Tiger helped me forget a terrible ticket situation at Torrey Pines

John BallContributor IJune 24, 2008

Six years ago when I lived in San Diego and it was announced that the Torrey Pines Golf Course was going to host the 2008 US Open, I knew I had to go, no matter where I was going to be living at the time.  I had played the course before, and it was one of my favorites with majestic views of the Pacific Ocean, as we've all seen on TV.

So in 2007 when the USGA started taking applications for tickets through its lottery drawing, I immediately submitted mine. In fact, I applied for extra tickets because I thought there was going to be a ton of demand for these babies.  We're talking about Torrey Pines, right?  Who wouldn't want to go to this US Open?  And if my friends or family couldn't go, I thought I could make a little extra money, or at least break even.

Last September I received the USGA letter in the mail informing me I had won the right to purchase ALL the tickets I had applied for at face value.  I was ecstatic!  They charged my credit card $1400 for all the tickets I had selected, enough for 2 full-week passes and 2 sets of weekend tickets.  It was a pretty steep price tag, but I felt lucky to have scored such exclusive tickets!  If The Masters in Augusta is the toughest ticket in sports to get, then you've got to think the US Open has got to be right up there near the top of the list.

I've never been so wrong.

After receiving the tickets in the mail before the tournament, I knew other lottery winners must have been receiving theirs.  Just for grins, I started checking eBay right away to see if other ticket owners were selling their tickets, and what the market value was for them.   None of the auctions were receiving any bids, but I figured it was still only May and that it was too early for people to be thinking about a mid-June golf tournament.

I knew demand would have been higher if Tiger Woods had won The Masters, setting up a chance for him to win the Grand Slam in the same golf season.  But I figured that as the tournament drew closer, demand would rise in people's minds, and they'd ultimately buy their tickets.

Over the following weeks I occasionally checked eBay and started getting very concerned that tickets to the Open still weren't receiving any bids.  Of if any were selling, they were selling below face value (which was $100 for each championship round Thursday through Sunday).

About 3 weeks before the tournament, I started putting the word out about my tickets on my alumni email mailing list, which goes out to thousands of fellow alums in California and Southern California.  Result: still no takers.  What's going on?  Was I a fool to be so bullish on how great this tournament is?  Or does the rest of the world lump the US Open in with a Nike Tour stop in Akron, Ohio?

That's when I decided to offer them to people at my company to give to clients and partners who were based in Southern California.  Surely some clients would want to go for free, and just sacrifice a 1-2 hour drive down to San Diego from LA or Orange County.  Unbelievably, still no response.  What in the world is happening?

lottery, start talking to people aI even had my father, who had acquired his own tickets through the same USGAnd posting signs in the community where he lived about an hour north of San Diego.  I even felt lucky when it was announced an amateur named Rickie Fowler who grew up in the town my father lived (Murrieta), was going to be able to play in the Open.  He had been an alternate, but I guess someone couldn't make it, so he was admitted to play.  Surely he would be getting lots of local support, which would drive a late surge in ticket sales.

Yet again, nothing happened.

That's when I knew things were going to be bad, and I was going to take a huge hit on my $1000 of extra tickets ($100 face value for each).

After landing in San Diego on Wednesday afternoon the day before the championship rounds started, I drove to Qualcomm Stadium, the hub for almost everyone who attended the Open since it was the only shuttle lot in town for the entire tournament. I figured with all the shuttle buses coming through there, maybe I could sell my tickets for upcoming round at the lot as people got off the buses.

When I drove into the lot, I saw a guy holding up a sign that said, "US Open tickets – Face value!"  I stopped to see what he had been experiencing.  Like me, he was having no luck, and he had an interesting observation I hadn't thought about until that moment.  He said, "I can't believe this community isn't supporting this tournament."

Maybe he had a point.  Although San Diego is one of my favorite cities, it did have a history of not supporting its local sports scene, like when the San Diego Clippers moving to LA in the 1980's, and the fact the Chargers still play in a relic of a stadium that pales in comparison to other stadiums in cities the same size as San Diego.

But overall, I felt it's not up to one city's fans to support a national tournament like the US Open.  The rest of the country wasn't without fault.  San Diego is a huge tourist destination that has plenty of flights and hotels to handle outside visitors, so it's not like these people wouldn't have a way to get there or a place to stay.

After thinking about it some more, though, I figured out who was most at blame: the USGA.

