News & Opinion

Believe it, St. Louis: You’re big-time

ST. LOUIS – Meet Me in St. Louis is playing at the Muny Opera outdoor theater in Forest Park this week. Thirteen miles west, the message is being taken literally at Bellerive Country Club. 

The crowds for the 100th PGA Championship theme park at Bellerive have bordered on the absurd. For Monday’s practice round, a day in which only a few headliners arrive, hordes of fans stalked the grounds, soaking up golf. 

“It's a sport-crazy town … terrific,” Zach Johnson said. “You can tell they love their golf, and they love the fact that we're here.”

Each day, the galleries grow exponentially, like performance-enhanced bamboo. It’s as if white smoke billows from the Kirk of the Hills chapel across the street and a new pope is expected to appear on the 18th green. Tiger Woods appeared there twice on Saturday – close enough.

St. Louis generally is billed as a baseball town, in almost perverse terms. The Cardinals have drawn fewer than 3 million only once during the past 20 years (2.91 million in 2003). They come to Busch Stadium from all corners of the region, a “sea of red” cloaked in compulsory Cardinals gear. People here embrace it, identity with it and wear it like a birthmark.

For outsiders, the credulity has an unsettling aspect to it, almost arrogant, almost cult-like. In truth, stated in bold at Bellerive, St. Louis isn’t a baseball town, any more than it is a hockey town, a football town, a soccer town … or a golf town. 

According to the 2016-17 Nielsen list of designated market areas, St. Louis ranks 21st in size among cities with major-league franchises. But the St. Louis Blues, a hockey team that has not won a Stanley Cup in its 51-year existence, ranked 12th in NHL attendance last season, seventh the year before. 

When Kurt Warner was an MVP quarterback in 2001, and Rams owner Stan Kroenke wasn’t publicly eyeballing Los Angeles, the team finished in the top 15 of NFL attendance – ahead of “football towns” Dallas and Pittsburgh.

This week, PGA records probably will be shattered for attendance and sales. The month that it took to build a merchandise tent that is roughly the size of Lambert Field will pay off in spades. 

“These crowds have been – Monday shocked me,” Jordan Spieth said. “These people love their sports, and I think it's only going to get better over the weekend. I think this has been some of the most fun golf as far as playing in front of fans that I can remember experiencing.” 

And it should come as no surprise. As Linda Ronstadt warbled, “It happens every time.” When Bellerive staged the 1992 PGA, the same records got smoked. When more than 90,000 showed up for a sweaty weekend of the 2004 U.S. Senior Open, winner Peter Jacobsen said, “St. Louis is amazing. This is a golf town, and then some.”

When the BMW Championship came to Bellerive in 2008, attendance was 2.7 times what the event drew in Chicago the year before. When Bellerive presented the 2013 Senior PGA, it was like swallows to Capistrano, the most successful Senior PGA to date. Bet your Kohki Idoki on it. 

Yet, another amazing thing about St. Louis is its inhibition. A hometown question or two at these kinds of events is normal. A local angle is the sidebar. But the compliment-seeking never seems to stop here. For some reason, those living under the Gateway Arch need to be reassured that they have chosen wisely.

St. Louis often is thought of as a big town with a small-town feel. You can pretty much get anywhere here in 30 minutes, rush-hour aside. But it’s also a big town with a small-town complex, a damaged psyche. 

During the past 50 years, St. Louis has lost an NBA franchise (Hawks), an ABA franchise (Spirits), two NFL franchises (Cardinals and Rams), Anheuser-Busch and Albert Pujols. The Ferguson nonsense didn’t help St. Louis’ national image, and the city’s ranking as the homicide capital of the country is not exactly heartening.

Hence, the need for pats. They want to hear Rickie Fowler and Zach Johnson profess their love for the Cardinals. They want Brooks Koepka to talk about his great-uncle Dick Groat, a member of the 1963 Cardinals’ All-Star Game starting infield. They want to ask Dustin Johnson about fiancee Paulina’s mom and dad, Janet and Wayne Gretzky.

The former Janet Jones grew up here; the former “Great One” played here (1996). They have a second home here. The Gretzkys love St. Louis, scout’s honor. OK?

The reality is, St. Louis, you don’t need the coddling. You’re getting your first chance to see major-championship golf in 26 years, and you’re responding big-time. You’re getting hit with your typical suffocating heat, and you’re brushing it aside with a cold Budweiser. You’re getting your first – and probably last – chance to see the iconic Tiger Woods, and you’re taking full advantage. Look at the scrapbook; that’s who you are.

“I don't think I've ever played in front of that many people,” said reigning PGA champion Justin Thomas, after completing his second round with Woods on Saturday morning. “This is the first real Tiger effect, I guess you could say. I've played with him a handful of times in tournaments but haven't exactly had crowds like this, so it's pretty incredible.”

The golf course is awfully soft, no question. The players are going low – not what the purists prefer. But the environment is spectacular, like you write about. They even served gooey butter cake in the hospitality villages on Saturday. 

You’re killin' it, St. Louis. No, really, you are. Just believe it.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD