Tag Archives: golf

No Complaints This Year – The Golf Nerd’s US Open Preview

Last year’s US Open brought howls of indignation from most of the golfing world, citing everything from Fox’s spectacularly awful initial attempt at golf coverage to the site of tournament (apparently my opinion of Chambers Bay was outside of the mainstream).

Fox has addressed at least part of its issues, removing a surprisingly bland Greg Norman from its broadcasting team and replacing him with straight-shooting Paul Azinger, whose presence on TV has been limited to the Open Championship over the past few years. Azinger is honest, funny, and fearless in his commentary, and should make Joe Buck much more comfortable as a lead commentator. On the other hand, we’ll still have to suffer with the inane on-course comments of Natalie Gulbis, whose best assets won’t be seen on camera very often, much to the chagrin of the male population  viewing at home.

As for this year’s site – it’s hard to argue with Oakmont, a course which most folks would acknowledge to be the gold standard for US Open tracks; a tough, penal layout, with greens so slick that Sam Snead once remarked that he couldn’t mark his ball because the coin that he used to do so kept sliding off of the putting surface.
Yes, Oakmont’s greens are legendary for their speed; so slick are their surfaces that the USGA asks the club’s superintendent to slow them down to run at 13 on the Stimpmeter (the greens at most tour events run between 10.5 and 11.5; a member at Oakmont can typically expect to experience a speed of 15 for daily play). To achieve such green speeds at most any other club would amount to committing agronomical suicide, but the makeup of Oakmont’s putting surfaces is unique, consisting of a rare strain of heat tolerant poa annua (most of us know poa annua as a cool weather grass that can be either a blessing in areas like the Pacific Northwest or a blight on bent grass or Bermuda greens in other parts of the country) that can be rolled as often as one likes.

If that’s not enough to give one pause, Oakmont offers up over 200 bunkers, including the notorious “Church Pews,” which stretch over 100 yards and invokes language that would most assuredly would not be welcomed in any self-respecting parish, as well as the requisite US Open wrist-shattering rough. And you will not see any short par-5’s being turned into brutish par-4’s in order to conform to the USGA’s maddening efforts to “protect par” at Oakmont, a course which could readily host a major championship at a moment’s notice.

Oakmont has hosted the US Open eight times, the most famous of which was in 1962 when a young Jack Nicklaus bested a heavily favored Arnold Palmer in The King’s own backyard. Arnie’s Army was extremely inhospitable to the Golden Bear (which Palmer hated to see) but that did not seem to bother Jack very much. It was his first professional victory, and far from his last.

In 1973, Johnny Miller carded what was to become one of the most spectacular final rounds in major championship history that hardly anyone saw, torching Oakmont with a 63 that several possibly bitter Oakmont members attributed to a rainstorm that blew through the night before to “soften” conditions. Miller was so far back going into the finale that he was only televised for a few holes. He then had to wait another hour before the final groups made it in, none of whom were able to catch him.

The last time that Oakmont hosted the US Open was in 2007. Like Johnny Miller, Angel Cabrera, the eventual winner, finished well ahead of his two closest pursuers, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods, both of whom missed birdie putts on the final hole that would have forced a next day playoff. Cabrera seemingly went through a pack of cigarettes on each nine he played during the Open; when asked about this, he replied, “Some guys consult with psychologists. I smoke.”

Other Oakmont winners include Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Ernie Els, and Larry Nelson, who along with the aforementioned, are all multiple major championship winners [NOTE: One could win a lot of bar bets by posing the question, “Who has won more majors, Larry Nelson or Greg Norman?”]. It’s not a course for the faint of heart, and whoever survives this weekend will most certainly be worthy. I look for a big hitter who can muscle the ball from the rough and negotiate those slick greens.

It says here that Jason Day will tack on another major this weekend. And the winning score will be even par.

But the star of the Open will be Oakmont.


