The lights went down, the crowd kicked up and John Rollins was
overcome by awe and envy. "You feel that rush? That's what I'm
talking about!" he shouted above the din. Rollins, 27, is a
third-year PGA Tour player who won almost $2 million in 2002, but
last Friday night he was just another face in the crowd when
Widespread Panic took the stage at the Municipal Auditorium in
New Orleans. Normally people pay to see Rollins perform, but as
he grooved to Widespread Panic's blues-rock beat, all he could
think was, These guys are good. "I'd rather be a big-time
musician than a golfer any day," Rollins said. "As a golfer
you're lucky if you hear crowd noise like this once in your
career. A guy like Dave Matthews gets to hear it all the time."
Such scenes were repeated all over town last week as the HP
Classic of New Orleans was being contested at English Turn
Country Club. The Tour tends to take over its host city most of
the time, but last week the HP Classic, which was won by Steve
Flesch on the first hole of a playoff with Bob Estes, was hardly
the biggest show in town. That distinction belonged to the 34th
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a.k.a. Jazzfest, 11 days
of music, food and debauchery that annually draws about a million
revelers to the city. The HP Classic attracted respectable crowds
by Tour standards--about 150,000 fans watched the tournament--but
that number did not match the 257,000 who, over the same period
of time, packed the Fair Grounds Race Course. There, music lovers
chose from an array of bands playing on 10 stages for eight hours
each day. The party carried on around the clock elsewhere in
theaters, nightclubs and the French Quarter.
The people who run the HP Classic know that they can't compete
with Jazzfest, so they've embraced the event, encouraging the
players to join the party. That's a big reason why a solid field
(11 of the top 25 players in the World Ranking) showed up for an
otherwise nondescript entry on the Tour calendar. "The people at
this tournament understand that when you're on the road 30 weeks
a year, it's the little things that can make the difference when
you're deciding where to play," said David Duval, who shot 74-75
to miss the cut by 10 strokes.
The HP Classic owes much of its popularity with the players to
tournament director Rick George, whom Hal Sutton calls
"unequivocally the best" in the business. (This was George's
fifth and last year as tournament director. On Monday he began
his new job as president of the Champions tour.) One of George's
main responsibilities was to make sure that every player, wife
and caddie could obtain whatever their hearts desired, from
dinner reservations to babysitters to concert tickets. He even
provided courtside seats to Games 5 and 6 of the NBA playoff
series between the New Orleans Hornets and the Philadelphia
76ers. "People have said we should have this tournament at a time
when Jazzfest isn't going on, but I disagree," George says. "It's
great to have things for people to do."
For a dozen or so players the highlight of the week was the April
29 fishing trip that George had prepared for by circulating a
sign-up sheet at other tournaments during the weeks leading up to
the HP Classic. The outing began at 6 a.m., when two Bell 206
Long Ranger helicopters picked up the players at the Louisiana
Superdome and whisked them 30 miles away to a fishing hole in
Lafitte. "The pilots buzzed around and did a few stunts for us,"
said journeyman pro Brad Lardon. "They flew low enough that we
could see some gators poking their heads out of the water." The
players spent the morning catching redfish and trout before being
flown to English Turn, the choppers alighting on the practice
range at 1:30 p.m.
"Some guys don't go because it interferes with their practice,
but they don't realize how important fishing is," said Lardon,
whose mind remained in Lafitte well into the afternoon. Looking
up from his spot on the range, he waved his seven-iron as if it
were a fishing rod and said, "For some reason it seems like I'm
casting from the top a little bit today."
While most Tour events are best suited to the Golf Channel, the
HP Classic could play on the Food Channel. Three huge crawfish
boils were held at English Turn--on Tuesday for the caddies, on
Wednesday for the players and on Saturday for the media. And on
Wednesday morning about 45 Tour wives attended a cooking clinic
and luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Canal Street, with
Emeril Lagasse as their instructor. Working on a raised platform
with tilted mirrors hanging above to afford a better view of his
pots and pans, Lagasse prepared pan-seared snapper and crawfish
couscous, at one point hurrying when Jay Don Blake's wife, Marci,
called out, "We have some pregnant women back here who'd sure
like something to eat."
