81: Plimpton to the Fore

81: Plimpton to the Fore

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Plimpton to the Fore

A passion, an obsession, a romance, a nice acquaintanceship with trees, sand, and water.

~Bob Ryan

I should have known that the week of the Crosby Pro-Am tournament was going to be taxing when I checked in for the flight to California. The clerk had been very helpful tying the clubs together and encasing them in a plastic bag. It was when he tipped the bag over to see if the clubs were secure that the mouse nest fell out.

We stared at the small heap of shavings and string lying on the floor. “I see that you’re ticketed through Monterey,” he said. “Going to the Crosby?”

“That’s right,” I said. “I played it once, fourteen years ago. I’m going to take another crack at it.”

“You’ve really been spending the years getting ready,” he said, looking at the mouse nest.

In the first Bing Crosby National Pro-Am I played, in 1966, my golf bag was carried by a diminutive furniture mover named Abe—a somewhat elderly local who occasionally worked as a caddie at Pebble Beach, one of the Monterey Peninsula courses used for the tournament. To my astonishment Abe was waiting for me this time when I arrived to register. He had heard I was coming and hoped I would have him back to “pack” my bag. I was delighted.

Abe felt it would be a good idea if we walked the course, “to refresh our minds” on what the holes looked like.

We started off by following a foursome that included Jack Lemmon. Duffers hold Lemmon in particular affection for his difficulties on the final holes of Pebble Beach, all graphically caught by the television cameras the first time he played the Crosby more than a decade ago. I recalled with relish Lemmon’s attempts to make a recovery shot up a steep slope. The ball bounced jauntily up the slope and, as if appalled by what it discovered at the top, turned and hurried back down. We could see the top of Lemmon’s head as he shifted about to address the ball a second time. Exactly the same thing happened. The ball bobbed up to the top of the slope, then curled back down. We never saw much of Lemmon himself, just a great deal of his errant golf ball—it seemed to fill the screen with its antic behavior.

As we walked along, Lemmon reminisced about the experience. “The whole mess started when our foursome came into view of the television cameras for the first time. You’d think I’d be used to cameras by now, but when it comes to golf, I’m not. I think I averaged ten shots on each of these last five holes.”

Lemmon said that on the eighteenth, as he lay 12 with his ball still thirty-five feet from the cup. He had an elderly caddie whose sense of dignity seemed overtaxed by what was going on. He kept sidling away. Lemmon, down on one knee on the green trying to sight his putt, had to call him out of the crowd for advice. The caddie moved reluctantly until, finally, Lemmon could hear him breathing behind him. “Which way does it break?” Lemmon had asked, over his shoulder. “Who cares?” the caddie muttered.

Now, on the same eighteenth, the famous ocean hole, Lemmon hooked his drive down onto the smooth, wave-worn boulders at the foot of the seawall that curves along the length of the fairways. The ball remained in sight for an astonishing length of time, skipping and ricocheting hysterically from one rock to another. “Life is an irreplaceable divot,” Lemmon said to me mysteriously as he stepped off the tee.

In the Crosby, one professional and one amateur play together as partners from start to finish. This means that even a rank amateur can play in front of the TV cameras on the final day, assuming he and his pro partner make the cut.

Not many golfers go through the stress of the first drive of a tournament in front of a large crowd. It is one thing to start off a country club Labor Day tournament before two witnesses jiggling Bloody Marys in plastic cups, and quite another to bend down to set the ball on its tee, acutely aware that five hundred people are watching you. The blood rushes to the head. The ball falls off the tee. To start the swing takes almost a physical command of “Now!”

My first drive surprised me, a high slice down the fairway that managed to stay in bounds. I hurried after it, feeling almost palpable relief in getting away from the first tee and its witnesses. After the first round I went with Abe to the practice range to try to do something about my miserable showing. I had not scored a par and had not helped my professional partner, Jack Ferenz.

My second round, on the nearby Cypress Point course, was no better than the first. I spent a great deal of time searching with Abe for errant shots. I had played thirty-six holes without scoring a par. The next day we would be playing Spyglass Hill—one of the most difficult courses in the world. The thought was very much in my mind that I, not a bad athlete, with a golf swing worked on through the years by a bevy of pros, might not achieve even one par.

