The last couple of days has been very tough on not only our country but the world. We all miss golf and our weekly routine of tournament golf and we can only hope that we can get back to our normal routine. Personally, for me and a lot of you, this week is a favorite with the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, which had to be canceled. It’s too bad but our country and the world have other more dramatic problems with the Coronavirus, which we all hope will run its course and we can get back to all of our normal routines.
In talking with fellow writer Gary Van Sickle, who also was saddened with the cancellation, we dreamed about any way that this great event could go on. But the reality is there are more pressing issues which make it impossible, but for Gary and I, we have a vivid imagination that came up with a whimsical tale that the Match Play could go on this week. So here is nothing more than a fun look that is completely real in our minds but in reality nothing more than a fictitious fable.
It’s a seven-part series that will be put up every night, so I hope you enjoy Part 2 of:
Our (fabricated ) WGC-Dell Match Play
Part 2 – It’s off to Fiji
By Gary Van Sickle & Sal Johnson
Monday, March 16th – It’s off to Fiji
It’s hard to believe, but everything has fallen into place. Just 96 hours ago the PGA Tour was on the cusp of canceling not only the Players Championship but the Valspar Championship, the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, and the Valero Texas Open. Now the Match Play is going to happen, while the Valspar and Valero Texas will have mini-events to help their charities.
NBC got its equipment ready, and it’s being transported to a cargo hangar at Jacksonville International Airport. Company officials were concerned about taking their mobile trucks, so they stripped the equipment out of them and boxed it up. They will put the trucks back together in a trailer next to the hotel and build a mobile unit. They are sending 35 cameras, a full replay unit and countless miles of cable. Amazingly, they were able to consolidate everything to fit onto one 747 cargo plane with room leftover for a brand new RF Truck (Radio Frequency) that is in Los Angeles. There are even 20 business-class seats for the NBC technicians. Because the plane had to make a stopover for fuel, the 747 is flying to Ontario, California (30 miles outside of Los Angeles), where the RF Trunk will be picked up before the long flight to Fiji.
Two other 747s have been outfitted with special business class seats, and they will fit nearly 220 people each, including some players and families, officials, caddies, media and the 150 or so folks from NBC and Golf Channel.
As for the Crystal Skye 777, only 25 players will be on it with either their wives or caddies. The other players are with their families on the other 747. The planes with players will travel together, taking off from Florida at the same time. They will land in Acapulco for refueling for the 6,000 miles, 13-hour flight to Nadi, Fiji. A few players, including Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler, were on the plane last December and know what to expect. But it’s a new experience for the others. Because only 50 seats were taken by players, this left room for the NBC announcers, PGA Tour officials and one seat for me. That only seems right since I was the one that got this in motion.
Because NBC was able to get everything together and consolidate things there is some concern about putting it all together in a strange country and under different conditions that they are not used to. So the network wanted to be able to have some kind of rehearsal. The commissioner had an idea that would thank the players, and they also thought it would be fun. The idea was to stage two additional mini-events. The first, on the Sunday before the Match Play, will have the players competing in an 18-hole event that will be called the Valspar Championship. It will get full coverage on NBC and Golf Channel. An added bonus is the fact that Fiji is 16 hours ahead of New York. So, when it’s 10 am Monday morning in Fiji, it’s 6 pm Sunday night on the east coast, and all of the matches can be played in prime time. Another added bonus, this time of year is sunrise comes at 6 am so if golf starts at 7 am, it’s 3 pm on the east coast so it’s perfect for doing television.
The second mini-event would occur after the Match Play tournament. One of the hazards of match play is the possibility of getting a poor match-up in the final, resulting in a runaway match. So, tour officials thought that they could use the fact that all of the other players are still around to stage a stroke-play event and have them play an hour after the Match Play final starts. That eliminates the need for a consolation match, this final day event will be called the Valero Texas Open. Of course, neither stroke play event will be official, but it will be fun to have some good golf, plus the players will donate all the money won to the tournament charities.
The journey was heaven, and it was fun to see the players having a good time. The plane is beyond words. It’s the first time I have never felt claustrophobic in a plane because the ceilings are high, there is plenty of room to walk around, and there are a couple of lounge areas. The seats had the biggest TV monitors I had ever seen on a plane and the seat turned into a very comfortable bed. After this, I don’t know if I’ll be able to fly coach again.
