As I write this, I’m in bed recovering from a minor operation. I don’t really know which compelled me more… the thought that I could’ve lost this opportunity forever, or the fact that I’ve got nothing to do since I can’t move around. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to share this story for months now. Yes, I have been that busy. I guess you can call this “forced vacation” a blessing in disguise
I think it was sometime in March when the parents of two of my junior students Mariel Tee and Reese Ng asked me to caddie for them at the US Kids World Championships in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Mariel qualified for the Girls 15-18 division while Reese is in the Girls 9 division.
Two weeks back to back in a historic setting. How could I say no?
Fast forward to July… I flew in via Newark International. Mariel had already been in the US several weeks prior, having also qualified for Junior World in San Diego. Although she missed the cut there, she surprised me with a trophy upon my arrival at her uncle Ted’s place in Jersey.
I turn to her parents, Merwin and Emy.
“Why didn’t you tell me?!? Nobody back home knows about this?!?”
Their response caught me off-guard. While most parents would jump at every opportunity to show off their kids’ accomplishments on social media (no matter how insignificant), they were more concerned about the possible negative effect of unnecessary publicity.
I did manage to solicit a few pics from Mrs. Tee.
The next day, Uncle Ted took us on a tour of New York City. It was an awesome experience for me to see the backdrop of so many iconic movies for the first time.
But the highlight of the day was our last stop. We had been to 2 different golf stores looking for a new driver for Mariel. The first store had a simulator that was spitting out numbers that were too good to be true. The second one didn’t exactly treat us very nicely. By late afternoon, everyone was so tired that when Uncle Ted mentioned that there was a Golf Galaxy on the way home, nobody was interested.
Looking back, I’m thankful that Uncle Ted insisted.
A friendly young man, who could’ve been Jordan Spieth’s little brother, entertained us. His name was Zach. I asked what he thought about this driver I was eyeing for Mariel.
“It’s good. But she’s definitely gonna hit farther with this other one (pointing to another brand).”
After several swings with both brands on the launch monitor, I was convinced and Mariel’s parents came out of that store $500 poorer.
Next day… off to North Carolina. I broke my reading glasses before leaving for the airport. Before boarding, Mr. Tee insisted on getting me a new pair. After trying out several products, I realized my old glasses didn’t have the right strength.
See? Everything happens for a reason.
Our flight (United) was overbooked. Passengers were offered vouchers in exchange for their seats. I remember Mr. Tee joking that had they offered a higher amount, he would have taken it.
As the plane approached Raleigh-Durham Airport, I had just finished a chapter of Elon Musk. Then I heard the scariest message of my life through the PA system.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to inform you that we have lost steering. There’s a big chance that we are going to land in a braced position. ”
Is this a joke?!?
A few minutes later, we were told to put away everything that could potentially break and cause injury. I remember looking at my new glasses thinking… “I just got these! ”
I heard a little girl a few seats away ask her mother, “Are we gonna crash? ”
No, it wasn’t the girl. That was me crying inside.
Soon the captain shouted, “BRACE!” Then the flight attendant repeated over and over in a calm, assertive voice (as if that helped)… “Brace! Brace! Head down! Stay down!” It felt like forever before the plane came to a complete stop.
The pilot made a perfect landing. Which meant the firetrucks were only there as a precaution. The lady beside me said, “Don’t you think we should clap? I think we should clap. ”
Can you tell from the picture that we just had the ride of our lives?
With adrenaline levels still… uh skyhigh, we drove to Pinehurst. I was here 7 years ago and everything is exactly the same. Except for one thing. It’s cooler than I remember it.
The Tees decided to have lunch at a steakhouse near the hotel. Halfway through our steaks, there was a commotion. We saw some of the staff looking out the windows.
What is going on?
I haven’t even set foot on the course yet amd my nerves are already frazzled.
Next day… first practice round at Pinehurst No. 6. I caddied for a student here in 2010 so I was excited to see the course again. I was surprised to see the same old lady selling the same amazing chili in the clubhouse.
