My Luckiest Day

Intro:

Back in 2015, my life into fatherhood and marriage was just getting started. Our young daughter was growing and I started the year making some unforgettable memories reconnecting with some long lost family and friends in Chicago and SoCal. Just as Spring Break was in full swing, a day in the middle of the week blinded me with so many joyous surprises that I still think about it to this day. From the deluxe accommodations to the celebrity sightings, this day in Orlando was unlike any other that I have experienced before or since. Any one of these 10 parts would individually be the highlight of most any given typical week, let alone any typical day. But the fact that they all squeezed into one 24-hour period is mind boggling. It all started with a work trip to a safety conference that a half dozen of our team took every year. This was one of the first times the conference was in Orlando and, as luck would have it, would be the first time for a lot of things.

Kevin Nealon had no idea how lucky I felt that day. Ernie Els had no idea I was there.

Part 1: The Purpose of the Trip

This wasn’t the first time our safety team had traveled to attend a safety conference. In fact, it was a nice perk that went along with being part of a work group whose sole mission was to help coworkers stay safe. The conference organizers chose a different U.S. city each year in which to host the event, from Nashville to Dallas to San Antonio to Chicago. We would be attending the conference in Orlando that year and, for whatever reason, the conference always happened to fall on the same weekend as the first round of the NCAA national basketball tournament, AKA “March Madness.” Moreover, the flood of travelers arriving in Orlando reminded me that it was Spring Break for a lot of families and also the week of the PGA’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament where the world’s best golfers compete at Orlando’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge every year. All in all, there were a lot of reasons to be out and about in Orlando that week. But we had a job to do, and that was to represent our site at the Best Practices showcase as well as attend safety seminars to gather information that we could take back home to our coworkers. Regardless, it was still nice to see the city of Orlando welcoming a population of visitors who yearned for recreation and entertainment. Incidentally, our work trips included getting lavishly wined and dined on the company dime for a few days.

I always feel underdressed in places like this.

The Hyatt Regency in Orlando was impressive, though it did not surprise me that the conference would be held at such an upscale venue. With every work trip, I never lost sight of how blessed I felt to attend events like these over the years; events that could not have been cheap to the company. When factoring in airfare, a rental vehicle, accommodations, food, drinks, and the price of admission to the conference, there was no way I could ever participate in something like this on my own. Fortunately for us, the company credit card would cover all expenses in the name of safety. From alcohol to room service, as long as we didn’t go overboard (and even the few times we did), the company would not question expenses. We each had our own room, the type that deserved bearing the Hyatt name, along with a few extra details that set them apart from other fancy hotels.

Some creative design features make add to the luxurious feel.

One example was the fogless mirror that had its own circular vanity light with a TV installed into a semi-transparent insert. Another was the motion activated LED that guided a sleepy walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. There was a 24-hour diner onsite, a few restaurants and bars, a pool and a gym with all associated amenities, located a block away from an entertainment district with more selections of shops and nightclubs. Somehow, I was given access to all of these luxuries without spending a dime. This alone would have made the trip was of the luckiest I had ever been a part of, but I was about to discover that my world-class lodging was just the tip of the iceberg.

Part 2: Liberty Call

These conference work trips did not leave a lot of time to venture out or do any real exploring in a visiting city. We usually would only stay for two nights since the conference would start on Thursday and end on Saturday. Secretly, I was hoping that there would be some way I could slip away from work duties to soak in some of what Orlando had to offer. I wasn’t asking to ditch work altogether for theme parks and beaches, but I still welcomed any chance of capturing some small memory of Orlando that was non-conference related. Miraculously, an adjustment in our itinerary worked heavily in our favor and created a scheduling shift that blew a window of opportunity wide open. Here is what happened.

Our presentation was not canceled, just postponed.

Since the conference started with the Best Practices Showcase on Thursday afternoon, our business unit manager scheduled a Wednesday meeting for a select few team members to give a safety presentation to the other business unit sites in front of the corporate manager. Therefore, we were told to arrive in Orlando on Tuesday of that week to be ready to present on Wednesday. But upon arrival on Tuesday, we were informed that the corporate manager pushed the presentations back until Thursday morning and, voila… we had ourselves an entire free day on Wednesday. This was a golden ticket. Not only were we in Orlando, home to some of the greatest tourist attractions on Earth, but it was Spring Break during the start of March Madness and Bay Hill was hosting the Arnold Palmer Invitational that same week. When all was said and done, we were gifted with an obligation-free Wednesday to do whatever we wanted. It felt like I wished it into existence.

Crème brûlée always brings me back to this night.