The Road to Pebble Beach

It was a beautiful weekend here in the Metroplex (sorry, friends up North), so the Golf Nerd Goddess and I hooked up with our respective gender golf groups on Saturday, and then played together with our friends Dianne and Susan on Sunday (we’re talking about golf here, you perverts). Yes, yes, I know that it was Valentines Day. Rest assured that we enjoyed a very romantic Saturday evening without having to resort to watching “50 Shades of Grey” (a title that could also describe Ben Hogan’s golf wardrobe).

In between our rounds, we checked in on the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (or as us curmudgeons will forever call it, The Crosby Clambake, in honor of its founder). The Crosby has always signaled the unofficial start of the professional golf season for me; partially for the field (generally strong), some for watching various celebrities and other members of the moneyed gentry embarrass themselves (or, in some rare instances, demonstrate surprisingly strong game), but almost always for the course. And at this year’s event, the weather was spectacular to the point of surreal – impossibly blue waters of various shades set against the native grasses that comprise Pebble Beach, all bathed by abundant sunshine and a sky that would put Carolina Blue to shame.

I have never played Pebble Beach. I did make it out to the Monterrey Peninsula once, having some spare time from a business trip and almost regret having done so, as the day I traveled there was much as I described above. I parked near the Lodge, made my way out towards the 18th green, gazed back along the Pacific shoreline that borders that iconic finishing hole, and felt tears welling – partially from the sensory overload, and maybe even more so from the fact that I didn’t have my clubs with me.

I emphasize the weather because it’s more unpredictable than John Daly’s love life (speaking of Mr. Daly, he managed to shoot an opening round 65 and still miss the cut). Over the years, the tournament has seen hail, severe thunderstorms and fog that would make Carl Sandburg swoon. The time of year does not seem to matter; when Tom Kite won the US Open there in June of 1992, the wind blew so hard that many players were hitting 5 or 6 iron into the 103 yard 7th hole,

All that aside, Pebble Beach is definitely on every golfer’s bucket list, although at $500 a round, the operators of the course and resort are doing their level best to keep out the riff-raff. Add in rounds at Spyglass Hill and Spanish Bay plus accommodations, and you are not far from buying a decent late-model compact car.

So the GNG and I have an agreement by which the next time she shoots a personal best score, we’re going to Pebble. Both of our games have been suffering a bit lately, so it might be awhile before we get there – although she may have found a key to get us there this past weekend.

On Sunday, Sharon tried out a new driver, the Dunlap XXIO. It’s actually manufactured for senior men who have slower swing speeds (without getting into golf techie-talk, the weight difference between this driver and a “normal” driver is far more noticeable than, oh say, the PSI between a “properly” weighted football and what the Patriots are alleged to have done against the Colts), but it seemed to suit her quite nicely, and she smacked some really strong and straight drives. [NOTE: for the uninitiated, there are two clubs in a golfer’s bag with which he or she form symbiotic relationships; those being the driver and the putter. Well, in some cases it can be somewhat passionate – Ky Laffoon , a pro who played during the 1930’s and 1940’s, once was so disenchanted with his putter that he tied it to the back of his car and dragged it along the road for about 10 miles . . . and then shot it.]

Anyway, Diane, Susan, and I were all excited over the results that Sharon was achieving from the XXIO to the point that she should really consider buying it. We finished our round, and Sharon approached Kevin, the head professional at our club. Watching from a distance, her expression changed from one of hopeful promise to that of one having just learned that the new car she had just bought needed a complete transmission overhaul.

I walked over to see what the problem was. Sharon turned to me and said, “Kevin says this club costs $800.”

I looked at Kevin, a very amiable sort from England, and asked, “Are you serious?”

Afraid so, mate. That’s a Asian manufacturer, very expensive.”

So . . . we may have taken a slight detour on the road to Pebble Beach. Anyone know where we can find a used Dunlap XXIO?

You Always Hurt the One You Love

I recently had a chat with an old golfing buddy of mine, a retired three-star general who has seen service in Vietnam and later was on NATO’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (his nickname, not surprisingly, is “The General” – sometimes it’s just best to go with the obvious). The General is a very good golfer; his handicap is typically in the single digits and though well into his 60’s, still has plenty of length off the tee. We were commiserating over my recent putting escapade; he commented, “Some game we love, isn’t it? Glad I made a living doing something else.”

