There was no Tiger sighting in the saguaro woods of Dove Mountain on Monday, so practice-round fans at the WGC–Accenture Match Play Championships could only watch the other 63 best golfers on the planet get ready for Wednesday’s first round.
One more player rock-starred the Ritz-Carlton range. The stylish Japanese phenom Ryo Ishikawa, an idol on the Japan Golf Tour who just turned 17 and certainly isn’t shaving, is outside the top 64. He’s an alternate, and may be practicing for … next year. Yet the dozens-strong cluster of Japanese media, aiming lenses more like telescopes, is all over Ryo, capturing every gesture, every move, every swing, as if it is the most important moment in the world.
“That’s a bigger crowd than Tiger,” someone remarks, and it is true at least on this day.
Wade Dunagan, the golfer who is in his first year as executive director of this tournament, likes to watch the pros go through their paces on the range. Each player is different, yet the results the same. Zooming, well-struck shots. And they swing so easily. Professional golfers don’t aim for the fences.
After an hour, a practice green with two flags, perhaps 80 yards from the driving range tee, is covered with tight clusters of golf balls that appear to have been dumped from two huge bags right around the cups. Ryo hits a long, high mid-iron toward Sombrero Peak, and it smacks the stick maybe 180 yards out. Damned straight, they might say.
Rod Pampling, the Australian living in Texas, sticks a short iron two feet from the practice range cup. Terrific play. Yet he backs away, adjusts the position and pressure of his feet, pulls the club back part way, and studies his body, its balance, its relative position.
Pampling is “Backed by Bayer,” according to the space above the back pocket of his pants. PGA Tour clothing is not quite the sponsor yell of NASCAR uniforms, but the names of financial giants and investment companies adorn nice threads and golf bags.
At one end of the range, the Japanese golfer Shingo Katayama, without his cowboy hat, has an inflated fluorescent green ball, between the size of a Sonoran grapefruit and a volleyball, hanging from a strap just below his left elbow. Before every shot, Shingo squeezes the ball between his arms, and makes sure it’s tight toward his chest. Golf balls fly.
Shingo uses the head of his club and the outside of his right foot to position the next practice ball in an instant, a move he’s made … hundreds of thousands of times? His shots reflect as much.
Shingo hits a driver – drawn from a head cover labeled “Sumo 2,” its head bigger than a grapefruit, smaller than a wrestler – from within a rectangular tracking device, a string forming the long side near the golfer, a blue tube on the other side. He’s literally seeking a groove. Shingo’s trusting caddy, part of the entourage that every player has, kneels to tee up balls and stays right there, his head maybe two feet from the speeding club. He doesn’t wince. There’s no need.
Players walk from the Ritz-Carlton Golf Clubhouse – quite a building, that – toward the driving range through a small group of roped-off spectators, most of them autograph hunters. Padraig Harrington, the three-time majors winner and a top seed at Dove Mountain, is friendly but watchful in the gauntlet. The Irishman, a young athlete at the pinnacle of his sport, admired because he can hit a golf ball far and straight and short and true, signs his name and poses for pictures. Then he’s off, to work, at a game he loves in a beautiful place with warm weather.
Harrington lofts a high mid-iron right at the distant stick. “You forget how pretty it is until you see it in person,” a fan says.
There remain great tickets for match play, the tournament’s Diane Frisch asserts. You can buy them online, and print them out at home, or order and head toward will call at Basha’s on Dove Mountain Boulevard and Tangerine Road. Tickets for Wednesday’ opening round, with 32 matches and Tiger sightings, through Friday’s sweet-swinging 16, are $40 a pop. Forty bucks, to watch the best in the world at their craft.