As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the management team treated us all to a fancy dinner at The Capital Grille once we arrived Tuesday evening. It was a wonderfully extravagant evening of ordering dishes that I usually could not afford, sampling wine, and sharing desserts with managers we did not usually get to rub elbows with. It was the kind of restaurant that had far too much silverware and far too little lighting. Regardless, I graciously took part while mentally pondering how I would spend my obligation-free Wednesday. Spend the day at a theme park? Or make it to the beach? Shopping and sightseeing with crowds of other tourists? There were a ton of options. If I recall, one of my coworkers spent the next day driving all the way to Tampa. Another spent the next day sleeping off a hangover from boozing and schmoozing after dinner that night. As for me, the golf gods were too tempting to ignore, so I turned in shortly after dinner.

Part 3: Disney’s Sunrise 9

The likelihood of me ever getting to experience golf in Orlando had always been slim-to-none. I rarely ever visit Orlando and any potential trip in the future would probably be with family to do more touristy things away from any golf courses. But this day I was by myself and ready to play golf. I also knew that I wanted to watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Each of these activities can take the majority of an entire day, but I only had one day and I was torn: would I have to choose between playing at one of the critically-acclaimed Disney courses or watching the pros? Two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and only one day to indulge. I had already decided, despite all other attractions that Orlando had to offer, I wanted golf more than any of them. To me, the things that were taking me away from golf were not attractions… they were distractions. Thankfully, I discovered a way to effectively catch two bolts of lightning in one bottle.

There’s something about being on the course at sunrise that is indescribable.

Disney knows how to cater to families, and they know how to reshape activities so as not to deplete too much time and money away from family togetherness. This includes allowing children into certain bars and clubs usually reserved for adults. More importantly, this includes certain golf courses inviting golfers to play half a round of golf for a discounted price. Disney’s idea was that a golfer could spend a couple hours at the beginning or end of the day squeezing in a quick nine holes while still having time for theme parks or business conferences. My idea was that I could play nine holes in the morning and still make it to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

I almost teed off over a boat shuttles families to and from the various Disney resorts via this waterway that separates the 16th tee box from the green.
Big baller families stay in the treehouse villas located just off the right side of the green.

The round was majestic; just me and the final nine holes of Disney’s Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. As the very first person to tee off that day, the course was immaculate. Well manicured, pristine, and still foggy with the mist that was starting to clear away as the sun came up. Every step off the cart path left my footprint in the previously untouched morning dew that sat atop each blade of grass. Not even the groundskeepers had been there yet; the course was totally private. As I navigated through each tee box and fairway and green, I battled between trying to execute clean golf shots and trying to soak in the surreal reality that I was getting to play a private round of golf at such a high-profile venue that was as photogenic as ever and whose beauty was absolutely breathtaking. In terms of playing golf, I had never felt such serenity. To this day, I still think of Lake Buena Vista’s Sunrise 9 whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of a golf course at sunrise.

Part 4: Thank You for Your Service

Once the 9 holes at Disney’s Lake Buena Vista were complete, my golf playing appetite was satisfied and it was time to turn my attention to phase 2 of the day’s golf adventures. The Arnold Palmer Invitational has been one of the most popular and highest rated PGA Tour events in all of golf. Tiger Woods, who was notoriously picky about the events he played, made this a staple of his schedule every year for over a decade and then famously chose this event as his comeback appearance from knee surgery following his victory at the 2008 U.S. Open. Boasting one of the strongest fields and played on one of the most cherished courses in pro golf, this event consistently draws the attention of millions of TV viewers and swarms of spectating fans hoping to be in arm’s reach of some of the world’s best athletes. For me, I had been watching this event on TV for years and had never fathomed the possibility that I would ever get to walk the fairways of this course in real life. Yet here I was, in the same city, during the same week as the biggest golf event leading up to the Masters. There were really only two objectives: how to get there and how to get in. Lucky for me, both were for free…

Way different in person compared to on TV.

As far as transportation, one of the coworker’s rented a large SUV to drive us around town that week. Sure, I could have taken a cab or paid for an Uber… but that has never been my style when there was the possibility of a free ride. Fortunately, I called him before he had taken off to Tampa. As I waited for him in the lobby, I checked the event’s website for spectator prices and special considerations. It turned out that admission was slightly, but not surprisingly, more expensive than other PGA events I had attended in the past. I watched the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines for around $30 per spectator, the Shell Houston Open at Redstone for $25, and the Hero World Challenge at Sherwood was given to me and my dad as a gift. In contrast, the Arnold Palmer Invitational was going to cost me $50. Ordinarily, this price would be a little steep but I was willing to make an exception for such a rare opportunity. Then I noticed there was a veterans’ voucher for half off the regular spectator price! I printed the voucher and the generous coworker drove me to Bay Hill Club & Lodge where I had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon.

