Patrick, his wife Elizabeth, and I attended the final round of the U.S. Open at the Congressional in Washington, DC. It was a glorious day for golf, the sky bright and dappled with cirrus clouds, the course warmly brilliant in multiple shades of green. We arrived at one o’clock and made our way, with thousands of the casually affluent, to the outskirts of the spectator tornado that swirls constantly these days around Tiger Woods. It was impossible not to know approximately where he was on the course. At regular intervals, a deep roar or moan would inform everyone that Tiger had succeeded or failed on some distant green. But it wasn’t to be his day. The match came down to a tense trading of the lead on the final three holes, with Tiger long retired to the clubhouse, ten strokes down.
For us it was a day of easy good fortune. After a stint at the fifth hole, we obeyed a mild urge to visit the eighteenth and arrived just in time to see Jack Nicklaus complete what may have been his last round at a U.S. Open. He swept by us on his way to the green, doffing his cap to a long powerful ovation, and smiled his farewell to cheers after a crisp two-putt finale.
‘I can’t believe it,’ Elizabeth said, beaming. ‘That’s history. And we were here.’
We moved on to station ourselves near the eighteenth tee, where drives were a simple win or lose proposition, landing either on the dish-like green or in the sprawling lake that also lay in wait for those who overshot the seventeenth hole. It was a strategic perspective we shared with the main NBC Sports booth and several broadcast equipment tents, as well as hundreds of fellow spectators. We watched also-rans executing flawless iron shots that fell tediously true within yards of the pin. Meanwhile, like a swallowed animal making its way through the body of a snake, the bulging gallery of Tiger Woods distended the boundaries of hole after hole until it arrived at the nearby fourteenth green, where I crept to within yards of the young master and felt the surround-sound gasp of the crowd when he missed a two-foot putt. Alone of all the golfers I saw at the Open, Tiger seemed to retain in person the star quality he exhibited on television. The famous smile was warm and infectious, and the ritual of sighting the putt from various angles was a study in efficient grace.
We saw him again at the eighteenth, where Elizabeth stood within a few feet of his passage along the path by the lake to the green. She caught his grin and flashed it at us as he strode away. After Tiger holed out, we awaited the inevitable exodus, which diminished but did not decimate the crowd. By then there were rumors that President Clinton would be arriving later to bask in the green glow of tournament’s end. Patrick and I exchanged wry glances at the news. At the hotel the night before, the three of us had stayed up too late to watch Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power, a movie so transparently based on Clinton’s reputation for womanizing that it was impossible to watch without adding out loud the omitted references to Hilary, Arkansas, and various White House scandals.
Uncharacteristically weak for an Eastwood effort, the movie was nevertheless continuously appalling as its own dull reminder that the premise was more believable than the plot tricks used to rig the happy ending. We watched it all and then turned in at four a.m. unable to believe that we’d wasted the time.
So it may have been Clint Eastwood’s fault that Patrick and I experienced approximately the same cinematic thought. It was fresh in our minds that we had passed through no metal detectors or security checks of any kind when we arrived at the course. Now there were maybe 50,000 people roaming loose, while men with sunglasses and earpieces scurried in and out of the NBC tents.
They were probably only NBC technicians, but that’s not what some of the spectators thought.
‘Secret Service, ‘ I heard one whisper. ‘Look.’
‘If we’d only known,’ Patrick said. ‘It would have been so easy.’
‘Yeah, ‘ I agreed. ‘What could these guys possibly do now?’
‘What are you two talking about?’ Elizabeth asked, detecting a familiar tone of voice.
‘Nothing,’ Patrick told her. ‘You know us. We’re crazy.’
We wandered away from the NBC booth in the direction of a refreshment tent that was supposed to be selling ice cream and water ice. En route we passed a caravan of gleaming utility vehicles with blacked-out windows.
‘Clinton?’ Elizabeth asked with faint distaste.
‘I doubt it, ‘ I said. ‘I think he’s supposed to arrive by helicopter.’
‘They wouldn’t let us walk this close,’ Patrick said. ‘Would they?’
But the water ice was refreshing and we began a pleasant tree-shaded odyssey toward the fifteenth green, where the tournament leaders arrived less than ten minutes later. The golf was more real than a presidential visit, and we followed the action to the sixteenth and from there back to our old vantage point at the eighteenth. We managed to see several of the shots that decided the tournament.
As soon as the final putt had been sunk by the winner, Ernie Els, the gallery fled the hillsides around the eighteenth green. We elected to wait out the traffic jam, though, and retreated to a park bench located next to the NBC booth, where we had a panoramic view of the awards ceremony and occasionally used the binoculars to see whether or not Clinton was in attendance.
