Rory McIlroy wasn’t soaking in the scene Friday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He was too preoccupied shooting his lowest round of the season, a crisp 3-under-par 69 on Doral’s TPC Blue Monster that put him 2-under-par yet still 11 shots off the searing pace of leader and playing partner Tiger Woods.
Had McIlroy paused to look around, he would have noticed two Cadillacs floating on the lake lapping up against the 18th hole.
He would have inhaled the aroma of cigar smoke. Observed the quaffing of $9 glasses of Chardonnay. He would have heard sunburned businessmen yucking it up from the Platinum Suites, the International Club or the Trump Lounge. He might have let his putting stroke be shaken by tremors emanating from the Blue Monster Village, where bright blue lights flashed in concert with a cranium-cracking bass beat.
McIlroy might have asked himself, “Where am I? Is this a golf tournament or a circus?”
No, Rory, you’re not in Belfast anymore. The excess on display at the Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral Golf Club and Resort (say that 10 times fast) has little in common with McIlroy’s boyhood course of Holywood in County Down, Northern Ireland.
He’s not complaining. Last year, he became the youngest golfer to earn $10 million on the PGA Tour and he’s competing here for a portion of the $8.75 million purse. For that amount of money, Cadillac is entitled to product placement that includes the amphibious cars, Escalades galore and trashcans adorned with the company logo.
McIlroy, 23, is dressed in Nike apparel from head to swoosh belt buckle to toe (he continued in sorbet mode Friday, wearing mango a day after sporting raspberry). He’s one of the most marketable athletes in sports. He’s rich, he’s famous, he’s a jetsetter dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
Even he can’t believe it sometimes: “I hit a little white ball around a field!” he exclaims on his website.
Not so long ago he was a wee lad playing golf for fun with his dad, Gerry, bartender at Holywood who took on an extra job cleaning toilets once it became apparent his boy’s potential required extra financial support. McIlroy’s mum, Rosie, worked extra night shifts at the local 3M plant.
On Friday, McIlroy was cheered by fat cats overlooking the 18th green from inside the Club Box, where one of the sponsors was Profit Corp. of California. Whoever named that company decided not to mince words.
He was posing for photos with Donald Trump, who is overhauling the place originated in 1962 by Doris and Al Kaskel in his own inimitable Trump style — including a five-story, totally Trump fountain adjacent to the putting green that features water squirting from the flared nostrils of muscular steeds.
The top golfers don’t get distracted by the decadence of professional golf and its corporate culture. Nick Watney learned the game on a municipal course in Davis, Calif. His mom dropped him off on her way to work. Watney, 4-under after two rounds, polished his putting form until dusk, then accommodated fans who waited for autographs.
“We didn’t belong to a country club, so I wasn’t used to this,” Watney said, waving his hand at the lavishly landscaped grounds. “You can’t get too used to it, but this is where I want to be, competing with the world’s best.
“They treat us well. It’s nice. It’s real nice.”
It’s a far cry from the threadbare army base course that Thailand’s Thaworn Wiratchant used to play on. Wiratchant is the defending Asian Tour champ who earned $738,000 last year.
Woods wasn’t a silver-spoon kid, although he was guided by a single-minded father. He typically stays aboard his yacht at the Miami Beach Marina during Doral. He’s taken athletic success combined with endorsement appeal to stratospheric wealth levels.
But he can still appreciate golfers with humble roots.
“Golf wasn’t a sport that anyone ever played [in Thailand] because it was for the very, very elite,” he said. “But it’s neat to see these guys who have worked so hard up through caddie programs or they just find a stick, a ball, and make something work.”
Golf isn’t the only sport that has been ultra-corporatized. It just seems so given its traditions at exclusive enclaves. The Donald himself capitalizes on golf’s ideal deal-making milieu: Play a round in a beautifully manipulated and maintained garden, size up your potential partner, share a clubhouse meal afterward and shake hands on the contract.
We’ll see a similar environment at the Sony Open tennis tournament in less than two weeks.
Suites have transformed stadiums and arenas everywhere. As long as clients are besotted by athletes, and companies see a tax write-off, what’s wrong with oiling a massive entertainment industry? NASCAR autos and soccer uniforms are as logo-polluted as the Olympics. Besides, winning is recession-proof. Check the Heat’s ticket prices.
Football tailgaters and golf rope rats may not get the air-conditioned seats or the trays of cocktails. But their degree of separation isn’t as extreme either.
“Hey, I got Phil Mickelson’s autograph!” a kid screamed Friday.
He was not conducting business. He was just a lad with a little white ball.