My Front Nine
As a kid, I played golf around Texas against the likes of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. Then my love of the links ran its course—or so I thought.
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. My travel mate was a friend from the junior golf circuit named Bobby Walzel. Bobby, who was two years older, had been attending the University of Houston, then the nation’s leading golf college and the former or future alma mater of such PGA stars as Phil Rogers, John Mahaffey, Fred Couples, and Steve Elkington. While half a million non-golfing members of our generation were attending Woodstock in upstate New York, Bobby and I drove all the way from Houston to Niagara Falls to play in the Porter Cup, the nation’s most prestigious nonprofessional tournament save for the United States Golf Association Amateur. Bobby had an exemption into the tournament because of his University of Houston golf team credentials, but I had to go through the 36-hole qualifying. I surprised everybody by shooting a pretty slick 74-72 and nabbed the next-to-last available qualifier spot.
The Porter Cup simultaneously marked the zenith and the nadir of my golfing career. Back then there was no such thing as the Hogan Tour or the Nike Tour. The amateur circuit was basically the only place where you could tune up before you tried to make the PGA Tour. After the Porter Cup qualifying rounds, Bobby and a couple of other guys took me under their wings and tried to tutor me in the finer arts of big-time competitive play. I got tips on everything from trying to work the ball off the tee to missing away from sand traps and water hazards and getting extra backspin on my sand wedge. By the time the regular tournament rounds started, I was so dizzy with swing thoughts I couldn’t break 80 anymore.
All those lessons eventually did sink in, after the fact. When I teed it up on the freshman team at Harvard the following spring, I averaged 73 in matches under very wet and messy course conditions. I was undefeated as the number one man, and our team was undefeated too. In those days, the NCAA wouldn’t let freshmen play varsity sports, but just to prove that we were the best players in the school, the number two man and I challenged the number one and number two varsity players to a match at the Country Club in Brookline, and gave them a good thrashing.
My run-in with the golf coach later that semester over getting a haircut to please the members of the Country Club was just the symbolic crowning blow in a long-running love-hate relationship with the country club culture in general. I had actually been thinking about quitting golf ever since the politicized summer of 1969, when I played in the Porter Cup. While I hardly qualified as a member of an oppressed minority group, I had grown up playing with and against Mexicans, blacks, and a young lady named Mary Lou Dill, who won the women’s Amateur at age nineteen. The virulent racism, sexism, and elitism that seemed endemic to country clubs had had personal repercussions for my friends and me on more than a few occasions.
The decision to hang up my spikes, however, was ultimately based more on emotional and athletic considerations than political or social imperatives. Golf may be the hardest of all sports, given the dual demands it makes on mind and body. Michael Jordan, an avid amateur with a single-digit handicap, is arguably the world’s greatest athlete, and yet he has collapsed more than once under the pressure of televised celebrity golf tournaments. Jack Nicklaus is inarguably the greatest pro golfer in history, with twenty major championships to his credit. But like the lowliest duffer, even he has been humbled by his share of double and triple bogeys, as witnessed by his debacle on the Road Hole at St. Andrews in the 1995 British Open.
Attending an Ivy League college posed the same predicament as prep school. I still had to quit every fall and try to pick up my game every spring while my buddies at the University of Texas and the University of Houston played year-round. Unlike Crenshaw and Lietzke, I might not have had the potential to become a Bobby Jones or a Jack Nicklaus. But I did not want to be a second-rate college player destined to become a second-rate pro for lack of proper competitive grooming and tournament experience. Moreover, I had no patience for being a weekend golfer. For me, it was just no fun. I knew how well I could play, and if I didn’t play well, it would infuriate me.
I also knew that in order to maintain my standard of excellence, I needed to practice and play at least six days per week. Everyone does, including Jordan and the great Nicklaus. I could either spend my life on the course or off; there was no middle ground. I had taken up golf because of a naive love for the game. I could not keep at it unless I was able to give golf the constant attention and affection the game deserved. So I quit cold turkey.
Over the next two and a half decades, thanks partly to the aging of my fellow baby boomers, golf became the fastest growing sport on earth. The amateur population in the U.S. alone mushroomed from 17 million in 1985 to more than 25 million by 1995. The golf boom also democratized the game more effectively than any civil rights bill. Playing golf came to be considered way cool by almost every class of people from the guy at the Sag Harbor gas pump to celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Kevin Costner, Alice Cooper, and Hootie and the Blowfish.
In any event, I chose to return to golf not because it was cool or because everybody else in my generation seemed to be playing the game, but because I wanted to see if I could do it right the second time around. When I quit playing, woods were still made of wood and graphite was a number two pencil. At my best, I could shoot par consistently in tournament play, but I never reached the point of being able to break 70 except in practice rounds. Now there was an abundance of fancy, space-age equipment designed to help golfers hit the ball farther and straighter than was ever possible before. And with the passage of years spanning these innovations, I had become older—and, I hoped, wiser as well.
Rather than merely turning back the clock, I wanted to see if I could raise my game to a whole new level. There had always been something special about the way Ben Crenshaw and Bruce Lietzke could play even when we were just teenagers. I could never put my finger on exactly what it was they had going for them. All I knew was they had it and I didn’t. But my instincts told me that there just might be a chance to get a good firm Vardon grip on whatever it was that I had been lacking as a kid. If I could find that magical missing element, I could use it not only to lift my game but also to fill the existential holes of middle age.