Fans flock to see the `old masters'

Golf enthusiasts are more than happy to play hooky for a day to see tourney

October 06, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

Summer won't quit. Golf celebrities are playing a local course. And Jordan Russell's friend had an extra ticket.

If there ever was a Friday to get out of the office, yesterday was it.

"You can't beat this," said Russell, a 26-year-old insurance broker from Federal Hill, sipping a Bloody Mary near the 17th green at the Baltimore Country Club in Timonium. "It's a beautiful course."

Hundreds of spectators found reasons to knock off work early or skip it altogether to watch the second round of the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship, catching leader Loren Roberts' four birdies and cheering local favorite Fred Funk to his 1-under-par finish for the day.

Low clouds provided protection against the sun and kept temperatures in the upper 70s. Spectators found spots along the immaculate Five Farms East course.

Joe Amato sank into a folding chair, taking a day off from his own busy schedule of golfing. The 74-year-old retired government intelligence worker from Annapolis had played the previous two days.

"It's time to watch the real professionals," said Amato, puffing on a cigar. "I'm enjoying myself."

Organizers don't count the number of spectators, in part because many are guests of the dozens of corporate sponsors, said Steve Schoenfeld, tournament director.

But, he said, the crowd has been growing each day since Tuesday, when the first practice rounds were held.

"This is a world-class course, an older, more traditional one," said Schoenfeld. "I think the players are enjoying it."

More than 70 players, including Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tom Kite and Curtis Strange, are competing in the four-day tournament. The Senior Players Championship is the first major professional event to be held at the Timonium course since the 1988 U.S. Women's Open. But as part of an agreement with the PGA Tour, it will be an annual event through 2011.

Don Mitchell, a sales representative for one of the sponsors of the tournament, didn't have to twist any clients' arms to get them to come to the tournament.

"Television doesn't do these guys justice," said Clint Henderson, one of Mitchell's clients. "You're watching them from 220 yards, hit the flag, just missing a hole-in-one. If you have a shot like that, it makes your day."

"Your year," Mitchell corrected.

Spectators, including Henderson, said the older players are more relaxed, taking time to interact with their fans. The crowd enjoyed hearing former University of Maryland golf coach Funk, for example, correct an announcer on the number of championships he's won, said Henderson.

"He's a character," said Henderson.

Golf fans tend to be a polite bunch - arguably more restrained than some of their counterparts in football stadiums and hockey arenas.

They hush each other when a player is ready to swing. They applaud after a hole is finished and gasp at near-misses. But some shots are just too good.

One fan, after watching Funk sink a putt yesterday, yelled out, "I love you, man!"

Yesterday's crowd was dressed for a day at the club. The men wore pressed khakis, collared shirts and leather loafers without socks. Women dressed in embroidered capris and matching visors, plaid shorts and linen blouses.

The course, too, was groomed for the event. Every bush was trimmed, the grass perfectly even. Tables were adorned with fresh flowers. Even the portable toilets were placed under white tents, so as to not appear unsightly.

The brick mansion that serves as the clubhouse was accessible only to pass holders. Tuxedoed bartenders stood at attention, ice buckets, gleaming goblets and liquor at the ready. Security guards nodded hello to passing visitors. And golf carts zipped along paved paths, chauffeuring the VIPs in attendance.

In addition to the large corporate spectator pavilions, wooden bleachers were erected at the first and 18th holes, and next to the practice range. Picnic tables were placed under large green umbrellas near concession stands that served bottled water and crab cakes.

Tom Rafferty, a 38-year-old accountant from Pikesville, and Bob LaForce, a 38-year-old musician from Westminster, didn't feel the tiniest bit guilty about enjoying an afternoon of celebrity golf.

They stood watching play on the 18th hole, smoking Mini-Macanudos, sipping draft Bud Light. It was almost noon, the pair figured.

"It's great seeing the old masters of the game - Mark O'Meara, Tom Watson," said LaForce.

Plus, he was enjoying the perks of being self-employed.

"Hey," LaForce said, "I'm here with the boss."

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