I made a joking response – “Yeah – combat had to be easier.”

He responded, “More predictable.”

While to the undying gratitude of a nation, I’ve never seen combat duty (or wore a military uniform), but I have to think he’s right. How else can one explain the great drive that precedes the chunked approach shot; the nifty birdie followed by a double bogey (fondly referred to by golfers as PBFU – “Post Birdie F*ck Up”); the solid front 9 backed up by a horrendous backside; the 75 on Saturday that becomes a 90 on Sunday? Hell, even at his most dominant, Tiger Woods won slightly more than 20% of the tournaments he entered, which in any other sporting endeavor would have him seeking other employment.

Yes, General, this is indeed some game we love. I think about the 1999 Open Championship, when after playing 71 holes in brilliant fashion at Carnoustie (an already difficult track rendered nearly unplayable thanks to a sadistic course superintendent who had narrowed some fairways to a ridiculous 12 yards in width), Jean Van de Velde came to the final hole needing only a double bogey 6 to capture the Claret Jug. Instead, he butchered the hole so badly that he actually waded into the Barry Burn (a narrow creek that is brilliantly leveraged throughout the course to wreak havoc) to contemplate hitting a shot, at which point Curtis Strange, commentating for ABC, proclaimed, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.” Ultimately, Van de Velde took his drop from the creek, pitched on, and made an 8 foot putt for a triple bogey 7 to put him in a three-way playoff, ultimately losing to Paul Lawrie. If I were Van de Velde, I certainly would have been considering a change of occupation at that point.

I had my own adventure at Carnoustie a few years back. It’s certainly not my favorite place in Scotland. The town, which is not particularly charming, is hard to reach, and the course itself is  perhaps the least scenic of all of the noteworthy Scottish links. Noted course designer Tom Doak describes it thusly: “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it is just depressingly efficient at exposing the flaws in one’s game.”

To be fair, several of my golf acquaintances have told me they love the course, usually because either they shot an exceptional score when they played it, or because they bested Van de Velde’s final hole 7 on the 18th. I can proudly raise my hand to the latter, having lipped out a 6-footer for par to cap off an infuriating round of golf.

I made 8 pars during my round at Carnoustie, which under normal circumstances would have had me tracking towards a score in the mid-80’s, which on a course of that caliber would have been a quite satisfying score. That was not to be the case for yours truly.

After a start of three bogeys and two pars, our group came to the par 5 6th hole. There are three fairway pot bunkers strategically placed in the fairway. The golfer can either play to the right of the bunkers, which lengthens the hole considerably, or shoot through a narrow gap between the bunkers and the out of bounds markers that constitute the left boundary of the fairway. In 1953, Ben Hogan took the latter path successfully in all four rounds en route to his only Open Championship win; this hole was henceforth referred to as “Hogan’s Alley.”

Naturally, we all wanted to take the aggressive route through Hogan’s Alley. It was my misfortune to find one of the fairway bunkers, and was forced to play out sideways. I extricated myself successfully – but to my horror, the ball rolled merrily through the “alley” and out of bounds – which meant replaying the shot, with penalty, from the same bunker. I again got the ball out; this time keeping it in play – but now lying 4 with a good 250 yards remaining to the green. Three shots later, I arrived there, but I somehow managed to putt off the green and into a bunker.  Another three shots later, I was in the hole, carding a rather impressive 11 shots for the hole.

Amazingly, this was not the most embarrassing moment of the round for me.

Earlier in the day, a few of us were walking through St Andrews. I spotted a really cool pair of plaid pants in a shop there (my friend Ben had previously bought a pair during the trip, and I felt the need to do some styling of my own) and decided they would be the perfect sartorial statement for Carnoustie.

