Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One Hull of a weekend at the Wayne Gretzky Classic

Audio from after round two:

Brett Hull (my first interview ever!) Kirk Muller Cassie Campbell

Darren Pang and Nick Kypreos


You don’t necessarily need to be a fan of golf when the name Wayne Gretzky is involved.

But when hockey’s most recognizable face invites close to 160 pro players on the PGA nationwide tour and an equal number of amateurs and celebrities, the fans are soon to follow.

Nestled off the blue waters of Georgian Bay and in the shadow of Blue Mountain, the Wayne Gretzky Classic was a great success.

It was a great four days of golf with fantastic weather, outside of an early thunderstorm on Saturday.

For me it was an experience to behold.

My initial way to the event was by winning an opportunity through local stations 104.1 The Dock and KICX 106 to be a standard bearer for newest HHOF member Brett Hull and his foursome.

For those who don’t know what a standard bearer is, it’s the person who follows the group to the hole with the sign indicating the score.

I then thought why not enhance the experience.

As a regular writer to the Bleacher Report, I decided to apply for media access, and was accepted.

After a quick run to the local Staples to get a digital recorder, I spent a few evenings making notes of questions that I could ask Mr. Hull and anyone else I may see.

I then made a trip out to the event location in Thornbury, ON on Wednesday afternoon to pick up my media package and get my bearings to the two golf courses.

Waiting in line in front of me ,to register as a player, was former Montreal Canadien Mark Napier. I said a quick hello but couldn’t get a chance to chat as the lady at the table next to us called away.

Thursday morning: I arrived well ahead of my required check in time at the volunteer area at the Georgian Bay Club.

I decided to wander in the direction of the clubhouse and out walks Walter Gretzky.

Anything readers of said or heard about how pleasant this man is have been informed correctly.

P1050314 Walter Gretzky signs autographs during round one of the Gretzky Classic

After signing some autographs for some young fans, Mr. Gretzky disappeared momentarily. He appeared 10 minutes later in the volunteer tent, greeting most of the volunteers and posing for pictures and signing autographs (including my hat).

P1050317 Volunteers awaiting their assignment starts

Well it was time to begin my work on the course. Along with my on course scorer, we made our way to the tenth hole for the 10:21 tee time where we met Brett Hull, fellow amateur Ed Goldthorpe and PGA Nationwide tour pros Jeff Curl and Andrew Buckle.

P1050323 Brett Hull, Andrew Buckle (pro), Ed Goldthorpe and Jeff Curl (pro)

Mr. Hull was already busy signing autographs before approaching the tee. A humorous moment occurred when a fan had a dark pen and his card was rather dark.

“Does anyone have a silver marker?” Hull asked to which nine or ten were put to his face in response.

After the formal introductions we made our way down the course.

With the position I won limited to just the first two rounds, more if he made the cut, I joked “I really hope you do well, I don’t want to have to cut the lawn this weekend.” Hull grinned and said “I plan too.”

Hull is a scratch golfer with a three handicap and was the defending celebrity champion. His arm strength clearly gives him an advantage on tee shots and fairway drives.

On one hole, one of the pros said “You have balls!” after his tee shot cleared a water hazard that the two pros wouldn’t dare try to clear.

“How are you doing Janet?,” I heard Hull say as we moved from one green to the next tee when I realized it was Janet Gretzky walking off a hole that ran close to ours.

As Hull and our group moved from hole to hole, we were greeted by autograph seeking fans. Hull signed everything in sight and stopping for the occasional picture if time permitted and chatting with us as well.

Throughout the round, the pros and their caddies accommodated our two amateurs with playing tips. I was very impressed.

As the path to one of the tees crossed the tee to another hole, Hull started to chirp up the events’ host, Wayne Gretzky.

I nodded to the Great One as we passed. He nodded back as he chomped on a Cuban stogie.

Unfortunately for Hull, his putting game just was not there as he missed several birdie attempts and also a double eagle late in the round.


His score would count as a team with pro Buckle and we finished the opening round at seven under.

With my equipment returned, I decided to scout around a bit. My media creds allowed me access to the clubhouse where I sat down to have a beer and chatted with club manager Steve Prest.

P1050320 Wayne Gretzky makes his way to the green during round 1

I then realized the time and scooted out to the 9th hole to catch Gretzky finishing his day on the course. There was a small crowd but I was able to snag an autograph on my hat next to his dad’s.

I had a quick “hello” to Gretzky’s standard bearer Mark, who had won the chance to win the standard bearer position with #99 on the same auction.

With the large number of people participating, the event was split between two courses for the first two rounds. Hence,the celebrities were mixed at different courses at different times.

Realizing that Canadiens’ assistant coach Kirk Muller was going to be on a close schedule with my foursome the next day at the opposite course during round two, I put in an email to my media contact to see if I could book interview time. No guarantees were made but he was going to try.

Meanwhile, Kyle Reifers has broke the course record over at Lora Bay with a 61 to take the early lead.

P1050321 Sunrise over Georgian Bay during round two at Lora Bay Club

Friday was an early start.

With a 7:11 tee time and a hour and twenty minute drive to the course, I was on the road by 4:30.

We watched Todd Bertuzzi’s group tee off and then made our way out onto the more hilly Lora Bay Club, but one of us was late.

Ed Goldthorpe took the wrong turn on the highway and drove 20 minutes in the wrong direction before he realized his error and caught us on the second fairway.

Fans were there again and Mr. Hull gladly greeted them.

During a walk off one of the greens I asked Mr. Hull if I could do a brief interview after the round, to which he agreed.

P1050322 Brett Hull tees off on the par 3 15th hole at Lora Bay

Did I mention this was a hilly course? After a par 3 15th hole that drops real quick, the group worked down a 557 yard par 5 and then walked up an extremely steep embankment to the 17th tee.

Many if us stopped for a water break after the climb in the early heat.

Hull has put on some weight since his playing days and the little climb caught up to him.

With our round finished, I conducted my interview with Mr. Hull.

I had never done an interview before and it showed with my umms and awws as I worked through my notebook. But this was Brett Hull!! …not a bad first interview.

I asked the HOFer questions from golf, to which he described Charles Barkley’s swing as “confused”, to hockey including favorite coach, rule changes, Dallas Stars’ prospects and the “Hully and Mo Restaurant” that he co-owns with the Dallas Stars’ Mike Modano.

My interview concluded, I grabbed a slice of Pizza in the volunteer room and made my way back to the Georgian Bay Club.

As I walked towards the clubhouse, I saw Kirk Muller dashing from the course to the clubhouse doors. Figuring he was going for lunch I thought I missed a chance. But he quickly emerged to the souvenir tent.

I asked him if he would mind signing a couple cards and if he had time for a chat. He said I could get a few minutes as he was meeting people for lunch.

In all likelihood Mr. Muller was probably not expecting an depth and prepared interview on the Canadiens from a place that is a nine-hour drive from Montreal. Nonetheless he was more than cordial and hung out for ten minutes. A great talk it was!

Checking my schedule I decided to sit out on the patio overlooking the 18th green.

I managed to catch Charles Barkley coming off the green and was able to get two autographs. “Sir Charles” was dressed in all black in the hot sun and his leg was clearly causing him problems.

“How’s your day going?” I asked. “It’s going,” he replied as he chugged up the cart to tee off on the 1st hole.

Scratch seeing a Barkley tee shot in person off the bucket list too. That hesitation is getting better though.

P1050324 Getting back to the 18th green, I caught up with Hockey Night in Canada’s Cassie Campbell.

My brother attended Guelph University with her so I asked if she would sign a hat for him, which she did.

Former NHL goalie and current analyst Darren Pang was up shortly after and followed ten minutes later by Nick Kypreos. I got sigs from both and politely asked if I could chat them up briefly after their round was over and they both agreed.

Cutting by the clubhouse dining room, I see hall of fame goalie and aspiring golf pro Grant Fuhr enjoying lunch with friends. I won’t dare interrupt.

I manage to see former coach "Iron" Mike Keenan as he finished his round and get a quick autograph and a "hello".

Two hours later I caught Cassie finishing her round and told her my brother said hello and thanks for the hat. I then had a nice chat with her as well.

Note to self: when your interview subject is 5’6 and you are 6’3 and the wind is blowing, the interviewer should stand back to the wind (listen to the audio and you’ll see why).

Darren Pang made his way off the course and gave me an insightful chat. In the meantime, Nick Kypreos was passing behind us. We made eye contact and he gave me the “gimme a seccond” indicator while I finished with Mr. Pang.

Kipper jogged over to me and apologized that he could only give me a couple minutes as he had to meet Gretzky for an interview for Rogers Sportsnet.