It was clear to me that they try to create an aura of scarcity for US Open tickets by holding what they call a "lottery" to get people to pony up money early for tickets that really aren't that hard to get if they were to sell them on a first-come, first-serve basis.  On top of that, the face value for the championship rounds is $100 each.  Sure, if you buy a full-week pass like I did, they throw in 3 practice rounds with the face value of those tickets being $40, and a playoff round (if necessary) for $100.  But the tickets that have the most interest – Thursday through Sunday rounds – are the ones most people would want, at least you would think.

On top of that, in my opinion the USGA sold an inordinate number of tickets to try to cash in.  I am told there were 42,000 tickets sold for each championship round.  At 100 bucks a pop -- which is a lot of money for the average American -- the law of supply and demand tells you that there's no way ticket prices on the open market will stay at that level.

So what I thought was going to be a great time at the tournament turned out to be a time-consuming exercise for me to limit my losses and sell tickets below face value.  I ended up spending a lot of time sending out emails, posting on Craig's List, eBay, and even going to restaurants hoping I would overhear someone needing extra tickets.  This ticket situation was starting to spoil my US Open trip.

Luckily I caught a small break when the USGA announced on Wednesday to pair Tiger, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott together on Thursday and Friday's opening rounds.  I went to Thursday's round and watched them play a few holes with each other, and that was cool.  Despite selling my extra ticket at a $40 loss, I had a good time.

It was an 8:00am tee-off for the threesome, and I got a couple hours of golf watching in.
There was one moment when I was walking along the right side of the 4th fairway when a marshall yelled, "Duck!"  Everyone covered their head, and the ball landed just a few feet away from me on the other side of the ropes.

Knowing this is the best time to see a golfer up close, I decided to stay and wait for him to come and hit his next shot.  Wouldn't you know it, it was Rocco Mediate's ball!  It was only Thursday and no one had any clue that he would be in contention at the end of the tournament.  But it was interesting to hear him crack his typical joke as he approached the ball, and watch this relative "no name" go through the thought process with his caddy just within a few feet of me where I could hear every word.  I also got to see his quirky gesticulations as he addresses the ball.  I hadn't really seen a pro golfer so jerky with their movements before, except maybe Sergio Garcia.  Mediate got off a good shot, walked away, and little did anyone know he would become a household name within the next few days.

The course was as awesome as I had expected, the weather was spectacular compared to the heat from my hometown of Austin, and I was getting to see a rare Tiger-Phil pairing!  I had seen Tiger play at a couple of tournaments over the years, and you never get bored watching him or seeing him walk right by you as he goes from one shot to the next.

After watching a couple of hours of golf, and more fruitless attempts to sell my tickets on the grounds, I decided it was time to go back to work because of all the work I had to do.

I couldn't make Friday's round because of work, either.  But since Tiger and Phil were going to play each other on Friday as well, I was actually able to sell all 4 tickets I had on eBay at a loss of $94 total, or about $76 face value for each ticket.  I hate to flush that kind of money down the toilet, but it could have been a lot worse.

With the weekend rounds coming up, I thought for sure I could sell the 2 extra tickets I had for face value.  I figured that since it was the weekend, people would have more time off, the tournament was getting more serious, and more people would want to go.  So I posted my tickets on Craig's List, figuring I would get some calls.

How wrong I was again!

I couldn't find one taker, there were still tons of tickets available, and I had to resort to selling my Saturday tickets to a slimy ticket broker in front of the gates for $15 each for a $170 loss.  Ouch!

Now I was getting livid.  Maybe that guy from the Qualcomm lot might have been right.  How could this region not support this tournament?

Despite my financial losses, I was intent to enjoy the experience.

But then another factor started denting my experience.  The crowds were so large (I guess many people had bought tickets at way below face value), there was no way I was going to be able to follow Tiger.  I kind of knew that beforehand, but I thought maybe if I watched him on one hole, then moved up 2 or 3 holes and waited for him to come through again, that would work for me like it had on Thursday.  No way that was going to happen on Saturday.  I was going to have to choose one hole, stick with it, and see Tiger come through just once.

To make matters worse, except for a wooden leaderboard (a throwback to the 1930s) that would change every few minutes to let you know the scores of other players, you are completely in the dark about what's going on.  In contrast, people who pay nothing and watch on TV know exactly what's happening every minute.