Adam Scott was one of my favorite golfers in the mid 2000s. We once wore matching Burberry shirts but he didn’t notice.

At some point on the drive to the ticket booth, our vehicle was directed away from the main entrance and toward the spectator parking lot. This made for some awkward chats with volunteers who kept trying to direct us to park despite my coworker’s plea that he was just dropping me off. Every volunteer would just tell us to follow the other cars who were parking. Eventually, I asked my coworker to simply pull over anywhere and that I could just walk with the rest of the spectators from the parking lot to wherever the entrance was. He pulled over, I got out, and I followed the rest of the crowd toward a metal detector. One worker was scanning everyone’s spectator badge that I did not have, but there was a ticketing trailer nearby. I showed to the guy working the ticket trailer, hoping it would cut my admission fee in half. But the man simply handed me a spectator badge, thanked me for my service, and pointed me toward the metal detectors. Just like that, the $50 fee I was willing to pay to enter Bay Hill and watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational vaporized away into the Florida sun.

Part 5: Golfer’s Paradise

Having been a fan of golf for roughly 20 years at that time, I was familiar with some of America’s most televised courses. There were always the ‘A’ list venues: Augusta, St. Andrews, Pebble Beach. Then there were the best of the rest, mostly near the west: Kapalua, Torrey Pines, Riviera, Scottsdale. Other popular tour stops were Whistling Straits, Medina, and Firestone in the Midwest and Bethpage Black on Long Island. But down South, there were always two courses that had the TV networks drooling over how stunning they looked: Doral & Bay Hill. Of all the golf courses that hosted PGA events every year, I had only set foot on a few of them. Of these dozen or so “super venues”, only one prior to this occasion. Bay Hill Club & Lodge was as gorgeous as any other sports venue I have ever visited. The place radiated tradition, with symbols of greatness in every direction. Even before I recognized the famous faces of golfers and celebrities, Bay Hill itself was a shining star that gave me chills just walking the grounds. There was the famous par-5 6th hole that bends around a lake. There was probably the largest greenside bunker I have ever seen at the par-3 17th. Then there was the green at 18, which I immediately recognized from vivid memories of screaming in my living room back in 2008 after Tiger Woods dramatic putt dropped in for a win… then again in 2009. I was aware that I was in the physical presence of this historic piece of the golf world; a spectacular follow-up to the a private golf outing I had treated myself to at Disney’s Lake Buena Vista that morning. Now I was at an actual PGA super venue that was oozing with world class professionals and greatness.

“Have you ever had a dream… that you were so sure was real?”

First of all, no… Tiger Woods was not in the field nor was he in attendance that week. But there were probably 50 other golfers that I saw and recognized. It is worth noting that this was not a competition day; it was a pro-am which meant that one pro was paired with four amateurs who paid a handsome fee to experience a day in the life of a PGA Tour pro. So while the course was in picture-perfect condition and the play serious, the mood was relaxed and the players were relatively casual as they joked with their amateur playing partners and greeted fans between holes. Kevin Na was petting a dog while waiting for the fairway to clear before teeing off. Ernie Els expertly chipped a ball that landed outside the green but rolled to within one foot of the hole. Rory McIlroy confidently held his finish after every drive from the tee and every iron shot from the fairway. Hideki Matsuyama used every part of his 5'11" frame to blast drives over 300 yards. Getting to watch golf at its highest level was both impressive and inspiring. Even though I was by myself, I felt welcomed into the community of golf fans and spectators, especially since I was not the only one there without a companion.

View of the 18th green from the 16th tee box.

One guy that I talked to had a camera set up on a tripod behind the 6th tee. He said that he was a golf instructor and goes around to the different tournaments as part of his job requirements but also for his own enjoyment. He must have noticed my U.S. Navy ballcap since he thanked me for my service. We talked about all kinds of golf related topics. How different courses are designed around the country, how private courses differ from public ones, how different types of golfers perform and behave, and some of the hidden benefits of the game that we both have come to love. As much as this photographer golf instructor guy was on another level than I was in terms of knowledge and experience, it was clear that we still shared a common interest in dissecting the game as well as enjoying a nice conversation. We talked for about a half hour, which was almost as long as I talked with the volunteer event worker off the 18th fairway. He talked about the perks of working the event, life in Florida, and being unable to witness some of the most historic moments because the crowds get too large and loud during those times. I was having so much fun immersed in the tournament environment that forgot to plan for one important part of the afternoon.

