In the bubble: being at the Packers Hall of Fame Golf Classic
It is easy to label something one of a kind or uniquely special. The television spammericals late at night or during the day pump items that are supposedly unlike any other on the market; a vacuum that cleans any surface, cuts your grass and gets the grill started, or a knife that could cut through your stove, satisfaction guaranteed, if that’s what you’re looking for. Ultimately and not surprisingly, these can turn out to be not what we expect, a letdown, maybe even not as distinctive as once believed.
This isn’t about such products. But it is important to note here, though, that the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame is the only one of its kind in the realest way possible. There is no other team in the National Football League with its own permanent sports Hall of Fame that doubles as a museum. Started in 1966 by its founder, William Brault — who had to get the go-ahead on the initial project from one Vince Lombardi — as an exhibit shown only during the summer in the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena’s concourse area, the Hall of Fame morphed from there through time to the living and still evolving shrine to Green Bay’s success-soaked football history it is today. It is now getting set to move to the second floor space currently occupied by Curly’s Pub in the Lambeau Field Atrium. A better version of an already impressive idea, started from scratch, driven by fan interest. “Fan interest,” of course, is putting it lightly.
A nonprofit organization, one of the Hall of Fame’s few major annual fundraising efforts is the Golf Classic. (The other is the Hall of Fame Induction Banquet.) In accordance with the Hall of Fame’s unending — and again, unmatched in professional football — drive to keep the legends and rich history of the Packers’ past in the present, the golf outing is the embodiment of the Hall of Fame’s unique position as a connecting rod between eras, players, other important figures in Packers lore, and those who follow it all from the bench seats in Lambeau or around the world.
For the last nine years, the Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan has been home base for the Hall of Fame’s festivities. The white-pillared, almost congressional-looking resort with red roofing sits and stretches for miles across the shore of Lake Michigan. Inside, the Hall of Fame’s expansive multi-room suite and view overlooking the water lapping against the land makes one consider hiding under a bed and trying to live there forever. The suite serves as the Hall of Fame’s hospitality room for invited celebrities — former players and other Packers-affiliated personalities. Here, they get together Sunday before and after a welcome dinner and on Monday following golf, dinner and silent auction proceedings at the course’s clubhouse.
I am here as a spotter for the golf outing. Basically everything from the time I first walk into Blue Harbor to Tuesday’s checkout is new and surreal, in a good way. The first player to walk into the hospitality suite Sunday afternoon is Chris Jacke, who will be a Packers Hall of Famer by the time you read this. After that and throughout the weekend, it’s a changing blend of players from the storied Vince Lombardi era to recent Super Bowl XXXI winners and beyond. They congregate and share all kinds of stories and anecdotes with the sort of precise details I can’t attach to the day’s breakfast. It’s surely just a sliver of what they know, and the storytelling skills on display are either innate or a product of doing something really, really remarkable for a long time. Probably both. Plays, games and situations spark almost instantly to life in their minds. Former players can paint pictures of these scenarios in a way that you can’t read in a recap.
A great example: Dave Robinson, the Packers Hall of Fame linebacker inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this month, is an endless well of such stories and recollections from his life in and around the sport. He spills many tales and thoughts out in the ride down to Sheboygan from Green Bay, and it’s hard to keep them straight or separated. For him, too: Robinson says his Hall of Fame speech, as he practiced it, first clocked in at around 45 minutes. At the time of the outing he had it whittled down to 20. The road trip is a monologue, not an interview. That’s a good difference and Robinson easily fills the time, comfortable in this element.
That’s the goal. The hospitality suite (and weekend in general) is a comforting place for these former Packers stars. It is set up that way. It is designed to let the stories, these memories that will always get a year older every time and thus always more irreplaceable, flow out and into new minds that can hopefully remember them half as well. During the round of golf, the Hall of Fame smartly began video recording players sharing some of these stories. Another attempt to keep them around for later generations.
Sharing time in the suite with these guys, it is both hard and easy to remember that they are Packers legends. People who played football pretty darn well for one of the NFL’s foundational franchises. They are guys we grew up watching or, depending on your age, at least learning about. They are also, as the golf outing probably better than any other event shows, people like anyone else. They have of course done extraordinary things, both for themselves and the franchise. This is not something many can say. But they are also funny and different in different ways like everyone else, all with their own lives and interests outside of football. It’s the football that brings them here, but that most important element also only opens the door to better see them in three dimensions. And it could be argued there is no better place to bring out the regular in someone than a golf course.
