As I post this, golf's best male players are on the course at Valhalla, near Louisville, competing in the 96th PGA Championship, the fourth and final "major" of the golf season. I'd much rather be at Valhalla right now than at my desk at work.
But doggone it, years ago, I sure was blessed. Working at a rather prestigious public radio station in Cincinnati (as opposed to a teeny one now), it was fairly simple landing media credentials for an event like the PGA Championship. Even though I was producing mostly news and worked early mornings at the time, no one else on the staff was even remotely interested in golf, so I had the sport to myself. I covered both of the previous PGA Championships at Valhalla, in 1996 and 2000, as well as a couple of "Memorials" near Columbus thrown in for good measure. Of course, "covering" a golf tournament 80-miles away in another city on a station not exactly known for its sports is a loosely pondered venture to begin with. But I dutifully filed my daily 60-second report as if someone cared other than me. The thrill was all mine, I assure you...hanging with golf's greats on a world-class course. I had a blast.
As much fun as the PGA was, though, it still couldn't compete with the annual visit of (what Lee Trevino called) the "round bellies" to the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center across from Kings Island for the Kroger Senior Classic each July in the 1990s. While the PGA is serious golf, the Kroger Seniors were just plain fun. From the very first tournament in 1990 (won by Jim Dent), I quickly discovered what a blast this week could be. In those early years, the golfers entered were the ones I grew up watching on TV: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi, Gary Player, Billy Casper and my childhood-hands-down-all-around-favorite Lee Trevino. The tournament was low key enough that the players had fun and interacted with the fans. I immediately found out about the option of securing a shoulder media arm band, which allowed the "working media" inside the ropes. This allowed an up-close, best-seats-in-the-house view, hole after hole, as long as you followed the rules: don't talk to the players, don't block the view of the patrons, and don't be a distraction or get in the way. Probably the greatest day I've ever spent on a course was one of the first years when Nicklaus, Palmer and Trevino were paired together in the opening round and I watched every shot up-close while proudly displaying that glorious arm band.
And the thrill didn't end on the course, either as the tournament gave the media special wrist bands allowing unfettered access to the "magical" Kroger VIP Tent. A cross between Disney World and Wolfgang Puck's, the Kroger VIP tent was blue-blood bacchanalia at its best. Table after table of burgers, ribs, salads, pastas and desserts (even Graeters Ice Cream) plus soft drinks, teas and even beer. All 100% free! Free! Let me tell you, it didn't take long for this middle-class west-sider to truly appreciate the unlimited availability of Free Food at any time the hunger-pangs pinged. And it was good stuff, too...Krogers used to have this incredible chicken salad with grapes and nuts (that I don't think they offer anymore on their salad bars) that would make Mr. Maisonette turn purple with jealousy. Just thinking of it two decades later makes my mouth water, but I digress...
Unfortunately, great things do not last forever. By the early 2000s, the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer and Trevino were being replaced by Bruce Summerhays and Gil Morgan. With the dearth of stars came a gradually fading attendance. For the media, rules changed too...no more arm bands for non-photographers and many of the perks and goodies also were trimmed for expenses. The end for me came when the tournament was moved to the month of September and shifted to a course in inconvenient Maineville. I remember the last tournament I covered featured Hale Irwin as its only "name" (read: the only player most of the spectators heard of) and the masses would crane their necks to get a glimpse of the three-time US Open winner who was probably shocked by all of the attention. Anyway, the final Kroger Senior Classic was held in 2004, ten years ago, and I doubt too many miss it. Well, I do, sort of. I miss the memories of chatting with Palmer in the parking lot during a rain delay. I miss the thrill of conducting a one-on-one interview with "Mr. 59," Al Geiberger. I miss the naughty humor (and fat cigars) of Simon Hobday as well as Chi Chi Rodriguez "slaying an imaginary bull" with his putter following a long putt. Of course, I miss Trevino and his hilarious quotes, like, "Pressure??? Pressure is being a dirt-poor caddy in Texas and making a five dollar bet with only one dollar in your pocket!" Oh, and that chicken salad...I do miss that chicken salad.