MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- This is golf.
For an overwhelming percentage of the 23 million Americans who play the game, golf is an excuse to get out of the house, compete against yourself or someone else for a handful of hours, then throw down some beers and wings when it's finished. That's a really good time.
The problem is that people who don't golf -- and frankly, golf itself -- doesn't see it that way. It conjures images of rich guys with sweaters superflously wrapped about their necks, talking about yachts and sipping tea while slipping in some top-shelf, airplane-bottled vodka while no one's looking.
Shhhh. There's deals to be made.
At its core, however, golf is an ironic good time, filled with self-loathing and not-so-gentle peer ribbing that makes you feel like crap before it makes you feel good. Millions work a tough, long week, raise a kid or two or three and still manage to drag their worn-out ass out of bed for that kind of dredging. Only the people who play really understand the joy found in that kind of self-flagellation done in a gorgeous setting.
That's what the World Amateur Handicap Championship celebrates. Played over Labor Day week for the 32nd consecutive year, the Myrtle Beach-based event is a siren signal to golfers from around the country -- 48 states and 28 countries, in fact -- to make their way to the Grand Strand to compete and compare notes over beer and tasty food. Really, it's an interactive golf convention.
Unless you work in golf, technology or porn, conventions are typically held in boring, second-rate cities with lousy accommodations and little character. That's often the sacrifice for a reasonable rate to rent the space, but this convention unfolds beyond the stretches of Myrtle Beach's city limits, each of some 60 participating courses serving as a way better meeting room than you'll find in the C-building of the Atlanta World Congress Center in the 20-by-18 cell labeled 348J. These courses aren't duds, either. They range from the solid vacation 18s to high-end, top-100 public courses.
Almost 4,000 people play in a handicap-adjusted event in some 60 flights, offering anyone from the scratch player to the biggest duffer a real chance to play tournament golf on a level playing field. Myrtle Beach is the perfect place to have such a massive event, with the golf infrastructure and sheer volume of accommodations to not make the town break into a collective cold sweat.
However, each night, there's a central spot where the golfers -- as well the orphaned spouses and children who make the trek to enjoy what also happens to be a really popular beach town (who knew?!) -- get together and talk about the day.
The 19th hole moniker still applies to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, but it's billed as the world's largest. Golfers take over the exhibition hall and turn it into a place where you'd actually want to be, complete with an open bar, including a handful of taps of cold beer just begging to be consumed. There are exhibitions from local businesses and golf companies looking to get on your radar. There are putting challenges and closest-to-the-pin contests using indoor-approved golf balls. Local food abounds.
In the adjoining room, there's another open bar with a lot of tables and a good-sized stage for a steady stream of musicians, including members of the 1990s pop jam band, Hootie and the Blowfish -- who are coming back with a new album. A song and a brew are the best way to forget about your T.C. Chen moment earlier in the day.
However, the star of the show, at least this year, was two-time major champion John Daly. Daly was there to promote is brand of cocktails that are an alcoholic play on the Arnold Palmer: half iced tea, half lemonade, half vodka. You can tell where Daly is on property based on the crowd of people clamoring to meet him. His personal troubles -- including suffering a collapsed lung on-course the weekend prior -- don't make him a pariah in the real golf world; they make him a hero. Daly wasn't some rich boy who channeled what should have been 50 hours a week at a low-paying job into range time. He turned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as the ninth alternate at the 1991 PGA into a Wanamaker and, four years later, a Claret Jug. He's a legend, even 20 years removed from his last triumph of consequence, and, at 49, less than a year from potentially turning the Champions Tour on its head.
Daly has VIP status in the room, serving as the unofficial mayor of this 19th hole. However, he repays the adoration with more than cordial smiles. He'll sign whatever you put in front of him, and he'll do it with a smile. He'll take a selfie. Hell, he'll take your picture. He's a normal guy who did way better than maybe he deserved, and he's happy to spread whatever namesake wealth he has -- kinda like most self-aware golfers.
At the end of one of the nights, closing act Stephen Kellogg invited Daly to come on stage and round out the show with one of the songs in Daly's admittedly limited repertoire: Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door". He played it well, posing some for the fans who flooded the dance floor for the first time that night (Kellogg is more of a jam guy) to take pictures and video. When it was done, Daly didn't bask in the praise, but rather turned to thank Kellogg and his bandmates, as well others who make this event an annual must-do.
It was the fitting end to a night that embraces the real golfer, the player who has no illusions about their wealth or status, but is still committed to figuring out an impossible game -- or at least telling stories of the fleeting moments where they had it down pat over a few beers with some sympathetic company.