This story is very difficult for me to write—physically and emotionally. It is physically difficult because my arm is broken, and emotionally so because of the natural reluctance of a proud man to deliver himself up to the derision of strangers.
At the outset, allow me to give you a small glimpse of myself: I have been playing golf for some 21 years, ever since my junior year at college, at which I did not make the golf team. I am 42 years old—height 5 feet 7—and I weigh 187 pounds stripped, except for my shoes. (There's a piece of hard rubber on our bathroom scale that sticks up and militates against weighing oneself without shoes.) I am married to Alice, who is a fine wife, a devoted mother and a woman who hits a golf ball 150 yards down the middle of the fairway—all the time.
I work as a sales representative of a sporting goods firm specializing in rifles, rubber tents and portable toilets. Consequently, I travel to wide-open spaces—and golf courses.
The immediate cause of my aforementioned difficulties goes back many Saturdays. It was winter, and the cold winds had wreaked sufficient havoc with my thinning hair and hairless body to convince me that golf was out of the question. Years ago I would have been out there with the rest of the boys practicing my snow putting. But times change. Instead of playing, I watched the All-Star Golf matches on television. I sipped brandy and thought-played many of the pros—they were playing medal with each other but match with me. Alice always goes to her flower-arranging class on Saturday, so that the den was just made for playing a mind match with some of the boys. One Saturday I took Middlecoff 4 and 3; on another, Billy Casper 3 and 2. Poor Dow Finsterwald didn't stand a chance—7 and 6. Then I made the big decision. As long as no one else seemed to be able to beat him, I decided that I would take on old Sam Snead.
October 11, 1959
I prepared for the match most of the afternoon and thought seriously of how I would play him. I thought of how I would truly be able to beat him if, by courtesy of some lovely genie who treats middle-aged men to happy afternoons, I could put together in one round the best strokes I'd ever made. Did I really make, let us say, 68 good strokes in all of 21 years? I started thinking about it. Sure I did! Of course I did! Let's start with the drives. Did I make 18 good drives in my lifetime? Well, there was that summer at Pinehurst. The summer I holed out from a bunker 25 yards from the pin. What a moment! I must have had a few good drives that summer. A couple that would make Sam's natural straw hat turn green. No, nothing at Pinehurst except that sporty-looking 250-yard slice that landed in a succulent. Hold the phone, Harry! How could I ever forget that 250-yard straight one that I hit at Cypress Point the winter Alice was pregnant with Mark? Wait'll I unload that one on Sam. And, for crying out loud, what about that 240-yard wallop at Pebble Beach? Oh, Sam, Sucker Sam, you're on!
And the match started that afternoon in my den. I had all the good shots I had ever made, a bottle of brandy and a determined set to what Alice affectionately calls my weak chin.
The first hole was a 475-yard dogleg to the right. The cut was at about 235 yards. There was no point in fooling with Sam. It would be only fair to let him know exactly what he had to deal with. So I decided to use my Cypress Point drive. "Your honor," Sam said. I thought I detected a small sneer on his face. (I hope I detected a small sneer on his face.) "Thank you, Sammy boy," I said, and I gave him a friendly clout on the back as I approached the first tee. I looked well, too. I had on my tapered slacks and my 1939 waistline. White shoes I wore, and no hat, because I was wearing my 1936 hair, full and curly. "Dumpy little hole, ain't it, Sam?" I asked, and I hated myself for talking down to him.
Anyway, I gave him the Cypress Point drive and he hit something that went out to about five yards beyond me. (I must confess that as soon as I hit my shot I said, "Damn!" real loud and shook my head in disgust.) Then I gave him the Delray Beach three-wood that I hit last summer the afternoon I played with that old nothing from Winchester. It went right smack on the green three feet from the hole. Sam said, "Nice shot, Buddy," and parked one about 15 feet from the hole. He missed his putt and ended with a par. I called on any number of three-footers I've sunk and was 1 up.
