My first-ever visit to Las Vegas was as a caddie on the PGA Tour. The year was 1973, the course was Sahara Country Club, and the winner was John Mahaffey, who had won the NCAA individual title in 1970. That was the same year our Oregon team finished ninth, the highest finish for a Pacific Northwest college in many years.
Everything about that week in Las Vegas 46 years ago felt right. I saw Sammy Davis Jr. and Dionne Warwick perform on the Strip, I loved the weather, and I even won a few bucks playing blackjack.
My player missed the cut that year, but that just gave me more time to enjoy the many pleasures of the city. I had a date with a beautiful woman that week, sorta fell in love with her, but she never responded to a letter I sent her the next week from the Texas Open.
That initial trip planted a seed of love for Las Vegas that culminated when I moved here permanently two years later. But when the PGA Tour surprisingly ended its long run here the year I arrived, I was disappointed. I had assumed my new city would host the best players in the world for years to come.
Fortunately, in 1983, Tour veteran Jim Colbert, his college golf coach Ron Fogler at Kansas State, and several Strip hotel owners got together and lured the Tour back to town. They did so partly by offering a million-dollar purse, which was among the largest at the time.
The fact that this week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin marks the 37th consecutive year of PGA Tour competition here is a joy to us local golfers. Even better news is that this year’s field, with stars like Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, and Adam Scott competing, is the strongest we’ve had in many years.
As the 18th green interviewer for 20-some years who had the privilege of interviewing the champions immediately after signing their scorecards, I have plenty of special memories.
There was Tiger Woods, telling me he was surprised it took until his fifth professional start to win. And Bill Glasson the following year, being so shocked he’d won again after seven years of battling injuries that he could barely utter a word. I compensated by asking Bill ridiculously long questions to keep the gallery from sprinting for their cars.
I vividly remember Jim Furyk’s bottom lip trembling after his first Tour victory when I asked him what he would say to his father and coach Mike if he were here. Tears rolled from Jim’s eyes, and he couldn’t answer. No one would have thought this young guy with the funny swing would go on to a Hall of Fame career and become the only man to break 60 twice in official events.
But that’s what the Shriners Open does each year. It provides thrills and surprises from the veterans and new faces who make the pilgrimage to Las Vegas, often at the bidding of their wives, who are more interested in seeing Bruno Mars or Keith Urban than trudging around 18 holes.
Each year the tournament officials do yeoman’s work in enticing the city’s acclaimed chefs to the event, as yet another great reason to forego football for a day or two at TPC Summerlin. But for those who absolutely must have their pigskin fix, that is always available on big screen TVs under the canopy on “The Hill.”
One of the other enticements for local fans is to watch former UNLV stars perform on the highest stage. There was the victory by Ryan Moore in 2012, several close calls by Charley Hoffman, and good showings through the years by Chris Riley, Chad Campbell, Andres Gonzales, and most recently by A.J. McInerney in 2017. Having survived the 1 October massacre a month before the tournament, A.J. had a remarkable 10th place finish after receiving a sponsor’s exemption to the field.
The challenge for the Shriners has always been the fall date on the Tour calendar, but this year the tournament is a couple weeks earlier, and players have plenty of incentive to start the new wraparound season on a good note. Some are still trying to make a last-ditch effort to make the U.S. President’s Cup team.
Las Vegas has truly become a big-league city in every sense, and professional golf has done its part to make that happen.