Not many folks are here to see it, but Web.com stop is golf at its purest form
POTOMAC, Md. -- The Five Guys Burger stand atop the hill near the TPC Potomac's 18th green isn't getting much action today, other than my order for two burgers, one with bacon. It's Thursday, it's October, school is in session, and after the drama of last weekend's Ryder Cup, maybe a Web.com tour stop doesn't pack the punch it might have in summer.
The two girls manning a tent promoting Toyota, next to a pair of Toyota cars, are idle, too. But if you chat them up, they'll gladly give you a pair of sunglasses and an iPhone holder.
It's quiet here at the Neediest Kids Championship, a Web.com tour event making its debut at this course. Too quiet. The course is nearly deserted today. Besides the players and their caddies, there are only a few fans, almost all of them friends or family -- like me, out here to watch my son, Mike Van Sickle, tee it up. He Monday-qualified for this, the second week in a row. He missed the cut in last week's Chiquita Classic, but after surviving a playoff on Monday, here he comes again. Mike played solid golf Thursday and shot 69, one under par, which wasn't bad considering Tuesday's practice round was pretty much a rainout and Wednesday was pro-am day, so he was playing the course today for the first time.
The Web.com tour is professional tournament golf at its purest. There are gallery ropes (but no galleries today) and volunteers and marshals and the standard PGA Tour electronic scoreboards. There are some sponsor flags by the clubhouse. There's a small outdoor bar selling beer for $6 a can. There's Five Guys, plus one or two other trucks converted into concession stands. It's like a PGA Tour event minus all the crowds and all the money.
It's not bereft of familiar names, though. The Web.com, formerly the Nationwide Tour and originally christened the Ben Hogan Tour just over two decades ago, is a place where future and former greats alike can be found. There's a banner featuring Jim Furyk, a tour grad, near the concession area. Jason Gore, a popular tour veteran, shot 7-under 63 here Thursday. Woody Austin was on the leaderboard. Two-time Open champion Lee Janzen is playing. So is former U.S. Amateur champ Bubba Dickerson, Paul Stankowski and tour clingers like Tag Ridings, Skip Kendall and Cliff Kresge. Jamie Lovemark and Patrick Cantlay, a pair of young guys earmarked for big careers, are here.
The silence is almost eerie and then again, it's a stark relief from the over-the-top patriotic cheering at last weekend's Ryder Cup. This is hardhat golf, men playing for relatively small change. Nobody is getting rich out here. Charles Warren, a pretty good stick from Clemson, has won just over $50,000 this year. That's in 21 starts. After you deduct caddie fees and Fairfield Inn nights, there's not a lot left.
I'm confident fans will come out on the weekend here. They always did during the Kemper Open's glory years. It was crowded and loud and sweaty on the weekend. The media used the cart room beneath the clubhouse as the pressroom. There were stationary fans but no air conditioners. You came to the Kemper Open for the golf, not for luxuries.
I barely recognized the golf course. The old TPC at Avenel was overhauled and turned into the TPC Potomac. It's a more challenging layout with a different look -- ragged bunker edges, red-tinted fescue, sprawling bunkers. It may be too challenging. These guys will eat it up because Tuesday's downpour turned the greens into mush, but your average golfer, your country clubber, is probably not going to enjoy this layout from any set of tees. Many of the greens are small, narrow targets, and they've still got some demanding tiers and swales and stupendously deep bunkers. Some 15-handicappers may never escape.
The old Avenel was too over-the-top and replete with gimmicks like a two-fairway par 5 with a stream in the middle. The par-3 ninth was down such a steep hill that you couldn't see the green from the back of the tee box. Nobody liked that hole. Or the walk straight back up a steep hill to the clubhouse from there. The new ninth is still a downhill par 3, but now the green is set much higher on the hill, and not hard against a meandering stream that used to lead to a lot of doubles. Overall, the course is much, much better. It might even be major-worthy. It's strong.
These Web.com guys are good, too. By early afternoon, four under barely got you on the first page of the leaderboard. Mike Van Sickle is trying to get a foothold in pro golf. He played college golf at Marquette, where he was a first-team All-American, led Division I in scoring average and won the prestigious Byron Nelson Award. After two summers battling a sore shoulder, he's finally healthy again and gearing up for the tour's last traditional Q school in a few weeks.
It was a good day to hit fairways because the field played lift, clean and place rules. It was a bad day to barely miss a bunch of fairways, as Mike did, but he got away with it. He lipped out one four-footer for birdie, missed one ticklish short par putt and had several other near misses. He bogeyed the tough 18th after he drove it into the rough and had to punch a low shot beneath a tree and around a greenside bunker.
These guys grind to the end because they're playing for their futures. At the par-4 seventh, his 16th of the day, Mike poured in an uphill 15-footer for birdie to get to one under par. He gave it a little fist pump. It wasn't for the crowd, because there wasn't one -- just the parents of the members of his threesome, which included Tyler Dice and Jay Mulieri, and two or three friends. At this level, it's still every man for himself and every player against the course. A simple fist bump is purely affirmation, since there's no gallery and therefore no ovation.
No, the fist pump was just for him. You're on your own out here. That's what makes it hard. That's what makes it so beautiful.