It is 3:57 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, and the main event is upon us. The cocktails have been flowing all day. The buzz in the crowd picks up, and so does Little River Band’s “Lonesome Loser.” This is the moment we have all been waiting for.
The announcement over the P.A. system informs us the combatant is the first to enter this Wichita arena with the accompaniment of a law enforcement officer. The music has switched over to Louden Wainright’s classic, “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” It is a song I haven’t heard since my father sang it at the top of his lungs in the car when I was a 4-year-old.
As the heel makes his entrance, the crowd is ready. The moment is here. Some of us have been waiting out of morbid curiosity. Others have been waiting to participate in the show to follow. Boos fill the air, almost drowning out the ambient laughter.
But this is not the WWE, and the person being jeered is not Rowdy Roddy Piper.
He is Tom Gillis, a professional golfer approaching the 17th hole at the Air Capital Classic, a stop on the Web.com Tour, a feeder tour to the PGA. And this is not your grandfather’s golf hole.
Gillis created something of a stir when he tweeted, “Never been to a course with a higher opinion of themselves. crestview c.c.”
The members weren’t fans of the now infamous tweet.
It was a follow up to a tweet saying when you play on the Web.com Tour, you get to warm up with the lady members, with a picture of a female member on the range.
He would take it back if he had it to do over, but it is too late. The tweet is out there and the price will be paid.
“Well, I wouldn’t have sent the tweet out, obviously,” said Gillis. “That really wasn’t fair to them.”
His Twitter profile picture is perfect, 180 degrees from what you would expect for a professional golfer. It is current Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy from his days cementing a spot as a Hall of Fame goalie. His face is covered with blood from a cut on his right eye after a fight. A linesman is holding on to him and pointing him off the ice.
As an impressionable tween in the early ‘90s, the Montreal Canadiens, Les Habitants if you will, were the center of my athletic universe. Watching Kirk Muller, Vincent Damphousse, Eric Desjardins, and the boys hoist the Stanley Cup in 1993 was the most memorable major championship moment of my life. But it was because I was a young goalie watching Roy turn in a masterful performance throughout the playoffs.
I looked up to Roy the way I imagine kids in New York looked up to Mickey Mantle in the ‘60s. I wanted to be him. My life revolved around getting into the Forum in Montreal in goalie pads wearing the greatest sweater in hockey.
And then, in 1996, Roy was traded to the hated Quebec Nordiques. Ok, the franchise had moved to Denver, but it was the same thing. He was a traitor. The fact the franchise had moved didn’t make it a different team in my eyes. Consider this was one year before Neil Smith went to the Broncos. These were dark times and Colorado was on a fast track to stealing my heroes with all the gravity of a black hole. A black hole made from teams of which I wasn’t a fan.
When I look at Gillis’ picture, I see a couple of things. I see the hero of my childhood, bloody but not beaten. He is the unwavering champion who keeps moving forward despite distractions like a massive cut around the eye. He is also the fighter who made a poor decision to take on the wrong person. He is the punk who after the fight tries to keep up appearances, despite the obvious result of what just happened, hoping someone holds him back. Please, please don’t let this continue. Can you see my face?
It is a photo both Avalanche fans and Red Wings fans can champion. Just from looking at the photo you can’t really tell which camp Gillis is on. Maybe he is just a fan of hard-earned blood and the ability to wipe it off like sweat. His Michigan roots tell you he is not a member of the Roy fan club and won’t soon forget his scrap with Chris Osgood.
As Gillis approaches the green with an officer by his side, it is hard not to wonder if this unprecedented security detail is absolutely necessary. If you ask Monica Seles, the answer would be, well, absolutely.
At this point, who cares? It is good theater. Gillis is secure. The sidearm of the officer is prominently displayed. Nothing is probably going to happen, but if it does, there is a very real end game present. Like Wyatt Earp daring the streets of Dodge City to try something.
The “Ravishing” Rick Rude wouldn’t have been the same without Bobby “The Brain” Heenan managing. The right escort provides depth to the drama and what is playing out is plenty dramatic.