My next beef is this: why is it that people who pay $100 for a tournament ticket are at such a distinct disadvantage?  No cellphones, radios or TVs are allowed, and I can agree with those bans to a certain extent -- you can't have those kinds of distractions in the gallery.  But the USGA has got to come up with a way to modernize the viewing experience for people who pay lots of money to support the sport in person.  If it weren't for the chance to see Tiger, the average working Joe who attended a tournament for the first time would understandably be turned off by this experience.

In this age where people are accustomed to getting information NOW through PDAs and video replays…to be thrown back into the dark ages would completely turn off the fringe fan the USGA and PGA needs in order for the sport to thrive.

To address the problem, I suggest that big screens be placed all around the course, and when no group of golfers are addressing the ball, play on those screens what just happened to leaders at other holes.  That can give the gallery a sense of what is happening.

Another idea is to endorse a particular TV or radio maker that makes a radio without an external speaker so that they are authorized devices that can be brought in by fans.   That way none of these devices would be a distraction – the only way they can be heard is through headphones.

I actually saw some very cool, authorized TVs that were being provided to a finite number of American Express members.  These TVs had no external speaker, and they had multiple channels where you could get live feeds of what was going on around the course, along with narration from the TV broadcast crew.  They were awesome, but only 1500 of them were made available, and you had to get there early to score one.
This device could be the future of saving the game of golf and giving viewers a reason to get off their couch and go see a tournament live.  I'm a pretty big sports fan, and I've got to admit that I probably won't go to another tournament without one of these things.  Like many people, I need to know what's going on, especially when I have paid a lot of money to be there.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, on with my story about my Saturday experience.

I decided to park myself at the 11th hole, partly because I was going to have to leave a little early and return the rental car I no longer needed by a particular time, otherwise the rate would go to over $80 per day.  Again, another reason not to travel to a big tournament – gouging by rental car companies.

Tiger finally came through, which was cool as always, but he made a par and there weren't really a lot of fireworks.  That's when I had to leave, but I would be back on Sunday.

To my chagrin, after we got back to our car and stopped somewhere to eat, we saw on TV that Tiger had put together, as one sports analyst would later put it, "one of the most exciting hours of televised sports" he had ever seen.  After we left, we learned Tiger eagled two holes and birdied another in his last 6 holes, and we missed it!  To rub salt in the wound, here's what a San Diego Tribune sports writer wrote in his Sunday column about Tiger's last few holes on Saturday:

"What Woods did yesterday to Torrey Pines South was so absurd, it bordered on insanity.  It was jaw-dropping, head-scratching, thrill-ride golf that suggested the U.S. Open had conferred script approval on Steven Speilberg."

"To see it was to barely believe it.  To watch Woods repeatedly convert imminent disaster into dazzling breakthroughs was like watching an early installment of the Indiana Jones saga or a high-def highlight reel or Harry Houdini."

Jeez!  I was having no luck at all!  If I had been allowed to bring one of my pocket TVs, I could have at least followed the action on the shuttle bus as it was happening.

But no, for some reason golfers need to have absolute silence when they are lining up for a shot or putt.  Basketball players who shoot free throws have to deal with noise and distractions all the time, so why can't golfers?.  That's when I thought that someone needs to challenge this traditional thinking and get golfers to "buck up," because it's hurting fans when they can't bring in devices to let them know what's going on during historical runs like this.  I can't believe this problem hadn't been addressed long ago.  Am I the only person in the world who thinks this way?

Disappointed I had missed out on Tiger's epic run, I knew I was going to have to do something different to not miss any excitement that might occur on Sunday.  It's kind of a gamble when you're there, but you have to try to predict what hole is the most relevant where the tournament could be decided.  It's not always the 18th hole.  Sometimes it can be the 15th, 16th or 17th where a golfer can hit a big shot for a birdie or eagle to put the tournament out of reach.  And that would suck if you've been waiting at the 18th green for hours, only to find out through the wooden leaderboard that someone, somewhere, somehow has built an insurmountable lead.  Again, another disadvantage of not being at home watching it on TV, and saving yourself a 100 bucks.

So we decided to put our chips down on the 18th four to five hours before Tiger was scheduled to come through.  We parked ourselves underneath a tree just to the right of the green, with a great view of the pin if anything were to happen.

A short while later, this woman approached our spot who had one of these little American Express TVs so she could also get a great view of the green.  I immediately welcomed her and told her she could stay as long as she wanted, and if she ever needed to leave go get something to eat, I would even save her spot.  She was very nice as I watched the little TV over her shoulder and kept up-to-date with what was going on, and she even let me listen to one of the earpieces so I could hear the TV commentary.

