What It's Like to Attend a PGA Tour Event
Golfshake's Liam Moore describes his experience of attending the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2020.
As children with family members who have begrudgingly sold their soul to professional sport, we typically grow up watching sports such as rugby or football on the weekend. Perhaps your father was a big cricket fan or if you were really fortunate, you may have even attended a Wimbledon tournament during your youth. Golf, on the other hand, is completely different; there are so many events held throughout the continent, you typically only get one or two chances a year to watch it live.
I was never a big fan of golf during my younger years. Football and cricket stole my heart from a young age and throughout the entirety of my childhood, I spent my time watching and playing those two sports - with a little bit of tennis and snooker trialled here and there. I’ve still never attended a DP World Tour event but in the year of 2020 - days before former president Donald Trump signified a national emergency regarding the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic - I attended a PGA Tour event: The Arnold Palmer Invitational.
We arrived in Florida on the eve of the final day of the tournament, and it wasn’t until we got into our room where my girlfriend surprised me with tickets. Our holiday wasn’t scheduled to attend the event, although I did discuss the possibility of travelling to Ponte Vedra Beach for The Players Championship that would have taken place the following week. In hindsight, it was a wise decision to stay clear of that; after the opening day, where Hideki Matsuyama blitzed the field with a superb 63, the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the PGA Tour to abandon the tournament.
I was ecstatic, for my first professional golf tournament to not be in England - or even Europe - was special. Considering the prestige of the competition, it was even sweeter. We intentionally didn’t stay out too late the night before as the excitement grew with each passing hour. The following morning, we headed to Denny’s for an extravagant breakfast before making our way to Bay Hill.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational
We all know the American lifestyle is generally grander: bigger meals, bigger personalities and bigger landscapes - everything is just cranked up a notch across the Atlantic. When we pulled into Bay Hill Boulevard, a community where the golf course is completely encapsulated by resident housing, the significance of American culture shone through. The beautiful houses, many that boasted outside swimming pools and elongated gardens, set the tone for the rest of the day: immaculate presentation.
Admission into the event was as smooth as anything. If anyone has attended a football match - especially at Premier League level - you’ll understand just how frustrating making your way into the ground can be. The same cannot be said for here. After a thorough security vet, we were given access into the event and we were greeted with gigantic smiles. Honestly, from almost all angles, everyone was smiling and once they heard our accents - especially mine, coming from the west country - they were intrigued to know more about us. After we pleasantly exchanged words we headed in the direction of the 8th green, where a certain Ian Poulter was making his way towards us, with his putter tightly gripped in his hand.
Look, I’ll be honest, I did have a huge fanboy moment - as if a 12-year-old girl was meeting Harry Styles and could not believe her eyes. I may not have been an ardent golf fanatic for long, but I certainly knew who Ian Poulter was and I could not believe I was a mere 20 yards away from him. We watched him finish up on the 8th before we headed anti-clockwise to make our way towards the iconic par-5 6th - the hole that Bryson DeChambeau would carry his driver 370 on the following year. Don’t worry, there’s an anecdote about the controversial American coming later.
One aspect that really took me by surprise was how much drinking spectators would indulge in. I expected a few stands serving alcohol, sure, but I did not know that PGA Tour tournaments are a glorified booze-fest. I’ll tell you one thing, however, mimosas in the warm Floridian sunshine cannot be beaten. Period. It felt like every ten minutes we were journeying to one of the many refreshment stands to top up our drinks.
We were between the aforementioned 6th and the par-3 7th when a stray golf ball landed approximately 20 yards to our left. If you watch PGA Tour events and get frustrated with onlookers running to the ball and then forming a circle around it, join the club - a pet peeve of mine. So, I am ashamed to admit that I too got caught up in the moment and…done the exact thing that I have extensively criticised others for - when in America, right? The player in question was Keith Mitchell and as his caddie, with arguably the best beard of anyone in the area, ushered us away, Mitchell hit a fantastic second shot that left him just short of the green.
As we meandered down towards the opening holes, Bryson DeChambeau was on the 4th tee, a long par-5 but certainly reachable for someone like DeChambeau - even before his significant weight gain. The golf course at Bay Hill is completely lined by residential homes, and plenty of residents were hosting friends who literally had the best view of them all. This is especially true for the 5th hole, where they are a matter of yards away from the tee. As the big-hitting American was waiting to tee off, a sudden noise disrupted him. I was recording at the time, and we were pretty far away from him. For some reason, known to only the man himself, he stared me down for a good few seconds before readdressing the ball: my five minutes of fame had come to an abrupt end.