How would I get back to the hotel?

Part 6: The Mastercard Tent

That afternoon, as the the sun was approaching the horizon and the excitement of the golf action was in full swing, I made my way toward the clubhouse to find out about public transportation options. I only asked a couple of volunteers and one police officer but, surprisingly, no one could point me in the direction of a public vehicle that could take me back to the Hyatt Regency. Evidently, most fans either drove themselves to the event or already had some form of transportation lined up upon departure. It was a strange feeling to be in the middle of this golf oasis with no plan for how to get back to the hotel. Not only that but, since I had been walking around in the sun all day, I was starting to get hot and thirsty… at least enough to be willing to pay for an overpriced beverage being offered by the concessions tents near the practice facility. Just then, almost by magic, a sign pointed me in the right direction.

The Mastercard tent was similar to this one but it had a view looking down the driving range.

A large, air-conditioned tent that blocked my view of the driving range had a sign at the entrance stairs that read “Mastercard Members Only.” I had a Mastercard in my wallet but I did not know what it meant to be a member, so I inquired with the lady at the top of the stairs. She quickly glanced at the Mastercard from my wallet, gave me a wrist band and allowed me to enter the tent. Inside was a cool and comfortable lounge, one with a few open tables and seats, a bar with a nice drink selection, and a few TV screens broadcasting the golf event taking place just outside. Across from the bar was a wall with floor-to-ceiling windows that gave way to a gorgeous view of the driving range. It felt like I had snuck into a VIP pavilion. This was a treat: I still had no idea how I was getting back to the hotel, but I at least I could contemplate my options in a VIP-style lounge with a panoramic view of the world’s best golfers honing their craft. Being in the air-conditioning almost made me forget how thirsty I was. I did not have to pay to enter the Mastercard tent and, come to think of it, I had not even paid admission into the event at all. If a drink at the bar in this tent was to be the first time I had to pay for anything all afternoon, then I would have gladly obliged. Between that and whatever I would have to pay for a ride back to the hotel, both would probably be overpriced but well worth it in that scenario.

The next stroke of luck changed all of that.

Part 7: #PricelessGolf

I spent the first few minutes inside the Mastercard tent just observing the golf community from this new point of view. Pros were practicing outside, fans were relaxing inside. There were groups of men, couples, and families. It was not overly crowded inside, partly because some people outside were like me and did not know they had the credentials to enter. It was a joy to witness the game of golf bring together such a diverse group of people from all different ages, cultures, and walks of life. I decided I was in no hurry to depart the event from the Mastercard tent, so I stood in line to get a drink at the bar. Just then, another group of people walked into the tent… but this group seemed to draw the attention of everyone inside, including me.

Only casuals know Tiger and Arnie, but real ones know Curtis Strange and Mark O’Meara.

One of the men was holding a large, shoulder-mounted camera while another was clearing some of the foot traffic just in front of the bar. Behind them, as cool as the other side of the pillow, enter two of the most famous golfers of the 20th century in Mr. Curtis Strange and Mr. Mark O’Meara. Both of these golf legends have around 30 wins on tour. Both have won two major championships. Both are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But right then, both were standing within arm’s reach of me. I played it cool on the outside, but the golfer in me was star-struck.

Class and grace personified.

An announcement was made that Strange and O’Meara were going to conduct an informal interview with those of us inside the Mastercard tent. Two barstools were set up for the two legends of the game and we all gathered around like schoolkids around a campfire to chat with and listen to what these guys had to say. Strange even added that he would treat everyone to a round of drinks, even turning to the bartender saying “I’m serious.” After a nice round of applause, half of the men in the room ran to the bar for their free drink, which shrank the crowd for those of us who stayed for the informal interview. The conversation was pleasant, entertaining, and warm. Strange and O’Meara could not have been nicer.

Holding my Arnold Palmer drink at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with 2 legends who teed it up with Arnold Palmer. My face was giddy with excitement.

After the interview, I returned to the line at the bar. I ordered a classic Arnold Palmer (in light of the event host) and went to pay for it until the bartender reminded me that the drink was “on-the-house on behalf on Mr. Strange.” So there I was, sipping on an Arnold Palmer, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, standing in line to take a picture with golf greats Curtis Strange and Mark O’Meara. I kept the Arnold Palmer bottle that the drink came in and it is still, far and away, my favorite drink to order at any restaurant.

