SWEETNESS

SWEETNESS

From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

Sweetness

Every generation has those incredible humans that seem to excel at every sport they play. Focus, intensity, humor and an iron will are all part of the basic tool kit. I consider myself fortunate to have experienced such greatness firsthand.

Our paths crossed when I had been working on a project with some former professional athletes; that’s how I met the NFL’s all-time rushing leader and arguably the best football player in history, Walter Payton. His legendary eye for business was evident at our first meeting. His energy impressed me.

Growing up in Chicago, I watched Walter destroy defenses for years with the Bears. His upper body strength, agility and love for contact were a thrill to watch. Now here I was—actually working with Walter Payton and his staff on projects that would benefit his foundation for children. As passionate as Walter was about football, he was even more so on behalf of children, all children.

Whenever I took my young son Andy into his offices, business became secondary. In no time I would find Andy in Walter’s office, both of them on the floor playing some made-up bowling game with golf tees and golf balls. I remember having a hard time figuring out who was having more fun. Walter smiled that galactic grin and all was right in the world of a child.

In 1993, I was playing in Walter’s celebrity tournament (though I was far from being a celebrity at the time, Walter made sure I was treated like royalty). My foursome included Tony Galbreath from the New York Giants, the late Winford Brown, an incredible singer/songwriter and an executive from the World Wrestling Federation. Walter’s guest list had Hollywood superstars mixed in with top executives and a healthy dose of athletes, of course. Walter drove the course in a golf cart that was a replica of an old railside Ford pickup. As our foursome approached a par-3 hole, heading directly toward us behind a tree line was Walter Payton in his little truck, followed by an army of television crews, reporters and fans.

I have never professed to have mastered the game of golf. I have the power to send the ball 300 yards; however, sometimes the ball charts its own course mid-drive. If this has never happened to you, I assure you, it’s very upsetting. But this was a simple par-3, about 160 yards at the most. I teed up the ball, took a couple of practice swings and zeroed in what was sure to be a hole-in-one.

Well, I launched a rocket when all that was needed was a small firecracker. The ball went right between the tree line to my right, setting its sights on the head of one Walter Payton, just as he was stepping out of his cart. Only his catlike reflexes saved his noodle from a certain pounding. Missing his head by only inches (and scattering the crowd of media and onlookers), the ball whizzed into the next fairway. Of course I had yelled “fore” and broke for the trees, walking toward the Hall-of-Famer in apology.

A huge smile split Walter’s face and he said, “John, John, no problem. Let me show you how it’s done.” We proceeded back to my tee, followed of course by a couple of dozen reporters, media and guests, and now a gathering group of other celebrity golfers.

By this time, Tony and Winford were sitting in the cart waiting on me to tee off, and I could just imagine what was going through their minds seeing my new entourage. They burst out laughing, which didn’t help matters. I had really been working to improve my game, focus on good shots, read every Golf Digest I could find and what did it get me? The near extinction of the greatest football player that ever played the game!

So Walter stepped up, I tossed him a ball, and in one swift motion he takes a tee out of his pocket and plants the combination in the ground at the perfect height. By now there are over a hundred spectators craning their necks to see this shot. Silence falls on the crowd.

Walter studied the shot for a second, pulled the club head back slowly, deliberately, and delivered! And the ball rolled about a foot! The crowd went crazy! I turned around to see Eddie Payton, Walter’s brother, nearly on the ground in tears. Mr. Universe, Tom Platz, was head down, huge shoulders shaking in cackling laughter. The Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase, wore this huge grin. Walter, however, was unfazed.

“Must be the ball, ” he murmured, taking a new one out of his pocket and parking it on the still standing tee. “You gotta have the right balls for this game, John.”

Of course by this time the crowd had grown still larger. News cameras trained on Walter and me; Dan Marino parked his cart nearby to check it all out. Richard Roundtree, Pat Morita and even Linda Blair were egging Walter on. How could a simple afternoon of golf have gone so wrong?

He teed up for the second time and again silence fell like a fog over the gathering. Walter eyed it up, took his swing, and bam! The ball went all of five feet!

Mayhem broke out. Pro athletes were leaning on Hollywood celebrities for strength, unable to stop the belly laughs and hooting. I could barely raise my head to look at the throng. All around me was the equivalent of a pack of golf hyenas, yukking it up real good. Oh boy, I thought. I will be forever scarred from this terrible lambasting on the links.

But then came the gift. I looked up just enough to see Walter wink at me. While the gallery was in the midst of the diabolical break-up, Sweetness teed up and launched a perfect shot that landed less than six inches from the cup! A collective “wow” rose from the spectators, and we all knew we were in the presence of greatness. He could have done that at any time. He walked over, gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear. “It’s all about what is on the inside—outside circumstances play no part in golf or life. Never forget that. ”Walter sauntered away, followed by his legions of fans, and I stood there stunned. I had been folded, spindled and tucked away—and it became one of the greatest moments of my life. A small piece of paper tacked on Walter’s office wall came to mind. “All change, no matter how small, requires courage.”

John St. Augustine

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Walter Payton passed away November 1, 1999, from cancer at age forty-five.]

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