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Golf

The first time I played golf was at a city-owned nine-hole par-three golf course.  It was a beauty with its nine holes winding among huge old pin oaks.  I’ve recently learned that it’s the oldest par-three course in the US.  The city zoo bordered one side and a city park the other, but neither held any interest for me.  All greens were reachable with a nine iron.  You could rent clubs for ten cents each, and I think you could rent the balls also.  That year I was about twelve, and we happened to live about two blocks from the course.  I always walked to the course alone: I didn’t know anyone who played golf or had any interest in golf.  I’ve always been comfortable alone, but I doubt if I could play a round of golf alone now: the loneliest and most desperate sight I’ve seen through the years is an adult male playing alone on a golf course when the temperature is close to one hundred.  How deranged is that guy?  How desperate?  How lonely?  I knew nothing about the fine points of golf, but I did understand the principles of the game: grip it and rip it and hope for the best. 


I don’t know what caused me to take up golf.  The year was approximately 1954.  This is even before Arnold Palmer became part of the public’s consciousness.  For a while I went regularly, probably twice a week, to the nine-hole beauty.   Years later while visiting Alexandria as I drove by the course, I saw that the greens had been converted to rose beds.  I would have liked to have been at the city counsel meeting at which this desecration was decided.  Some years later I noticed that the city fathers had come to their senses and returned the rose patches to greens: common sense prevailed...finally.


1954 was the year Sam Snead and Ben Hogan squared off in an 18-hole playoff for The Masters title.   Snead shot 70 to Hogan’s 71 for the victory.  When I was playing at the city course, I didn’t even know who Snead or Hogan were.


My golfing days were numbered: we moved...again.  We went to New Orleans for a few months where I served some time in the ninth grade of a city middle school.  Holy Hell!  That was certainly not the highlight of my young life.  Fortunately we moved...again.  This time we returned to Pineville where I began life.  While there, we moved often, but we were able to hang around in the school district long enough for me to make it to graduation.


I began playing golf again in high school.  I guess Mom and Dad sensed my interest in golf and purchased a half set of Wilsons for me.  There was a nine hole course near our home, a nice course open to the public.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the adjacent cemetery probably owned the land the golf course was on.  Over the years enough people needed burying, so the cemetery folks incorporated what had been the golf course into the cemetery.  My good friend Jimmy Smith was recently buried there.  I think it was close to the par four number three.  It seemed odd to be burying Jim there.


I played a lot on that course.  I had a number of friends who played along with me.  I don’t recall that any of us were any good, but we loved it.  One of the best things I realized early on while playing there was that one reason that people are polite on a golf course is that everyone is armed: they’re carrying clubs.   This brings to mind an incident that occurred while I was playing alone on the second hole.  While I was about to chip on to the green, a ball rolled near me and past me.  It was Mister Jackass, a guy who played there a lot and thought he owned the course.  The last words I heard from Mister Jackass was “Don’t hit that ball” as I returned the ball to him with a solid whack.   He kept a respectful distance behind me the rest of the day.


When I went on to LSU in Baton Rouge, I was anxious to try out their course.  It was flat and not very interesting, few trees.  I began well and made it on to the first green without any problems.  I had about a twenty foot putt.  I lined it up, judged the distance, and struck the ball.  Welcome to fast greens: the ball rolled within a couple of inches of the hole and about twenty-five feet farther and off the green.  When playing the Pineville course, you needed to read the grain of the blades of grass in order to be successful.  Not true in Baton Rouge. 


Speaking of putting, when I was in high school, I was a pretty good putter.  I know this can not be unique to me, but as I lined up my putt, a line as physically present as though I had drawn it with piece of coal appeared along the path to the hole.  Gee, do you think that may have been an advantage?  Of course this ability soon disappeared.


The worst day I ever had on a golf course occurred when I was in the army in Germany.  The golf game was dysfunctional as usual, but the worst part was that my body turned on me.  As the day cooled, my body locked up.  I could only take six-inch steps.  My buddies escorted me off the course and into a cab back to the base.  Taking tiny steps, I finally made it back to the barracks and a hot shower.  The shower seemed to solve the problem.  Weird.


Many years ago I played the Caldwell course a lot.  My friend Bob Barron, athletic director/football coach who was my senior by about twenty years, and I would leave school many afternoons and head for the course.  Bob always won.  Bob was a minor league baseball player in his youth.  His career ended in the middle of a game in which he was playing second base, and the pro scouts were in the stands.  It seems that he had a little trouble getting a grounder out of his glove’s webbing.  After the third attempt, he ended his career by throwing the baseball over the stands and walking away.  After our golf games, which usually lasted a little past dark, Bob and I would spend some time in the club house.  I would drink a few beers while Bob would drink soft drinks.  One day I asked Bob if he ever drank.  He replied sadly that he had lost a few years.  I never questioned him about it again until many years later  when he and his wife visited us one evening.  As usual I was having a beer as we talked when Bob suddenly asked if I minded if he brought his brews in from his vehicle.  At first I thought he was kidding, but he did retrieve his beer.  He then told me the rest of the story.  It seems that when he was young with two children and a wife, his wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t quit drinking.  He compromised by promising that he wouldn’t drink again until the kids were grown.  I can testify that he was a man of his word because he had plenty of chances to violate his promise, but never did in my presence.  He explained that the kids were grown.   His wife Billy Sue didn’t look at all pleased with his telling of this story, but she never said a word.