The round at Spyglass did not start propitiously. My drive moved out onto the fairway, hopping along nicely, but the second shot went off at a sharp angle, hit a pine, then another, and rolled back toward me, ending not more than eight yards away after a flight that might have totaled almost two hundred yards. I stared at the ball as if it were a smoking grenade.

On the next drive I tried to slow things down. The great golf writer, Bernard Darwin, said of Bobby Jones’s swing that it had a “certain drowsy beauty.” I thought of that on the tee, and slowly, too slowly, I brought the club back. Imperceptibly, like an ocean liner inching away from the pier, the club head slowly moved away from the ball, gradually lifting to the top of the swing. But at the summit everything went out of control. The club head faltered like a paper airplane stalling on the wind, and then it dashed earthward in a cruel whistling swipe. A cry erupted from my throat as the club pounded into the earth a foot behind the tee, bounced, and sent the ball perfectly straight down the fairway for about ninety yards.

“Straight as an arrow,” Ferenz’s caddie said helpfully.

On the twelfth, Matt Mitchell, the other amateur in our foursome, threw his ball into the water hazard. Of all the indignities that man tries to heap on inanimate objects, throwing a golf ball into the water is perhaps the most hapless. The lake accepts the ball with a slight ripple that disappears almost immediately, leaving the surface smooth, almost smug. “I suppose the thing to do is to think of the ball bloating down there,” I said comfortingly to Matt. He stared at me furiously.

As if to make him feel better, on the last par-3 hole, my 8-iron shot described a high parabola and dropped into the water edging the green, stitching it with a little geyser.

“It’ll be bloating any minute now,” Mitchell said.

The par-4 eighteenth would be my last chance in the tournament to make a par. I hit an enormous hook into a grove of pines. “It’s gone,” Abe said gloomily.

I told Abe that we had to find the ball. It was my last chance. If we found it, I told him, I would take a tremendous swing and catch it to perfection, whatever its lie. The ball would rocket into the clear open air above the fairway and float gently toward the green. From where it landed, I would hit a delicate wedge onto the green, and then sink a long, curling putt for a par. I would tip my hat gracefully to the spectators. But there was no sign of the ball. My last chance was gone.

When I got back home, I called a place outside New York City called Golf-O-Rama. It has indoor driving ranges that simulate actual golf courses by flashing a picture of each hole on a screen while computers track the flight of the ball. The man said they had the Pebble Beach course. I made a reservation.

Norman Schaut, president of Golf-O-Rama, showed me around. One side of the hangar-like room was taken up with the “golf courses,” lined up side to side, each with an elevated tee. The golfer hits the ball twenty feet or so into a nine-foot square screen on which can be seen a color-slide reproduction of the golf hole.

We stepped up on the Pebble Beach tee. “If the computer says you’ve driven the ball into a water hazard,” Schaut said, “there’ll be the sound of splash.”

I said, “You should have the sound of the waves breaking and the seals barking out there in the Pacific.”

Schaut switched on the course. The picture of the par-4, 482-yard first hole at Pebble Beach flashed on. “That’s it!” I said. “The dogleg to the right.” I remembered the names of the contestants being called out by the starting marshal, the patter of applause from the crowds by the tee and the dryness of my throat when I had bent down to set the tee into the grass—and even here, with the Muzak playing Deep Purple, I felt my nerves tighten.

I teed up and swung. My drive, according to the computer, was an excellent one for me, 205 yards out. My second shot stopped fifty yards from the pin, and then I hit a lovely, easy wedge, which left me with a six-foot putt for my par. I stepped onto the Astroturf green with my putter. I stared down, brought the putter back, then forward, and watched the ball ease down the line and drop into the hole.

I had the urge to throw my putter into the air. Instead I turned and tried to look suave. Schaut came hurrying over. “Have you got something to say?” he asked, looking at my face, which had broken into a broad grin.

“Piece of cake,” I said.

~George Plimpton
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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