The Ryder Cup: Ode to a tree

By Robert Keller

Undoubtedly, the CBS Sports team while broadcasting the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club this week will replay the best shot from the 1999 PGA Championship, when Sergio Garcia smacked the impossible shot. On hole No. 16 his drive bounced to the base of a too-big-for-television red oak just a few inches from a bulging root. The omniscient announcers on CBS television said that he’d have to lay up.

Not a chance.

Instead, 19-year-old Garcia carefully examined his lie, selected a 6-iron and took two practice swings in the dense rough. Eyes closed, the teen swung precisely enough to clear the root, clear the tree, hit the fairway on the fly, then with a left-to-right bouncing trajectory his ball bounding onto the green and settled. While in mid-flight, Garcia was bounding too, up the hill

The 16th hole on Medinah #3 is an intimidating par 4 from the white tees. When I played there in 2000, the Sergio Garcia tree laughed at us, “you wanna take that shot, don’t ya punk?” Apparently, others before us accepted the challenge, as at least a half bushel of dirt and grass and history had vanished because hundreds of knuckleheads had taken hundreds of swings.

But I declined the challenge and, with the care of lighting a votive candle, inserted a new tee in that hole, a tentative monument to one of the best shots of the decade. The tree smiled and nodded.

Since then, I’ve played hole No. 16 several times and, even if one lands in the safety of the fairway, I’ve never seen anyone reach the green in two. During a round in 2002, the 60-year-old forecaddie accidentally kicked my partner’s ball back into the fairway. Jeff carded a double-bogey. The trees create a canyon of red giants that snicker behind your back like girls at a frat party. They too were in the limelight with Tiger and Sergio, and they’re smug.

One year ago this week I again played Course #3 with a scratch golfer. (He shot an 85.) Naturally, we paused along the right side of No. 16 hunting for, as yardage guide creator Gorjus George notes in the image to the right, “The Tree.”

It was gone.

The caddy, whose fee was $150 plus tip, told us they deliberately dismembered the famous tree, limb by limb. Seems one too many (boozed) golfers took one too many (booze) shots. The Medinah membership voted and the tree was quietly removed, leveled to nothing. Not a plaque. Not a root. Not a hole. Not a bark.

We were all sad but for different reasons. I took from my pocket a fresh tee printed with the green Medinah logo and planted it where the proud oak once stood, an ersatz tombstone for a felled hero.

Robert Keller is a former caddie at Medinah Country Club, site of this year’s Ryder Cup.

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