Nick Kypreos in person is a totally different individual than the tough-guy image you see and hear on Sportsnet of the Fan590.

He even got a kick out of my frustration that Mike Komisarek had bolted from the Habs to the Leafs.

Impressed by his in person demeanor, I held back from asking him if he ever had the real urge to slug a fellow Sportsnet panelist when they made a ridiculous remark. It was in my notes though! lol

A great day was over and I headed back.

Roger Tambellini has taken the lead on the pro leaderboard.

Saturday, 8 am: Hull missed the cut as Campbell, Pang, Gretzky and Catroina Lemay Doans teams destroyed the celebrity field through two rounds. There’s thunderstorms outside, and I’m tired.

I spend the day at home reviewing my interviews and put a report on my interview with Kirk Muller up.

Thanks to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette for mentioning it on habsinsideout.com .

Tambellini continues to lead but Calgary’s Dustin Risdon stelas the day by nailing three eagles in his round.

Sunday morning:

I’m out at the Georgian Bay Club again bright and early. As I peruse through the media area reviewing the leaderboard, Wayne Gretzky walks right up to me, says hello and I get a quick handshake before he heads off to the practice range.

Excited with my encounter I totally forget I had cards for him to sign in my pocket. Hopefully I catch him later.

P1050325 Wayne Gretzky having fun on the driving range

I go to the first hole around 10:25 to catch Catriona LeMay Doan tee off. I’m sure I just saw Jack Nicklaus walk past me. His son Steve, an amateur, is a dead ringer.

P1050330 I then watch as larger group of fans, close to 100 or so, follow Gretzky off his first tee at hole number ten.

I hang out at the first hole to watch Tambellini and lead chasers Garth Mulroy and Blake Adams make their tee shots.

P1050333 Roger Tambellini tees off during the final round

I decide to spend the rest of the morning watching the early groups make their way down the 18th fairway to the green.

Sitting right at the corner table on the deck of the clubhouse, I end up sharing it with Bill Barclay, who has spent the first three days introducing the groups at the tees and will be announcing the leading trios as they approach the 18th green this afternoon.

The morning goes quickly as we watch the leaderboard and the groups pass by us.

Gretzky’s group is easy to spot as a sea of fans snake down the cart path.

We figure that #99 might pop up the stairs and dart through the clubhouse to get a rest, but he continues on to start the front nine.

On my way to lunch I see Darren Pang, finished from his round, having a beer. I congratulate him after learning of his new job with the St'. Louis Blues broadcast team.

As Bill is preparing to announce the groups over the P.A. System I spot for him by watching the three tees on the horizon so that the sound does not interrupt the players.

Before you know it, it’s after 3pm. It looks like Tambellini has it wrapped up and LeMay Daon will take the celebrity title.

Then I look over my shoulder, Darren Pang and a few of the golfers have joined us outside.

Gretzky shows up shortly after, his day on the course done.

I get another hand shake and ask him if he’d mind signing a few cards, and he does.

P1050342 Roger Tambellini making his putt for par on the final hole to win with a -20

It’s too crowded for an interview, and he’s busy signing again and then makes his way to the 18th green as Tambellini makes his par putt.

I shortly follow down and make my way out onto the green with the “real” photographers for the trophy presentation.

P1050353 Wayne Gretzky congratulates Roger Tambellini (with son Felix)


Tambellini takes home a over $144K, a commemorative ring, and a jersey

Roger Tambellini took home a purse of over $144K and taht will put him well into qualifying for next year’s PGA tour.

Steve Nicklaus took the amateur title and a new 2010 Ford Taurus, while Catroina LeMay Daon claimed a new 2010 Ford Mustang Convertible for her efforts.

The real winners were the Gretzky Foundation, which the event supports, as well as the numerous local charities that sold tickets to the event.

Greztky also thanked the near 700 volunteers that made the event run ever so smoothly and the corporate sponsors that supported the event.

The event concluded, I make my way back up to the clubhouse to find Gretzky wrapping things up with some of the fellow golfers.

His father arrives to say hello and I ask them if I can get a picture of them together to which they gladly obliged.


Wayne and Walter Gretzky at the conclusion of the 2009 Gretzky Classic

The event wrapped up, the staff began clearing the clubhouse area and I made my way out.

How do I top this weekend?? I’ll think of something! But this one is in the top 3 for now!

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