We watched Els hold his trophy aloft for the crowd and then for the photographers. We watched speeches that were being made, apparently, only for the network microphones. Slowly the golfers and dignitaries slipped away up the hill to the Hollywood-style clubhouse, and like scavengers the green-shirted maintenance people crept out of the woods to begin gathering up the tons of trash the fleeing gallery had left behind. To our left, the NBC people had started dismantling their equipment, and one by one the sportscasters stole away in golf carts. Dick Enberg, looking funereal despite his dapper blazer, had his own driver. Johnny Miller drove himself, snubbing a fan who wanted only a word of conversation about a supposed common acquaintance.
‘It’s like watching them strike the set of a play,’ Elizabeth remarked.
‘Something about all this and TV,’ Patrick said.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. What is it?’
We talked. Patrick said a friend of his had predicted that the words ‘virtual’ and ‘virtually’ would take the place of ‘actual’ and ‘actually.’ Soon it would be commonplace to say ‘the virtual truth of the matter’ and ‘Virtually, I disagree with you.’
Had we ‘actually’ or ‘virtually’ experienced the golf tournament today?
It wasn’t as easy a question as it seemed. I had seen Jack Nicklaus play golf probably hundreds of times, but until this afternoon I had never laid eyes on him in person. Which was the more ‘actual’ event in the course of my experience? Patrick recalled seeing a clip a few nights before of an early 1960s U.S. Open won by Arnold Palmer. It was played on the same course, but it was difficult to imagine that version of Arnold Palmer – black and white and slightly blurred – playing in living color on this course.
There were definitely ways in which the remote video view of life was more familiar, more intelligible, and even more authentic than ‘actual’ life. There was no possibility that we could have seen all the great and important shots that occurred on this day at the U.S. Open. When the lead changed hands, it was usually due to events at another hole, and we – the ones who were ‘actually’ present at the event – had to wait sometimes minutes while the scoreboard attendants slid out the old numbers, rummaged in the box for new ones, and slowly worked them into place. At home, between commercials, the TV viewers could have seen it all, including the constantly surrounded Tiger Woods, without craning their necks to see past the tall fat man who wouldn’t stand still.
In all likelihood, the majority of spectators would rush home tonight to watch the TV reports about the Open, seeking confirmation of their ‘actual’ experience from the video footage. A session with the boob tube, for example, would be the only way we’d learn whether or not Clinton had been here today. Has ‘actual’ experience been reduced to mere sensation while ‘virtual’ experience was acquiring all the authority for conveying information? And is the statement ‘I was there’ being slowly transformed from a boast to an excuse for not knowing what ‘actually’ happened?
Having out-stayed all the other Open spectators, we were probably – by now – the most uninformed of the nation’s golf fans about what had happened here today. We took our sensation-glutted ignorance to the parking lot and drove home.
MISCELLANY: There were other highlights of the Washington outing. Driving down to join the Raymonds on Saturday afternoon, I made the acquaintance of the grandest highway I’ve seen in years, the Maryland portion of I-95. With plenty of wide lanes and long gradual bends and hills, it puts the Autobahn to shame as a platform for high-speed driving, except that it’s located in one of the most notorious speed-trap states in the union. At intervals, for no apparent reason, the speed limit would change from 65 to 55 or vice versa. Along the way I saw a sign that made me laugh: ‘KEEP THE FREE STATE LITTER-FREE.’ Id never heard that nickname before. I told the Raymonds about it and they laughed too.
Saturday night we undertook the adventure of the DC Metro, a brand new subway system whose stations looked to have been designed in East Germany, identical vaults of brown, paneled concrete at every stop. Our destination was the Federal Triangle, site of the restaurant we’d chosen and, by coincidence, also the site of IRS headquarters. This inspired us to speculate about how much nitrate fertilizer a subway car would hold, and we congratulated ourselves for pioneering the concept of the ‘train bomb.’ The restaurant was French and unexpectedly supportive of smoking. The ashtrays were huge, designed for cigars, and Patrick for once didn’t have to prop the unlit end of his Maccanudo on the tablecloth. The pommes frites were delicious, too. We took a cab back to the hotel because the Metro closes at 11 p.m.(!) The driver had pasted a sticker right in the middle of the windshield: I VOTED. I came up with the idea for a new bumper sticker: NOT ME. It seems like a good all-purpose announcement to make.
Sunday morning, we gathered in my room again (Patrick could only get a non-smoking room) and watched CNN for a while. A new poll claimed that 80 percent of U.S. citizens think the government is not telling all it knows about UFOs. It probably won’t be long before the Clinton administration pulls some stunt designed to improve that figure.