AUSTIN, Texas — The elevated heart rate, the weight of a thousand pairs of eyes upon you, and the fear of impending disaster at every moment...
These are just a few of the sensations a dad feels when they're out in public with their toddler.
But it's my duty to exercise and stimulate my nearly 3-year-old daughter as much as possible while hopefully mitigating property damage and personal injury. With that in mind there could be worse places to spend the day together than attending a PGA Tour event.
And it just so happened one was down the road from where we live. So on a Friday, Penny and I played hookie from work and daycare and spent the afternoon at at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play. Kids under 18 get in free per each ticketed adult.
I've been to quite a few pro golf tournaments but until this week I'd never given much thought to the kid facilities or experience. I'd just assumed the tiniest, most unpredictable humans are discouraged, what with the hope for decorum and all the various roped-off areas. But last year's Open at Carnoustie was an epiphany. With the final group on the 71st hole, Xander Schauffele's approach shot from the right rough was interrupted by a wailing toddler in a stroller. It was a light-hearted moment in a tense situation even if it mortified the mother. Xander handled it beautifully.
Considering the Scots represent many of the "community golf" ideals we strive for in this game, I felt it was appropriate - no, my duty - to bring my own spawn to the match play.
What could go wrong?
We arrived to Austin Country Club in the late morning before the crowds grew big. Tiger Woods was out on the front nine and getting around was pretty manageable for the two of us. I didn't have a stroller. I figured the never-ending energy reserves of a child would suffice. As we arrived at the gates Penny seemed a little unsure of these unusual surroundings and asked me to carry her.
We made our way to the epicenter of the spectator experience, the fan village between the two par 5s on the back nine. There were a handful of local vendors serving tacos and sandwiches and ice cream. Next to it was an indoor interactive village with hands-on product demos. There was even a nursing room and separate area for smaller kids (never saw proper diaper changing facilities, however). Outside, sitting areas with live music and face painting made the place seem more like an art fair than golf match. A guitar and makeup. That's all Penny needed to perk up.
Within minutes, Penny's face was all inked up and she was a dancing fool. Life was good. We weren't exactly watching golf (I could watch players walk up the 16th fairway, at least), but she was having fun and not in harm's way. A little putting green setup caught her eye and she asked to try it out. Sure! We knocked it around a little bit. She still won't let me show her how to hold the club properly, but hey, she was enthused, and even knocked in a putt of similar length to what Matt Kuchar didn't concede to Sergio Garcia the next day.
Not long after she had her putting fix, she was ready to run wild. I was prepared for this. She runs everywhere and typically barefoot. With little warning she was off, darting down towards the 13th hole (drawn to short par 4s like her dad). Something I've joked about with moms is how when a kid is running wild in public under their watch, onlookers might flash a judgmental glance or remark. But when you're a dad, everyone is simply over the moon you're putting in the effort. It takes a village to facilitate a successful daddy-daughter outing. I am used to this endearing look from women now as my daughter runs amok in hotel lobbies, commercial kitchens, etc. They'll laugh, corral her back towards safety then smile and tell me how cute she is. "You're doing great!" is a regular compliment tossed my way as I shrug my shoulders.
On this day, while she was gallivanting along Pete Dye's mounding, I was terrified she'd try to run under the ropes and into the fairway. But instead she took interest in the spectator tents bordering the holes. To her, they represented a kind of "ice castle" (parents, you know what I'm talking about). Any stairs she can sing on and tell me I can't come up as she hurls pretend icicles at me is her favorite place. She sang and danced on various tent stair cases for about a half hour. I've never had so much idle time to admire a tour event's infrastructure build.
FREE GROW-THE-GAME TIP TO USGA: Underwrite the production of Frozen 3: Elsa at the Arendelle Open. 10 million enthusiastic young girls will sign up to play golf immediately.
I should mention at this point that we were in VIP areas I wasn't credentialed for. Few gatekeepers cared when she ran past them and I chased after her inside. They mostly just laughed at us. In the VIP area off 15, she grabbed a complimentary banana and apple and made her way to an unused front row seat paid for by a local insurance company. The match of Jason Day and Phil Mickelson came along and we had some of the best seats in the house. The crowd came to a hush as they prepared to hit their approach shots.
"Quiet," I whispered to Penny.
"FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FOREVERRRRRR...!!!!"
Right on cue. Toddlers relish nothing more than breaking silence. I tried hushing her but she just screamed louder until I picked her up and ran her inside. She hasn't yet understood when you sneak your way in somewhere you should keep a low profile. Was the singing as loud as I thought? Day, the old pro, didn't seem to flinch. He has kids.
We tooled around the giant tent a little longer. At one point, we heard a huge roar.
"What was that, dada?" Asked Penny.
I glanced over to a TV and seconds later, sure enough, Tiger holed out from the 13th fairway for eagle. It sure would have been nice to see in person, given I was about 100 yards away. But I also wondered if, had we been in the crowd, Penny would somehow interrupt him and spoil the moment. I should mention how thankful I am for televisions all over the place at the golf match (what percentage of the fans at an event are even watching the live golf? 10, 20 percent tops?). Even if I was watching the exact same Golf Channel coverage millions were all over the country, it was still pretty nice to be among the townsfolk and hear the roars in person.
Penny appeared to be losing a step.
As we played a fan version of military golf zigzagging back towards the main spectator village, we caught Tiger teeing off on the 16th hole. I told Penny who it was and she growled. Appropriate. Years later, I can tell her she saw the Big Cat live at least once. Mission accomplished.
We headed back to the fan village but first she hung out in an empty golf cart for awhile. She was pretty upset I wouldn't take her for a drive (maybe if your dad was Slugger White, honey). Up in the village, Dell had an interactive setup showing off their new tech, but the tablet-controlled remote cars game we tried kept needing to be rebooted. Next door we found the comfort and reliability of analog magnetic blocks. Mothers with young children were also in there catching a breather. I certainly wasn't the only parent there. Don't any of these kids have school?
We finished out the afternoon about four hours after our arrival by getting big Amy's Ice Cream cones (no kid sizes) - a truly terrible and typical dad call on my part. It's not because Amy's isn't delicious; we frequent the one by our house. But Penny was sticky head-to-toe in minutes. Sensing disaster I stripped her to the diaper to save her only clothes. That drew more looks and points and laughs.
In the words of Michael Bluth, it was about as good of a time as any to call it a day. As we walked out, I thought about dunking her by her sticky ankles into Lake Austin, but I wouldn't want her to think that's proper match play etiquette.
So would I do it all over again? Well, I have to say I saw about one golf shot per hour while we were there. For the golf fan, that's pretty excruciating. But she had a lot of fun. As she ran up and down the stairs in the tent village, I reminisced how as a child I would play under the bleachers at college hockey games at Yost Ice Arena. I even got pretty sticky down there. I ended up playing hockey thru college and into adult beer leagues. On this day at Austin Country Club, there seemed to be some moments where my daughter was, just maybe, a little bit into golf. When she made her own putts in the village, she smiled and people cheered. They probably sounded like Tiger roars to her.