Mitch Lowe couldn't believe what he saw early Monday morning, kickoff time last week for the 91st PGA Championship.
Though he was one of the first players to arrive at Hazeltine National, Lowe was greeted by spectators lining both sides of the fairways. Here it was, a full three days before the first official shot was struck in the year's final major, and 35,000 jammed onto the punishing course near Minneapolis.
"The crowd just kept growing," said Lowe, 42, the director of instruction at Del Rio Country Club. "I think Minnesota has the highest number of golf courses per capita in the nation. When you're in the air coming into the area, all you see are golf courses."
Most of those courses also are frozen for half the year, so golfers and golf fans can't waste time. That's why huge crowds have been the norm at Hazeltine, the venue for the 1991 U.S. Open, the '92 and '09 PGA and, in a few years, the Ryder Cup.
Lowe's week turned out much better than his golf. The two-time Northern California PGA Player of the Year, one of 20 club pros to qualify for the PGA (only two made the cut), placed third-from-last after rounds of 84 and 80.
Before we progress, a word about Lowe: He's no chop. He's one of the region's top players, a former contestant on the mini-tour circuit until he decided several years ago to concentrate on family life and golf-lesson giving.
Fact is, a club pro has ventured miles out of his comfort zone at one of the the world's premier events, one contested on a 7,674-yard brute of a course. Lowe couldn't keep his tee shots on the fairways, which means he was ticketed for a long two days at Hazeltine.
"Even on the par-5s, you had to hit a very aggressive shot just to get a 9-iron in your hand for your third. If you didn't put the ball in the right place, you're in all kinds of trouble," said Lowe, who made only two birdies for his 36 holes. "I was working so hard just to save par."
Lowe enjoyed his two days with veteran Paul Goydos, who chatted often during the first day but stayed mostly silent on Friday as he and Carl Pettersson tried to make the cut (Goydos did, Pettersson did not).
"Goydos' kids are 17 and 19, and I asked him for advice on how to handle my two 10-year-olds and 13-year-old," Lowe said. "The conversation went on for four holes. I thought we'd talk about it for one hole and move on, but he really wanted to chat about this."
Lowe said he played better the second day but hustled to stay out of the way of the tour regulars late in the day. He finished poorly both rounds.
"I've received a lot of supportive calls. People understand how difficult it is for a guy like me to play in those circumstances," he said. "I'm not too worried about my driving. I learned I must hit my long irons better to compete."
Practice rounds with former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, former Masters champion Zach Johnson and England's Justin Rose proved instructional.
"Johnson was extremely friendly. Furyk would talk when he was spoken to, but his father was very nice," Lowe said. "I've never seen anyone hit the ball more solid than Rose. He was very impressive."
As it turned out, a lunch early in the week with Matt Murphy, the Hazeltine general manager, turned prophetic.
"He (Murphy) said the greens aren't tricky but they're easy to over-read. He was absolutely right," Lowe said. "I watched the last round on TV and Tiger Woods definitely was reading too much break into his putts." Which opened the door for an historic victory by Korea's Y.E. Yang and, for Lowe, an unforgettable experience.
LIPPERT -- Beyer High graduate and former Modesto Junior College golfer Eric Lippert fared only slightly better than Lowe -- 78-84 -- 162 -- at the PGA. Lippert, 34, an assistant pro at Del Monte in Monterey, missed a trip to the PGA by only one stroke last year. He leaped that barrier last month, however, by placing fourth at the PGA Professional National Championship.
"I just kept missing green after green after green and it just kind of got away," said Lippert, who still signed many autographs during his week at Hazeltine. "I actually felt a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be. Guys like us, we can get a little quick, a little ahead of ourselves. In this kind of environment on this kind of golf course, you can't miss-hit the ball. It can't be that big of a miss."
THE SHAG BAG -- Part-time Modestan John Merrick earned an exemption into the 2010 PGA via a final-round 70 -- tied for the day's low score -- good for a tie for 10th. Merrick, 47th on the PGA Tour money list with $1,269,759 in winnings, echoed his Sunday 66 that elevated him to a tie for sixth at the Masters. ... If I'm king of the world, I ban the circle players draw on their golf balls to assist putting. It is a good idea abused and, worse, an artificial aid. I'd restrict all ink on the ball to identifying marks and lines no longer than a few dimples. The R&A and the United States Golf Association easily can agree on this. ...
It looks like both Bill Murray and George Lopez will play in the Walmart First Tee Open at Pebble Beach on Sept. 4-6. Turlock sisters Esther and Kathleen Rojas also will take part in the tournament that pairs Champions Tour stars with juniors from The First Tee. Patty Sheehan, 62, a six-time major winner, also will be there -- as a caddie for Reno junior Alexandra Phillips. Call (800) 541-9091 or visit thefirstteeopen.com.
HOLES-IN-ONE -- Chris Aldana, Modesto, 180-yard 10th at Dryden Park, 6-iron. ... Lee Geisenberg, 78, Modesto, 128-yard eighth at Modesto Municipal, driver ... Al Lucas, El Dorado Hills, 142-yard second at Jack Tone Golf, Ripon, 7-iron.
Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.