PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - As a member of the working media, I'm not allowed to cheer for anybody.
I got into this business 25 years ago - first as a sports reporter, then as a golf writer - because I was a big sports fan. Not cheering was hard, at first. Sadly, as the decades marched on, my passion as a fan has been tempered ... by sports scandals, by the rigors of the job, by the arrogance of the athletes.
But, for an hour during the two-hole Monday finish between Phil Mickelson and Paul Casey at the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, I felt like a kid again. I was cheering for my favorite player (Mickelson). I was snapping selfies for social media to brag I was there on a Monday when I should have been in the office. I even went autograph hunting - a major no-no as a sportswriter. And it was the most memorable day I've had in a long time. It rekindled my love affair with sports - especially golf - again.
What changed? It was simply perspective. I went as a pure fan. I could have easily gotten a media credential, but I didn't. I could have easily called a friend or two to get inside the ropes, but I didn't. I didn't want any special favors. I blended in with the several thousand fans lucky enough to show up on such a beautiful morning. It's the most spontaneous thing I've done as a golf fan.
I made the decision to go on a whim the night before, hearing that everything would be free - no parking or gate fee. I've seen Mickelson play live a handful of times over the years. This was different, a moment to celebrate his career. When would I get another chance to see him clinch a victory in such an intimate setting of so few people on maybe the most beautiful course on the planet? At age 48, no less.
I'm not a spur-of-the-moment guy, so I actually had to talk myself into believing this trip would be worth it. After all, I was in the car longer (2-plus hours) than I would be on the course (35 minutes). First, I had to handle the details as a dad: How would the kids get to school? My house in south San Jose is exactly 65 miles - an hour and 10 minutes on a good day - door to door to Pebble Beach Golf Links. Would traffic derail me? How many people would have the same idea as me, to crash Pebble Beach to see two holes? Turns out, quite a few.
By the time I arrived, the most convenient parking spots were full. I rushed onto a shuttle from an outer parking lot and ran the entire length of the par-5 18th hole to get to the par-3 17th hole before the 8 a.m. tee off. I made it just in time to grab a prime spot on the front rail of the bleachers adjacent to the famous hour-glass shaped green. Being a Phil fan is never easy. I was nervous he would come out cold or be mad that his attempt to finish the night before was thwarted by Casey. No worries. Both Mickelson and Casey threw beautiful darts right at the flag. Although neither made the putts, Mickelson was in command going to the final hole with a three-shot lead.
Spectactors rushed to get in position for the next shot. The event was buzzing with activity, although not so many people that I couldn't get a spot along the ropes whenever I wanted. I was able to easily get close enough for an autograph following the trophy ceremony.
True to his reputation, Mickelson couldn't have been more gracious. He took selfies with grinning children who skipped school to see him and signed almost everything. I tried to get his John Hancock on a Pebble Beach logo ball, but he politely said he doesn't sign golf balls and would be happy to sign something else. I came prepared and handed over the Pebble Beach hat on my head. His autograph completed the Mount Rushmore of signatures I've always wanted, joining the likes of Dan Marino and Ric Flair (woooo!).
Shortly thereafter, I drove home re-energized in my feelings about life as a fan. I had missed that rush of my guy being the champ. I hadn't planned on writing a story about my impromptu journey, but those four hours turned out better than anything I could have scripted. I learned a valuable lesson I should have realized long ago: Don't ever lose your passion for the things you love. And don't ever stop being a fan.
Golf is a great fan-friendly sport. Golfers are generally more grateful and gracious than most other professional athletes. They'll take time for a quick photo or autograph as long as you're polite about it. Plus there's no better arena than a beautiful golf course to watch them compete.
What's the most spontaneous thing you've ever done as a golf fan? Let us know in the comments below.