‘Another year in the books’
During the round, one of the golfers said of The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls, site of this year’s golf outing and its home for the last nine years, that it is somewhere he’d likely not go on his own dime. This is, one imagines, a compliment to its uncommonly pristine layout and quality. It’s also a testament to its difficulty. Wisconsin’s lone Jack Nicklaus Signature course — Nicklaus himself is the designer — The Bull, constructed on land once home to a dairy farm, has earned a reputation as one of the state’s best, most challenging daily fee courses.
This year’s Golf Classic cost $1,800 for a foursome. For each foursome, the plan is to set them up with a celebrity who golfs or at least rides along with the group in a cart. They play under a scramble (best ball) format. In some cases businesses cut the check and send four employees out for some probably-effective morale boosting, especially on a Monday.
It is, as mentioned, “the plan” to get each foursome a celebrity, but like anything else ever, the Golf Classic is not perfect. One of the Hall of Fame’s biggest annual reasons for losing sleep is the continuous tab-keeping on celebrities that’s needed, be it either people the Hall of Fame would like to see participate or who have already pledged to do so. Because sometimes things come up and they can’t make it. And sometimes this happens days before the event. Sometimes the morning of, hours or minutes before the shotgun start to the tournament. Other times travel headaches arise and rental car reservations or lost luggage must be navigated around and over. For the Hall of Fame, it is not simply announcing the event, then waiting for celebrities to sign up and show up. It is a constant process that needs prodding, watching, double and triple checking, and then, in the event of inevitable cancellations or otherwise, quick wheeling and dealing to try and ensure golfers get what they paid for.
It is nearly impossible to please everyone, another universal truth, but the Hall of Fame works with what it can as hard and best they can. This is, after all, one of their main financial arteries, and yet they can only attempt to wrangle the whims and predict potential life curveballs for 30-some celebrities so well. All that considered, 2013 is a success in basically every way for the Hall of Fame. Monday night there is a collective sigh of relief; variations of “another year in the books” sprinkles in and out of conversation. Next year already hovers off in the distance.
The golfing of The Bull
A thunderous and rainy morning give way just in time for sun and sticky heat to start the tournament. I am out in the open on the course but there are enough clouds to save my shirt from totally drowning in sweat. But when the clouds are gone and the sun is alone it scorches.
The tenth hole, my assignment as a spotter for the tournament, is a good microcosm of The Bull’s, well, bullishness. No. 10, named “Renaissance,” is a curvaceous 469-yard par 4 that hosts the outing’s longest drive contest. The contest is split into groups for men, women and seniors over 70. The men’s tee sits 50 feet above the fairway, according to the course’s website, atop a steep brushy hill to the right of the clubhouse. The women’s and senior tees are to the left and right below, respectively.
From the tee box the fairway juts to the left and doglegs around a large bunker on the right side. That bunker is backed by thick woods to its right side and behind it, as the fairway opens up to a shot at the green, the spotters sit. From my perspective I can see golfers lining up their swings and hear the pinging of driver on ball. Otherwise, for an untrained spotter like myself, once airborne the chances of discovering a shot until it lands are dicey at best. There is on-and-off cloud cover passing above during the day, balls jump into them and virtually disappear. Hearing FORE! heightens one’s desire to quickly find the ball in flight, to be sure, but mostly only leads to ducking and hoping the shot doesn’t decide it’s going to use you for an extra bounce or two.
The more severe slices disappear into the trees on the right; others either thump in the bunker or in some cases bee-line for the general area I’m sitting in. Mark Tauscher, the durable offensive tackle for Green Bay in the 2000s and University of Wisconsin alum, drives one and yells a loud-and-clear FORE! but I can’t spot it until the ball slams into the ground a few feet over the bunker, just in front of the area the co-spotter with me is sitting on the grass. We blindly and luckily duck. The ball hops over us and into the fairway. Tauscher comes around to check and make sure we took cover in time, chuckling. I laugh, but it’s more a laugh of relief than anything.
Almost directly across from me on the hole, two smaller bunkers hug the left edge of the fairway and a hill climbs to a cart path and the ninth hole’s fairway. After navigating the dogleg, golfers face a water hazard to the right of the green. The right portion in front of the green looks like it should be avoided if possible, but that same side of the green is also home to the pin on this day. The left and back sides of the green are surrounded by hills and high grass. The front right is guarded by a steep decline that funnels into a sprawling green-side sand trap. The green sits up a bit from the fairway and the hole location often pulls shots closer to the water, which snares them like a black hole if they get too close. Many shots get too close. No. 10 offers plenty of opportunities to get in trouble, and one imagines the longest drive competition only heightens the chances for high-risk, high-reward-sort of swings.
