AUGUSTA, Ga. — A few minutes ago I walked past Jean van de Velde on the grounds of Augusta National. I immediately flashed to his collapse nearly 20 years ago at Carnoustie. Then I caught myself: I was staring at the man the way hungry cartoon character using Meat-O-Vision would while mentally turning an innocent companion into a rack of ribs. So I forced myself to walk on by and go about my day.
And then the thought came to me that sometimes even the most good-hearted among us golf fans have a bit of the Eiger Bird in us. This term comes from Trevanian’s 70’s classic climbing thriller of the same name, The Eiger Sanction. Here’s how he described them: “…Jet setters, assorted zombies, come here to watch a climb. If they’re lucky, they get to see a man die on the mountain.”
No one dies on a golf course (Tony Finau’s ankle aside) but, like in climbing, the margin for error is sometimes as wafer-thin as a Monty Python after-dinner mint and the results of screwing up almost as calamitous. The golfers know this. And so do we. At any moment they can go from a lock to win the British Open, like van de Velde seemed in 1999, to a punchline at every municipal course in the world whenever someone’s pal blows up the final hole of a six-dollar close-out match. Or from the defending Masters champion to a modern-day Roy McAvoy, as Sergio Garcia did today when he made a 13 after hitting five straight balls into the water.
So, to me, there’s a kind of bravery in what these golfers do, an inner strength and focus they can summon that’s unlike any other in sport.
Which is one of the reasons I love watching golf so much, and why I have such high regard for what golfers try to do. There’s another 70s book that I have had in my head here at Augusta: The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s account of the Mercury space program. In it, Chuck Yeager, the legendary test pilot, is with some other test pilots and a government man. The government man is mocking the astronauts because NASA had first sent up a monkey to do the job.
“You’d think the public’d know that they're just doing what monkeys have done…” he says.
To which Yeager responds: “Monkeys? Think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see.” That’s what I flashed to after Sergio did what he did. And after Marc Leishman went into the water and made double bogey on 15, taking himself from the tournament lead into seventh place. Like those astronauts who first orbited the Earth, these fellas know they are sitting on top of a rocket. Because that’s what a Masters win is: a rocket ride to outer space and back. You are never the same. And no one ever looks at you the same.
So we Eiger Birds may laugh or smirk when we see van de Velde stroll through a clubhouse, or when Sergio watches yet another ball slide into the water before dropping one more. But we also know, deep down, that what they have put themselves in a position to do is so far beyond our own inner stores of confidence, focus and ability as to be almost absurd.
Brian Koppelman (https://twitter.com/briankoppelman@briankoppelman) is co-creator and showrunner of the hit Showtime series Billions.