My Luckiest Day, Part 8: Heather & John

After the informal interview, World Golf Hall of Famers Curtis Strange and Mark O’Meara stood around while their film crew got a photo booth area ready for fans to take pictures with them. Naturally, they started chit-chatting with some of the fans and, before anyone knew what was happening, two lines were forming to take more casual cell phone picks with each of them. I ended up standing in the line for O’Meara.

The investment of taking this photo would later yield a huge return.

Once I got toward the front of the line, the lady in front of me shook the hand of O’Meara and then both of them turned toward me as if I had her phone to take a picture of them. After briefly attempting to clarify that I only had my phone and had no intention of taking their picture, but nonchalantly decided to take a picture of them so as not to embarrass her. I took their picture with my phone and took note of where her group was sitting so that I could meet up with her later to send her the image. Then it was my turn to take a picture with O’Meara and, to keep the line moving and prevent more confusion, I quickly took a selfie of the two of us.

You can see me still chuckling over the photo confusion that just occurred.

After the photo-op with Mark O’Meara, I lined up for the more formal photo with both O’Meara and Curtis Strange. Then, with the Curtis-Strange-paid-for Arnold Palmer drink bottle in hand, I walked over to meet up with the lady whose picture I took. Her name was Heather and she was sitting with her husband, John, and their two other friends, Dave and Donna. They told me they were visiting from Canada and regularly travel as a group, having been to the Arnold Palmer Invitational before. I would not have spent much time with them except for what happened when I asked Heather and John how I should send them the image of Heather with Mark O’Meara. In typing John’s email address into my phone, a message popped up from my wife with the best text I have ever received. Right then, my already blissful mood skyrocketed into the stratosphere.

My wife was pregnant again.

Part 9: Euphoria

I can count on one hand how many times I have ever been this immersed in gratitude. Up until that point, I had spent the entire day according to my own unilateral plan. Playing golf in the morning, watching golf during the day, interviewing golfers in the afternoon, chatting with fellow golf fans into the evening. To find out that my wife was pregnant in the middle of all the golf hoopla, I found it only right to share the news with the golf community I was mingling with.

Rarely do people get to experience such a natural high.

John and Heather started clapping for me, along with their friends Dave and Donna. This drew the attention to the the family of four sitting at the adjacent table who started congratulating me as well. John noticed the Arnold Palmer bottle I had in my had and proclaimed, “Let’s get this gentleman a real drink!” as he proceeded over to the bar for a round of beers. When the father of the adjacent family found out that I would was about to be a father for the 2nd time, he joked that I should “stop by the doctor’s office on the way home from the airport to make an appointment for a vasectomy.” All in all, what was supposed to be a brief exchange of contact information to send one picture to one stranger turned into another enjoyable hour of conversation and fellowship with my new friends. And then I remembered that I still did not have a ride back to my hotel.

The photo I promised Heather & John of our new baby, sent about 15 months after our chance encounter.

At some point during the chit-chat, I started asking John and Heather how long they were visiting from Canada and where they were staying while they were in Orlando. More importantly, I asked how they were getting back to their hotel later that evening. They said they had rented a car with Dave and Donna and, when I mentioned that I did not have a ride from the event, they graciously offered to drive me back to my hotel on their way back to theirs. This plan worked out impeccably as I was able to spend the rest of the afternoon with my new friends, basking in the comfort of their hospitality and savoring the visions of my wife delivering our 2nd baby later that year.

Part 10: Payday

The rest of the week went by like a blur. Work obligations and a schedule of conference seminars reminded me why I was in Orlando in the first place. Even though the annual safety conference was something I always looked forward to and enjoyed, with the keynote speaker and networking opportunities being the highlights for me, this one day prior to the conference festivities stood out as the luckiest day of my life. With all the golf and the freebies and the rubbing elbows with average golf fans and Hall of Famers and finding out my wife was pregnant, it felt so far removed from a regular work day. However, the fact remained that I was in Orlando week on a work trip, which meant that my hours for that pay period would include this one lucky day.

In following the rules of the company, my luckiest day turned into 12 hours of double time pay.

Typically, my employee timecard would reflect the amount of hours I spent fulfilling conference and work obligations; including travel time and registration. For simplicity, we usually put down 12 hours on travel days and 8 hours for the rest. I would have put 0 hours for my luckiest day ever, except that I was not allowed to. Since that Wednesday would have been a regular shift work day for me, anything less than 12 hours would have flagged the timecard system as an unexcused absence. So I put in the 12 hours that was required and, because it happened to be my 7th workday in a row, it turned into 12 hours of double time pay per the company policy… truly my luckiest day.

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AM24

AM24

Husband. Father. Other stuff.