So . . . returning now to our hero’s travails . . . after the disaster at Hogan’s Alley, I recovered nicely with a par on the 7th (a combination of a helping wind, a sweeping right to left hook, and a severe case of red-ass produced my longest drive of the day, and indeed the entire trip) and a respectable bogey on the difficult 8th hole.

Unfortunately, the 9th was not so kind to me, and I wound up making double-bogey. While reaching into the hole to retrieve my ball after holing out, I heard a tearing sound. My new pants neatly split along the inseam of my right leg, encompassing the entire length of my thigh. This, of course, was the source of much merriment among my friends, although I was not particularly amused.

Fuming, I hacked my way to make a 9 on the next hole, and declared my disgust for Carnoustie, the game of golf, and mankind in general.

And then proceeded to par 4 of the next 6 holes. Yes, General, this is some game we love.

What Makes You So Special?

A few posts ago, I recalled some words of wisdom from Chris Goff, a golfing friend in Connecticut, who, upon witnessing me three putt from about 8 feet, said to me, “Don’t worry, man, you ain’t the first and you won’t be the last” – his point, of course, being that not only is perfection on a golf course unobtainable, but it’s foolish to even contemplate it. In other words, shit happens.

I try to keep those words in mind when things go south for me in the course of a round, but every now and then I do wonder if the gods of golf are testing me. Take my round yesterday . . . please (sorry, Henny). The less said about it the better, although the entertainment value provided to my playing companions earned me a drink after the round, so there was that.   I did manage to play a greenside bunker shot from my knees on the 12th hole that somehow wound up on the 8th green (about 100 yards away, which is actually pretty impressive when you think about it). But the coup de grace occurred earlier in the round.

The second hole at Cottonwood Valley (one of the two courses at our club) is a par-3 three over a pond (a canal, really) that typically plays about 130 yards. It’s not a particularly scary shot; usually the biggest challenge comes from the wind, which typically quarters from right to left and slightly toward the tee box. The flag yesterday was located in the front right portion of the green, which is something of a “sucker pin” – if a player’s shot is even a little short, it will roll back down a small hill, sometime all the way to the water. The safe play is to the middle of the green.

Which is what I tried to do, except that the wind took the ball further left, leaving me on the green but with a 40 foot putt with about 10 feet of left-to-right break. I put a pretty good stroke on it; the ball took the break, hit the back of the cup, and popped out.

“Damn,” I grimaced.

Only it didn’t stop. It continued rolling toward the edge of the green, almost coming to a halt . . . but gravity kicked in, and the ball sauntered down the aforementioned hill, and gently plopped into the water.

Naturally, this was a great source of merriment to all concerned; even I had to laugh. There ensued some discussion of how I was to proceed, and without boring you with a lengthy discussion of hazard drop options, the rules allowed me to putt from the previous spot. I managed to keep the ball on the green this time; another two putts and I wound up with a six on a par-3 that I had hit in regulation, which is probably not a record but pretty damned close.

When I recounted this story in the Grill Room, it was greeted with the appropriate amount of amusement and sympathy. Someone reminded me that Tiger Woods once did the same thing at The Masters, which I’m sure will be the only time that he and I are mentioned in the same breath.

I can divulge this and other horrors that occur out on the links because – well, something like it happens to everyone who plays the game. An old friend of mine in Virginia, Martin, struck a drive off the toe of his club; the ball flew dead straight at what could best be described a 90 degree angle to where it should have, striking a condo whose owner probably bought with the thought that no one could ever possibly hit it. Then again, he never met Martin, whose swing at impact featured him actually falling away from the ball  – think of a Michael Jordan jump shot, sans elevation.

But there’s one incident I can describe that I like to think did not have precedent. This happened in a club tournament where the other competitors in my group consisted of Spice Daddy, Fat Boy #1, and Holmes, three of the more colorful members of ours (or any other) club. We had all hit decent drives on the par-5 3rd hole, but Fat Boy pulled his second shot into some thick rough. As we looked for his ball, Holmes (who was riding in my cart) found a baby blue robin’s egg that evidently fallen from its nest. Holmes picked it up, looked at me devilishly, and said, “Poppy, watch this – I’m going to slip this in Spice Daddy’s pocket.”

