Call me Archer. Some weeks ago, my journey began simply enough. The Milwaukee Magazine staff were looking to send some reporters to the Ryder Cup, the very-big-deal golf event at Whistling Straits near Sheboygan. Our intrepid freelancer Rich Rovito, who knows sports about ten thousand times better than I do, was going to cover the actual golf and related news. I, on the other hand, was going to wander the grounds looking for weird, goofy happenings to write about, as is my specialty.
Everything went wrong when I failed to receive my credentials from the Ryder Cup media people. Apparently, they were limiting coverage and only our No. 1 main reporter was able to get a pass, and that was Rovito. The Ryder Cup, like women the world over, rejected me.
An idea spread, like an infectious fungus, through the Milwaukee Magazine newsroom. “Why don’t we just send Archer to Sheboygan to search for a story?” The idea took hold and spread, as infectious fungus tends to do (trust me), and I was assigned a beat that has no one in the history of Milwaukee Magazine has ever held before, the “Go Bother People in Sheboygan Until You Find Something to Write About” beat.
Being maybe just a little bit agoraphobic, this was not the type of story I excel at. I would have to bold and inventive and find an interesting angle. This story was taking form in my mind as a great challenge, a beast of the deep that I would need to chase down and kill with strength and vigor in order to overcome my fears.
I decided that the job called for the help of another more suited to the task. I made a call to a friend named Chris, whose last name I will redact for the sake of his future children. I’ve known Chris for many years and we’ve worked together in the past. You see, I am essentially a 75-year-old man trapped in the body of a 25-year-old. I read. I take afternoon walks. I don’t like staying out past eight o’clock. Loud noises frighten me. Chris, on the other hand, is something like a grizzled 45-year-old sea captain who’s seen dreadful things and is no longer frightened by anything except the cruel maw of the abyss trapped in the body of a 26-year-old. I hoped he could balance out my social trepidations.
We agreed to meet in Sheboygan on Thursday morning. The day was cold and gray with intermittent bursts of rain.
As I drove northward, I saw a striking, curved cloud overhead, like a massive white whale floating over me. Seriously, no joke, I saw that. I took it as an extremely negative omen. I felt myself growing grim about the mouth, a damp, drizzly November in my soul. Probably just gas, I thought.
Entering Sheboygan proper, I spotted the first street signs indicating the approach of golf fans. “Event traffic ahead” they said against blaze orange.
I found Chris smoking a cigarette in the parking lot of the café where we agreed to meet. He stomped it out under his boot when I arrived.
I laid out the situation at hand. Our mission was to tie down this story, find the right angle, and spear it in the heart. That meant we’d need to set the scene, see what people were saying, and find an interesting hook to bring it home. I declared that I would begin speaking to waiters, waitresses and baristas along the Sheboygan shoreline.
“But then we’re going to the Ryder Cup, right?” Chris said.
“No,” I said. “My press pass was rejected, and we don’t have any tickets.”
“We should sneak in.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s the story,” Chris said. “Sneaking into the Ryder Cup.”
“I don’t want to do that,” I said.
“Don’t pretend it’s not a great idea. Think about it.”
“Yeah, what isn’t? Don’t be a wuss.”
“I’m not crazy,” Chris said, looking just a little bit crazy. “I want to help you kill this story. Picture this headline: ‘I Snuck Into the Ryder Cup. You Won’t Believe What Happened.’ It’s perfect for how weird you write.”
“My assignment’s to write about the scene surrounding the Ryder Cup.”
“All right, man. See how interesting the scene is.”
And I did. I ordered coffees at several locations and spoke to the folks behind the counter. Turns out the Ryder Cup didn’t have much of an effect on people. Traffic didn’t increase by much, either on the roads or in the stores and besides the general awareness that there were more people heading to Whistling Straits than usual, there was not a whole lot to it.
“It’s pretty much a self-contained thing up there,” one waiter said, referring to Whistling Straits.
At a restaurant near Sheboygan’s lakeshore, I spotted the telltale polo shirts of golf fans, but it turned out they were just senior citizens.
“People will come in with Ryder Cup gear sometimes, but otherwise nothing really different,” said a barista.
“Fascinating,” Chris said. “You’re really on to something now, Archer. Look at all this journalism. I can’t believe my eyes.”
“Why don’t you help me out a little?” I said.
“I already told you what to do. Don’t settle for these little fish. Go for the big one. Sneak into the Ryder Cup.”
I considered it for a second. I saw the grand, ungodly, god-like look in Chris’ eyes. He knew that he could corral me into joining his mad quest, and in the moment, I couldn’t deny that the thought of capturing that gonzo story, sneaking into the Ryder Cup, was sweet.
I took a deep breath.
“OK,” I said.
We got in my car and drove north. The further we went, the more signs of the Ryder Cup appeared. There were stores with “Ryder Cup hours” posted and mounted signs directing traffic toward the lots. But the most notable sight, weirdly enough, was a Culver’s that had a large “Buy/Sell Golf Tickets” stand in front of it, with absolutely no one anywhere near the empty table” and a flashing digital sign that welcomed us to “Ryder Cup 2020.”
Tour buses rolled up and down the road – we must have seen at least a dozen in only 15 minutes. I looked to the sky. The white whale I had seen on my arrival was long gone. Now there was only gray. The fire I had felt only minutes earlier began to fade, replaced by fear over the many perils that came with attempting to sneak into one of golf’s signature events.
Cops were positioned at every intersection surround Whistling Straits directing traffic. This led to a series of five stop-and-starts that lasted about 15 minutes.
Eventually, I saw the parking lot ahead, lined with cars. There were two cops at the entrance, waving everyone in.
I pulled closer to the entrance to the field being used as a parking lot. The car in front of me was waved in without question, and the cop turned to look at me. He raised his arm, pointing me into the lot. I faced him down, frozen in the road, and I saw clearly the white whale – a story about sneaking into the Ryder Cup, waiting there in front of me. I saw myself writing it in the dead of night after all this was done, satisfied and exhilarated, the words flowing out of me in victory, my weakness tamed and the beast put down, and I let out a shaky breath.
“I don’t have tickets,” I said.
“They’re waving you in,” Chris said.
“I don’t have tickets.”
“They are waving you in, Archer.”
“I do not have tickets. My press credentials were denied. I will get towed. They will kick me out. I’ll be arrested. I’ll never even be considered for press credentials again. I will get the entire magazine in trouble. I can’t risk this.”
“Are you kidding me?” Chris hissed.
“Take pictures,” I hissed back. “Go, now, before they kick us out.”
“Out of where? We’re not even in.”
The cop waved me left out of the way of the other cars, and I drove out of the lot as Chris snapped photos. We got one of a port-a-potty visible over a hillside.
“Golfers poop too,” Chris said. “What a scoop.”
We drove in silence away from Whistling Straits.
Once we were clear of the 5-0s patrols heading south, I spoke again.
“I’m sorry, Chris,” I said. “I’m just too scared to get in trouble.”
“I realize that,” he said. “But you would have gotten a great story, if you weren’t.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And now what do you have? Nothing.”
“Well, I was actually thinking I could maybe write the story as a sort of metaphor about—”
“I’m seeing these Moby-Dick parallels that I think—”
And so ended my journey to the Ryder Cup. I had surveyed the scene, spoken to the people, and done as instructed, but still the story that could have been haunted me. I drove fast and far away from that place and vowed that if I were ever to return, I would not again let cowardice keep me from the great white whale.