When I (Steve) was in college at Jacksonville University I got really lucky. My first semester I took golf as one of my 2 phys ed requirements (much to my father trying to figure out how he was paying for college credit to take golf) and the professor was the old golf coach.
My junior year I was in between classes and I ran into coach and he asked if I wanted to work at The Players Championship as a walking scorer for NBC. I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. They were going to pay me to walk inside the ropes at a PGA Tour event!? I would have paid them to do this!
Let me start by saying that walking inside the ropes is the coolest thing that you can do at any tour event never mind the Players Championship. If you ever get a chance to experience it you can really learn a lot about how golfers think and play at the highest level.
1997 was my first year walking 36 holes a day on Thursday and Friday (ESPN had morning and afternoon coverage) and 18 on Saturday and Sunday. Being a rookie at it I didn’t have any of the marque groups as those were saved for people who had done it before but I still had an awesome time.
In 1998 I did it again. This go around was a little different. Thursday was much of the same but Friday morning I walked with Bob Tway, Jesper Parnavik and Phil Mickelson. It was awesome to see Jesper chew out a rules official on 2 for not giving him a drop and then Phil his the patented Mickelson Flop Shot on 9 after going for the green in 2.
Friday afternoon I walked with Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo and John Daly. You couldn’t 3 different golfers in one group. Faldo hit every fairway and green and shot 70 (worst score he could have shot). Strange slashed his way around the course and Daly hit it everywhere and figured out how to get it in the hole. He even hit his “0” iron of the 18th tee and out drove his playing partners who hit driver.
Saturday we went out early and watched some golf and after huddling up I was paired up with Jeff Maggert and Len Mattiace. Maggert didn’t say much most of the day but Mattiace, his caddy and I would walk and talk as his sister went to JU just before I was there. Len’s mom was also being pushed around the course in a wheelchair and I would help his dad so that she could stay on the cart path and make it easier for them.
Len worked his way up the leaderboard on moving day and found himself in the second to last group on Sunday. While standing next to the 18th green Len’s dad asked if I could walk with Len again on Sunday and after a quick radio conversation I knew who I was walking with on Sunday.
Sunday came and we made our way out to the course. I get to the first tee and Len is there along with Scott Hoch. The two of them couldn’t have been nicer. We walked and talked the entire day and I was again helping Len’s dad get around the course with his mom.
Len was playing some amazing golf and after a birdie on 12 he was in the lead as Joe Durant hit a ball into the water on 11. It was at that point I knew this was going to be a special day. Little did I know how it would turn out.
Len bogeyed 13 and made his way thru the rest of the back very steadily until he got to the 17th tee. 17 is, to me, the greatest hole in golf. Everyone knows 17 is out there lurking and you can hear the roars and groans around the whole course.
There is a story that when you leave the 16th green and walk to the 17th tee you need to keep your head down and not look at the 17th green or you will see it start to shrink. I can confirm that it was at this moment that I saw it start to shrink. I shook my head in disbelief and looked again and it was still shrinking.
At the tee box, Scott Hoch had the honor and hit a shot just left of the flag that rolled down the slope and stopped just short of going in for an ace. A tap in birdie for certain.
Len got up and hit 9 iron from 134 yards. From the tee the shot looked great. It was right at it. As it was in the air I couldn’t hear anything. There was complete silence (event though I have seen it on video and know everyone screamed) and this was the first experience I had ever had where time around me stopped. I thought he may have dunked it into the hole!
None of us standing on the tee saw anything. Len then looked at Roger Maltbe who was standing to my right and said, “Roger, did that go in the water?” Roger wouldn’t even look at him. He looked away and nodded yes.
I had my yardage book and pin sheet out trying to figure out the distance again like I had it wrong the first time and was standing there in disbelief.
Len ended up making an 8 on the hole (I really don’t want to relive the rest of the shots). I have never wanted to cry for myself on the course but I remember that day holding back tears in disbelief as to what happened.
Len ended up making a birdie on 18. Standing on the 17th tee he was one back, needing a birdie to force a playoff. He got the birdie on 18 he needed. If only he had hit wedge on 17 the outcome may have been different.
After the round there were a couple hugs for Len and Scott and some thank yous. On my way to the TV compound I tapped Len’s dad on the back as he was doing some print media interviews. He stopped the interview and turned around. He gave me the biggest hug ever and asked one question, “What club was it?” When I told him 9 he shook his head and said, “I knew it.”
Tim Rosaforte from GolfWeek stopped me and asked me if I would talk to him. I said sure. He wanted to know the club and I told him. He asked me if Len’s mom saw the shot and I explained that there were like 20,000 people around the 17th hole and I didn’t see them so I didn’t know. He then asked me a couple more questions and asked if he could have my name as he wanted to quote me. I declined and told him this story wasn’t about me. It was about Len and his family.
I have run into Len a couple more times since that day. He and I actually played in the same US Open Qualifier right after I turned professional. It’s funny now where my life has gotten me to this point where I can share this story with you our readers and the world.
Dads Say So (or maybe Steve Says So) people tell you that college is the greatest four years of your life. I went to school 15 miles from the beach and we had a golf course on campus. The greatest weekend of my entire college career was TPC weekend in 1998 (my senior year). It is a weekend I will never forget and still talk about like it just happened. Len ended up getting 2 wins on tour and ironically lost in a playoff at The Masters to Mike Weir. I have never pulled harder for someone to win on tour as even as great as a golfer Len is he is that much better of a person. TPC week is here this week. There are a lot of memories that will be made this week, many around the 17th hole, I wont be there this year but I will be watching. The picture included in this post is one taken last year on Saturdays lead in on NBC. It is a much younger and thinner Steve. I’m the one with the sunglasses and headset on.