The officer is standing there, smiling. Not the smile of someone who is begging to shoot, but the smile of someone who was ready to bust heads should someone ruin his day with an act of stupidity. He was lucky enough to not only be a witness to this circus, but he was also a participant on the main stage.
He looked like Floyd Mayweather in a bar, standing by. You can hit on his girlfriend to your heart’s content. Go too far and you are looking at the worst day of your life through a flurry of debilitating fists.
There is perhaps no bigger golf heel than Shooter McGavin, and he is a fictional character from a movie. But what is unfolding is straight out of Happy Gilmore. The only thing missing is Mr. Larson threatening to meet Gillis in the parking lot.
As Gillis lines up the birdie put on 17, the volunteers aren’t just holding up the, “Quiet” signs, they are waving them back and forth. It isn’t really much of an order. It is desperation. The booing is loud, and getting louder. The volunteers are a colony of ants hoping to chalk the tires of the Jabara Dreamlifter.
It is hopeless. There is no more ambient laughter. There is only booing. Gillis has messed with one, and now he is getting the horns of the entire bull. He is putting. The patrons are as loud as they have been reacting to any birdie all day.
Gillis makes a valiant effort on a tough putt that doesn’t go. Had he holed it, the stands full of haters would have received a free cheeseburger. He missed. The faithful have never been happier to see someone miss a birdie putt.
Playing partner of Gillis and Kansas State hero Aaron Watkins has the next putt. As he lines up, the 17th hole is more quite than it has been all day. Every golfer to this point has putted with the chatter of good-time alcohol fueled conversation. When Watkins putts, the only noise is the hush sound of, “Shh” along with the wind blowing through the grandstand.
As Gillis lines up the par putt, it is clear there will be no peace. This is rabid. Gillis embraces it and throws his hands in the air to pump up the punishment. There is something that feels off about the way he is handling the situation. He is not Shooter McGavin pouting and throwing a fit, taking a baseball swing at a beach ball with his putter.
This is something different. It isn’t anger for criticism. It isn’t anything defiant, self-serving, or egotistical.
Gillis is simply rolling with the punches. He is just trying to make the most of a bizarre situation. He is taking the hard swallow of shiver-inducing cough syrup he had coming. It is a once in a lifetime spectacle he will never experience again.
“What are you going to do?” said Gillis. “Like I said, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Don’t send stuff out if you can’t take it. You have to expect that that is going to happen. It was kind of different. I’ll always remember it for my entire career. And then the press clippings, you know, ‘The Leader and the Tweeter,’ I kept that. That will be something that I look back at when I am 70 and have a laugh. But it was good. The people were good.”
Not everyone in the grandstands was into the chorus of boos while Gillis was putting. There were the bold in the minority, pleading for the, “inbreds,” to, “show some class,” mixed in with some expletives.
In the world of golf, rules and courtesy are everything. Snap a photo, receive a phone call, or talk in someone’s backswing and you will be fortunate if dirty looks are the worst thing that happens. Noise of any kind can earn you a ticket off the golf course before you know what hit you. It is a sport about consideration, dignity, and respect. There are no officials in golf to enforce the rules. The sport polices itself on the honor system, and the person who tees off first has the, “honors.”
So there were those who were not pleased with the less than honorable behavior as Gillis came through the signature hole.
Gillis however took the event in stride.
The sport of golf can show the true nature of its participants as well as any other sport. There will be adversity on the course and the way a golfer handles it is generally how they deal with problems off the course. What Gillis did on the 17th was nothing short of masterful damage control. He had kept his composure and had fun with the challenge of the day. He had taken his medicine and even encouraged the people he had upset to let him have it.
He made some friends along the way.
“I think there’s a lot of the true golf fan out here who wasn’t happy about it, you know, all the booing while you are putting and all that,” said Gillis. “But I wasn’t really upset about it. But I think some of the people who really didn’t think it was that big of an issue, because they said to me afterward, ‘That’s not a reflection of us.’ It’s a good town and good people and I would definitely come back.”