His performance over, Lagasse, who said he was an 18 handicap
"last time I checked," hopped into his black Mercedes SUV and
drove the 11 miles to English Turn, where he played in the pro-am
with Lee Westwood. (As Lagasse worked the crowds lining the
fairways, Westwood's Scottish caddie, David Renwick, turned to
one of the other amateurs in the group and said, "Who is this
man? He's signing more autographs than the players.") There were
food stations set up on every third hole during the pro-am, after
which the participants feasted on local delicacies personally
prepared by chef Paul Prudhomme.
The Big Easy got even easier once the tournament started on
Thursday. Without the swirling winds that typically blow through
town this time of year, the players feasted on the short (7,116
yards) English Turn course and its flat, soft greens. Friday's
cut came at five under, the lowest in the 55-year history of the
tournament. On Sunday, though, the wind returned at a more
typical 15 to 20 mph, and everyone's score headed north.
Everyone's except Flesch, who made up seven shots on overnight
leader Scott Verplank with a brilliant seven-under 65. That put
Flesch at 21 under for the tournament and into a playoff with
Estes, which Flesch, a non-winner in six years on Tour, won by
sinking a 35-foot bomb for birdie on the first extra hole. "The
only way I was going to have a chance is if the wind blew hard
enough where the leaders might struggle," he said.
The hard part for many of the players was resisting the
nightlife, although most of them snuck out at least once during
the week. "I've seen a lot of guys out this week whom you almost
never see leave their hotel rooms," said Rollins's caddie, Barry
Blalock. The golf fans had it made. They could check out the
tournament without feeling as if they were totally missing
Jazzfest, because George arranged to have bands perform at
English Turn after Saturday's and Sunday's rounds.
Beside the standard fare of terrific food, killer music and cheap
liquor, New Orleans also offered plenty of Southern hospitality.
No player embraced that vibe more snugly than John Daly, who
spent several hours each day sitting in a 25-foot trailer in a
parking lot two miles from the course, hawking items from his
Team Lion apparel and merchandise line. "It only takes about four
hours to play golf," he said. "What am I supposed to do the rest
of the time? Work out? Practice? Not me, bud."
Daly had to withdraw from the tournament in the second round when
he sprained his right hand after hitting a root on his second
shot at the par-5 15th hole, on which he made a 9. A few hours
later he was back at the trailer, gingerly signing autographs
even though his hand was wrapped in ice. Daly plans to peddle his
wares at every event he enters and has already been in touch with
his friend Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, about
setting up shop in the Texas Stadium parking lot during next
week's Byron Nelson Classic. "There's going to be 75,000 people
in that lot," Daly said. "We won't be able to keep this stuff in
Daly was interrupted when two white-haired men approached the
trailer. "Welcome to New Orleans," one of them said. After buying
a couple of hats (and having Daly sign them), the second man
said, "The guy who's Number 1 in the world won't come here
because he says it's too hot and humid. It doesn't matter to us.
We like to watch the other guys anyway."
New Orleanians may be the only people who can credibly say,
"Tiger's not here? His loss." That's especially true during
Jazzfest, which is why the HP Classic's new tournament director,
Billy Hicks, hopes the Tour stop will always be held concurrently
with the festival. "The only thing I don't like about it is that
it's hard for me to get over to the Fair Grounds, and I love
music," Hicks says. That's a common complaint in this town,
though it was alleviated somewhat on Sunday evening, when a
four-piece brass band accompanied Flesch to the 18th green for
the awards ceremony.
As Flesch held aloft the crystal trophy that goes to the winner,
the group Music could be heard in the distance entertaining fans
at the food-and-beverage tent. It was the Big Easy's way of
saying, "Y'all come back now, hear?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL COMEBACK KID Flesch, who closed with a 65, made up seven strokes before winning in a playoff.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL EAT, DRINK AND...During the Classic (from top) Prudhomme sizzled, Daly hawked hats, Lagasse spoke with Sonya Toms, and Rollins saw Widespread Panic.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK OLIVIER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL SAVING GRACE Estes, one of the best bunker players on Tour, made a clutch par save at the 72nd hole to force the playoff.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL OUT OF LEFTFIELD Flesch, 35, had gone 173 starts on Tour without a win.
Said a Tour caddie, "I've seen a lot of guys out this week whom
you almost never see leave their hotel rooms."
"What am I supposed to do the rest of the time?" Daly said after
his round. "Work out? Practice? Not me, bud."