1955 was the first year we had television in our area of Louisiana.  Arnold Palmer was my first golf hero: Hell, he was everyone’s hero.  He won seven major championships, but along came Jack Nicklaus who beat Arnold in the ‘62 US Open.  The audacity of this fat kid from Ohio.  It took years for me to forgive Nickaus for his temerity.


Sam Snead won the PGA Championship in 1942, the year I was born.  He lived to the age of 90.  He won the PGA a total of three times, the Masters three times, and the US Open once.  The tragedy of his career was never winning the British Open. He won fourteen times on the senior tour  through the year 1982.  He was colorful and had the reputation of being a nasty competitor:  Most importantly, I liked his pork pie hat.  He once commented as he got older that he had to play everyday or he would lose his stroke.


I’ve never been into hero worship, but I did have my favorites in addition to Arnold and Sam. 


Anthony David "Champagne Tony" Lema was my greatest personal favorite.  He had a brief but illustrious golfing career.    He began his career in 1962 when I was a sophomore in college.  He got the name “Champagne Tony” when he said he would buy the press champagne if he won the Orange County Open in California.  Arnold was wildly popular with the fans, but Tony was a close second.   He won the British Open in 1964.    In 1966 Tony and his wife lost their lives in an airplane accident in California.  Golf history would be somewhat different if he had lived longer.


Lee Trevino, the “Merry Mex.”  How could you not admire him.  Trevino was born in Dallas, Texas, into a home with only his mother.  He never knew his father.  He started working in cotton fields when he was five.  He began his relationship to golf as a caddy in Dallas.  At fourteen, he left school to go to work.  He learned to love golf as a caddy and took advantage of his situation to learn the game.  At 17 he became a marine. Trevino won the US Open twice, the British Open twice and the PGA Championship twice.  He was a man who appreciated every minute of his pro career never forgetting where he had come from.    In addition to his great ability as a golfer, he was also funny.  When asked about pressure on the pro tour, Lee responded, "You don't know what pressure is until you've played for $5 a hole with only $2 in your pocket."  He was struck by lightning at the 1975 Western Open and suffered injuries to his spine.  He played on but was never the same.


Other pro golfers have caught my attention through the years, but Arnold, Sam, Tony, and Lee were my favorites.  Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods is undoubtedly the greatest golfer to ever live.  At present Nicklaus has 18 major wins, Woods 14.  Recently the earth shook beneath Woods, and time will tell if he ever regains his footing.


The best instructional book I ever read about the fundamentals of golf was Ben Hogan’s Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.  I think what I loved most about the book were the illustrations by Herbert Warren Wind.  Speaking of reading about golf, probably the worst thing I ever did was to read a book to help me get rid of my hook, apparently something I was born with.  Whatever my source for this information must have been pretty powerful: I’ve sliced the ball ever since, can’t buy a hook.


To indicate how poorly I’ve played through the years, I recall every great shot I’ve hit.  One was at Caldwell: on the fourth hole. I used a seven iron to lay up short of the water.  I don’t think that I’ve ever hit a ball with less effort:  it sailed straight and high and...far.  It actually reached the water in one bounce.  It wasn’t the result I was looking for, but I have often wondered why I haven’t been able to reproduce the brilliance of that shot.  Another shot I made at the Caldwell course, involved a three wood on the par 5 number 6.  I managed to get off course with either one or two strokes in the rough almost into the adjacent fairway.  The distance to the green was probably too much to ask and my shot fell short in the middle by about 30 yards.  The things I remember about the shot were the following: before the shot I called upon the spirit of Chi Chi Rodriguez, the ball traveled long and extremely high and seemed to have a slight hooking motion (probably the wind), and when I looked around for admiring eyes, there was no one who had seen the shot.  One of my best shots which someone did see involved a 60 degree wedge.  I think my brother gave me the wedge, and I recall the first shot I made with it.  Mark Strauss, a damned good golfer, and I were playing a par four on the backside of the A&M course.  Of course I was getting my brains beat in by Mark.  My approach shot had gone off course by about 40 yards on a little hill to the right of the hole.  I bravely declared to Mark that I had a secret weapon and pulled out the new wedge, struck it cleanly, and watched the ball rise, drop, and roll gently into the hole.  It was my Babe Ruth-pointing-to-the-outfield-before-striking-his-famous-homer moment.  There were a few other shots that were memorable to me, but you get the idea, there were damned few.


Speaking of memorable moments, picture this: Noe McCarthy and I were paired against Roy Green and Mark Strauss in a four-ball competition on the Bryan Municipal Course.  It’s fair to say that either Roy or Mark could beat Noe and Me together, but that’s not what happened that day.  Instead of losing by a large margin, we won.  I felt a little sorry for Noe because he did not appreciate what he had just been part of: a miracle.  I knew that the results was not something we could ever expect again.  It took years of repeated ass-whippings by Green-Strauss in four-ball competition for it to finally soak in to Noe that they are simply better, much better, golfers than we are.


When I was young, I just enjoyed the game.  Then I began to attempt to become better at the game.  Then I began to get frustrated.  I used to be able to intellectually bridge the gap between the way I played and how I thought I should be able to play.  Today the bridge is broken: the gap is so large playing now is like having an out-of-body experience.


In spite of the fact that I stink, have always stunk at the game, I still consider it the greatest game ever.  

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