MANY GOLFERS CLAIM to have been drawn to the royal and ancient game because of its noble history and traditions, or the code of honor inherent in the rules. In my case, golf happened to be the only sport for which I was physically suited, and the main attraction was sensual. I loved the meaty smell of leather grips, the tartness of pine needles, the sweetness of freshly cut grass. I loved feeling the sun and wind burn my face and hearing my spikes crunch the earth. Most of all I loved the incredible, ineffable feeling of catching a ball smack in the middle of the clubface and the wondrous thrill of lifting the once-stationary white orb into gravity-defying flight. As I found out later, golf was certainly not the same as sex. But in its purest form, as a solitary orgy of ball striking, golf was and would always remain more fun than anything else I did with my clothes on.
It mattered little that most of my contemporaries considered golf to be decidedly uncool compared with surfing, sailing, softball, or tennis. I followed my own instincts, and I seldom lacked companionship. Although I had been born and reared on what was supposed to be the right side of the tracks in Houston, I did not play there exclusively. I took lessons at River Oaks Country Club, where my parents were members, but I risked my allowance in money matches at nonexclusive public and semiprivate courses all over town, often against older kids who could and would pound me into a sand trap if I tried to welch on a bet.
Starting at the age of eleven, I spent my summers competing on the Texas junior golf circuit, the same high-powered spawning ground that produced Ben Crenshaw, Bruce Lietzke, and Tom Kite. Although I always seemed to collapse like a castrated calf when I teed it up in the annual state junior championships, I won more than twenty local and regional titles, including a citywide tournament for thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds that I snuck into as a twelve-year-old after the head pro at River Oaks allowed that this was one instance in which it would be okay to lie about my age.
Then my parents got caught up in a variation of the “great expectations” syndrome. It wasn’t that they started pushing me to excel in the hateful, money-grubbing manner of some tennis parents. Just the opposite. Although Mom and Dad were duly proud of my accomplishments, they discouraged me from pursuing a professional golf career. My old man was afraid I was going to become what he called a “country club bum.” My mother believed that I was too smart to become a golf pro. In the hope of broadening my horizons beyond the eighteenth hole at the family country club, she sent me off to Choate-Rosemary Hall (then called the Choate School) in Wallingford, Connecticut, at age thirteen.
My golf game then commenced a four-year-long slide from which it never fully recovered. Choate had a fairly decent team, and I lettered all four years. I was also the captain and the number one player in both my junior and senior years. But it wasn’t the same as going to school down in Texas. I had to put away my clubs every September and hit the books until mid-March, when golf season began again. As a result, I kept losing about half a stroke per semester to the kids who could play all year long.
I will never forget coming back to play in a Gulf Coast PGA sponsored regional junior tournament during the summer when I was fourteen. I shot a 73 in the first round and thought I was pretty hot stuff. When I looked at the scoreboard, however, I found that I was only tied for the lead. I then shot three more rounds under 80. That put me thirteen strokes ahead of the closest player behind me. Problem was, there was this one player ahead of me I’d never heard of before. He was a tall skinny kid from Beaumont who hit drives that seemed to roll forever. His name was Bruce Lietzke, and he beat me by eight strokes.
Ben Crenshaw was even more amazing back then, a better all-around player in many ways than in his current incarnation as a PGA Tour pro and two-time Masters champion. Ben won the Texas state junior title at the age of fifteen, beating the pants off a bunch of big, bad seventeen-year-olds who were twice his size. When we all turned sixteen, most of us were expecting Ben to defend his title, but he decided to play in a National Junior Chamber of Commerce tournament being held the same week in another state. Bruce won the Texas state junior title that year while Ben was off winning the Jaycees tournament. But the following year, Ben came back and won a second Texas state junior championship.
The first time I ever played head-to-head with Ben was in a practice round for a tournament at Houston Country Club when we were seventeen. It so happened that I held the junior club record of 70, which was two under par on a tricked-up track that measured more than 7,000 yards long. Ben had never even seen the Houston Country Club course before, and he shot a 68. Everybody used to talk about what a great putter Ben was and how he had been taught the fundamentals at an early age by the late great Harvey Penick. But a lot of it was just Ben’s natural talent. I remember standing there and watching the way he would swing every club in the bag, saying to myself over and over, “Oh, so that’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
Despite my discouraging encounters with Ben and Bruce, I tried to rehabilitate my golf game after graduating from prep school. In the summer of 1969, I took a cross-country road trip to play in a series of national-class amateur tournaments.