As celebrities and foursomes and a smorgasbord of interpretations on golf swings are on display, all golfers experience the sport’s more frustrating traits together. When the camaraderie is clicking in a given group, it’s one of the more endearing portions of the event. When there’s no autographs or photos involved, when it’s just golf and a group of people, the chance to talk and relate goes up and differences for a while dissipate. In short, golfing serves as a great, albeit at times irritating, icebreaker. Its challenges form equal, familiar ground for everyone to walk tentatively over.
The long drive contest is the main focus of the day at No. 10. Three stakes, one for each group, are stuck in the fairway with a paper and pencil to mark the leaders’ name for each new longest shot. They must fall in the fairway to count. Packers Hall of Fame wide receiver Carroll Dale — who played on both of Green Bay’s Super Bowl I and II title teams — smashes a drive in the mid-morning off the senior tee into the right side of the fairway, a little in front of the water, and wins. Only former Milwaukee Brewers closer Ken Sanders gets close to Dale’s mark later in the afternoon.
Various outing participants lead the men’s portion of the contest before the last group of the day tees off. Bill Schroeder is in that group and skips a drive a few feet by the previous mark that stood for most of the afternoon. Schroeder, the former Packers wideout and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse alum, is a perennial favorite in the long drive contest. The end result surprises almost no one when they hear it.
The Hall of Fame’s small world, big universe
Monday night after the tournament in the hospitality suite is, by accounts of those more experienced, a little less crowded than past years. There are any number of reasons for this but some players do stop by and it remains awesomely numb yet sort of normal for the weekend’s standards. The two-day period is this little bubble where seeing and chatting with and listening to players — like quarterback Don Majkowski remembering when he and the Packers finally beat the Chicago Bears in 1989 for the first time in five years; or tight end Marv Fleming, who along with being in the Packer Hall of Fame was also a member of the Miami Dolphins’ undefeated 1972 team; or Lynn Dickey, the quarterback who led some of Green Bay’s more explosive offenses between 1976-1985 — happens freely here and is wholly unavailable in just about any other setting.
If the event were longer it could be easy to forget, because of how easygoing everyone and the atmosphere is, how special this all is. Instead it is here and gone. You take the experience away with you, and the situation can’t be replicated until next year. That brevity, to me, makes it stick like only memories of a good thing gone by too fast can. It might be, I’m guessing, how some of the players feel about their football careers. Those linger too in various ways; at the Golf Classic, you hear about the times that stuck with them.
Zooming back out, the Packers Hall of Fame is an appreciation and remembrance of important memories and the players who made them, and in almost all cases gave something up to make them, in a football town that’d be vastly different without that history. The Hall of Fame’s Golf Classic is a quick dip into that past, an effort to make it not so far away, both for the weekend’s various participants directly and in the bigger picture for the general public in the form of the Hall of Fame itself.
The Lombardi era, long the time period the golf outing was and to a degree still is largely based around for obvious reasons, inches another year away. It’s a tectonic plate-like movement, especially since the Hall of Fame and the Packers do so well in making sure it’s remembered properly in context within the organization’s, and pro football’s, overall history. Still it shifts slowly away all the time. The Golf Classic has long been and will be a bastion for the players of this time and any other time; making sure they get another well-deserved opportunity to shine in the summer sun. But it will at some point need a new generation of players to become more involved — the likes of Tauscher and Frank Winters and Packers’ all-time sacks leader Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Schroeder and Jacke — all of whom were in attendance this year — and others from their respective eras.
Reasons for the Hall of Fame to keep growing aren’t hard to find and events like the golf outing will remain integral to its development. Players, Packers Hall of Famers or not, are the backbone of it all.
For fans, be it spotters or golfers or however one gets the opportunity to spend a little time in this bubble, the chance to shine casual light on these people away from public portraits and Packers uniforms enhances the team’s history in a one of a kind way. The golf is secondary to the outing, but golf is also the common thread necessary for stringing players and fans together, allowing participants to add another layer in which they can remember legends by.
In essentially every way this event and the temporary world it creates is a limited time offer, like those in the late night infomercials. This event comes and goes quick too, but unlike those dubious offers and products, the Golf Classic is as authentic and special as the people it celebrates and the organization — already rush-ordered decades ago by the fan base — tasked with honoring them. It is and will be different every year, but it’s purpose remains the same.
All of the players slowly filter out of the suite on Monday night. They say their goodbyes and until-next-year’s. Leaving on an unrelentingly foggy Tuesday morning in Sheboygan, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit more about the Packers, their recent history and more distant past. A little bit more in two days time, in this environment, is a lot. It is only a sliver.