We finished out the third hole and went on to #4, a vexing par 4 that featured an approach to an elevated green having more turns than the track at Watkins Glen. We all reached the green (Holmes somehow keeping the egg intact, which I thought was remarkable), and putted out. Spice Daddy had made a big-breaking 8-footer to save his par, and an apparently sincere, appreciative Holmes put his arm around Spice, complimenting him on his putt.

We then proceeded to the 5th hole, and Spice reached into his pocket to get a tee – and pulled his hand out; egg yolk dripping off his hand. “What the –“, he exclaimed . . . and saw Holmes and me giggling over in our cart. Spice let out a series of expletives, but he was laughing, as well.

I’d like to think that Spice was the first – but after this story, he won’t be the last.

Late Season

When you are a golfer in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, or virtually anywhere that’s north of the Carolinas, the shorter days, cooling temperatures, and falling leaves (the latter of which makes finding a ball – even one that is in the middle of the fairway – an excruciating task) signal the effective end of the season. Sure, there’s gorgeous Indian Summer weather in October, and November may bring the rare “bonus” day, but playing the final rounds of the year is generally grim business. No one wants to finish on a sour note that will hang over his head along with the gray, cloudy skies of winter.

I moved to Virginia in 1998, and while foul winter weather is not an impossibility there (there was the Ice Storm of 2000, for example, which shut down all of metro Richmond and caused me to miss the [at the time] most exciting Super Bowl in history), it was rare not to be able to play year round there, particularly for Yankees like myself.

Prior to that move, I had spent my entire life well north of the Mason-Dixon line. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, passed my college years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and actually returned to Massachusetts after graduation because the winters there were less severe than those in Wisconsin. I lived in the Hartford, CT area for about 15 years before heading to the Dominion State. While Connecticut is considered “Southern New England,” there was certainly nothing “southern” about the weather. While sometimes we’d catch a break and be able to start play in late March, we’d more likely be put off until April, particularly during years like 1994 and 1995, both of which brought winter snowfall accumulations of over 100 inches.

Once in awhile, we’d catch a break whereby there had been little or no snowfall, and we’d find a course – typically near the coast, like Shennecossett in Groton or Winnepaug in Westerly, RI – that didn’t mind grabbing a few bucks from fanatics like us. We’d bundle up to the point where we could barely walk (much less swing a golf club), load up a few flasks-full of “swing-lube” (of varying proof), and whacked balls across frozen fairways and greens. This, of course, was not without its challenges – for one thing, trying to get a tee in the ground was next to impossible. One of our guys eventually solved this problem by sticking a Coleman blow-torch in the bag, which not only sufficiently melted the teeing area but also served as a full-proof method for lighting a cigar.

Getting the ball to stop on an iced up green was another matter – we learned how to land the ball short of the green and let up run on up (a shot that, unbeknownst to me at the time, came in quite handy once I started traveling to Scotland to play golf).

On the positive side, a well-struck tee shot would roll forever, and most ponds serving as water hazards would be frozen over as well, which actually provided some creative shot making opportunities. One thing we never did, however, was to walk out on the ice to retrieve balls (there would be a surprising number of spheroids sitting tantalizingly on the frozen surface, but while we may have been crazy, we weren’t stupid).

So – upon moving to Richmond, I set a temperature threshold of 40 degrees for play. I met my friend Andy, another Yankee transplant from Berwick, PA who was equally enchanted by the “warm” Virginia weather, and we would head out pretty much any time there was no snow on the ground. I do recall the first time we played together; it was at The Dominion Club in the Far West End. It was a perfect late October day; we had skipped out a few hours early from work. While the weather was fine, daylight hours were becoming more scarce, and as we played the 18th, we could see a gorgeous harvest moon appear just over the horizon as we approached the green. Looking back towards the tee box, a gorgeous sunset was in progress. I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything like that before; I know I haven’t since.