Wednesday, March 18th – Fiji at last
We are due to arrive around 11 in the morning. Because we have crossed the international date line, we have lost a day but will gain that back on our return. In the final hour of the journey, we could see the crystal-clear Pacific and a large cluster of islands and islets. Some of the islands have shaggy looking volcano peaks and miles of exotic beaches.
The main airport in Fiji is in Nadi, on the west side of the island. Nadi is the principal port of entry for air travelers to Fiji, even though it is on the opposite (western) side of the island, Viti Levu, from the nation’s capital and largest city, Suva.
As we landed and started making our way towards the terminal, I was surprised to see a welcoming party of a few thousand people. We were the first of the three planes in and got a warm welcome from the locals as we got off the plane. At the same time, local officials met us and took our temperatures to remind us that yes there was still a coronavirus problem. But it was pretty quick. The goal of this trip is to make sure everyone that we are bringing is healthy, we have even brought a Infectious Disease Specialists with us to make sure everyone is healthy and stays that way.
There were three buses waiting outside and everyone on our flight except Adam Scott and his caddie were staying at the Intercontinental Fiji Golf resort and Spa which is at the golf course. Scott, who has been to Fiji before, wanted to stay at the Fiji Marriott Resort at Momi Bay which is about 20 minutes from the course. He told us on the plane what a great hotel the Marriott is, he loved that half of the rooms were over-water bungalows in which you can step into the lagoon from your private stairs and plunge into Momi Bay. He also found the beach nicer than the one at the Intercontinental. One of the nice things on how this thing worked was the availability of the Intercontinental, the Marriott, and, a bit further up the road, the Sheraton Fiji resort, where most of the NBC technicians would be staying.
The Fiji government and the tourism office did a terrific job of setting everything up, a Herculean task to get accomplished in a weekend. The drive on the Queens Highway took 50 minutes and we made it to Natadola. Everyone was happy to get to the hotel, even after a luxurious 20 hours on the Crystal Skye. Once we got to the Intercontinental, we had a choice of touring the grounds or going straight to the rooms. I needed to walk around and loved everything about the hotel. The beach was steps away, and there were several pools to choose from, as well as a full range of spa amenities and treatments. But I was more than ready for a good night’s sleep after my walk.
Sunday, March 22nd – The Valspar Championship
It may be Sunday in America, but as we wake up it’s Monday morning in Fiji. We have now been on the island for six days, and everyone is happy and, thank goodness, free of the virus. We are seeing the horror going on in the United States and elsewhere in the world as the coronavirus is taking hold. I am stunned to see there are 30,000 reported cases in the United States, and my bosses at Dell are telling me how difficult things are getting day by day. But in Fiji, things couldn’t be better. The players are happy to be here, and last night Golf Channel was able to do a live two-hour telecast showcasing how things are shaping up and how the players are getting ready.
The folks at Dell were shocked to see the early returns, with Golf Channel getting its highest ratings of all time for the two-hour special. Fiji may be over 7,000 miles away, but the buzz around the world for this event is big. The players and their families are enjoying Fiji, and we are free to do whatever we want. There is zero talk of the virus.
But at breakfast on Friday, in talking with Fijian government officials they had some alarming news. Fiji had its first reported coronavirus victim, a 27-year-old flight attendant who had been to the United States and New Zealand. On his way to breakfast, we heard the news that the flight attendant’s mother has tested positive, and it’s causing concern. But government officials are not overly worried about having to cancel today’s play. We realize it’s a good thing we flew over when we did. They wouldn’t have allowed us into the country if we came three or four days later.
The players are concerned about being able to return to the States after all of the horror stories they are reading of people that have been stuck in places like Peru, Romania, and Poland. Fortunately, the Tour got President Trump’s word that if everyone is healthy, there will be no problem returning. We probably will have to fly into a military base, but everything will be ok.
The Fiji government made sure that NBC got all the forklifts, cranes and scaffolding it needs in time for today’s tournament. Because the course and most people in Fiji don’t use many radio frequency channels, NBC is going to be able to use RF to transmit pictures back to the TV compound, allowing them to use half the cable they normally would.
The players are ready for today’s tournament. The course is in great shape, which had been a concern of the players on the flight over. About the only bad thing is that the winds pick up to about 15 mph after 2 pm, but, with the time change, play needs to be finished by then, and the course should play more easily.
The field was set off in threesomes, based on the world rankings. However, because the field is 34 with the alternates, the first groups have twosomes. Chez Reavie and Sergio Garcia would go off first, followed by Kevin Kisner and Cameron Smith. After that is Billy Horschell, Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood. The last group has Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, and Brooks Koepka.
