The Ballad of Fred Daniels


Editor's note: Michael Fechter, orphan worker and humorist, has the best job in golf: he's paid to be the Ambassador of Fun for golf courses across America. His 'job' is to make the courses he represents across America more interesting, unique and fun. Enjoy his humorous series on getting back into the game as he struggles to get his game into the shape it was nearly 30 years ago when he won his only personal junior 'major,' the Al Esposito, on America's easiest muni with rounds of 71-71-75.
You probably wouldnt suspect this from the winner of the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational and the current Ambassador of Fun for the Malibu Country Club, but there is a rather glaring 24-year gap in my golf resume.
Except for a brief period of time between my mediocre college golf career and my current pledge to recapture my golfing form of nearly 30 years ago, I somehow transitioned from being an avid, nearly obsessed, golfer to what those in the golfing industry disparagingly refer to as a non-golfer.
I discussed this transition with my tennis partner and friend, Fred Daniels. Fred is a college administrator, former basketball coach, athlete and all around genius. When he talks, I listen.
Fred told me that he played golf ONE time. 'My father-in-law had a heart attack and gave me his golf clubs, he said. Early one morning, I took his clubs to the university course and parred the first hole. I thought, Well, here is another game I've mastered. I was a great swimmer. A pretty good runner. I played basketball really well. And I figured there's nothing much to this game. You hit it where you want it to go then hit it again and then hit it in the hole.'
'On No. 2, I lost every single ball that I had in the bag ' all 17 of them -- then walked into the clubhouse. I never played golf again.'
As I try to pinpoint the moment when I stopped being a golfer, I wonder if Fred got it right.
I never stopped enjoying watching the last round of a major. And I always enjoy watching Tiger. But when did I quit enjoying playing? There must have been some moment. Because for the past 24 years, there has only been one period in which I even played a little:
I was struggling to be a comedian and writer in L.A. in 1991. For fun, and a little bit of extra money, I caddied at the most famous courses in L.A. Not only was this a paying gig, but I got to play the courses on Mondays when they were officially closed.
I especially enjoyed the uber-private Los Angeles C.C., a club that would not allow anyone to join that was connected to show business...or Jewish. I was, marginally, both. On my Monday rounds there, I took especially large divots...and kept them. It was just my way of saying 'Bite me!!' to The Man' as I ripped area rug size divots on Yom Kippur.
About that time, I flew back to the South to play in a golf outing in Charlotte with one of my best friends, Steve Dickerson, the day before he got married.
Steve grew up on the seventh hole at Harbor Town where The Heritage Golf Classic was played and won by the best ball strikers in the game, guys like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Hale Irwin. I met Steve and his family when I was 17 and stayed with him and his family after being invited to play in the 'Junior Heritage', a tournament played from the same tees as the pros. I don't recall breaking 80 and felt humble after a high school season of averaging 74.
On the day before Steve's wedding his closest friends, teaching pros, former college golfers, everyone with a long background in golf had flown from across the country to be with him and play one last 'single' round before his marriage. It wasnt the wild bachelor party most of us guys had hoped for, which probably explains why Steves marriage is still going strong today.
I played in Steve's foursome. Even with all on his mind, Steve played great.
And, somehow, I played over my head. I was getting up and down from tough bunkers on 2 and 3. Birdied three out of four on holes 5-8. And I just kept bunting the ball straight, shooting 73, beating everyone in the group, pros and all. Like Fred Daniels after his first hole, I felt I had mastered the game. And, it felt damn good.
One of the pros in our foursome invited me to play the Ocean Course at Kiawah with him the next week...for free. Thats the course where Bernard Langer missed a putt on 18 on Sunday to lose the Ryder Cup now known as the 'War By The Shore' to the Americans. Officially the Ocean Course was designed to test a professional golfers skills. In reality, the course is more of a test of an average golfers will to live.
That slightly breezy day, we played The Ocean Course from a bit back -- but not the tips ' and, well, I might not have broken 110. I'm surprised I had enough balls to finish the second hole, let alone the entire round. It was my most humbling day on a course, ever. I quit playing golf, and quit thinking of myself as a golfer, soon after.
In hindsight, my frustration with the game started just weeks after winning The Al as the courses I played on the college team went from 6,100 yards to 7,100 yards. I could no longer reach most of the par-4s in two. I could barely see the green from where my tee shots left me. Even on par-3s, it seemed I was hitting everything from a 7-wood to a driver. There's no way to score when youre hitting woods into par-3s. It was a slow grog all day as I fumbled and did my best to get up and down enough to break 80.
The first week of my freshman year, I discovered that I really made people laugh. Then I discovered certain girls that liked me ' for this I have no explanation. And I soon discovered that going to the beach was more fun than trying to get 20 more yards by pumping iron and eating raw eggs. (Actual measures inspired by 'Rocky,' weight lifters and ignorance of salmonella.)
And then there was the fact that I had those great three days at Muni with 71-71-75. Nothing I was doing in college golf felt even remotely like those days. Golf was feeling like a job. A job in which I wasn't very skilled.
There is nothing more frustrating than a plateau that I can't get past. My game really plateaued after the 'Al.' And then it plateaued again after 73 with Steve and 110 at The Ocean Course. I moved away from golf toward a woman and marriage which plateaued some two weeks into the whole happily ever after thing.
What started me on this journey back to again being a golfer were memories of three magical days of 71-71-75. But, as I think about it, I really just want to enjoy the game again ' the way I did when I was 17. Joy of the game should have no plateau, no matter what the score, unless you're Fred Daniels and lose 17 balls on the second hole.
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
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Related Links:
  • The Gratitude Project
  • Greenway Golf