All week, Shane Bacon will be at the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., writing about his experience on the bag for the LPGA's Irene Cho. Stop by each day to read about the happenings from the day's round.
It finished the way we'd hoped. Standing on the 15th tee, looking at the scoreboard, Irene Cho commented to me that a friend of ours who was carrying a bag this week had finished strong, and posted five-under, good enough to sneak into the top-10 at the Safeway Classic.
My response was simple. "Let's birdie the last four and tie 'em." And you know what? She almost did just that.
It was a week of firsts for me. First time I got to carry the bag for Irene, who had her second best finish of 2010 at Pumpkin Ridge. It was the first time I got to interact with some of the top players in the game, including Christina Kim, who is as much fun off the golf course as she is on. And, sadly, it was the first time I was out at a LPGA event without the name Erica Blasberg scrolling across the programs.
While Irene and I both were out this week trying to play good golf, we both knew the reason we had connected in the first place. It was at the Grand Lux Cafe in Las Vegas some years ago, where Erica and Irene were milling over some snacks before a night out and a friend and I swung by to say hello and introduce ourselves to Erica's best friend on tour. After that, I had been lucky enough to spend some time around Irene when I carried the bag for Erica in Houston, and I quickly realized why Erica would pick her out of everyone to tag along with on the lonely road that can be the LPGA.
There were reminders all week it seemed that even three months after her passing, Erica was still a big story in women's golf. Big media outlets trying to get ahold of Irene and myself for interviews. The wristband that Puma handed out at the service wrapped proudly and honorably around the arm of her old caddie and friend Ray Kim and around one of Irene's headcovers. A ribbon some nice fan made Irene that she has tied around her golf bag. The fire in her eyes after the first day when we didn't snag a birdie until our 16th hole, and the way she got frustrated with herself, much like Erica, when birdie putts were left on the lip.
A lot of the time we spent during pro-ams and practice sessions seemed to turn to funny stories about Erica. Stuff that we'd forgotten or just wanted to bring up. Irene asked me questions about certain things she'd do during tournaments, and I asked her similar things about life off the golf course. It was, simply, a friend exchanging stories to a friend about someone that wasn't around anymore, and someone that, for most of the week, I missed dearly.
But the week wasn't just about remembrance. It was about a new friendship that would grow, and has to grow, when you spend that much time together on and off the golf course. Irene might have been hesitant at first with me on the bag (And trust me, I wouldn't blame her), and our opening stretch of holes on Friday weren't the best. A few sloppy bogeys coupled with a double-bogey on our 11th hole made it seem like this wasn't going to work. I could tell Irene was frustrated, and I didn't blame her. The putts weren't dropping like they had earlier in the week and when the shots were sneaking close to the hole, the birdies weren't converted.
That all changed at the end of the round, when two birdies in the final three holes got us back within sight of the eventual cut line. Happily, the cut line was the least of our worries on Saturday. Irene's marvelous 68 was highlighted by an eagle on our 17th hole, the same hole we would eagle on Sunday.
Professional golfers get in positions at times where they can go one way or the other. Sunday was that for us. Two opening bogeys, and three in our first five holes, had us quickly dropping down a leaderboard that wasn't going extremely low. It was that par-5 8th hole that would once again propel the round in another direction. Irene hit her best shot of the week to that point, a three-wood to a green skinnier than Kelly Ripa, and it trickled, bounced, and curved all the way to the pin, stopping eight feet away before she rolled it in for her second eagle of the week.
We'd play the rest of the round three-under, posting a 69 on Sunday. Irene admitted after that she got nervous on those closing holes, and for good reason. She admitted that it is the feeling you long for, and the feeling you know means you're doing something right. Normally when a golfer is playing a round they wanted to play, the emotions start flying because you understand the peculiar situation you're in. Irene was there, and handled it with flying colors. All that wrapped up on the 18th, when she needed to get down in two on the lengthy green from somewhere near 100 feet. Irene's lag stopped two feet short, and as she rolled that in for par the crowds congratulated her on a feat not many will accomplish on that green.
As we walked off the green, and into a slew of young fans pleading for autographed golf balls and gloves, I couldn't help but think of our friend who, sadly, won't be at these events anymore. If she had been in Portland, and Irene had finished 68-69, it would have been Erica who would have congratulated her friend on a great weekend, one that she won't soon forget. And then she probably would have made a joke about the skirt she was wearing, laughing the entire time, and then figuring out where we were all going to get lunch. It probably would have been Grand Lux, no doubt, and our smiles would have all been a little bit bigger.
(An added thanks to Jonathan Ferrey of Getty Images for taking a couple of minutes to snap a few pictures of me on the bag, and to Maxx Wolfson for setting it up.)