For the first seven or eight years of my time there, a combination of enthusiasm for the game and mild winter seasons kept me going through the winter, and the 40 Degree Rule seldom came into play. But one’s blood thins a bit over time, and while I would continue to go out and play on colder days, it was probably more out of a sense of obligation and curing some cabin fever than anything else. And the 40 Degree Rule gradually crept upward.

I now live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and the issues here are different, with 100-plus degree days being pretty much the norm during the summer months. But everything is relative, I suppose. A series of thunderstorms blew in on Friday night, dropping the temperature into the 50’s. My buddy Pat (who grew up near me in Dalton, MA) and I kept our Saturday 9 AM tee time. I had on wool pants and sweater; Pat donned the latest high-tech warm weather gear. We look at each other and laughed. “You know,” I said, “if we caught a day like this today in New England, we’d be out here in shorts.” He nodded, and flipped a tee to see which one of us would hit first.

By the way, we finished in 2 hours and 45 minutes, playing through the only other group that was ahead of us. Like I said, everything’s relative.

A Thin Line

At this year’s Byron Nelson Classic, Jhonnatan Vegas was grinding over a testy four foot par putt on the 18th hole at TPC Las Colinas. He and his caddy, Luis Sira, had looked it over from every conceivable angle. There was a definite left to right break; the question was, how much, and how hard to strike it? He had lipped out a two-foot birdie effort on 13; that had to be preying on his mind. Finally, he stood over the putt and pulled the trigger. The ball took the break, caught the inside left edge of the cup, and dropped in the hole. Player and caddy high-fived and hugged on the green, and then strode triumphantly up the roped-off walkway to the scorer’s table, accepting congratulations from followers and fans.

Did they win? Nope. They made the cut. On the number. Which meant that they would make money that week.

Making the cut is huge for a lot of players, and even bigger for caddies, who are very much reliant on the performance of their man. Much has been written about guys like Steve Williams (Tiger Woods) and Jim (Bones) McKay (Phil Mickelson), both of whom have had long and lucrative careers carrying for consistent, successful players. And it’s that lure that has brought more young men (and a few women) into the caddying game. Depending on the agreement, a caddy will make 8 to 15 percent of what his player earns, an allowance for expenses, and a bonus for victories.

Obviously, there’s a flip side to this – witness Masters Vegas and Sira. Jhonny (yes, Virginia, that’s how it’s spelled, and as my good friend and talented writer/comedian Barry Friedman has noted, “Jhonny Vegas would make the coolest TV detective name ever”) won at The Bob Hope classic back in 2011 and seemed poised to make his mark on tour, but a shoulder injury sidelined him in 2012. He was able to play his way back on tour via medical exemption, but has struggled since then. He finished this season 122nd on the money list, which barely allowed him to keep his tour exempt status. So making that 4 footer in Las Colinas this past May was critical for both him and Luis.

I met Luis through a friend who housed him during “The Byron;” he and Jhonny are both from Venezuela. Luis is very serious about his job (prior to hooking up with Vegas, he carried for two-time major winner Angel Cabrerra, who I had the honor of meeting via Luis), but a pretty free-spirited man once he’s finished for the day – which is probably fortunate for him, as making a living based solely on the fortune of another person is risky business.

Luis also introduced me at that time to Sam, a young caddy from New Zealand who has been trying to find a regular bag for quite a few years. At the Byron, Sam was caddying for Ryo Ishikawa, a ridiculously talented young player from Japan. Ryo’s regular caddy was an Australian who didn’t want to be away from his family for 6 or 7 weeks, so Sam got tabbed for the job. He was back in town recently, and the Golf Nerd Goddess and I caught up with him for dinner and drinks.

As you might expect, the GNG and I were curious about the caddying life and the relationship between player and manservant. As to the latter, Sam really stressed the trust factor – “Showing up on time is probably the most important aspect of the job,” he mused, “It’s amazing how fast word gets around if you screw that up” – as well as understanding the player’s temperament and rules of engagement. “Some guys just want you to hand them a club and back away. Some will ask you for a yardage, you tell him ‘It’s 154 yards,’ and they will fire away based on that alone. Ryo, he’s extremely analytical – you give him a yardage; he’ll immediately start factoring in the wind, whether the shot is uphill or downhill, the slope of the target area, the curvature of the earth . . . what my job is, I need to understand his personality, what will motivate him if he gets off to a rough start, how to calm him down when he gets excited.”