Ok… enough about food.
At this point, I haven’t seen Mariel in almost a month so we decided to get a late tee time and spend more time at the range. She had been working on a draw prior to this trip but I got worried when I saw her first few shots miss way left. I brought out my Flightscope radar and just as I suspected, her clubface had become too closed. After a few nervous moments, we were able to reduce the hooking to managable levels.
The good news was the course favored a right-to-left tee shot. Even better news was it played shorter than expected, thanks to the new driver. The bad news was the greens have been changed, and it’s not the type that Mariel liked. Neither did I.
Mr. Tee had told me earlier that his goal was simple: to not finish last. He figured that at 15, Mariel couldn’t possibly expect to compete with girls 3 years older than her. But after 3 practice rounds, I told Mr. Tee that if we can navigate the greens well, we might even come away with an underpar score. He was so sure it won’t happen that he made a bet with me… which he lost.
Last meal before tournament day… sorry, food again. The server recognized we were not locals and engaged in some small talk. He started picking on Mariel, asking her if she’s going to win this thing or not.
Mariel goes, “I’ll try?”
The guy says, “Oh, come on! That’s not good enough. You see, winning starts up here (pointing to his head).”
“What’s the best part of your game?”, he continued.
“My accuracy,” Mariel replied.
He then extended his hand and said, “I wanna shake the hand of the winner.”
First day of the tournament… we had a rough time on the greens. A five over 77 with 38 putts. Surprisingly, we were only a few shots back. I guess we weren’t the only ones who didn’t like the greens.
Second day… we changed our warmup routine a bit. But I never said a word about her swing. On the course, she chose her own clubs and was more decisive about her reads. She was in the zone. Shot 70. Took the lead.
Final round… I told her prior to teeing off that she had already met the goals I set for her. Driving distance, GIR, handicap, etc. For me, that means she had already won. The trophy is just a bonus.
She was unbelievably relaxed… constantly smiling despite making mistakes. Officials and volunteers expressed their admiration about her demeanor and attitude… something that I’m most proud of.
I gave her a different goal that week. I told her that if she can finish the tournament without hitting a bunker, I’ll give her a prize. She avoided them all except one, allegedly due to my miscalculation. Her prize is being disputed to this day.
Mariel’s closest pursuer was from China. She and her caddie spoke in Mandarin. Of course, they didn’t know I could understand what they were discussing on the greens. On several occasions, they unknowingly helped our decision making. You can imagine the look on their faces when Mariel revealed our ethnic background after the game.
17th hole… I knew we were leading. Mariel wanted to hit driver. I wanted a fairway wood because the tees have been moved forward to a point where O.B. right is in play.
She hits driver anyway. To the right. One foot from going out of bounds.
I almost died. She was still smiling.
From there she wanted to hit through an opening in the trees. For the first time in the tournament I put my foot down.
“No! Just play it out to the fairway.”
That night, she brought home a trophy that no Filipino has ever won before. At least not in this division.
I brought home my own cup.
The next day… Mariel and her parents flew back to New Jersey. She managed to pick up a few more trophies.
I, on the other hand, stayed another week in North Carolina to caddie for Reese.
She finished 20th in a field of 90 players, which guarantees her an invite to next year’s championship.
I got to play Pinehurst No. 3 with my son… I mean, Reese’s brother Brett.
Walked on the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2.
Posed with Payne Stewart.
Made some new friends.
But the moments I will cherish the most are the ones when we’re not thinking about golf.
And to be treated like family, while being away from my own family… no words to describe it.
And here’s my last meal with the Tee and Acero families in New Jersey before my flight back to the Philippines.
One of my instructions to Mariel before we parted ways was to go back to Golf Galaxy and thank Zach personally. After all, he did play a part in her victory at Pinehurst.
Turns out he wasn’t there anymore. And nobody in the store seemed to remember him. Apparently, he was only there for a limited time.