SORRENTO, Fla. -- What spoiled little softies we are. We attend our PGA tournaments and our beloved majors and we barely have to think. Serial people direct us to our parking spaces. The course features huge scoreboards. There are playing lists and course maps and persevering souls carrying signs with each group to inform us which of the talented golfing masses we happen to be eyeballing.
But this here, this might even be the wrong course. It has the name "RedTail," and the red dot on the smart-phone map brought the car right here, but there's no hint of ambitious, ludicrously talented men competing inside. Nobody stops you at the gate. Nobody monitors the parking lot that just about abuts the course.
Ample parking spaces avail.
Are there enough cars here for a tournament?
This might not be right.
At last, at one edge of the lot, there's a single van marked "NGA Tour," meaning the third-tier mini-tour once named "Hooters." Good. Toward the clubhouse, there's a pink sheet marked "NGA Scoring Area." Whew. Meander through some houses and cross a street, and there's a putting green with actual golfers putting, then a first tee with a friendly man from Kentucky saying to three players, "Gentlemen, play away."
Of course, he cannot give away his only playing sheet. Hey, you coddled little spoiled softie with your adoration for the majors and your strolls through the British heather and gorse thinking you're so tough, you're going to have to stroll out there and find Blayne Barber on your own. You have seen Barber only in photographs, and now you'll have to find him with no information but a tee time, and you'll have to practice the proper etiquette, refrain from distracting any golfers, avoid causing any undue bogeys.
That won't be as simple as usual.
If you will remember, Barber would be the former Auburn University All-American, born on Christmas Day in 1989, who last autumn pretty much hurled a little orchid into our national sports cesspool. He essentially disqualified himself from the PGA Tour qualifying process eight days after a round because he could not remember whether, on Oct. 25 at Callaway Gardens in Georgia, his sand wedge had grazed a leaf that had floated from a tree to rest in the trap.
Just in case it did graze, he opted for sanity. With no repercussions should he forge further into the multi-stage status hunt, he opted for sanity.
"Having a clear conscience and doing what's right obviously kind of makes all of life more enjoyable and gives you peace about certain situations," he said in 2013. "It was certainly nice to go and have my wedding day [in December] and have everything be nice."
He clearheadedly exited the path to Broadway back then, reentering this pretty but pretty desolate world full of guys with fabulous talent but few witnesses. It's a world that sometimes can feel -- get this -- too tranquil. "It's hard sometimes to stay focused out there, I guess," the Pennsylvanian golfer Justin Martinson said after a round at RedTail. "There's the pressure out there, but sometimes you can get too relaxed out there. It's not even the quiet, it's just the atmosphere."
Golfers sometimes crave galleries, response to shots, maybe even hubbub. Who knew?
So along the curving, undulating sidewalks into the course you might go, under the puffy clouds, with Barber out there somewhere among people you do not recognize. It's January, the first steps of 2013 toward everybody's daydream of 2014. The only peek at the PGA Tour would be the occasional Monday qualifying scheme which, as it happened, would work smashingly for Barber on Feb. 11, when, with his newlywed wife Morgan as caddie, he would shoot 65 at the Industry Hills Golf Course in City of Industry, Calif., to reach the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.
"We are both really excited," he texted on Tuesday the 12th. He will have a turn at one of the most luscious courses in all creation. He will play among thick crowds. He and Morgan will get a glimpse of one of their visions as newlyweds.
It will be pitifully easy to find him.
Out here, I'm lost. I seem to be the lone witness walking the holes. HOMES FROM THE MID 300S, reads a sign in front of the houses lining the course. The view from No. 2 includes a field where stands an old horse, noiseless in the distance.
The old horse stares in the other direction.
"I've played every tour you can possibly think of," said Rob Oppenheim, the 33-year-old from Massachusetts who would win the three-day RedTail event. "You learn how to compete. You're playing against good competition. The courses aren't all that difficult, but it kind of teaches you how to go low."
With many of the players fresh from the coddling of college, Oppenheim said, "You're finally out there on your own and you've got to figure it out. Whether you'll earn enough is one thing, but whether you're able to handle the lifestyle is another thing." He has met some men who had sufficient talent but insufficient stomach for the lonely plod. "You're not staying in the nicest hotels in the world," he said. "You're not playing the hardest courses in the world. You miss a cut or two and you're in the middle of it and you think, 'What am I doing?'"
What we have here is a collection of small businessmen, and the hat tip goes to Martinson for that description. They manage their expenses. They choose their hotels. They often exist paycheck-to-paycheck. "You keep all your receipts," Martinson said. "I do my expense reports. Spread sheets."