NOW I finally felt like I wasn't in the dark.  THIS was the way that all people in the gallery should be able to see and hear what's happening around the course.  When she had to leave the spot for an hour, she was even nice enough to let me keep it and watch it temporarily.  That put her at risk of losing a $350 deposit she had to put down on the thing.  She didn't know me, and I could have left the area with the device without her ever seeing me again.  So I was deeply indebted to her.

Thankfully, our decision to stay at the 18th looked like it was going to pay off.  Tiger hadn't bolted out to a big lead, and while he was trying to make a run on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes, I swear there were about 50 people around us wanting a play-by-play of what was happening as we watched the action on the little TV.  People were starving for information, and we were their only source of information.  Although we were flattered they were hanging on every word we said, it doesn't have to be that way.

As we all know by now, as Tiger approached the 18th tee on Sunday, he was actually down one stroke to Rocco.  It was completely packed all around the green and where we stood, and now our decision to stay at the 18th with a good view of the green was the best decision I had made all week long.

As Tiger came up for his approach shot to the 18th green needing a birdie to stay alive, I didn't need the TV any longer.  I could just soak in what I was witnessing – one of the sports all-time greats needing to deliver in the clutch.  If Tiger didn't come through, this would have been the first major tournament  he would have lost while leading heading into the final round.  It was going to be historical, and we were there to witness it.

Of course, we all know what happened as Tiger put his approach shot within 20 feet of the hole.  As he walked up to the hole, everyone was cheering hoping that he would come up with a miracle putt to make the moment as dramatic as ever.

I had a clear shot of him hitting the put that tied him with Rocco, and the crowd absolutely exploded.  I've seen lots of great sports moments in person, probably the best being Vince Young scoring that touchdown against USC in the final seconds of the 2006 national championship game to upset the Trojans.  But I would have to say this one slightly topped it, as you could tell by Tiger's reaction.  No one had ever seen Tiger react like that.  And as sports columnists would write later on, it was not only the most exciting US Open ever, but probably the most exciting golf tournament ever played.   And Tiger's clutch moment at 18, and his emotional reaction, was the signature moment.

That putt sent the tournament to an 18-hole playoff on Monday.  With everyone pumped at the tournament about another round of golf to be played, I decided to hold up my 2 extra tickets to see if there would be any interest.  The USGA was not going to put any tickets up for sale to the playoff – you had to have bought one of the packages like I had.  I thought finally I was catching a break with my tickets.  I had something that people wanted, and I thought for sure I could sell them for face value.

A few people asked how much I was selling them for, but no one wanted to pay anything near face value.   So I thought no biggie, I'll go myself and hopefully be able to follow Tiger and Rocco since not that many people had these tickets.  It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch them up close and personal for 4 hours.  Or so I thought.

When I got to the course on Monday, it was absolutely packed.  NOW that there was real drama in the works, the people in the community decided to come...the Johnny come Lately's.  It was announced that 25,000 people had come out on Monday, exceeding my guess 5-fold.

I quickly realized there was no way I was going to be able to follow Tiger and Rocco, and I was going to have to pick one hole like I had on Sunday.  So 2 hours before they were scheduled to come through, I grabbed a spot at the 18th again, but this time much closer to the green.  I was right on the ropes "pin high" about 50 feet from the hole.  It was beautiful, and I hoped there would be more drama to come.

Since I had such a prime spot, it started filling up around me pretty quick.  But I made sure to reserve some space so that I could recruit someone with one of those little TVs to let me look over their shoulder in exchange for a spot on the ropes.  Luckily I found a kind soul who was willing to make the deal, and I was able to follow what was happening like the day before…until about the 14th hole when the entire system shut down.

Evidently it's all powered by a wireless network, and for Tiger and Rocco's next 5 holes, no one on the grounds could follow what was going on.  We scanned the crowd and saw lots of other people fiddling with theirs, with no one having any luck to make it work.

With really nothing to do but to watch a wooden leaderboard, I had a feeling things were going to get a little crazy.  Here you had about 10,000 people surrounding the 18th green and fairway with no information.  On top of that, since no one else was on the course except Tiger and Rocco, there was no restriction on people making noise to entertain themselves.  I knew it was just a matter of time before "The Wave" broke out, and it did!  Many times.

I don't think I had ever been at a golf tournament where people were hamming it up so much.  Normally they have to be so reserved for fear of disturbing the players in front of them, but since that wasn't a concern, it was a free-for-all.  When word circulated that Rocco was holding tight to Tiger and even took a 1-shot lead, the crowd started yelling in unison, "Let's go Rocco!  Let's go Rocco!"

