This is tough for the winner of the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational to admit, but I suck at golf. On August 24, 1980, Tom Watson collected 100 grand at the World Series of Golf, the biggest single-day payout in golf history at the time, but it was my win at the 'Al' that led the television sports report of two local stations in Charleston, S.C. Lets just say there were a lot of sluggish news days in 1980 South Carolina.
Now, on the rare occasions that I get to play, I hit a few good shots and the rest are embarrassments. When I nail a ball, I mean really nail it, I'm lucky to out drive my early-morning octogenarian speed golf playing partners. The thrill I get from out-distancing three men nearly twice my age is tempered by the fact that one guy, Mr. Davis, literally has an oxygen tank hidden in his golf bag.
While these guys are serious about their 30 cent-a-hole rounds, I tell them how nice it is to not care about the score. How I just enjoy their company, the weather and the connection between the earth, my body, the club and the game. I get all 'Gandhi of golf' on their ass, and it really fries them. They say I should take it 'serious.'
So, then, why have I set a goal of shooting the best scores of my life nearly 30 years after that steamy August weekend when my 71-71-75 beat the posterboy of 13-year-old local golf prodigies across America in the 'Al'. Because I'm a dumbass.
As my body gives in to middle age and atrophy, I know exactly why my golf game depresses even the best club manufacturers. I hardly ever play and my back can lay me out for weeks after a rousing game of ping-pong or an ill-timed sneeze. In a world filled with 18 million Orphans and various other calamities, why should I care about my golf score?
Because, I am a man. And, with that cruel onset of diminishing testosterone and dwindling clarity of mind comes the conviction that IF I just start practicing and playing and IF I put my mind to it, I can be 17 again.
So, here I sit at 45 with some vague memory after high school graduation when I would shoot 73 to 77 every day from the white tees at almost any course. At 5'11' and nearly 125 pounds, I was the Manute Bol of sub-6-foot suburbanites. Only, I doubt Manute had my excellent short game.
And as for my nonexistent long game, when I hit it on the screws of my father's old persimmon, I'd lay 210 yards straight down the middle. With today's technology, my extra 25 pounds and a pushup or two, I've gotta be good for 212. Hell, give Mother Theresa a Callaway X9 driver and a Pinnacle Gold and she's sitting 250 ' even a decade dead.
Thanks to the South Carolina summer sun, the Charleston Municipal Golf Course was playing short and fast for the 'Al.' At only 6,100 yards with lots of baked-out fairway roll, I was cranking the ball 230, and hitting the par-5s in two. Well, one par-5. According to my yellowed scrapbook news clipping, I had four birdies and an eagle in the second round to put me three shots in the lead.
I showed up three minutes before my tee time for the final round because I was up until 3 a.m. doing whatever it was that non-alcohol drinking college kids did while Carter hopelessly tried to keep Reagan out of the Rose Garden. Back then, there were no Ipods, text messaging, or Starbucks. We were living in the technological stone age and didn't even know it.
Certainly, I was feeling better than John Daly on his typical morning after sleeping in the parking lot outside Hooter's. Any way, there's a certain serenity that comes when you're 17 and riding on three hours sleep. I wasn't even bothered when my opening drive was a dead cold top. Thanks to fairways so hard you could land a C-17, the ball rolled to where I had a 7-wood -- yes, a 7-wood -- into the green.
After my 100-pound playing partner and nemesis, Chris Hunt, chipped in for birdie on No. 6, my lead was down to 2. On No. 9, a very long par-4 ' well, long for the Muni at 440, and really long for me -- I drilled my 3-iron second shot to 10 feet and missed the putt with my usually trusty Bullseye blade. I say 'usually' trusty because on this day, I had not made a single putt over 4 feet. Unlike Tiger Woods, but like most of humanity, the 'pressure' was getting to me. Who wants to get beat publicly by a kid three years your junior that barely pushes 3 digits on a bathroom scale?
Chris and I both made all pars until No. 12, when I missed a 2-footer -- a freakin' 2-footer -- for par, and my lead was down to 1. The gallery of 100 let their allegiance show, and it wasn't for me.
The hardest thing to do in sports is to 'right the ship' when you feel confidence draining. Harder still when every move is being covered by two camera crews.
Pars on Nos. 13 and 14 kept a 1-stroke lead. On the par-5 15th, I smacked a drive and felt I could reach the green with my Browning 2-iron. In 1980, Brownings were hi-tech, if mocked by everyone but me. They were low, fat, perimeter weighted and damn sweet to me. Even though I hit the ball thin, the Browning held true enough so that I had a chip from 10 yards off the green. My chip from light rough put me 8 feet away.
I read a 1/2 inch break to the right and told myself, 'You've been playing every day all year. Make this putt. Make this putt, you moron, or sell your clubs.' My classic, low-tech Bullseye came through. The putt slid in the right side of the cup and I had a two-stroke lead again ' a lead I held with solid pars through the final putt on 18 to win the 'Al.'
Later, when asked by a local newspaperman what he wanted to get out of the game, Chris Hunt said that he 'wanted to break all of Nicklaus's records.' I told the same reporter that 'I better look into getting a real job because today, I was almost beaten by a 13-year-old.'.
Well, Chris never broke any of Nicklaus's records and I never quite got that 'real' job. I became a comedian, an illegal golf ball maker, a father, a divorcee, the 'Ambassador of Fun' for the Malibu Country Club- get this: they pay me for ideas on how to make their golf and resort properties more fun; and a charity worker for international orphan relief.
These days, I am mostly confident and happy with my groovy Ghandi atitude. But, deep down, I'm never quite as happy and confident as I was during those three days of the 'Al.'
I want that '80 feeling back and I'm convinced that the greens at Charleston Muni are the carpet that I can ride there. That's why I've set out on what my 85-year-old mother refers to as 'your ridiculous, pointless mission'. What does Mom know? To my knowledge, she's never been a man.
I know my father would be proud that I'm giving golf another shot. Dad worked awful hard to support 8 kids, but also knew the value of golf, testing your limits and being free of business and family for a few hours..
People say that 'Life begins at 40.' Well, my golfing life begins - again - today at 45. And I no longer want to suck.
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
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