Tour players share space with hackers at TPC Canyons

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - It is the Saturday before Christmas and while many stout souls shop through the crowds and other starry-eyed ones put all their holiday money on that can't-miss NFL parlay, PGA Tour player Dean Wilson is where he usually can be found in this crazy town. Working on his game on the exclusive but not-so-secret back practice range at the Tournament Players Club at The Canyons.

While Wilson takes his cuts, more than a few curious hackers on the regular practice tees crane their necks to see if they can place the face or the swing.

"I think everyone around here pretty much knows that only PGA players can hit off this back practice range, so you'll get the looks," Wilson explains. "People who follow the PGA Tour sometimes recognize me."

Wilson shrugs. To him, it's no big deal to be sharing a course with Regular Joe Golfers. Which is part of what gives TPC at The Canyons such a unique atmosphere. This is a place where PGA players swing amongst their fans with little fuss. And not just relative journeymen like Dean Wilson, who's only established himself on the Tour for the last few seasons after earning more than $2 million in Japan. US Ryder Cup player Chris Riley is also a frequent practice player. Bob May -- the surprise playoff runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 2000 PGA Championship, back when Tiger was still Tiger -- also calls TPC at The Canyons his home course.

While there are only five or six Tour players who call Vegas home, several others stop by to use the TPC at The Canyons' facility during their trips to town, including Fred Couples.

What sets this scene apart is the relaxed, low key atmosphere of the mingling. This is the rare chance to see PGA players away from pressures and roped-off restrictions of a Tour event. There are no burly security guards in cheap jackets, no entourages in sight. You are not going to stumble upon Tiger Woods in this setting, but you might just find an emerging star like Chris Riley working away by himself on a quiet back tee.

"All the pros who come out here are very easy going, it's just a relaxed feel," said Joe Massanova, the club's marketing director. "That's the biggest difference between here and the TPCs in Arizona. The rules are stricter out there and PGA players are kept away from the regular golfers for the most part.

"Here the guy playing in the group in front of you could be a PGA player like Dean Wilson and you probably wouldn't even know it."

On this day, Wilson is looking for someone to have lunch with, so in his words, "I don't have to eat alone again." He isn't soliciting strangers to join him, but he is headed to the cafeteria-style dinning room to chow down a few tables over from the foursome from Calgary. It is almost like a scene out of one of those ESPN cafeteria commercials come to life, albeit in this case with an athlete much less famous than a Pedro Martinez.

Still, Dean Wilson is a PGA player and he is ordering off the same tote board menu you are. For some golfers, that is thrill enough.

"Just to know you've got a PGA Tour player out playing the same course as you the same day, is pretty cool," Vegas transplant Chris Burk said.

The experience purely hinges on the luck of the draw. TPC at The Canyons does not advertise or even officially let on which days the PGA players are out there obviously. Imagine the uproar from the Tour membership if they did. Many times, the pros just roll in with little or no advance call ahead anyways. It is their haven in Vegas to work on their games.

"I'm out here all the time during the off season," said Wilson, one of the players who calls Vegas home. "For me it's important to a have PGA facility close to home where I can work on things every day."

Nicknamed the Flyin' Hawaiian at BYU, where as a teammate of Mike Weir the island native became known for his love of gymnastic back flips, Wilson is putting in a few minor swing changes on this day. With the start of the new Tour season only three weeks away, time is of the essence for him.

"I'm leaving for Hawaii tomorrow and I'm a little bummed because I don't want to leave my great practice facility," Wilson said, grinning. "How crazy is that? I'm going to Hawaii and I'm disappointed."

Wilson shook his head. Such is life at TPC at The Canyons. It is an hour into Wilson's work and most of the passing gawkers still have not figured that he is the enlightened golfer probably most well known for wearing a "Go Annika" button to a press conference before playing with Annika Sorenstam the first two rounds of the historic 2003 Colonial.

Here's a hint for those just dying to know the next time they see someone on the PGA player-reserved practice tees: the marshals will usually happily tell you if you ask nicely. Not that The Canyons' management encourages such inquisitiveness.

Instead, the official party line focuses on the chills of getting to play the same course the PGA Tour plays in events like The Michelin Championship.

"It's like getting to play baseball at Yankee Stadium," Massanova said.

Only at the TPC Canyons, you could get a Bernie Williams, or at least a Luis Sojo, golf equivalent chipping right up ahead of you.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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