A $3,500 rental car, a 2,700-mile road trip and a 2-year-old — escaping the Players

For some PGA Tour players, the cancellation of the Players Championship after one round was a minor travel inconvenience, one easily resolved with a call to the pilot or a short road trip home down the coast to Jupiter, Florida. It was a little more troublesome for one player with a rented Ford Expedition, a two-year-old passenger and a home in Irvine, Calif.

Brendan Steele was in a hotel room with his wife, Anastassia, and their daughter Victoria when he received a text from the Tour that Thursday night saying the Players was being called. The couple scrambled to book flights home to California, and by Friday morning they were on I-95 to Orlando airport bound for Los Angeles. After 15 minutes on the road, doubts crept it.

“We were thinking this doesn’t feel right. We didn’t really know anything about the virus at that point and Orlando and L.A. are two of the major international airports in the world,” Steele said.

They texted Val Curran, a physicians assistant and the wife of fellow Tour pro Jon Curran. What she would do in their position, the Steeles asked?

“I would drive,” she replied.

“It was left to Orlando and right into the unknown. We figured that we’d drive and feel more comfortable,” said Steele. “We didn’t have a rush to get home. We trucked it all the way in about four days.”

But the 37-year-old, three-time Tour winner admitted he wasn’t far into the 2,700-mile odyssey when he had second thoughts. “Early the first day we had a moment of, ‘Oh my God, we’re still in Florida!’ he remembered with a laugh. “Driving across the panhandle, it’s a long way.”

He texted his manager, Jeff Koski, who called a private jet service. “He got us a good price, but we were doing fine so we kept going.”

And going. He and Anastassia split time behind the wheel, making stops in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Ozona, Texas (population: 3,225); and Tucson, Arizona — a route Steele admits he wouldn’t follow if he were driving across America for pleasure. There was just one detour, to visit the hipster artsy town of Marfa in the wilds of west Texas.

“We thought this is our only chance to get to Marfa. It was a bucket list thing for us,” he explained. He added a wry laugh. “It wasn’t that great. It’s a weird little town.”

Steele had been piloting the rented SUV for three weeks since the Honda Classic and at one stage had consulted his app to check the cost of returning the vehicle in California. “It said there would be a $150 charge. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really reasonable,’” Steele said. But by the time he actually tried to confirm a new drop-off he was already just about in Alabama and the cost was $3,500. (Avis later reached out and  refunded the difference.)

Good thing you played well at the Honda, I offered. (A T-4 there earned him $280,000.) “The funny thing was, flights for the three of us had totaled about $800,” he cracked.

That Honda performance, and a playoff loss to Cameron Smith at the Sony Open in January, was evidence that Steele has found a vein of form after struggling last season, which only adds to the frustration of an enforced layoff. “I feel like I’m really going the right direction,” he said. “Coming out of this, we’ll see. Who knows? I don’t think it’s something I can’t hang on to.”

Eager as he is to compete, Steele admits to being hesitant about the PGA Tour’s proposed June 11 restart at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth. “I need to hear more from the Tour about what the process looks like, and I know they’re working on putting all that together. There’s so many moving parts,” he said. “Where are we going to stay? Where are we going to eat? What is the interaction like with your caddie? I would hope they’re going to put charter flights together for us to make things easy. We’re going to be this traveling circus of 700 people flying around and it could get pretty out of control.”

For all the unknowns, this much he does know: his usual road companions Anastassia and Victoria are staying home. “I can’t see them traveling with me at least until the fall. Ideally I’d love to get them to Napa because we always have a great time there,” he said with an admirable gift for understatement. (He won the Safeway Open in Napa in 2016 and 2017.)

So if he elects to play the Tour’s first event back in Texas, what are the chances he’ll drive the 1,400 miles to Colonial Country Club from Irvine?

“Probably not very good,” he said. “But it would feel pretty easy to go just to Fort Worth.”

Published at Golfweek.com, May 3, 2020.

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