The first casualty of the week came when Chez Reavie had to pull out. He was snorkeling yesterday and stepped on some coral cutting up his right foot and will be unable to play for a bit. So, the pairings were redone with all threesomes. Playing in the first group, Sergio Garcia makes birdie on his first three holes, but stumbles on the par 3, 4th hitting it into the water right of the green and making double bogey. He went on to finish with a 71. Matt Kuchar found his way around the par 5s, making birdies on all of them and with a birdie on the 9th and a bogey at the 16th shot a 4 under 68.
Tiger Woods, who has not played that much this week and spent a lot of time at the beach and sailing, had a very unusual round. He hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation and didn’t make a single putt over six feet. He birdied the par 5, 5th and the par 5 11th, before trying to drive the short par 4 12th, running into trouble off the tee and found himself unable to get his second shot on and missed a seven-footer for par. His 71 put him way down the pack.
Of the leaders, Rory McIlroy hit the ball the best but didn’t put well. “I am still having trouble adjusting to these greens,” he said after a 4 under 68. He missed four putts inside five feet.
Brooks Koepka is showing signs of his game coming back to life. He struggled in the events he played in January and February, shooting 81 in the third round of the Honda. He then got on the phone with Butch Harmon, who agreed that maybe another pair of eyes could spot something. After his final round, Koepka flew to Las Vegas for what he thought would be two days of hard work. After looking at about four swings, Harmon had seen enough and gave him some words of wisdom and minor changes. Koepka then played great in the first round of the Players, and it was no surprise to see him blister the Natadola Bay course with a seven-under-par 65.
In the end, Koepka was good enough to take a one shot victory over Justin Thomas, who failed to make birdies on the 16th and 17th holes. Koepka was also a shot better than Jon Rahm, who after a slow start shooting one-under on the front, birdied the par 5 11th, drove the green on 12 and made an eagle and then birdied 16 and 17 for his 66.
At the end of the day, it was a big success. NBC and Golf Channel had a good day, and everything seemed to work, even with short crews. In the States and across the world people are starting to notice that the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship is happening, giving sports fans a nice change of pace from the dreary life of the Coronavirus.
Tomorrow will be a big day as the players get ready for the Match Play Championship. In the evening is a big Fijian-style luau in which the draw will be determined. This is going to be done a bit differently than in past match plays, as the players will get to pick their opponents based off their world ranking. Rory will be first off and pick whoever he wants to play against
Tuesday March 24th
It’s a bit confusing because because of the time change, it may be Tuesday morning in Fiji, but Monday afternoon on the East Coast. Because of that, players will tee off at 8 am, which is 4 pm which means all the shows will be in primetime. So players have been to the course early, playing the course, working on their games and then the disappear after lunch as go to the beach or tour the Island. The government has been great in setting up tours for the players along with making a helicopter available and in the last week, most of the players have seen Fiji from the air. For Sunday’s event, around 2,500 locals showed up and each day there are around a thousand locals that have watched the practice rounds. For most of the people of Fiji, it’s the only time they can see the best players in the world in their country and they are loving every bit of it.
There have been special rooms at the club set up for players and family members to relax and have some lunch, but tonight will be the first big social event. On the beach at the Intercontinental will be a Fijian style luau from not only the players but most of the people in the traveling party including the media and techs from NBC and Golf Channel. On top of having a great evening of local food, drink, and dancing, the brackets and pairings for Wednesday’s first round of the Match Play will be picked.
Luau Draw Party
The firepits around the infinity pool crackled and sizzled. The twilight sky was dark enough looking straight up to see the first few twinkling stars, yet beyond the horizon over the ocean was a sliver of incandescent orange.
The PGA Tour has never had a pairings party like this one. The setting, here in Fiji at the amazing Intercontinental Hotel, was almost surreal. Besides the view, there were servers in Fijian garb gliding around the pool with appetizers and drinks. Yes, adult beverages were in play even though 32 of the world’s best golfers were about to kick off the Dell World Match Play Championship in two days.
There was constant chatter, sometimes interrupted by loud laughter, as players and caddies and wives and tournament officials plus media mingled. The party was starting to roll until the moment of truth arrived. That’s when the tour commissioner started the proceedings and the tournament’s innovative new pairings format suddenly became a stark reality.
It sounded like a fun idea until it came time to hold the draft. The top-ranked 16 players in the field got to choose their first-round opponents. Match play always gets personal but now, with this twist, every first-round match was personal before it went to the first tee.
Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 1, was casually dressed in shorts, a Fiji Airways T-shirt and sandals but he looked extremely uncomfortable when he stepped forward to join Monahan and select his opponent.
“I don’t want to make any waves,” McIlroy said, “so I’ll just go by the rankings and take the lowest-ranked player, Henrik Stenson.”
The commissioner told McIlroy that Stenson wasn’t the lowest-ranked player in the field. Because half a dozen players ranked among the top 32 had withdrawn due to travel problems or family issues related to the coronavirus, the lowest-ranked player in the field was actually No. 38, Sergio Garcia.
“Oh,” McIlroy gulped. “I didn’t know that. Well, I’ll stick with Henrik. He’s a friend and I know even if I get beat, it’ll be a fun day with him.”
Jon Rahm, ranked No. 2, was up next. He chose to play Cameron Smith, No. 35.
Third-ranked Brooks Koepka, dressed in gym shorts and a tank top, couldn’t hold back a wry grin when he arrived at the podium. He chose Kevin Na, No. 30. Na, lounging on a chaise, nearly spit out his drink when he heard his name. He sat up, smiled widely and said, “Aw, c’mon man!” There was laughter and scattered applause.
Justin Thomas, No. 4, picked Mexico’s Abraham Ancer. “I got to know Abe at the Presidents Cup and he’s a good guy, I like him,” Thomas said. “So I just wanted to make sure he didn’t have to play Tiger (Woods) again after that Presidents Cup match.”
There was loud chuckling. “Although I’m sure Tiger wouldn’t mind,” Thomas said.
All eyes turned to Woods, who pulled the brim of his ball cap down over his eyes but couldn’t hide his wide smile.
Dustin Johnson, ranked fifth, said, “I dunno, give me Im, I guess.” Song Jae Im, standing near the infinity pool, raised his glass in salute when he heard.
Adam Scott chose Rickie Fowler. Next up was Patrick Reed. You could’ve heard a pin drop. Reed grinned and said, “Well, it’s too bad Rory and I couldn’t have a rematch but I’ll play another Ryder Cupper, Mathew Fitzpatrick.” After Reed returned to his seat, you could almost hear the crowd exhale.
Patrick Cantlay opted for Matt Kuchar and joked, “Kooch, are you paying a caddie this week or carrying your own bag?” A loud roar erupted and Kuchar, in the middle of eating some kind of slider, laughed so hard he nearly had to spit it out of his mouth.
Webb Simpson chose Billy Horschel, Tommy Fleetwood picked Hideki Matsuyama because, he said, “I’d like to see another 63 like at Sawgrass.” Matsuyama smiled and gave him a small bow.
Then it was Woods, ranked No. 11. He wore his usual TW cap and a white Nike T-shirt that said, “Just Do It.” Woods asked Monahan for the field list. “Who’s left?” he asked. After he scanned the remaining players, Woods said, “How about two guys over 40 playing each other? I’ll take Lee Westwood.”
Xander Schauffele chose Tyrrell Hatton, Bryson DeChambeau picked Paul Casey and Justin Rose selected Kevin Kisner, ranked 36th. “Nobody wants to play Kiz because he chips and putts so well, I guess that’s why he’s still left,” Rose said. “I need the challenge.”
Marc Leishman was next. “Well, this is great,” he said. “I didn’t want to play Kiz, either, and now I’ve gotta pick from a Ryder Cup legend and the reigning U.S. Open champion, sheesh, mate. All right, I’ll take Sergio Garcia.”
Tony Finau, ranked 16th, didn’t have to pick. He was left with Gary Woodland.
The picks were over and Monahan thanked the players for coming. As he finished, McIlroy rushed up to the microphone, a drink in hand, and said, “Hey, Jay, this draft was a great idea.” He paused, grinning. “Let’s never do it again!”
McIlroy got a roar from the crowd for that while Monahan smiled, nodded his head and clapped.
The sun had slipped behind the ocean on the far horizon. The night was about to close the window on the last remnants of the day. The firepits, dying out, were no longer crackling, just glowing brightly.
Within minutes, a few players got up and began sauntering back to their hotel rooms.
It was almost time to play golf.
Here is the bracket for the
In part III it’s round one of the Match Play championship.