“So you’re really a psychiatrist, then,” noted the GNG.

“Well,” Sam smiled, “that a big part of it.”

Part of the job has gotten easier over the years, says Sam. Yardage books have become much more accurate, which has eliminated the need to find landmarks and walk off yardages “manually.” But, he cautioned, it’s still a good idea to walk the course regardless, relating a story that “Bones” had told him about how one year at Torrey Pines, he had not bothered to do so (his man, Mickelson, had practically grown up on the course and they had played it numerous times on tour). He gave Phil a familiar line off the tee on one hole – only to find that when they arrived at his ball, it was squarely behind two freshly planted trees. “So I always walk the course now,” Bones told Sam.

Plus the bag is heavy and the hours long – besides actual tournament play, the caddy is expected to be on the range and practice green with his man before and after each round, plus be available during practice time.

As for the lifestyle – Sam is friendly with a lot of his fellow caddies; there are a group of 10 to 15 of them who arrange to split transportation and lodging costs. Plus, he notes, it’s beneficial to make friends along the way to stay with when the tour rolls into town. A surprising number of the guys are married – Sam, for his part, is “trying to have a relationship with a girl from Florida, but it’s hard.” It’s something of a gypsy life, but he loves what he does.

And things might be changing for him. Starting in a few weeks, Sam goes to work for Trevor Immelman, a winner of the Masters in 2008 and over $12 million in earnings on tour. Immelman has suffered an injury to the hand and ribcage shortly after winning the Masters, but, given the earning opportunities that winning a major affords, he decided to try to play his way through it and only made things worse. It’s been a rough few years, but he’s now healthy again and has limited status on tour this year.  Sam figures that they have probably 25 events that they can play in, including the Masters (for which, as a former champion, Immelman has a lifetime exemption).

The Tour starts up again next week in Napa Valley. It would be a nice story – the one time star making a comeback with the hard-working caddy looking for a break. No matter what, at some point there’s going to be a short, tricky putt that will need to be made – maybe to win a tournament, maybe to make the top 16 to qualify for next week’s tournament (if not already exempt), or maybe it’s to make a cut to get a paycheck. It’s a hell of a way to make a living, and I’m sure neither of them would want it any other way.


My old club in Virginia, The Highlands, is the antithesis of a stuffy country club. The members there come from all walks of life – constables, retired and active military (Ft Lee, a key logistics base, is located nearby), employees of Dupont and Phillip Morris.

The guys and gals from Phillip Morris are an interesting group consisting of folks from executive level to IT geeks to factory shift workers. From the latter group, I came to know a fellow named Vern.

Vern was the least likely person one would ever expect to see on a golf course. He sported a pony tail, usually had a cigarette dangling, and his standard wardrobe on the course was an untucked golf shirt worn over a loud pair of shorts. But the man had some game. He was remarkably flexible and could hit his 3-wood farther than most of us could drive it.

Vern was what they called a “fixer” at Phillip Morris – he was a mechanic who made sure the machines kept running – and alternated 12-hours shifts two weeks at a time (day vs night), with a few days off in between. That kept him from being a consistent player, but he was capable of shooting rounds in the 70’s on his good days (as well as in the 90’s in his not so good ones).

But what struck most people about Vern was his quiet, friendly nature. A native Virginian, he had a pretty thick drawl (guys used to tease him when he referred to his late father as his “diddy”) and almost always wore a squinty, bemused smile. He was the quintessential good ol’ boy who enjoyed his George Dickel on the rocks and could get more mileage out of a couple of words than most guys do in a paragraph.