I have to admit it was a lot of fun to be part of such a rare phenomenon: craziness at a golf tournament.

Finally, it was time for Tiger and Rocco to play the 18th, and we saw that Tiger was still one stroke down and had to make it up, or he would lose.

Rocco hit his first shot into a fairway bunker, and Tiger put his in the middle of the fairway.  The stakes were just as high as ever, and the crowd was now on the edge of its seat.  I can't explain how cool it was to see Tiger come down the fairway and prepare for his next shot with all that was at stake.  Everyone around me, including myself, couldn't believe we were in position to perhaps see one of the greatest moments in golf.  If Tiger hit his approach shot close to the hole for a chance at an eagle putt, he could make up the deficit in one hole and win the tournament, assuming Rocco got only a par.

Conversely, if Rocco hit his 3rd shot close to the hole and could get a birdie chance, then he could close the door on Tiger, a first in a major for Tiger.
Rocco's third shot landed quite a distance away that would make it unlikely he'd get a birdie, but the crowd rewarded him with thunderous applause to still get close enough for a sure par.

When Tiger hit his 2nd shot, the entire crowd couldn't wait for the ball to come down to see where it would end up.  It came to rest about the same distance away from the ball as Rocco's, but from a different angle.  So the question came down to if Rocco could hit a long miracle putt to win it?  Or would Tiger?

Regardless, I felt so fortunate I was there to witness it.  All those ticket-selling problems I had over the previous few days had become a fading memory.

As Tiger and Rocco made their way to the 18th green, the atmosphere was absolutely electric.  Everyone was on their feet thanking them for providing such incredible drama on the last hole of the playoff round.   Behind them came a brigade of photographers and media, but there was only one problem.  Many of these guys feel entitled that they can stand anywhere they want and block the view of people who had been waiting behind the ropes for hours.  But since this crowd already had gotten fired up through "The Wave" and Rocco chants over the past hour, there was no way these guys weren't going to hear about it.

Many of the photographers in front of us who refused to get down were chastised by hundreds of fans whose view they had just blocked.  They had no chance.  The yells and chants were relentless until every last one of them was down on their bellies with their cameras in front of them, like soldiers in a World War II battle scene aiming to shoot their rifles.  What never would have happened in previous tournament rounds was happening because of the will of the crowd.  It was nice to see the unfair 'traditions' of golf crumbling down before us.

But back to the action on the green.  Everyone immediately got quiet as Rocco lined up for his putt, hoping for that miracle.  It didn't happen.  He pushed it past the hole a bit. 

So now it was Tiger's chance to end the tournament.  If he makes this long eagle putt, he would win it.  But he also pushed it past the hole about 4 feet.

This is where my patience standing in that spot for 2 hours really paid off.  I had a perfect line on Tiger's putt for the birdie. The guy next to me thought it had a little break in it, but I thought it was a straight putt.  What's really interesting is that Tiger asked his caddy, Steve Williams, for his take on the line of the putt.  This is extremely unusual for Tiger to ask Steve for help for a putt, as Tiger would admit later.  But he wanted a second opinion.

What's cool is that what I thought was a straight putt, so did Tiger.  Tiger would line up for the putt, which was still a very big one because if he missed his and Rocco made his, Tiger would lose.

The silence in the crowd was incredibly eerie as Tiger addressed the ball, and knocked it in straight for the birdie!  I'm not a very good golfer, but it was very cool to see that my read on a big putt was the same as Tiger's.  Maybe we're not so different after all.  Right.

Faced with elimination, Rocco had to make his 4-foot putt to force a sudden-death playoff.  He showed he has the stones to make that kind of putt, making it and forcing everyone to go to the 7th hole.

I knew there was no way that I was going to get a chance to follow him because of the crowd, but luckily the wireless TV system started working again, and we were able to watch Tiger close the deal.  It was an amazing performance as we learned a couple of days later that Tiger knew he had a torn ACL and some stress fractures in his tibia before the tournament, and he still gutted it out to win his 14th major.

To close this out, I may have been frustrated spending a lot of time trying to unload my tickets, losing $400 total, missing a day of work, and even pulling an all-nighter getting back home from San Diego.  But the fact I was there to witness history – and considering the obstacles Tiger overcame – made it all worthwhile.  I saw what many experts, including Tiger himself, say what was not only his greatest tournament win, but also one of the greatest tournaments in golf history.