The best place at the US Open could be a cocoon.
Just ask any of the dozen of paragliders who cruise over Torrey Pines in peaceful silence as the world’s best golfers compete below. You sit in a “speed bag” – think, couch meets sleeping bag – and dangle under a colorful, wing-like canopy that can keep a pilot at a constant altitude for an indefinite period of time, even without an engine. Flights can last for hours, with the paragliders moving in slow loops across the golf course, riding the winds that come in from the Pacific Ocean and hit the cliffs of La Jolla.
The pilots flying at the adjacent glider airport hover a few hundred meters above the ground, but close enough to spot golf balls in the rough that may be difficult to find near the ground, or to use the flags on the green as a guide to the golf course Wind patterns.
“I can tell when the big names are coming from the size of the gallery,” said pilot Russ Gibfried, who has retired from his job in the tech industry and now spends as much time as possible hovering over San Diego . “I can traverse back and forth from the tee to the green, then go back and see the next person on the tee. A glider is the best place in the house. “
In Hilton Head, SC, boaters gather in Calibogue Sound and blow the horns at the end of the tournament. When the PGA tour takes you to Pebble Beach, it’s not uncommon for someone to be strolling up the sands of Carmel in the background. But here everything revolves around the paraglider pilots.
“I think it’s synonymous with Torrey Pines,” said Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion. “I mean, it’s cool. There’s the glider airport over there, and everyone who’s been to this tournament or the Farmers in recent years is just part of the landscape. ”
Would McIlroy ever try?
“No,” he said flatly. “I was in a hot air balloon once and I hated it. Since then, I’ve found it just too quiet for me, a little too scary. “
For paragliding enthusiasts, that serenity is a big part of the appeal. The roar of the crowd can be heard – they cheered for the unlikely co-leaders Richard Bland and Russell Henley on Friday – but mostly the pilots are left with their thoughts.
“It’s a peaceful place to fly so you don’t have to worry about the flying, so you can watch the action on the pitch, and it feels like a privileged place to watch the tournament,” said David Hunt, who switched to paragliding two years ago after obtaining his pilot’s license for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters as a hobby pilot.
“But you also remember not to interfere, especially when it’s sunny and you don’t want to cast a shadow on them.”
A paraglider flies near the fourth hole while Justin Thomas tees off on the second round.
(KC Alfred / San Diego Union Grandstand)
Both Hunt and Gibfried, who worked in the San Diego tech industry, said this is a common background in the paragliding community. They consider Torrey Pines to be the Augusta National of gliding airports, with grassy slopes for takeoffs and landings – which are usually dirt in other places – winds that are often ideal, friendly people, and even a snack bar. Experienced pilots include beginners taking paragliding lessons and instructors who take people on tandem flights for $ 175 per flight.
The Torrey Pines Gliderport, owned by the City of San Diego, was popular – and is still used for these – for radio-controlled model airplanes in the 1960s and for hang gliders in the 1970s – but became a mecca in the 1980s for paragliding.
Fatal crashes are rare, but they do happen. In 2019, two solo pilots died after a collision over the glider airport. They crashed into each other about 10 meters above the ground, twisted and fell onto the steep rock face.
Collin Morikawa hits the second hole from the fairway while a paraglider flies near Friday.
(KC Alfred / San Diego Union Grandstand)
Gibfried, who took up the hobby two years ago after he and his daughter went on tandem flights, said paragliders follow strict guidelines and protocols at the site to minimize risk.
“Surprisingly, these gliders want to fly themselves,” he said. “They’re just designed so that when you talk to them they just want to fly. So most of the mistakes are pilot errors, not the glider or the conditions. If you ever get into trouble, raise your hands and they’ll automatically recover – crank it up or come out of a twist if one side collapses, corrects it in a second or two. ”
Gibfried flew past the legendary par 3 third hole on Friday when he heard the crowd break out. He circled back and found a ball two feet from the needle. He is a fan of golf and has always stayed to watch the player putt at the birdie.
“I couldn’t get tickets for on the go,” he said. “That was the back door, so to speak.”