Everything changed at Shinnecock.
It was my sixth tournament of 2004, an odyssey based more on a lark than sound reason. I wasn't even a photographer by any definition in the Fall of 2003, just a few months earlier, although I did own a camera, a simple Nikon SLR. Note there is no D in front of SLR. This was still the film era.
I had been in New York City the weekend before, taking black & white photos in a general tourist fashion. Nothing special. So when I arrived the day after my return for a Tuesday morning practice round for the AMEX Championship in Atlanta, I had no intention of taking photographs. As I said, I was not a photographer. As I started to close my car door, I looked down and saw my camera on the floorboard. I knew there were a few shots left on the roll of black & white film, so I took it with me just to finish off the roll.
We walked on to the course somewhere on the front nine, and there was Tiger Woods, playing a practice round alone. And there was pretty much no one else there, no gallery to speak of, a marshall here and there with no one to say "Hush Y'all" to. So I took a few photos of Tiger. There was no such intention at the time, but I became a photographer that early morning, although I wouldn't realize it until the following day.
I picked up my prints the following afternoon at Wolf Camera at Peachtree Battle Shopping Center in Atlanta. I sat in the car and flipped through them. The New York City photos were unremarkable, and then I came to the golf photos, and I looked at them with amazement. I couldn't believe that I had taken them. They were special.
I printed and framed a standout image, and hung it in my office at the gallery. It just so happens that a publisher that specialized in golf books saw that photo and told me it needed to be the cover of a book. He said he didn't even know what the book would be, but that the image would sell books. A few weeks later I met with him again, and made a proposal: the book should just be more of my photographs. Green light!
So in early 2004 I made a plan. I would pick a few tournaments where the top players were sure to be, and courses that I thought would make for an interesting back drop. I would just go to practice rounds, as I had no way of securing press credentials at the time. I started at Riviera, then returned to the west coast the very next week at La Costa for the Match Play Championship. Then there were easy trips from Atlanta to Sawgrass, Augusta and Quail Hollow.
By the time I got to Shinnecock, I had quickly become a confident photographer. In just five tournament shoots, I had good stuff of every top player of the time, including Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at The Masters. My focus was on the players, as well as "in between" moments that spoke to the soul of the game, what Gene McClure would later refer to as "An Adventure of the Spirit". I was always particular about the backdrop, as I wanted to capture a sense of time and place. But that's what the course was for me, a backdrop.
As soon as I put one foot down on the hollowed grounds of Shinnecock, I realized that the course, not just this course but others to follow, was the story just as much as the players. And now I realize, it's a more powerful subject. I didn't know all the history of Shinnecock other than the basic facts: it was one of the founding clubs of the USGA, the Stanford White clubhouse was the first in America, and Raymond Floyd and Corey Pavin had won recent U.S. Opens there. But a powerful sense of history was evident at Shinnecock beyond that, it was a sense of history that was felt as much as learned.
Over two days of practice rounds at Shinnecock, my focus changed. The clubhouse, the contours of the land, and the vastness that I had never witnessed on a golf course, became the focus. The players became the actors of a slightly different movie. And this change would effect the way I not only photographed the game of golf, but also how I considered and enjoyed it.
Two years later, I would become a fully credentialed photographer at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Then again the next year at Oakmont, and the next at Torrey Pines. In 2010, I would work on the USGA photography staff at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Fourteen years later, I've photographed over fifty tournaments and well over one hundred courses all over the world. Somewhere in this story is the lesson of embracing your passion, trusting your instincts, believing in yourself, and just plain getting out there and doing it.
The book, well it was never published, the company went out of business before I had a chance to put it all together. But what I thought was going to be a year long photography series has now become a lifelong pursuit and a career. My golf photographs eventually led me to other niches, with just as much dedication applied to documenting the rural south and my hometown of Atlanta, among other subjects. And there will be a book one day, of that I am certain.
I don't photograph many tournaments these days, but I consider this a hiatus, not a retirement. I still photograph golf often, favoring occasional trips both home and abroad- especially to the the links courses of Ireland and Scotland- over tournaments.
As it neared, I thought for sure I would want to return to Shinnecock for this year's U.S. Open, but it never really called my name. I guess two days there in 2004 will always be enough.
But I do hope to eventually return there...with golf clubs, not a camera.