WILMINGTON, Del. — It seemed hopeless for Max Homa.
He was stuck in a sand trap, about 50 feet from the 10th hole during the first round of the BMW Championship on Thursday. Homa had just shanked his approach shot, and he was so mad at himself that he stood there on the fairway doing invisible swings, while his playing partner Jordan Spieth lined up his shot.
As Homa hit his shot out of the bunker, he watched as the ball rolled onto the green, then in the hole for the most unlikely birdie.
“How did he hit that shot?” Landenberg, Pennsylvania, resident and golf fan Crystal Ward said. “It was exhilarating. When it went in, you’re like, ‘You watch this on TV from The Masters. You don’t watch this in Delaware.’”
And yet, those are the kind of shots that more than an estimated 100,000 fans are being treated to this weekend at the Wilmington Country Club, the host of the first-ever PGA Tour event in Delaware.
Ward, a golfer herself, was asked if she could imagine herself making a shot like that. She replied with a laugh: “I usually throw the ball out of the bunker.”
Added fan Bob Eckroade, who was standing nearby: “It’s a whole different game from how the professionals play to us recreational golfers. It’s fun to see shots like that at the highest level.”
The BMW Championship is the second of three playoff events for the FedEx Cup championship. The initial group of 125 golfers for the first event, the FedEx St. Jude Championship held last weekend in Memphis, were ranked on a points system.
That was whittled down to 70 for the BMW Championship; only 68 are in the field after Cameron Smith and Tommy Fleetwood withdrew. After this weekend, the top 30 will advance to the Tour Championship in Atlanta next weekend to compete for the $18 million first-place prize.
So yes, there’s a lot on the line.
And the masses couldn’t wait to take advantage over a sun-splashed weekend with temperatures mostly in the 80s. There was something for everyone, such as plenty of concession stands, grandstands and even a putting area for kids.
But mostly, the fans were there for the golf.
That’s what brought Joe Crandall from Baltimore to the course early Thursday morning. He stood in the pavilion on the 18th green, and watched as first-round leader Keegan Bradley hit his approach shot onto the green, about 30 feet from the hole.
“What a freaking shot!” Crandall yelled out. “Oh my God!”
Then he added: “These guys are so good.”
Keegan two-putted for par, ending the first day at 7-under 64, one shot ahead of his playing partner, Adam Scott, who birdied the final hole.
“It seems like the perfect mix, letting guys can go after it a little bit, but they can also get in trouble as Tony Finau showed us,” Crandall said.
Finau triple-bogeyed the par-5 third hole. He finished at 6-over 77 for the first day. Finau came into the BMW ranked fifth in pointS. But that will certainly set him back heading into the final playoff round next week.
It was the same way for Rory McIlroy, who came into the weekend ranked ninth in the standings. McIlroy was making a charge up the leaderboard in the first round, much to the delight of the fans. He was at 6-under after the 14th hole.
Then he triple-bogeyed No. 15 and ended up four shots behind Bradley.
“I think on this course in particular, if you hit the ball in the fairway, there are a lot of opportunities,” Bradley said. “If you miss the fairway, you’re kind of scrambling on a lot of the holes. I hit a lot of fairways, and the ones that I missed, I was able to manage.”
There were shots like this all throughout the tournament.
Xander Schauffele, playing with defending BMW Champion Patrick Cantlay on Thursday, described how he managed to birdie the par-5, 622-yard 14th hole, when he hit a tree on his tee shot.
“I hit a tee ball left, hit the tree, came down close to the fairway or mowed tee box, and the TrackMan was in my way,” Schauffele said, referring to the device that uses Doppler radar to monitor the launch of a golf ball. “So I got to move it sort of seven feet away from that.
“I probably could have hit it over the camera guy and the TrackMan, but … I took it on to the tee box. It was still kind of a sketchy 3-wood with the camera guy sitting there, kind of at eye height off a down-sloped tee box, but I caught that 3-wood nice and clean from about 300 yards.
“It was one of the nicer swings I made for the day.”
To the average golfer at the Wilmington Country Club, however, Ward’s idea of just throwing the ball onto the fairway might have been the more suitable solution.
Instead, the fans watched in amazement, oohing and aahing at every difficult shot.
These, after all, were the best golfers in the world, save for about a dozen or so who defected to the LIV Golf Series. The PGA suspended those who signed on and played for the Saudi Arabia-backed tour, some for staggering sums of money of $100 million or more. Some of those golfers would have qualified for these playoffs.
Still, the specter of the LIV series loomed over the weekend.
It prompted Tiger Woods to make a trip to Delaware earlier in the week to meet with several of the golfers, reinforcing the commitment to the PGA Tour.
Woods was reportedly offered close to $800 million to defect to LIV golf, which he turned down. Woods wasn’t among the playoff participants. But the idea that he was in Delaware at a course in which President Joe Biden is a member, only added to the drama.
“One thing the LIV can’t duplicate is how special every shot is on the PGA Tour,” Crandall said. “I watched some of the LIV events, and it seemed a little sloppy to me. The golf wasn’t as good. There’s so much prestige on the PGA Tour. These guys are so good.”
And they’re in Delaware.
Contact Martin Frank at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.