SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Brian Gaffney’s support system has grown exponentially since a chance encounter last summer at The Philadelphia Cricket Club.
The head professional at Quaker Ridge was heading out for a practice round in advance of the PGA Professional Championship when he was paired with a threesome of unswerving financial planners that included Thomas Pablo and Brett Danko.
Somewhere along the way, they became friends.
“I ended up going out to Whistling Straits to watch Brian play in the PGA Championship and made a couple of Gaffney’s Army shirts, one for me and one for Brian’s wife, who I had never met,” Pablo said. “I was afraid she might think I was a lunatic for going from Washington, D.C., to Wisconsin to follow her husband.”
It seems a logical thought.
Gaffney wound up making the cut, finishing as the low club professional at Whistling Straits. He got back into the field again this summer, qualifying at Turning Stone, and Pablo stepped up his game for Baltusrol.
There were nearly 40 people in the entourage for Round 1 on Thursday, most of them sporting the gray T-shirts.
Danko came along, too.
“It just sort of became a thing last year,” said Pablo, who’s a member at Congressional. “Brian was doing an interview and somebody took our picture with Allison and tweeted it out. It caught on with a bunch of media folks, so this year I gave them to friends and family. I had a couple of boxes of shirts made to distribute to people who came out to follow him around.
“Brian is a good guy. He’s your classic everyman except he’s really great at golf.”
Pablo made the rounds after Gaffney opened with a 4-over 74, making sure there would be a noticeable gallery on Friday.
Clearly, it’s not easy to say no to the ringleader.
“It’s humbling, and something I would never do for myself,” Gaffney said. “He’s got the personality to do it and pull it off. It’s really flattering to have that kind of support.”
Mickelson gets a pep talk: There has always been plenty of vocal support for Phil Mickelson in the Metropolitan area. One fan spoke up after Lefty made a bogey 11 holes into Round 1 to go to 4-over, letting the 2005 PGA Championship winner know there was a lot of golf left to play.
The 46-year-old sentimental favorite closed with three birdies to post a 71 and stay relevant.
“I do much better when I’m playing the week before (a major),” said Mickelson, who started the round on the back nine. “You kind of saw it today. I hit terrible shots the first 11 holes. … I was just quick from the top, just lost focus.
“I’ll tell you what was a big thing for me today, the people out there, the crowd. I was 4-over through 11 and I’m down. I’m hard on myself. The people helped to really kind of pick me back up. I remember walking off No. 3 and a guy said, ‘Hey, you’ve still got a lot of golf left, you’re not out of this, let’s get going.’ He’s right, got a lot of golf left. I came back and made some birdies. The support that the people here in New Jersey and New York metropolitan area have given me over the years, today was the day that it helped the most, I think.”
A shout-out for Tillinghast: Harris English didn’t know much about Baltusrol until this week. The 27-year-old Georgia native was a television viewer the last time this A.W. Tillinghast gem hosted the PGA Championship.
“I remember watching it back in 2005 when Phil won,” he said after opening with a 3-under 67. “I was in high school then. I had heard how great of a golf course it was. I’m a big Tillinghast fan. I love all his golf courses. There was nothing tricked up, it’s just a really solid golf course. You’ve got to hit the fairway out there. I was hitting driver really well.”
English was long off the tee and hit 9 of 14 fairways. He missed nine greens, but got up and down for par or better seven times.
Other players of interest: Jordan Spieth was talking and scrambling the entire afternoon, but wound up with a 71 after rolling in birdies at Nos. 16 and 18. … Danny Willett was 3-over after 13 holes, but the reigning Masters champion played the last five holes 2-under to post a 71. … Rory McIlroy again struggled with the putter, opening with a 74. He did not hole a putt longer than 6 feet, 11 inches and was back on the practice green late in the day. … Dustin Johnson took a double when he went deep into the woods at No. 3, and never recovered. The reigning U.S. Open Champion took another double at No. 11 and put the weekend in jeopardy when he signed for a 77. … Rickie Fowler went out in 33, had one bogey and eight pars on his back nine and finished with a 68. … Bubba Watson closed with birdies on both par 5s, the 17th and 18th holes, to close out a 71.
By the numbers: There were 38 birdies and no eagles at the 17th hole, which played 636 yards in Round 1. There were 75 birdies and five eagles at the 18th hole, which played 548 yards on Thursday. … The hardest hole on the course was the seventh, a 500-yard par 4 where the average score was 4.448.