LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Standing on the Valhalla driving range Thursday afternoon, Steve Flesch alternately laughed at the price sticker still attached to the driver in his hands (SALE: $300), the white towel he used to wipe his face turning an ugly shade of orange from makeup residue, and the entire situation that had gotten him into this predicament in the first place.
Flesch had started the week in 93rd place on the official alternate list for the 96th PGA Championship – not that he had any clue. Fresh off a T-21 finish at last week’s Barracuda Championship – his best result in just four starts this season – playing golf was far from his mind. Instead, his job here was to serve as an analyst for Golf Channel’s “Live From” coverage.
He’d just finished on the set when PGA of America official Kerry Haigh came looking for him.
Because of back spasms just before his tee time, Matt Kuchar was a late withdrawal from the field. The highest alternate on the list, John Huh, swept in to take his spot.
What followed was equal parts unpredictable and inconceivable.
Robert Garrigus was the next alternate on the list, but he wasn’t on site at the course. Then Justin Hicks, but he wasn’t, either. Haigh checked, but nobody else was at Valhalla who could take a spot in the field should there be another withdrawal.
Until he got all the way down to No. 93.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Flesch. Just minutes removed from talking about the tournament on television, with remnants of makeup still caked to his face and – most importantly – his clubs at home an hour away, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to put himself in that position.
“The last thing I wanted to do was go out there with a rental set, drive it in the rough all day and shoot 85,” explained the Kentucky native. “But then I’m thinking, you never know. You go out there and scramble around, shoot even par, catch lightning in a bottle and then you can use your own stuff the rest of the week.”
Steve Flesch is notified by PGA officials that he's first alternate
It’s happened before. Back in 1991, John Daly was ninth alternate before getting into the field and winning this very tournament at Crooked Stick.
So Flesch said yes – and the mad scramble was on.
He set out for the locker room, hoping he could borrow a pair of size-9 shoes and maybe a few sleeves of balls from another competitor. He also called Chris Hamburger, the head professional at Valhalla, who put golf assistant Kevin Drenth in charge of finding lefthanded clubs for the pro.
Drenth did what anyone charged with such a task would do: He drove three miles to the nearest Golf Headquarters store.
“I walked in there and said, ‘I need all the lefty stuff you’ve got and we’ll go from there,’” he later recalled with a laugh.
When he returned, Flesch picked one of the two sets of store-bought irons, but left them covered in plastic so they could be returned. He rolled some putts with a standard-length Scotty Cameron wand, needing “about 40” tries before holing one on the practice green. Then he went to the range, hitting some wedges and that driver with the price sticker attached.
All the while, he was laughing about the improbable turn of events which led to this scenario.
“If the opportunity arose, I’d be crazy to not at least give it a shot,” he said. “I’m the only guy here who can play. It’s better to at least go out there and give it a shot rather than the field play one man short. If you’re here and eligible and someone says you have a shot at a $10 million purse, why not go play?”
The last tee time of the opening round was 2:45 p.m. ET. About 30 minutes beforehand, Flesch headed to the 10th tee, where three more groups were scheduled to tee off. (He picked it over the first tee because it was closer to the parking lot.)
Alas, there were no last-minute back spasms. No players late in the day who decided to withdraw, leaving the last spot in the field to the 93rd alternate.
When the final tee shots of the day were struck, Flesch simply stood nearby and watched helplessly.
As one of those last competitors bashed a drive down the fairway, he smiled and whispered, “This is the very last thing I ever thought I’d be doing today. I mean, never even considered this. Never.”