"I fell in a bunker at the 2003 US Senior Open"

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From reader Don Delco, web producer at 97.1 The Fan in Columbus, OH:

(Original story on Talk Birdie to Me, republished with author's permission)

I fell in a bunker at the 2003 U.S. Senior Open.

I’ll get to the specifics in a minute.

That summer I was a year removed from college where I earned a print journalism degree. (In the late 90s that was still a viable and somewhat respectable career.) I was working in a job that needed that degree, but it was in a small-town in western Ohio.

“This was temporary,” I told myself. “In no time I’ll be a big-time sports writer in a big-time city.”

It was humble beginnings right out of college. First, I was the editor of the Putnam County Vidette in Columbus Grove, Ohio. It lasted three months. I then took a job as sports editor of the Kenton Times in the fall of 2002. In these, um, “cities,” the cows out-numbered the stoplights. It sucked. Small-town living and small-town high school sports were not for me.

Miserable and constantly searching for ways out I noticed the 2003 U.S. Senior Open would be held at Inverness Country Club in Toledo, about an hour and a half north of Kenton. One of the perks of being a sports editor at the Kenton Times was I could obtain media passes for big-time sports events throughout the state.

It was my chance to rub elbows with media members who lived in actual cities and covered sports more than 17 people cared about. Of course, I was 23, immature and terrible at networking. But, woah, were my fantasies detailed.

I’d show those golf media members my journalism skills. Once the Senior Open champion was crowned and my new best friends in the golf media read my takes, I would be the next hottest thing in sports journalism.

With a freshly minted fantasy, I requested the media pass to the U.S. Senior Open.

***

I arrived on Thursday morning ready to write the hell out of this tournament. How would one accomplish this?

I entered the media room and quickly realized that as an accredited member of the media you get inside-the-ropes access.

“Just stay within arm’s length of the rope,” the USGA official told me.

Yeah, OK. I’ll do whatever you say so long as you give me the pass. If you need me I’ll be INSIDE THE ROPES watching Jack Nicklaus play golf. And there it was. I would write about my experience following the G.O.A.T.

Of course, looking back, the entire day consisted of poor planning. He was 63. He wasn’t playing competitive golf anymore. He had no chance at winning. This was his last time playing Inverness where he historically struggled. He was simply serving as a living mascot.

***

Meanwhile, I cared way too much about what I wore. I still do but that’s another issue. The stereotype of a sportswriter isn’t too far off. Plenty of those guys put minimal effort into their wardrobe and never turn down a free meal.

“No way am I perpetuating that stereotype,” I thought. “I’m going to be fashion forward. Now get out of my way. I’m hungry.”

My outfit was respectable. I was put together from head-to-knee. Now, I was a young, hip dude … or so I thought. I wasn’t wearing white sneakers. I did decide to sport my fashionable (for the time) Birkenstock sandals.

Spoiler alert: It was a poor choice (a running theme in my life back then) considering I was planning to traverse the hilly grounds of Inverness.

“I look gooood,” I thought as I strolled onto the course. If there were any females in the gallery south of 48 years old, I would’ve winked at ‘em.

Seven holes into his opening round Nicklaus was 3-over-par and looking disgusted. My Pulitzer acceptance speech was tossed into the trash greenside at No. 5. I also didn’t find any age-appropriate ladies to wink at. With two more holes to go on the front nine, I would finish following Nicklaus and find another angle.

But first I had to navigate No. 8.

***

The par-5 eighth hole was the longest on the course. It played 554 yards. After an uphill tee shot, the hole doglegged left and moved back downhill toward the green.

Nicklaus’ group hit their tee shots and began their trek down the elevated fairway. I hung back.

I stuck to the right side of the hole as the players struck their layup shots. I remained on the right side of the hole and within arm’s length of the rope, per the official’s instructions.

Keeping those rules in mind, I continued to hug the rope as I encountered the bunker at the apex of the hill. Yes, a smarter man would’ve simply stepped outside the ropes and walked down a cart path that ran the length of the hole on the right side. That was the smart move. I was not smart. It was never an option. I had inside-the-ropes access so by God, I’m staying inside the ropes.

In order to navigate past this bunker, I could either go against USGA protocol by veering left and walking down fairway or stay on that rope, which hugged the right edge of this deep fairway bunker.

I chose to stay on the rope. I chose wrong.

I didn’t think I was wrong until I reached the point of no return. I was shuffling my way past the bunker in order to keep in contact with the rope. I was midway through my journey when the lack of grip on the Birkenstock soles reared its ugly head. I slipped and in I went into the perfectly manicured bunker.

Nicklaus was still a large draw so his gallery size, for a Thursday morning of a Senior Open, was impressive.

I can still hear their gasps as I tumbled onto my back.

Thankfully this was a par 5. The players were well ahead and blissfully unaware a media moron was making sand angels in the fairway bunker 300 yards behind them.

It felt like I spent an hour in that bunker, but in reality it was seconds. I got out as fast as I could, but the damage was done. After I climbed out I instinctively grabbed the rake to cover my tracks.

A marshal was nearby and saw the entire episode.

“I’ll do that,” he said, walking briskly toward to me. It wasn’t in a passive-aggressive tone or a suggestion. It was a demand. I received the message loud and clear. I handed him the rake, mumbled “Thank You,” avoided eye contact and simply walked away.

Thankfully, the gallery congregated near the green didn’t see my slapstick act. But that marshal was a snitch and radioed ahead. When I arrived at the green, a USGA official told me to step outside the ropes. I walked the ninth hole with the gallery. My confidence and ego were bruised and bloodied.

***

I can’t remember what I ended up writing about 2003 U.S. Senior Open. Needless to say the fantasy of friendships made and Pulitzers won never materialized.

This summer the U.S. Senior Open comes to Scioto Country Club and I’m making plans to cover it. In the 13 (!) years between these Opens, I’ve mostly changed. I've moved out of small-town Ohio, I have confidence in myself and my abilities, and most of all I know I can wear tennis shoes and still dress better than 99 percent of the other media members.

Unlike when I first arrived at Inverness, I’m familiar with Scioto. I’ve been lucky enough to play it twice. You bet I mapped each and every sand trap with one long-term goal in mind:

I will not fall in a bunker at the 2016 U.S. Senior Open.