Perhaps I am too young to reminisce but the gray-haired man that stares back at me in the morning thinks otherwise, so what follows are the ramblings of a broken-down pro in no particular order.
My rookie year on Tour I was paired with Jeff Sluman in the third round of the Manufacturers Hanover Westchester Classic. Jeff was an established player having his best year and I had been struggling but was having my best week. During the round, our scorer – a very attractive woman – was at every chance talking to Jeff, who is enormously clever and funny, but was understandably more concerned with his golf.
When we were done and in the scoring tent, Jeff and I were checking our scorecards as the scorer called out each hole. While she was calling my scores, I saw her slide a note to Jeff which had her phone number written in the top right hand corner. After reading the note, Jeff held up his left hand which had a gold band on the ring finger and using the thumb of his left hand pushed the inside of the band up and down so as to make the band move and said quietly, “You see this? It means commitment, but thanks for thinking of me,” and then he got up and walked out of the trailer.
In April of 1986, I was playing in an obscure mini tour event in Savannah, Ga. run by a shady group of investors. On Tuesday night of that week, I was in the lobby of my hotel playing a game of pool with a friend when a tall, dark-haired man whom I recognized immediately walked in. He ordered a beer from the waitress who gushed at him and then he leaned against the wall and watched our game of 8-ball. He didn’t say a word but he might as well have been screaming at the top of his lungs. Seve Ballesteros, the best player in all of golf, was in town tuning up for The Masters.
Over the next few hours we played several games of pool as he lamented how it was that he came to be in Savannah and playing in an event in which the total purse wouldn’t pay his typical appearance fee anywhere else in the world. Banned from playing the PGA Tour because he didn’t play the minimum number of events in 1985, Seve could only play in New Orleans as the defending champion and the majors as bodies other than the PGA Tour governed them.
In preparation for the year’s first major he was trying to get acclimated to the time change and in need of competition because he had been tending to his ill father and not his golf game. The next day his father would pass away hastening his exit but not before it occurred to all of us in the event how silly the impasse was between him and Ponte Vedra Beach. Ironically, the Tour is currently on the cusp of facing a similar standoff from this point forward owing to the international laden world rankings.
On Sunday morning of the 1987 British Open, I was standing in the breakfast line in player dining when an old man, dressed handsomely, asked me to join him at his table. Strained for time and consumed with thoughts of my upcoming round, I thought about declining with apologies owing to time constraints but alas, I sat down.
The man was three-time British Open champion Henry Cotton whose last victory in the Open came in 1948 at the very course I was playing that day, Muirfield. He talked about the need to control the ball through “training the hands” and he explained the proper hand action and then, picking up the club beside him, went into greater detail. I was the best, he said, because I could hit it here every time, as he pointed to the dime-sized worn spot on the center of the face of the 4-wood. He then showed me his grip and he talked about the placement of the fingers and the proper pressure needed to bring the club into the ball.
A few months later, on December 22, 1987 I read of Henry Cotton’s passing and the world of golf mourned one of its greatest and most influential players.
At the 2000 U.S. Open on Saturday, the wind blew how it can on any course by the sea and how you pray it doesn’t. Paired with Nick Price, I played miserably. My fortune would change around dinner time, as my best friend Jack Harden, his wife Nancy and I were able to get Greg Norman’s unclaimed table for dinner because he had missed the cut and understandably left town. After a great meal, I headed to my room, which was at the Lodge overlooking the first tee.
Around midnight I heard a knock on the door and slumbering over to the peep hole, I saw Jack standing at my door with a few clubs tucked under his arm, scotch in one hand, a cigar in the other. I opened the door smiling because I knew what he was up to. “Pro,” he said, “come keep me company as I play the 18th.”
A few minutes later Jack, Nancy, and I were standing on the 18th tee and Jack was hitting one tee shot after another into the night, over the ocean and hopefully onto the fairway. After Jack hit 10 or 15 tee shots, we ambled to the fairway talking about golf, golf swings and the not insignificant fact that Tiger was decimating the field in this, the national championship.
We found most of his tee shots and then he launched another volley of shots at the green where there stood maybe 40 people with similar, but not nearly as well-thought-out plans on how to toil away the night. Upon arrival to the green, we were greeted to applause and some comical commentary and then we all stood enjoying the sounds of the crashing waves and the sight of the moonlight reflecting off the ocean.
The next day Tiger, would of course win by 15 but as my second shot sailed across the ocean and jumped up on the 18th green, I looked at Jack and Nancy and we all smiled like I had just won the U.S. Open.
I can’t remember what I shot at Westchester, the British Open or the U.S. Open but I can tell you why I always pull for Jeff Sluman and pulled for Seve Ballesteros, what Henry Cotton’s hands looked like on the club and what Pebble Beach looks like at midnight. I know these memories – and others like them – don’t fill a trophy case, but they keep me company like trophies never could.