Column: Crossing off a bucket list item

06/24/2018 6:00 AM |

Coming up on 40 years old next year, I’m starting to think a lot about my bucket list.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly planning to kick it any time soon, but that pending birthday has made me think about things I haven’t gotten around to doing yet and places I’ve always wanted to see. This mostly involves going to sporting events and seeing new cities.

It started when my wife asked what I’d like to do to celebrate the Big 4-0. “Would you rather a party?” she asked. “Or maybe a vacation?”

We ended up talking for a bit about possibly renting an RV and taking the kids on a ballpark tour.

Whenever I talk about the places I want to see, it usually involves going to a ballgame. For my entire adult life, I’ve thought “Will it be baseball season? Will the local team be in town that week?”

That line of thinking has enabled me to visit 14 current big league ballparks in my travels, plus a few more that no longer exist (Atlanta is the only one I still have to do over again.) I’ve eaten Dodger dogs in Elysian Park, pet a stingray in St. Pete and seen the roof close from seats in front of a hotel room in Toronto.

The reason I ultimately got back to thinking about the bucket list this week was that I crossed off another item near the top when I took the train to Southampton for the opening round of the U.S. Open last Thursday.

As a Long Islander, I always just refer to the course as Shinnecock, but I learned very early on why it is in fact formally known as Shinnecock Hills. My friends and I made the decision to start the day walking the back nine, which meant climbing the hills along the 10th fairway, watching as a threesome of mostly unknown golfers saw their tee shots bounce and roll into the rough.

With the wind whipping, it was apparent right away that nobody would shoot par for the tournament, something that became reality when repeat champion Brooks Koepka missed a putt on the 18th green Sunday and finished 1-over for the title.

While the course was frustrating for the athletes, most of the complaints I heard about the Open last week was how the crowds and traffic made life inconvenient for them. For me, and I’m sure many others, I was simply grateful to have one of the world’s biggest annual sporting events in my own backyard. (Granted, I don’t have to drive through Southampton every day.)

To beat the traffic, I took the train out of Patchogue. A friend who came from the North Fork took the shuttle out of Gabreski. Aside from my train being a bit crowded and having some expected delays on the way back to allow for regularly scheduled eastbound trains, neither of us had any real issues.

As for the experience on the course, there are few more beautiful sights in the world of sports than the 18 holes at Shinnecock. After walking the back nine, we spent most of our day between the fourth and seventh tee boxes, staked out to see the pairing of Spanish golfers John Rahm and Sergio Garcia, and the most talked about group of the day with Tiger Woods and the world’s top two players Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas.

From certain vantage points on the course you could see exactly where the latter group was, just by looking to see where what seemed like more than half the spectators were standing. This also provided an ample opportunity for some Southampton Town police overtime, as a pair of officers walked everywhere this group went.

It was the first time I had the chance to see Tiger play in person and his legendary focus was on full display. His sensitivity to noise was particularly striking.

The crowd was baffled when he suddenly set up to tee off at the seventh hole only to abruptly stop and look off into the distance, peering over those of us gathered to watch one of the game’s great players in action. Everyone looked at each other trying to figure out what caught his attention.

It turned out it was the sound of someone’s swing at the fourth tee behind him that distracted him. He’d end up stalling as the next two golfers took their first shots before he took his. It was the faintest sound given the distance, but enough to stop him in his tracks. I suppose you don’t get to be Tiger Woods with a normal set of senses.

The other big takeaway for me — besides the fact that golf at this level is much easier to follow on TV, though worth visiting for one of the first three days — is just how effortlessly the PGA can function in what is essentially a makeshift village on a golf course set up to do business for only a handful of days.

I know there were problems along the way, but I can deal with a concession stand running out of chicken sandwiches as the kinks are being worked out on day one. Considering how many people at a given event are volunteers or temporary staff, it’s simply remarkable how the tour can move through a city nearly every weekend and put on a smooth-running tournament for hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Attending a golf major may be off my bucket list, but I do still have my eye on next May, when the PGA Championship comes to Bethpage.

The author is the content director for Times Review Media Group, overseeing digital, lifestyle and sponsored content for the company. He can be reached at [email protected].

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