Westin: Annual writing trip to Florida
We call it the “Florida Trip” or our “Florida Swing.”
Two reporters from the Augusta Chronicle go to a pair of Florida PGA Tour events in the run-up to the Masters Tournament. We interview players and write feature stories on them for the Masters Preview section, which is published in The Chronicle on the Sunday before the Masters.
You have to go to at least two tournaments to do a thorough job for the section. If a top player you need to interview wasn’t at one, he’d most likely be at the next tournament. It is a rare year when the eventual Masters champion didn’t have a profile written about him in the section.
The section, originally known as the Masters Edition (which I still call it), debuted in 1955 with 36 pages. The interviews with the players were done via telephone in those days, but by the 1970s, the reporters headed to Florida for two tournaments.
The section grew to four sections, with as many as 80 total pages, in the late 2000s.
Back when he was playing in the Masters and everyone was reading the Masters Edition, former U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin gave the section a backhanded compliment. He complained about the section and its size, saying it was putting too much pressure on the top players to play well.
Irwin said it weighed so much that if you dropped the section, “it would break your foot.”
I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the reporters on the “Florida Swing” for the past 33 years. This year we went to the Valspar Championship near Tampa and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. Over the years, we’ve gone to the Honda Classic, Doral and the Players Championship (when it was held before the Masters).
In 1986, I first started going on the Florida trip with Al Ludwick. the Chronicle-Herald executive editor who was still using a typewriter on the road. After he retired in 1989, my running mates were Joe Posnanski, Mike Berardino, Rick Dorsey, Chris Gay and for 18 years, including this year, our columnist Scott Michaux.
Sports Illustrated did a story a few years back about The Chronicle’s pre-Masters coverage in Florida. Because of my seniority, Michaux was referred to as my sidekick. That was far from the truth since he takes care of everything about the trip, from arranging accommodations and doing almost all the driving to Florida and back.
I have a nickname at The Chronicle that dates back to the mid-1980s - Ghost, because I like to keep a low profile. But to some of the golfers I interviewed year after year on the Florida Swing for The Chronicle’s preview section, I was anything but a ghost.
When they saw me coming, the players knew it meant one thing: the Masters was right around the corner, along with the change in season. That’s why Nick Price, back in the early 1990s, when he was the No. 1 player in the world, called me “the Face of Spring.”
During the Florida Swing, my two favorite interview stories involve Payne Stewart and Curtis Strange.
First, Stewart: I was assigned a profile on him and, one year at the Honda Classic, I kept missing him. It wasn’t until after the final round that I approached him and asked for a short interview.
He was ready to get out of there and wondered if I would be at the Players Championship the following week, and could we talk then? I said I would there, and yes, we could talk then. I was a young reporter, and he didn’t know me, so I never thought he would remember.
But that next week during a practice round I was walking late in the day by one of the lakes at TPC Sawgrass and a golf cart came whizzing up to me and stopped right in front of me. It was Stewart, who had gone out to do some fishing and spotted me.
“Ready to talk now?” he asked.
We had a fantastic 30-minute interview, me lobbying questions as Stewart moved around the lake, casting his line. No fish were caught, just a major champion in an expansive mood.
The Curtis Strange story happened at Doral in 1996. I know the year because it was the spring following the 1995 Ryder Cup, where Strange had been one of the scapegoats as the U.S. lost to Europe by a point.
Strange was a controversial captain’s pick by Lanny Wadkins; Strange hadn’t won since 1989. But that win came at Oak Hill, site of the 1995 Ryder Cup. Wadkins figured Strange could tap into the good vibes of six years before.
It didn’t go well. Strange had gone 0-2 in team matches, but he had Nick Faldo on the ropes in singles, one up with three holes to go. As it turned out, all Strange needed to do was make a par on any of the final three holes against Faldo and the U.S. would have kept the cup. He couldn’t do it and lost the match.
Strange could be an intimidating figure. He was known to have a short fuse if you caught him at the wrong time. I saw him once get in a golf cart by the Doral putting green that was to take him down to the driving range. Before the driver could take off, Strange was surrounded by autograph seekers. He turned to the driver and said, “get me OUT OF HERE.”
Anyway, a few years after that incident, it was 1996 and we were back at Doral. The Chronicle had to do Strange as a feature story for our Masters section for two reasons: The Ryder Cup meltdown and the fact he still could be a contender for the green jacket he left behind in 1985, when he lost a back-nine lead.
I had missed making contact with Strange during the practice rounds and the first round. So, I planned to ask for a short interview after the second round. He was inside the cut line going to the last hole so I figured he’d talk, or at least postpone it until after the third round, which would be fine.
Then disaster struck: he double bogeyed the 18th hole and he knew it would cost him making the cut by a shot. I just knew it would cost me the interview.
This was not a good time to approach Strange. Somehow I mustered the courage to do so after he signed his card. He was fuming, of course. I told him I’d been trying to get him all week and would he do a short interview with the Chronicle? All he said was “meet on the range in 15 minutes.”
I didn’t know what to expect. But when I met him there, he had cooled off and couldn’t have been a more helpful, reflective interview subject. He even answered a few tough Ryder Cup questions. I gained a lot of respect for Curtis Strange that day.