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President Bill, the Shark and Me

One golfer's true story

By Kevin Samson


Laugh not, ye who do not play the game, for its prodigious riches and, yes, its vile punishments, are vouchsafed only to those who enter the kingdom.
--Cameron Stamps

WHEN PRESIDENT Clinton popped his knee a few weeks ago at professional golfer Greg Norman's place, I chuckled to myself. This was not out of some sort of sadism but a sense of knowing what had put the president there in the first place, a one-golfer-to-another nod of empathy. It was one o'clock in the morning, and I can well imagine the camaraderie, the jokes, the food and drink, the music, the lies--and truths--that had unfolded over the course of the evening, following a round played together on the links.

The president will be laid up for several months, the price he must pay for the intimacy he shared with one of golf's gods. It's no less than any committed golfer would sacrifice for playing a few rounds, then partying, with the Shark (Norman), or any PGA Tour professional. The downside, I'm sure in President Bill's mind, is that he won't be able to swing his sticks for six months. Heavy withdrawal. That hurts.

Fifteen years ago golf, to me, was not a sport but a ridiculous diversion for fat-cat Republicans, a way for cigar-smoking country clubbers to waste a day, reserved for the plaid polyester set, but not me. I played real sports like football, basketball and baseball.

In my mid- to late 30s, however, I found myself playing less and less basketball, and when I did, I was often injured. And no more football, a game for the young (and you can bet Steve Young, 37, won't be playing it much longer). My softball days were marked: My arm ached when I made the throw from left field to the cut-off man. So I looked around.

I admit that I had always found golf courses intriguing--huge manicured parks in which they played that weird game. And I knew I wasn't ready for bridge or bird-watching. A neighbor invited me to join him and some friends for a round of golf. Not your average golfers, we had a blast laughing at our own ineptitude as we hacked our way around the course. We were as giddy as children who had sneaked into the circus without paying. It was a hoot. Then it changed. My neighbor was getting good, and my competitive spirit was tweaked. So I bought a cheap set of clubs. I worked out a deal for lessons. I bought golf shoes. They had a funny flap over the laces and steel spikes that clacked when I walked on pavement, a noise that became music to my ears.

I found myself slipping into a world I hadn't known, a big world with lots of guys my age. I felt as though I were being swept up in a kind of movement, not quite the anti-war movement I remembered from the '60s, but it was cool. I started collecting golf books--which embarrassed my wife when I placed them on the living room bookshelf--by authors like Hogan, Player and Nicklaus, with cover pictures of them wearing hideous plaid trousers.

I would stay up late at night practicing my putting on the rug, reading about swing mechanics and golf course architecture. At times I had to stop, pinch myself and check my political affiliation (a little woozy but still Democratic). I would take long looks at myself in the mirror, only to see some middle-aged guy going through the motions of the golf swing. I knew then that I was hooked.

ADDICTION FOR ME meant a mandatory round of golf every Sunday morning with my buddies: the dawn patrol. It was like being a kid again, yet the fact that we were engaged in golf gave the exercise some sort of sanction. After all, any game that has stood the test of time for more than 500 years must have something going for it.

It is not by accident that it is called the Royal and Ancient game, though it suffered a down period in the mid-1400s in its motherland of Scotland when King James II published an interdict against the game, saying it threatened national security by seducing young men from their archery practice. You might say that it was an anti-war activity.

I believe in my heart that golf is as legitimate and meaningful as anything else I do. It has made me a better person, which benefits all those with whom I come in contact--business associates, friends and loved ones. A round of golf is a lifetime in microcosm, a laboratory for the soul.

Consider that a round of 18 holes takes about four hours, and during that time, you experience just about every emotion known to human beings, not to mention the raft of decisions you face, with time to consider each, and the prices you must pay for your choices. There are highs and lows. There's the exhilaration of hitting a good shot, of making the right decision and pulling it off, of sharing triumphs with a friend. There's the frustration of missing a three-foot putt, slicing a shot completely off the course or taking six strokes to get out of a sand trap.

Golf demands that you handle your emotions, that you bear up against the obstacles, gather yourself and trudge on, lest you collapse completely. I've seen it happen. I confess that I have thrown clubs and broken them over my knee and acted like a complete blithering child.

I know of no other game where competitors compliment each other on their efforts throughout. "Nice shot," comes the positive affirmation from your opponent. Not to acknowledge such is considered bad form, and you'll be remembered, if not ignored, for the kind of sportsman you are. It is a game of egos and posturing and love, and in the end it is the real you who rises to the surface. We all learn who you are. Perhaps most telling, you meet the real you.

This does not mean that golfers are so honorable that we do not cheat or lie, especially about our scores. We all do at one time or another. Have you ever told a lie in real life? I speak here of your average recreational golfers, such as me and President Bill. Professional golfers, such as the Shark, monitor themselves rigorously and honestly to a fault. If he (or she) breaks a rule, he notes that and takes the penalty, sometimes at the expense of losing a tournament and a couple hundred thousand dollars. Can you imagine Dennis Rodman calling a foul on himself that will cost him the game?

One of the biggest draws for me is the golf course itself. There are basically two schools of golf course architecture: the natural, traditional-style course and the tricked out, resort-style course. I prefer the natural style, where the course blends subtly into the lay of the land. In the British Isles, where the game originated, the courses look like cow pastures.

In Great Britain motorized golf carts are unknown, an abomination, an American blasphemy thrust on the game. Some of your fancier U.S. courses require that golfers ride a motorized cart, and this is bullshit. On these courses, we'll drive the cart out and then ditch it and walk, as the game was intended to be approached. You'll note that both the Shark and Tiger Woods walk the course.

When you walk, you exercise. You get a truer feel for the way the wind is blowing, a sense of how dry or wet the earth is, a better perspective for considering obstacles such as trees and ponds and barrancas. The pace of a round of golf is the pace of a good walk, notwithstanding Mark Twain's famous line about golf being "a good walk spoiled."

A little more than a month ago I pinched a nerve in my back, and I haven't been able to swing a golf club since, let alone take a leisurely walk. I've been seriously laid up. These five-plus weeks have been the longest period of time over the past 10 years that I have not played golf, and it will be a while before I can play again. Withdrawal, indeed.

During my convalescence I've seen the Shark on TV, and when I see President Bill moving around in his cast, I derive little comfort. There can be life without golf, but it is just not as good.

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

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