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From Backlund to Berman, Allen to Els; the first tee was a good place to be.

POSTED June 24, 2015
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

Celebrity Pro-Am participants. (l-r) Bubba Wallace (Nascar), JJ Henry (Pro), Ryan Sheckler (Pro-Skateboarder) and Matt Lauer (Today Show Host) on the course in Cromwell.

            CROMWELL – Lets’s see there was the inventor of the cross-faced chicken wing and the three-point maestro. The `Big Easy’ was there and Mr. back-back-back-back…..There were knuckballers and Today Show hosts and Patriots. Ten championships teed off, a short time later his assistant C.D. did the same. A svelte Ward was there and Hall of Famer named Tippett.

            Welcome to the Wednesday Pro-Am day at the Travelers Championship at the TPC River Highlands. There is a lot of time for golf this week, serious golf as the pros downright bubbled over the green carpet of the course and greens that were actually one color and smooth instead of two-toned and rolling like someone had moved the ski moguls to Chambers Bay, site of last week’s U.S. Open.

            But Pro-Am Day is less about serious golf and more about people, a little laughter before the labor. These aren’t the Sammy Davis Jr. days when Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope would show up. But it is still an eclectic, entertaining mix.

            Before we go any further just to identify the top group, the cross-face chicken wing was former WWF champion Bob Backlund’s signature move, Ray Allen was the three-point king, any golfer worth his clubs know Ernie Els is the Big Easy and any Sports Center fan knows Chris Berman and all that back-back.

            The knuckleballer was 200-game winner former Red Sox Tim Wakefield who absolutely smoked one off the tee with no flutter, Matt Lauer was here from gracing our morning coffee table and Andre Tippett, linebacker extraordinaire was on hand. Ten-title Auriemma and Chris Daily were ready to roll and UConn Athletic Director Ward Manuel belted a blast off the tee.

            Oh yeah, George Lopez was on hand with a nifty pair of red golfing shoes and a big sense of humor. It all, along with the tantalizing smell of smoked pork wafting not so many yards from the first tee made it rather entertaining place to be on a brilliant Wednesday.

            Heck the smoked pork was so good, Paul Casey grabbed a sandwich as he headed down the first fairway and Davis Love III was asking how they smoked it.  Really, one of the few things missing was John Daly’s pants and cigarettes. Alas, big John is not on hand this time around. Such a shame. Always a treat.

            Backlund is one interesting guy. He played in the mini-golf contest and then was roaming around grounds in what looked like a black tux without the jacket and a white shirt. If you don’t know who Backlund is, know this, a lot of people do.

            The guy was big-time, a former NCAA wrestling champion who headlined more than his share of shows in front of 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden while reigning for seven years as the WWF champ.

            Backlund, minus one rather prominent tooth, stopped to talk for a couple of minutes. Hey, I was a Bob Backlund fan, he was a good guy. He has a book coming out for kids with a drug message in it and did mention how much of a problem that was in the business during his days – 1970s and 80s.

            Backlund also mentioned how he flew out to Minnesota for the funeral of wrestling legend Verne Gagne in April but was unable to make it to Florida last week for the funeral of another legend, Dusty Rhodes.

            Inside the ropes it was a different group. Ray Allen, looking sleek and 10 years younger also piqued a little interest when asked if he would ever play again.

            “If the right situation comes up, we’ll just have to watch and see,” said Allen.

            You have to believe some team can use Ray Allen. One thing is for sure, Allen won’t to have to go far to get in shape.

            Els is one of the many not thrilled with the conditions of Chambers Bay, although the course itself he liked.

            “It’s a good course, it just got a little out of hand with the conditions,” said Els. “I enjoyed it. But, (the greens) were not up to standard. It’s a bummer because it was a good tournament. No. 2 wins and all the great players were in contention.”

            And like everybody else he sees greatness in Masters and U.S. Open champion, Jordan Spieth.

            “He’s got a great mindset and no weaknesses,” added Els.

            Every morning Matt Lauer does his thing on The Today Show in front of millions of people. He has interviewed the biggest, the baddest and the best. There were several hundred watching him tee off.  Guess what is more nerve-wracking?

            ‘”The first tee is always more pressure,” said Lauer. “(The people) know you’re not a professional golfer but you don’t want to embarrass yourself.”

            For the record, Lauer hit a pretty solid tee shot to get his round under way.

            Warde Manuel striped a drive to match UConn hockey coach Ken Cavanaugh’s tee shot and in keeping with his fitter look turned down the offer of a pork sandwich. Geno was Geno which is always good just to listen to and Berman actually gave a little back-back-back before attacking a drive down the right side.

            Plenty of time for golf this week but Wednesday was about sound bites and people and the first tee was a pretty good place to be. From Bob Backlund to Chris Berman and all that were in between.

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