It was 2002, and I was a young 36, if such a thing is possible. Possessed by a full family and a job I intended to keep, I was in possession of something new to the world of golf ticket sales: the opportunity to purchase USGA-Member tickets to an Open championship on a public course. I called my running mate, or perhaps I emailed him, and asked if he wanted in. His answer was a quick and hearty Yes, so the die was cast and plans were made. This would be the first tournament trip I would make with John Daken, our Travelin’ Duff.

John was a Brooklyn boy, growing up in the shadow of some bridge that he revered, whose name I never remembered. He played sports against Joe Torre as a kid, and remembered how physically superior Torre was to every other kid in the area. The Duff and I spent a night in the Brownstone that his sister still owned at the time, because it reminded him so much of where he grew up. Had I been as interested in photography then as I am now, we might never have left the old neighborhood. As it was, we moved on to Lawn Gisland, as he pronounced it, where the tournament would take place. I had no idea, at the time, that a college friend lived so close to the golf course. She and her family would be a place I would stay on other trips, but those stories are for another piece.

Duff had a college chum who lived not too far from Jones Beach. Jones Beach state park sits about 14 miles from Bethpage. It was where the NYS parks department had decided to park public automobiles for those attending that US Open. I’m certain they did it for one simple reason: they owned both properties. We would drive about ten minutes to the park, where we would go through a security checkpoint. It wasn’t a super-intimidating nor effective one; a guy ahead of us put his clamshell cell phone under his hat, on top of his head. Security wanded his torso and legs, but never thought to ask him to take off the cap. This protocol has since been updated.

I don’t recall the particulars of meals had during our week on Long Island, and I so wish I did. I know that we ate uncomfortable meals at his friend’s home. Turned out the fellow and his wife were going through difficult, mid-marriage times. They ultimately split up, which was sad to hear. It was an early reminder that things we take for granted, often are lost to us. I believe that Duff and I remained good friends until he left us 18 months ago, and I value that friendship. I know that we took them out to dinner, or brought them wine and sponge candy (always a winner for non-Buffalonians), and did much to express our gratitude for the beds they provided.

What made this trip unique, as opposed to subsequent ones, was the complete lack of press credentials. We returned to US Open and PGA Championships with passes that got us in the gate, to the press center, in the lunch lines. We never took these for granted, but we certainly valued those first Bethpage tickets for the money they had cost us. I remember peeking around green netting, toward the area where the equipment trailers were stored. Since BuffaloGolfer was in its infancy, as was the popular internet, we had no idea of our stored potential. I went from trailer to trailer, as the Duff shook his head. He anticipated the arrival of security or police forces at any moment, I’m certain. I was never detained, and most equipment folks paused a moment to speak with me, even thought they had little understanding of the world wide web. 

I remember distinctly a smile from Justin Leonard. He had teed off on the 8th hole during the Monday practice round, when crowds were still thin. This afforded us unfettered access to the golfers, and they were not yet in championship-focus mode. Some poor fan yelled out in support “Go Deacs,” confusing Leonard’s U Texas Longhorns with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Leonard smiled and walked on. I caught his eye and said “I went to Wake, and I think she was cheering for me.” That brought another smile and a laugh from the Longhorn, and a general sense of approval from those in attendance. First brush with borrowed fame: check. The Duff smiled, laughing and wondering how someone could possibly not know that Leonard was a Longhorn. The Duff loved his golf.

The weather at Bethpage was warm to hot all week that June, 17 years ago. Cold drinks were selling out at tents across the course. It wasn’t the oozefest that later tournaments at the site would become, then came Sunday. Cold winds swept the course, and the rains and lightning came. Duff and I had selected seats behind the 18th green early, in anticipation of Tiger’s triumphant arrival. The security guards chased us away from our vantage point, so we went in search of … coffee? Yup. Tents sold out of that, too, never anticipating run of cold, nor on the dark brew, at week’s start. By the time we were able to return to the grandstand, others had pilfered our seats (this isn’t Augusta for spectators, ya know?) and we were condemned to a space near the green, between the 18th fairway Black and the 1st fairway Red. As luck found us, also in the abyss was Padraig Harrington’s wife. Harrington was paired with Woods that day. The Irishman lost by a few handfuls, but the experience doubtless helped him to win two majors, later in his career. Harrington’s wife was put off by the raucous, obnoxious nature of the crowd, but that’s only how outsiders perceive the loud of Yawkers.

And just like that, it was over. We returned to western New York the next day, we solved the world’s problems along the I-90, and we promised to never stick around the course again on a championship Sunday. Too crazy, too difficult to move, to hard to get a look at the players.

This weekend, as the PGA Championship moves to May and visits Bethpage Black, I remember my friend and all that we shared, in the 20 years of friendship that we stole from Father Time. The Duff was my mentor, my partner in crime, my confidante. I like to think that I returned a bit of his long-ago youth, with my hair-brained schemes and my brushes with US Open security. I know that he passed on secrets of being a good father and husband, and certainly, of being a friend. If someone writes of me in this manner one day, you’ll know that any debt to me, is a debt to the Duff. If you want to read a bit of his thoughts from that time, click here and read June 2002.