A few years back, Vern retired from Phillip Morris at the age of 55 – he’d worked hard and benefited from a strong retirement plan that his union negotiated – and began playing more golf. Around that time, a former member of The Highlands had organized a tournament in Bluffton, South Carolina to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. I asked a few of the guys at the club if they wanted to get a team together to play in it; Vern was one of the first to say yes, and offered to drive us in his brand-new Ford F-150 King Cab [if you’ve never rode in one of those things, imagine a first-class seat on an airliner, only with more room].

So the Frenchman, Donnie the Plummer and I climbed into Vern’s truck and headed down to Bluffton together. Other members from The Highlands participated, as well. We played the tournament and met some of the troops who were wounded overseas. Vern was very moved by the experience, and when we returned from the trip, he pulled me aside one day and said to me, “Poppy, I’d really think our club should do something to benefit those guys.”

As I was president of the golf association at that time, I had become a master of delegation. “Fine, Vern,” I replied, “I’m putting you in charge of coordinating that.”

“Damn, Poppy! I knew you’d do something like that.”

(“Damn, Poppy,” by the way, was a phrase I often heard from Vern – and of course, “damn” was stretched out to two sylables. On a different golf trip to Pinehurst, I took him over to a house that a college friend was building in the area. The place was designed to be about 11,000 square feet, and as we moved from room to room, I mentioned some of the features that were in the plans. All he could say was, “Damn, Poppy.”)

Vern put out a challenge to our membership for donations for the following year’s tournament, and was able to deliver a nice check to the Project. But when he returned, he seemed a little disconcerted.

A bunch of us were having post-round drinks in the 19th Hole. Vern mused, “You know, it’s nice to help out those guys, but I’m sure there’s plenty of veterans right here in the area who could use some help.”

We all nodded. We’ll find a local charity. So what should we do?

Vern thought it over a bit.

“Weeeelll,” he drawled, “if we can raise twenty-five hundred dollars, I’ll cut off my pony tail.”

The rest of us looked at each other, and money immediately came flying out of everyone’s wallets. A few of us happened to have checks on us and wrote out good-sized amounts (fueled, no doubt by liquid generosity) – the net of all this was that we were half-way there.

Vern had a look that could be best described as grateful with a slight mixture of concern – after all, he’d had that pony tail for years – but gratitude won out, and he chuckled a bit. We bought another round of drinks, and then someone among us (it might have been me, but I honestly don’t remember) suggested that if we got to $5,000, Vern should shave his entire head.

We all looked at Vern with evil grins; his eyes opened wider than I’d ever seen them (normally, they were two slits) – but the George Dickel was speaking for him at this point, and he blurted out, “All right, I’ll do it!” He then looked at me and muttered, “Damn, Poppy!”

Word of this spread like wildfire throughout the club, and eventually donations rose to double the stated $5,000 (someone suggested that if we reached $10,000, Vern should submit to a full body shave and parade himself around the club; fortunately, cooler heads prevailed on that one). A local charity that assisted returning wounded veterans in finding housing was identified and happily received a nice check.

And so it came to pass that on Memorial Day weekend, a rather large crowd gathered on the club patio to watch Vern’s wife Martha snip his pony tail, and his son Jason shave his head. He wore a sheepish smile throughout the entire proceeding and waved off the ensuing applause and cheers. And then disappeared for a few weeks.

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It’s become an annual tradition for a large number of Highlands golfers to play in the Dick’s Place Invitational, a three day tournament/party that’s been held at a variety of locations. Earlier this month, Vern and the boys made their way down to play in it; upon returning, Vern began to feel rather poorly. Martha checked him into the hospital; it was thought he might have pneumonia. It turned out to be much worse – lung cancer, inoperable. He starts chemo next week.

I remember a conversation I had with Vern when I told him I’d be moving to the DFW area. He and Martha visit there frequently; he has a longtime friend who lives over in Granbury. “You and he would git along just fine, Poppy,” he told me. “He’s the only other liberal Democrat that lives in Texas. We’ll look you up when we git down that way.”

Damn, Vern. Take your time, buddy. Take your time.