.
If you can't find your favorite golfer from here -- you can even see the 16th hole -- his name must be Mark Calcavecchia. Much of the par-3 17th is a lake, which on Friday morning was swallowing golf balls like an ocean. By the time some reached the ridge, Calcavecchia was but a rumor in the Kemper; he had taken an 8 on the par-3 and, shortly, withdrawn from the tournament. After all, all the traffic on Potomac's narrow roads was coming toward Avenel Friday and it was easy to quit and go home. (Hope there wasn't anybody stuck in that mess who wanted to watch Calcavecchia).
On Friday, the frustration at 17 was as intense as out on the beltway and byways. Mike Reid was having a lovely round when he put not one, but two balls into the water. Same for Nick Price. Dan Forsman . . . kerplunk.
Wind came up strongly and blew left to right, toward the water. But the pros challenged the elements because the pin was placed on the right side of the green, near the water's edge. After several splashes followed by the sight of golfers retreating toward the tee to try again, spectators on the ridge began talking of the 17th as a "disaster hole."
Another tricky maneuver golfers are called upon to execute is getting from the 10th green to the 11th tee. This involves skipping across a bridge of flat rocks in aptly named Rock Run. The tide was up Friday morning, so they got their shoes wet but no one fell in. On Thursday, one caddie who cleared the run had to be pulled up an embankment to the 11th tee by his pro. On Friday, the caddies had taken to walking around the long way to No. 11, over a wooden bridge, avoiding the prospect of falling into Rock Run with a bag full of clubs.
At 13, the golfers get to ride in carts over an uphill S-curve from the tee to the area where their drives land. Everyone else walks.
Thirteen is a 524-yard par-5. Houses are going up near the edge of the fairway. The prospect is that someday a resident will reach out to some winded wayfarer who has just made it up the S-curve and offer refreshment.
Payne Stewart criticized the 15th hole for its "blind tee shot." He said he didn't see any reason to have a blind shot "with so much land" available. From the tee, you know what he means: looking straight ahead, the thing you notice is the horizon. Here, at the farthest reach of the course, is where walkers might be tempted to sit and try to gather themselves before Monday. Be heartened: right up there by the horizon is a slope.
Now, about those 16 white tents on the hill -- "Hospitality Hill," so-called -- above the 18th green. Standards atop the tents whip in the breeze. Corporations entertain clients there, in the tents and on the patios. TV monitors and catered food are available amid the flowers and plants. It's on high ground that can be reached without climbing. Limos can pull up right behind the tents.
Another gathering place is where the third green and sixth tee meet, near a tunnel leading to the fourth and fifth holes. With all points converging, you're almost bound to find someone you know. A woman heading for the fourth tee on Thursday came out of the tunnel, looked at a hill in front of her and declared, "This course was built for mountain goats, not people."
Curtis Strange took his second shot on No. 4 over a black-and-white dog in the fairway. The dog looked wet, maybe from being in Rock Run. Strange gave the dog a look before he shot; the dog gave Strange a look after he shot.
Strange was playing with Tom Kite, and Kite made a memorable shot on No. 6. Six is a dogleg to the right with Rock Run running in front of the green. It's a par-5, a reasonable 479 yards, but with danger. On Wednesday, Trevino drilled his second shot into the bank in front of the green. Kite used a 4-iron for his second shot, from the dogleg. The ball soared between tall trees, then faded as if rounding a corner and came sailing to a safe landing on the green, 20 feet from the pin. He two-putted for a birdie.
Kite came in 7 under for a share of the first-day lead. "Started strong, finished strong, lotta fun," is how he put it.
Kite had good things to say about the course, but seemed to see a sameness among Tournament Players Club courses springing up around the country. "I wish there was a way," he said, "to get a little more variety into the TPC golf courses."
It was shortly after that that someone said, "Get the lifeboats." It rained, even harder than it had Wednesday, and the pot bunkers filled up and walkways overflowed and cars sunk in parking lots and 14 tow trucks went to work.
What followed then, depending on where you happened to be, was good news or bad news. On Friday, the sun came out and no lifeboats were needed. The course dried out well, considering all the rain, and a dispatch from the tournament was put out that read: "Good news at Avenel. While the rains yesterday created a few mud holes in the parking areas, everything is in readiness for golf fans coming to the Kemper Open today."
This news release was quickly superseded by this one: "Here's an urgent message from the Kemper Open golf tournament to all ticket-holders planning to go to the TPC course at Avenel in Potomac, Md.: Please reschedule your visit to either Saturday or Sunday . . . With so many tickets sold . . . coupled with the traffic backup . . . and the loss of a lot of parking spaces because of the rain . . . " -- In capital letters -- "Do not go to the Kemper Open today!"
Well, that was Friday, and for those who were not in their cars but out on the course, it was crisp and blue. A man who got there early enough to beat the traffic said, "It doesn't get any better than this." Pro after pro hit straight drives off the first tee as everyone went "aaaah." Barry Jaeckel drove straight, too, after a small black-and-white dog moved off the fairway and went over a hill.