Rory McIlroy - In The Flesh
The main event, at least for me, was getting to watch my favourite golfer in action: Rory McIlroy. He was in the penultimate group that day and we caught up with him on the 3rd tee. By this time, we had been there for a little over two hours and the mimosa stock was running dangerously low. We enquired at three separate stalls before we were left with seltzers. If you’re not aware of what they are, they’re basically flavoured alcoholic drinks that aren’t quite beer yet don’t qualify as spirits - some weird hybrid that you’d obviously only find in America. Remember: bigger, better, bolder.
Back to the golf and fortunately, I was still standing at this point. We followed McIlroy down the 3rd hole where he made par. As he transitioned from the green to the successive tee, there were cries of “DIJON,” a reference to the trousers that the Northern Irishman was wearing that day. It is true, you do get a lot of needless shouting and “get in the hole,” as they tee off from a par-5 is increasingly frustrating. Here’s a secret though: after several mimosas, those boisterous cheers don’t infuriate you as much. McIlroy would make birdie and place himself back in contention before heading to the 5th.
The 5th hole is probably one of the easiest to grace the front nine. A short hole by professional standards, a narrow fairway must be hit if you have any hope of holding the slender green. Many players took an iron - no prizes for guessing what Bryson chose to deploy - to give themselves the best chance of finding the green. McIlroy would finish with a par after overshooting his approach and failing to get up-and-down but all was not lost, we weren’t even a third of the way through the final round.
The par-5 6th was next, arguably the signature hole at Bay Hill, and McIlroy needed a birdie to reignite the Sunday engine. The 6th hole is marvellous for an array of reasons but the most prominent, at least for me, is how much the golfer decides to chew off the carry. Obviously, they all know their carry distances and after calculating the wind speed and direction, they choose a specific target line. What’s fascinating is that water lines the entirety of the left-side of the fairway, meaning they can choose whatever line they feel most confident with. McIlroy evidently believed this was his opportunity for an eagle, so he opted for an aggressive line. Unfortunately, he found the water and he would make double-bogey, his chances for a second Arnold Palmer Invitational title were hanging by a thread.
Two pars followed before another double-bogey on the 9th effectively ruled him out of contention completely. Overall, it was a peculiar week for the four-time major champion, who opened with 66 to share the lead before three rounds of 73-73-76 detailed his struggles. The 9th hole is a work-of-art, stunning fairways, glistening bunkers and glass-like putting surfaces: an accurate depiction of exemplary. When the players make the turn, they are faced with a par-4 with a slight dogleg to the right. We decided to get ahead of the pack but we needed to use the restroom before progressing.
Normally, using event toilets can be straightforward but here it was the opposite. Queues for both males and females took a significant amount of time before we were prevented from going further due to players crossing the path between tees. At this stage, I thought it would be wise to skip a few holes before catching up with McIlroy again. Sadly, I would see no further action from the former champion. It was now late in the day and the large, boisterous crowds that had dominated the early afternoon started to make their way towards the exits.
At this point, having indulged in countless American beverages, every step felt heavier and heavier. We relieved ourselves with a snack that was packed with good nutrients - Hot Cheetos(!). After roughly five or six hours at Bay Hill, the cooling breeze started to become more prominent as the sun dipped for the day. We headed towards the exit before Tyrrell Hatton secured his maiden PGA Tour title.
As we waited for our Uber to transport us back to our base, I immediately reflected on what a fantastic - and maybe even once-in-a-lifetime experience - afternoon I had just enjoyed. I got to see Rickie Fowler, Poulter, DeChambeau, McIlroy, Mitchell, Sungjae Im, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Scottie Scheffler and Patrick Reed all in action. I was fortunate to be gifted tickets and I think it was miraculous to book a holiday that coincided with the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The downside, however, was that the holiday also corresponded with the greatest health crisis in living memory, so we also had to deal with that. It was strange watching the Prime Minister address the nation when you’re desperately looking for somewhere to shield the relentless sunshine away for just a moment or two. We thankfully caught the last Norwegian Air flight out of Florida and arrived in London a week after the tournament.
Attending a PGA Tour event is a very special experience, especially when it’s an event as reputable as the annual one held at Bay Hill. Watching the very best golfers in action is inspiring and you even have little thoughts in your head like: “that’s certainly not the miss.” Of course, this hacker can never suggest anything even remotely beneficial to the world’s best. If you’re ever in America and you’re near a PGA Tour event, I implore you to attend - you won’t regret it. Just ensure there’s enough mimosa stock because the alternative seltzer is not the one.
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