It had rained 2½ inches the night before, so Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, was a muddy mess when I arrived Saturday morning for the third day of the BMW Championship golf tournament.
After two rounds at the PGA Tour’s penultimate event of the season — part of the FedExCup Playoffs — Australia’s Jason Day was five strokes clear of the field, at 18 under par. (Day would go on to win by six strokes, finishing Sunday’s final round at 22 under for the tournament to retain his lead in the FedExCup standings.)
When the grounds opened Saturday just after 9 a.m., throngs of fans streamed in, and so did I. The first tee times would not be until 10, but there was still plenty to see and do. Many fans rushed for the coveted bleacher seating at several holes. Others watched players warm up at the practice green and driving range.
As I made my way to the media center, I was immediately struck by how amazing the entire set-up was. Numerous buildings and bleachers, plus lots of pathways, had been built just for the tournament. It was essentially a temporary village: Other than the clubhouse and the course itself, most of the tournament infrastructure I saw on Saturday would be gone by Monday.
After stopping at the media center — itself a temporary structure — to interview several people for a story I was working on, I headed out to the course to see some golf.
I was surprised that very few reporters did the same, although by later in the day the reason had become apparent: It’s almost impossible to follow a golf tournament — with nearly two dozen pairings spread throughout 18 holes — when you’re actually out on the course. The TV broadcast projected on a jumbotron-sized screen in the media center was clearly the easiest way to keep track of the whole tournament.
After spending several minutes scrutinizing a course map and walking in the wrong direction — golf courses are like mazes — I made my way to the fourth hole, where the threesome of Americans Hunter Mahan and Cameron Tringale and England’s Paul Casey were playing. I followed them through 7. (It took the three about 15 minutes to complete a hole.)
There were not many fans watching the group, so I could walk right up to the ropes. Once, when Casey had to hit out of the rough, I stood just a few feet away as he took his swing.
A few holes, mostly on the back nine, had bleacher seating; on the rest, including the 4th through 7th holes, people stood or sat on folding chairs they had brought.
Each group of three golfers was accompanied by a volunteer carrying a sign showing each golfer’s cumulative score (strokes over or under par), but for the most part I had no idea what was happening with the groups other than the one I was watching at any given time.
Some holes had electronic scoreboards, and phones were allowed on the course, but between watching the action in front of me and navigating the course, I was left mostly in the dark about what was going on elsewhere on the grounds. For instance, at 14, South Korean Sangmoon Bae sank a 117-foot putt — the longest on the PGA Tour since 2003 — but I had no idea. Every so often I’d hear a roar from somewhere, but I wouldn’t know what had happened.
When a golfer was putting, course marshals near the green held up signs reading: QUIET PLEASE. Even between putts, whispering was typically the loudest anyone got. The fans were incredibly quiet, so silent I could hear birds chirping, leaves rustling, and caddies discreetly advising the golfers. Overall, the crowd was polite and respectful, in stark contrast to the rowdy atmosphere at most other professional sporting events.
Unless one chooses to park oneself in a single spot on the course, golf spectating is really a sport of its own. After the three golfers in a pairing hit from the tee, they and their caddies briskly walk down the fairway. Fans then have to frantically speedwalk outside the ropes, parallel to the golfers, to keep up. (Running is not allowed.) You get a pretty good workout trying to follow the golfers around.
It’s even tougher when golfers are moving from one hole’s green to the next’s tee. Marshals block off certain areas so golfers can pass, then reopen them to trailing fans. Thus, the golfers have a big head start and may begin playing before fans arrive at the tee box.
By the end of the day, my pants were splattered with brown muck, but at least there was no more rain. The downpours of the night before had given way to abundant sunshine and a refreshing breeze.
Eventually I left the Mahan-Tringale-Casey group and found a spot to stand next to the third green, where I watched several groups play through. There, I got to see many of golf’s biggest stars, including Day, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, and Americans Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, and Jordan Spieth. Unlike when I was following Mahan, Tringale, and Casey, the crowd was packed in two or three deep.
One of the challenges for me was trying to track a ball’s flight. Typically I would see someone hit way down the fairway, lose sight of the ball, turn my eyes to the green, and see the ball plop down. Fortunately, the golfers were all pretty accurate — the BMW Championship field is made up of the top 70 golfers in the PGA Tour standings — so the balls would all predictably drop on or near the green, as if by magic.
Around 1 p.m., I headed back to the media center to get lunch. By the time I left, the first groups of the day were finishing up. (A round took about four hours to complete.)
I walked over to the 8th hole, which Spieth’s group was playing. It was situated near the driving range, practice green, clubhouse, and main entrance, so the area was packed. I stood near the eighth green and craned my neck to watch Spieth bomb a shot from the fairway to right near the hole. Spieth had been just a dot in the distance, yet he had landed a golf ball a couple dozen feet from where I was standing.
On TV, you don’t really get a sense of just how far Tour pros can hit a golf ball, but in person on Saturday it was astonishing.
I was hoping to return to my morning routine: following a less-popular group at a quick pace. Alas, by mid-afternoon the grounds were choked with fans and there were no less-popular groups left on the course.
In the late afternoon, with many players already in the clubhouse or soon to be there, I decided to head to the interview zone, which all golfers had to pass through on their way into the clubhouse. NBC and Sky Sports (a British TV network) had set up cameras, and there were several reporters and a few golfers’ families milling around.
Kids were pressed against the fence, waving Sharpies and their tournament programs in the air, begging for autographs whenever a golfer went by. England’s Justin Rose signed for a long time, flanked by his two young children. Kuchar, Johnson, and many other golfers signed as well.
I saw Americans Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler chatting casually after their rounds. Watson was laughing and recounting a shot of his that had landed in the water, almost like it was a regular day at the local country club, not one of the biggest golf tournaments of the year.
Just before ducking into the clubhouse, Watson walked over to the fence separating him from the fans and pretended to auction off his hat, joking, “Highest bidder.” Then he handed it to a toddler and exited the interview area.
Some players did not sign at all. Others, including Spieth, chose to go sign in the official autograph area before entering the interview zone, a source of frustration for many TV reporters who needed interviews.
McIlroy got some of the loudest cheers from fans. He signed for a while in the interview area.
This was the first golf tournament I had attended, so I asked McIlroy about the first professional golf event he had gone to.
“It was the World Golf Championship at Mount Juliet in … 2002, I want to say. Tiger won. It was the first time I ever saw Tiger play,” he said. “I’ll always remember that.”
McIlroy is currently No. 2 in the world golf rankings. Day’s BMW Championship victory moved the Aussie to No. 1.
A few minutes after I spoke to McIlroy, I heard a roar coming from 18. I later heard that Day had birdied to finish his round. Soon after, the leader appeared in the interview zone as fans raucously cheered.
After leaving the interview zone, he was taken on a golf cart to the press conference room in the media center. I raced through the muddy grounds on foot, making it to the media center just ahead of Day.
After the press conference, I packed up my belongings and headed for the exits. It was early evening, and the grounds were not that busy, many of the fans having departed as soon as Day finished his round. The course sparkled under the setting sun. Groundskeepers were already out, getting it ready for Sunday’s final round.
“It was a good day out there,” Day said at his press conference. I think he was referring to his round.
But I’ll second that.
Photos: Jamie Squire/Getty Images (crowd), Charles Rex Arbogast/AP (watching from behind), Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Day)