To sustain the mini-tour life, Oppenheim reckons he spends between $1,000 and $1,200 per week. As he spoke in late January, he had just finished behind 14 guys but ahead of 85 to earn $1,310 in an event after RedTail. "I made $210" net, he said. "What are the other 85 guys making?"
"At the end of the day," he said, "it's a big gambling event."
The solitude masks a grind that you see and hear here and there. In his multi-tour life Oppenheim has heard aplenty the utterance, "If I can't make enough this winter, I'm going to have to hang it up." He has seen untold guys in that wretched golfing position of, This putt's for this, and this putt's for that... He has heard of the guys with sponsors who want in the game but don't understand the game and so pose questions such as, "Why'd you make bogey there?"
It's unforgiving. Said Martinson, "You take hometown heroes, the best players in their region, and you bring them all out here, and it's like going from the big fish in the small pond to the little fish in the big pond." Said Oppenheim, "And the next thing you know, it's the last event and they haven't gotten their goal.... So they're pressing. You'll see a lot of that."
I see only a few scattered threesomes along the front nine in the early-afternoon wane of groups, with some holes thoroughly empty. The terrain seems completely caddie-less. Birds make the lone sounds. Florida foliage crawls out of ponds. In the absence of rangers and ropes, I feel a lunatic fear of getting struck and killed by a golf ball. Over by the houses, a man walks his yellow Lab. Very occasionally, a marshal in a cart drives by and waves. Eventually, there's a spectator here or there, maybe a relative or a friend or a sponsor bewailing bogeys.
And what do you do, after all, when you're just about the only spectator? Do you keep walking while they putt on a semi-distant green? Do you stop? Is it more distracting when you stop or when you continue? When there's general commotion, your motion adds little commotion, but when there's zero commotion, does your motion start to count as commotion?
Are your footsteps on the sidewalks actually audible?
Just then, after the hurried walk through No. 9, there appeared a novel sight.
A female human!
Of course, it would all be too easy if she happened to be Barber's wife, heading toward the green, up the right side of the hole, by the tiny pond with the strange white sign: NO SWIMMING OR FISHING OR BOATING. (Boating in such a teacup would probably get boring after three minutes, anyway.) I knew from Twitter that they had married one month prior, outdoors on a beautiful day in Auburn. I also knew that the newly married Morgan Barber might be elsewhere, at home, at an office.
Yet she stopped and seemed to wait by a cart, and in the back of the cart stood a set of clubs in a golf bag with blaring Auburn University colors. A sign hanging in the cart read, "Why Become A RedTail Golf Member? Member Benefit No. 9: Complimentary Golf Cart Storage. Member Benefit No. 14: Special Discounts on Holiday Events and Brunches."
And here comes a tall guy looking dapper in his black shirt, off the 10th green and into the cart, "How's it going?" Blayne Barber said to the lone interloper.
From there, there would be only the strange moment at No. 12, when I circled around the back of the green to find him sitting alone in his cart, and two ethics crashed against each other:
One (from childhood): If you're the only two people in a certain area, it's polite to say hello.
Two (from golf): When you're walking a golf course at a tournament, it's impolite to say hello to the participants.
"Hi," Barber said with a smile.
Here in this rugged and pretty and unforgiving terrain with all but tumbleweed, this unknown into which Barber hurled himself, Morgan joins him. They take the hours-long drives together. She goes along for the rounds. Here near Orlando, they stayed with his grandmother and visited an aunt and uncle. They do look like a team in this world. "She's very good about trying to fill me with positive thoughts and keeping me grounded," he said the next day. "Sometimes when I feel a little frustrated, she'll kind of come by and say something. She knows when I get a little down on myself, and she just knows what to say."
Example: "She'll say, 'This isn't about us. It's about God's glory, not ours.'"
They met at Auburn. They married before about 200 people, some of whom referred obliquely to Barber's self-disqualification in rehearsal-dinner remarks. He refers to the exhilaration of "seeing my bride walk down the aisle." They took a honeymoon to the North Carolina mountains, and they set out on their shared life.
"We've reflected on it a couple of times," he said of the decision, "but I really don't think what-if at all about it. I was playing great golf and maybe I would have gotten my tour card, but there's no guarantee either." Supportive emails came in from North Dakota, Arkansas, South Carolina, tens of other places. Messages came from PGA Tour players such as Webb Simpson and Jonathan Byrd.
Barber won five times on mini-tours in 2012, including twice after his decision, and then life rolled on into 2013, into the distant holes of a verve-less course in the middle of January, even on to big ol' Los Angeles this week. Eventually I waited for them in an empty outdoor clubhouse lounge that played Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now." Yet as I saw them starting out on their odyssey together, riding back from another round, unquestionably bonded, I got a feeling I never expected so far from the cushy amenities of major tournaments.
I felt extremely happy for them.