Golf in the rarified air

by Brian Clarey

It’s hot out on the grounds of Sedgefield Country Club, hot enough that the day-ticket hooples are wiping their brows, gurgling their bottles of water, lingering in the shade.

But it’s pretty damn nice up in the Champions Club, where we’re eating chicken breasts with black-bean salsa, Bananas Foster cheesecake bites and some of the best freakin’ tuna salad we’ve ever tasted in this air-conditioned bliss.

I’ve attended the Wyndham Championship PGA event — also known, among the old-timers as the Greater Greensboro Open— in many capacities over the last decade: in catering black-and-whites, as a fan wending my way through the links, as a working journalist burdened with notebook and camera, availing myself of the amenities in the media room. This year, because my boss is a victim of overscheduling, I’m fraudulently attending the Wyndham as a member of the patrician class, my dad in tow.

So we sit in the Champions Club on Thursday, accessing the space inside the clubhouse with bright orange badges, and quickly commandeer a high-top table by the picture window overlooking the 9th green.

It’s killing them today, this wavy slip of emerald carpet, the cup placed in a rear quadrant near enough to the skirt so that even these seasoned pros are rethinking their choice of short iron. But a morning rain has slowed and softened it so that each ball lands near where it drops, sometimes picking up a rime of turf.

We’ve seen Boo Weekly drop to -5 today after sinking a fine, long putt, and Chris Riley stick a 10-yarder without batting an eye. But more commonly we’ve seen short putts, misread slopes, horseshoe gaffes and lip-outs. Briny Baird missed a three-footer earlier today, and Andrew McLardy broke his own heart when the hole repelled his four-foot tap with seemingly magnetic force.

Inside the Champions Club, with beer and wine flowing like they were meant to be, with a buffet line that gets rotated every few hours, with HVAC goodness bathing the entire space, we take these mishaps in stride.

Fast-forward to Saturday night, when my wife and I ride a shuttle bus to Kyle Petty’s barn for the sponsor’s party. We’re loaded in with tournament folks, many of whom have taken in a month’s worth of sun and beer over the last couple days, exuberant in their joy, pleased with themselves — as are we — for scoring tickets to such an exclusive gig. As a lubricated roar emanates from the back of the bus, the wife and I watch videos on my phone of people falling off treadmills.

Busses pull up to Petty barn in 30-minute increments until more than a thousand business-casual souls fill the vast space, spill out onto the porched perimeter, throng at one of the many, many bars. There’s a huge one squared off in the center of the room, with a couple dozen bartenders pouring off booze and popping Natty Greene’s.

We’ve never seen anything like this place: a barn of cedar and wrought iron big enough to hold three basketball courts, tall enough to stack boxcars, with a showroom’s worth of outdoor furniture on the patios and perhaps a hundred rocking chairs, a side room filled with the racecars and jumpsuits of Kyle Petty and his gone-too-soon boy Adam, horse paddocks converted into clubby sitting spaces, a scarlet parlor and powerful gusts of air-conditioning washing over the room.

There’s a carving station with rare roast beef, lobster mac and cheese and a chocolate fondue generously laced with Grand Marnier. From a professionally lit stage, international recording artist Edwin McCain serenades the crowd with a two-piece backup.

The place teems with golf attire and LBDs, sockless loafers and just-washed jewelry. There’s a crew of models I recognize from their Facebook pages working the room, and a healthy contingent of those for whom the term “redneck rich” was coined.

The real juice is on display that Thursday afternoon in the Champions Club, where Greensboro power broker Jim Melvin spends the early afternoon assaying the 9 th green. As the day grows long, the club fills with muckety-muckery: former Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday, current city council member Robbie Perkins, NC Sen. Don Vaughan, CEOs, green-jacketed boosters, non-profit presidents, bankers, lawyers… all hobbing nobs while the lone reporter in the room keeps his notebook under wraps.

Soon a microphone is procured and a town-hall meeting commences with Bobby Long, the man behind the tournament, tour pro Brad Saxon and PGA Tour official Mark Russell. Beneath the congratulatory tone and Saxon’s tour stories, a reading of the room reveals tension, angst, a deep concern for the reason we are all gathered here today: the tournament itself. Questioners from the floor want to know how well we performed this year, how we can make it better the next, whether there is any other city plotting right now to wrest this weekend play — the last before the PGA playoffs — from our hard-earned grasp.

And in this moment I shed my objectivity, realizing that I am right there with them. I’ve become proud of this tournament and what it does for my hometown, the layers of influence it permeates, the heroes it creates. It’s a worthy gem to cherish, a fine tradition to uphold.