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One of the greatest challenges facing any sports writer is finding creative ways to get coaches and players to say something—anything—that isn't a cliche. It's amazing, in modern times, how media savvy athletes have become. It's almost as if when a new crop of rookies comes in, teams hold a training session on platitudes.
Now repeat after me class, "We're just taking it one day at a time."
What are your thoughts on the season to date? "We've overcome a lot of adversity."
What's the plan for tonight's game? "We just gotta make more plays than the other team."
Why did you lose tonight? "It is what it is."
No kidding! Here I was, thinking that it is what it isn't, so you really cleared that up for me.
St. Louis isn't exactly swarming with NBA fans, but if you've seen any of the playoff games this year, you know what it's like to have to interview a professional sports coach. After the first and third quarters of NBA games, the coaches are required to do short interviews with the sideline reporters. The coaches would rather be in the huddle, so no matter how cunning the question, Gregg Popovich will give a one-word answer. And he'll look like he wants to impale somebody while he talks through his gritted teeth.
And the players aren't much better. In college, I spent a year covering the Mizzou men's basketball team. It was a remarkable season, Mike Anderson and the underdog Tigers making a run to the Elite Eight. But it also required a remarkable amount of pulling teeth to get those kids to say anything remotely original. Want to hear a story about their high school days or about how they spend their time away from the court? Forget about it.
Which is why yesterday was so refreshing. It was interview day at the Senior PGA Championship (the first round started this morning), and every guy who stepped to the podium was charming, thoughtful, as likely to give an answer a few paragraphs too long than a few words too short. Perhaps their advanced age was a factor. Anyone who's been to a diner knows that older men like to sit around and tell stories from their glory days or grouse about their aches and pains.
Peter Jacobsen won the U.S. Senior Open in 2004. That tournament was at Bellerive, just like this week's major championship. He said some nice things about the course and the excitement of returning to the scene of his previous success. Then somebody asked him about his injuries.
"Since I've been 50 I've had like 17 surgeries," he said, before launching into the laundry list. "I've had my hip replaced. At the time [the 2004 tournament], I had a labrum tear, so I was coming off of a labrum tear, I had two of them. And then I had my left hip replaced. I had knee surgeries, and I had my right knee replaced. And I've had seven back surgeries."
Then he cracked a smile. "I'm a mixed martial arts participant in the winter too, so that's why I've been so beat up," he quipped.
Somebody from the local media asked if he had a favorite memory from winning that tournament here in 2004. It would be an easy question to answer with a cliche, something about the joy of winning. Instead, he told not one, but two funny stories:
"We were in the final round, and I was playing with Jose Maria Canizares and Craig Stadler. And it was hot, and we were sweaty. I remember we finished the fifth hole, and I walked off the fifth green, and I remember there was a two or three group wait on the sixth tee, the really tough par-3.
"And when it's that hot, you want to just keep moving; you don't want to stop. I remember a gentleman was sitting under a tree, and he had two beers. I remember walking right by him and he said, 'Hey, you got a wait over there, you better sit down and relax.' And I said, 'Oh, if I sit down, I'm not sure I can get up.' And he said, 'Well, you look like you could use a thirst quencher.' So I reached over, and I grabbed his beer, and I took a couple of chugs. I said, 'I'm all better now.'
"And I handed it back and he goes, 'You can have it.' I still gave it back.
"But I remember that… Because I remember parring the sixth hole that day. That was train-wreck city. There were fours, five, sixes and sevens. And I remember getting through, I believe I made a three, and then had the rest of the day."
And he just kept going.
"And then the party afterwards I remember we went up to, I believe it's called the Blue Room up in the clubhouse. I think the general manager walked up to me after the party, and I was still there, and he handed me the keys to the clubhouse he said, 'Why don't you lock up when you leave, because we're all done.' I was enjoying myself, I didn't want to go."
After Jacobsen, it was Hall of Famer Tom Watson, with eight major wins on the PGA Tour and six on the Champions Tour. He's also going to be the captain of the 2014 Ryder Cup team.
Somebody mentioned that Tom is from Missouri, a Kansas City kid. And just like that, he launched into a story, too.
"I came down here to qualify for the Missouri Amateur at Sunset [Hills] when I think I was 16 years old," he said. "And I was playing with Payne Stewart's dad, Bill Stewart, in the qualifying. After nine holes, I saw Bill go over to my dad who was following me around—actually wasn't following, he was just there at the ninth. And he had a conversation. My dad came over and said, 'Son, you need to check how many clubs you have in your bag…' I had an extra four clubs in my bag, 18, rather than 14. It was just a 16 stroke penalty is all it was."
When the interview session was over, several of the writers crowded around Watson, asking him for more. He gladly obliged, telling more stories, talking about his strategy for picking the Ryder Cup team, talking about Ozzie Smith.
And then it was Roger Chapman, the surprise winner of last year's Senior PGA Championship, in Michigan. Chapman wasn't an exceptional player during his first career as a professional golfer, but last year on the Champions Tour, he won two majors. Unlike some guarded athletes who are hesitant to open up, Chapman showed real emotion in describing the previous year.
"It was a special—I keep using the word 'special'—but it is an incredible year that I have had," the Scotsman said. "It's difficult to put into words, but sometimes you just say, dreams come true. You keep knocking on the door and something good happens. And those two tournaments last year were the best thing that's ever happened to me in my golfing career by far. It sounds a bit of an understatement, but, yeah, it was a fantastic feeling."