MAMARONECK, N.Y. —They were a despondent bunch, the Winged Foot range staff. There was work to do and dwindling time to do it, a smoky haze sweeping in from fires out West dimming the New York skies earlier than its 7 p.m. sunset foretold. The practice area had been empty for 20 minutes save for Viktor Hovland pounding driver after driver at the East course’s ninth hole, which is serving as the de facto practice facility this week. But the area needed to be totally clear for the staff to do their task, hence their stasis in a multi-passenger maintenance cart. If Hovland felt their restlessness, he paid it no attention.
Besides, what was the staff going to do? They knew their place in the hierarchy. Before they could do their job, Hovland needed to finish his.
“It keeps drifting a bit, yeah?” Hovland said to his caddie, Shay Knight, unhappy his drives were veering off their tight-rope trajectory. So the range staff watched as he continued to swing away as darkness crept in, chasing a demon only he could see.
The last man on the range can be a wonder to behold. He can be a romantic or tragic or pragmatic soul, sometimes all at once. It depends on the person and place and situation, and perhaps the prism we view them.
The last man on the range can be inspirational, evidence that the player’s success is not borne strictly out of talent. Look at that! the broadcast tells us as its wrapping up coverage. Up four strokes on the field and still practicing his game! That’s why he’s one of the best, Jim. It can be aspirational, the hope to be one of the final players departing for the tee box come Sunday afternoon.
The last man on the range can be painful, a player searching for something that was once there but is not, and the look on his face shows he’s not sure where to find it or if it will ever return. It can be worrisome, a sign that not all is right with one’s swing or psyche. It can be melodramatic, performance art even, a reminder that to reach this level you need to be a certain kind of crazy.
The last man on the range can be a badge of honor. Vijay Singh made a career out of being the last man; more often than not, Bryson DeChambeau serves the role in present times. The last man on the range can be a curiosity. For all we know Haotong Li is still hitting balls at TPC Harding Park as we speak.
For Hovland … well, ostensibly he was there to fix a leaky driver. “It was right again, right again,” he says of the big stick. Conversely, those leaks looked pretty damn straight, and the long ball hasn’t been an issue for the 22-year-old in his fledgling career (18th in strokes gained/off-the-tee last season). It may simply be a window into the inner fire that propelled Hovland to a T-12 finish at this championship last year as an amatuer and led to a win in his rookie campaign.
One thing is for certain, there is nothing circumstance about the last man on the range.
He may say he’s there to practice, which is kind of true but not really. It is a facade. He is there to atone for past sins and make sure they never happen again even though he knows they will. Or to give alms in hopes the golf gods shine their providence his way. He is there with purpose.
Finally, a little past 7 p.m., Hovland’s swings stop. “Let’s go ahead and call it,” he says to Knight, his drives barely visible at this point. A barely audible “Thank God” arises from the maintenance vehicle, and suddenly six staff members are brushing the day’s divots into a pile. They make quick work, but their respite will be short. The last man on the range may change, but he will always be there.