There was a lot of beautiful golf played last week at the PGA Championship in Louisville. Rory McIlroy won the event at 16 under par, outpacing some of golf’s thoroughbreds in the process. Behind the scenes was an even more beautiful sight.
The people of Louisville were amazing. I didn’t meet one volunteer (and I met many) that wasn’t genuinely interested in hearing my story and how I was enjoying their hometown. They personified the perfect combination between Midwestern charm and southern hospitality. Without looking too hard, I found there was also some Wisconsin on site.
PGA Club Professional Ryan Helminen, from Ridgeway Country Club in Neenah, Wis., was one of 20 club professionals from around the nation to qualify for the major championship. I knew Helminen from my younger days caddying at Horseshoe Bay, where I once caddied for him and three others in a spring event.
It was hard to recall much from a simple round from four summers ago, but in Louisville — 500 miles from his home and more than 700 from mine — the connection was too much to ignore. So I left my desk in the media center and tracked Helminen’s last eight holes during Friday’s second round.
After watching his tee shot on hole No. 2, I beat him to the fairway, flanking the spectator ropes but using my exclusive credentials to stay nearest the action. Helminen hit his long approach into a deep greenside bunker. He had every reason to be upset.
I’m pretty sure he was, which is why I became worried when he started walking towards me, well off the well-groomed fairway path to his ball. Only he wasn’t concerned with me. He walked right past me to shake the hand of a man in his military uniform. That was something Helminen did to every military person he saw on site. His caddie did the same.
“Thank you for your service” he would say, momentarily forgetting his purpose on the golf course to think about more important things. It was a wonderful gesture to witness, but all things considered, he was in the middle of something important, too.
Helminen was the low club pro at the event, and at just 2-over par and playing in a late tee time, he was the only one with reasonable hope of making the cut. He needed a birdie somewhere during that eight-hole stretch, though.
The two-round cut would eventually include all golfers finishing 1-over or better. Did he know that? Not a chance. His caddie wasn’t telling him. His family wasn’t telling him either, though they all knew it.
There were 20-25 of them there Thursday and Friday, walking all 18 holes from tee to green, each brimming with pride for Helminen. “I’m his aunt!” “Ryan and I grew up together.” “His caddie is my husband!”
His father watched silently, but the rest of the crew did not. Each shot earned a group of shouts. His playing partners, Eduardo Molinari and Kevin Streelman — who won on Tour already this summer — only earned a few courtesy claps when they made par.
Needing that birdie, Helminen struggled to find one. His bogey on the sixth hole didn’t help his cause either, moving him even further from the cut. It bothered him, but only for a minute. His approach shot on the seventh hole flew right over the pin and stuck the green. Unfortunately, from eight feet, the birdie still wouldn’t come. Again, he had every right to be angry, but he wasn’t.
On the way to the eighth green, 15 minutes from finishing, Helminen finally walked up alongside me and asked how I was doing, as if that really mattered. I balked an answer with a question about how he was doing. “I’m having fun, man,” he said. It sure looked like it.
Minutes later he was on the ninth tee, where five military members prompted five more handshakes and “thank you’s.” It was exactly what you wanted to see on a golf course at a major championship: faultless class, and from a player that almost didn’t qualify for the event.
Needing the magic of a 170-yard eagle to make the cut, Helminen tossed his approach in to about 12 feet, and though he struggled to make a putt of that length all day, canned his last stroke for a birdie. At 2-over, he had missed the cut and was disappointed. There was backup prize for him, though.
More importantly, Helminen finished as the low club pro of the tournament and shot par on a Friday where so many tour pros couldn’t. He fist pumped to his family crowd, tossed his ball into the group like he was Phil Mickelson and finished his unique week in Louisville.
It was surely a week he’ll never forget, and though I was just as a measly bystander, it was one I won’t forget either.