The second hole was a 545-yard par-5. I was wishing I hadn't used my Cypress Point drive when suddenly I realized that I had been a hero one day at White Sulphur Springs off the third tee. White Sulphur Springs! That was a laugh. I'd really rub Sam's nose in it. I'd beat him with his own golf course. Off it went, 245 yards and straight. Cut the fairway, it did. So did Sam's. I used my Dorado two-wood and it went another 200 yards. Sam went 220. I whipped out my Pebble Beach eight-iron. (God, what a day that was. Alice and I weren't married then, and she thought that I was just a brute of a man—no touch, no delicacy. I laughed a little that day and chucked her under the chin. "Baby, I know you think all I can do is bend steel bars, but don't forget"—and I held her to me—"I can also press lace." And I winked and knocked an eight-iron stiff to the pin.) So I gave him the Pebble Beach, and I was 2 up. On the third hole, a par-3, I unleashed that Saddle River shot that nobody ever saw because I had a golf cart and it was 7:30 in the morning. Over the water, onto the green and 10 feet from the pin. Sam birdied it, too, and I was still 2 up.
We halved the fourth, fifth and sixth, mainly because I was saving my big guns for the turn. The seventh, however, was another par-3. I remembered, then, the time I broke up with Alice while we were engaged because her mother thought that a boy should have more to look forward to in life than selling tents and toilets. I spent two weeks with the boys. The boys weren't boys any more. They were all married, and I remembered how I begged them to have a fling with carefree old Harry. We played golf for two weeks. Not the same fellows every day. I was the only one who didn't have anything better to do. But it was a lot of golf. During those two weeks I hit one golf shot that was the best one I ever hit, next to the Pinehurst shot which I holed out. It was on a par-3 to an elevated green, and I hit the green so well that everybody started screaming that I got me an ace. But it wasn't an ace—maybe just five feet from the pin. I curved Sam with that one, sank my putt and picked up a stroke.
The eighth was another par-5—575 yards. When I first started to play golf, I was able to see the green when I addressed the ball. It was hard re-creating that—even with brandy. I used a long slice that I hit at Apple Valley seven years ago. It was real long, maybe 275 yards. And there was a small rough to the right, so the shot didn't hurt me. Sam hit one, thank the Lord, that hooked like I had hit it at any number of nameless courses over the years. I eased up, saved a special and made the green in 3. Sam was rattled or else didn't care, because he was on the green in 3 also, but 10 feet outside me. I had a 25-footer, and Sam had a 35-footer. I threw the Grossinger putt at him that I made in 1950 when Alice and I had separated for a big week. That was the weekend I met a lovely-looking girl with whom I wanted to punish Alice. Never mind all that. I'm 4 up.
The ninth—the one that ends up at the clubhouse, where everyone watches—that's where we are now. It's a 395-yard par-4. I had a big one left. A 225-yarder I hit 15 years ago at Old Oaks. I started troubling a little, because the only straight shots I had left that went over 200 yards were the five that I hit at Del Monte, Aldecress, Cascade, Olympia and the Desert Inn respectively. The hell with it. We'll worry about that later.
So I hit the Old Oaks shot and sat 170 yards from the green. Sam was less. I was a little careless on this hole, which fact was brought home to me in the most vivid manner when I asked the caddie what he thought I ought to use for my second shot. "Don' take no more 'n a four-iron, mistuh—the way you hit a ball," he said. And my 1939 chest swelled up broad and hairy, the way it used to be. I wonder why it is that I'm losing the hair on my chest. Nowadays I see older men in the clubhouse and they have gray hairs on their chests—but they have hairs. My chest is getting bald, and I hate it. The brandy may help, though. Oh, yes. "Caddie, you're right about the four-iron."
Suddenly I had my first sense of panic. I remembered that I had never hit one good four-iron in my life. That's a hell of a thing to realize. Twenty-one years shot to hell. Twenty-one years of polishing and wiping dirt off my four-iron and never once having a memory that I could press in my memory book. Not one lousy four-iron. What's the point of keeping the club, polishing it, wiping the dirt off it, if all I have to remember is trouble and sand and the tears of all my life? Alice bugs me sometimes, sure, but there's been laughs and fun. But my four-iron, what did I ever get from it? Nothing, nothing, nothing! Hold on now, let's not let old Sucker Sam know we're troubled. Let's see now—170 yards. I could use the Normandie Isles five-iron, which could put it in the bunker just 30 feet from the pin and then give him the old Pinehurst hole-out. No, let's save that for later. (That was the best shot I ever had. Oh I mentioned that before. But it was a fantastic shot.) A hundred and seventy yards, hey? O.K. Let's strike fear in his heart and unleash the 200-yard two-iron I got off the afternoon of Alice's sister's wedding. So it's 30 yards off the green. So what? It looks sporty and I'm 4 up anyway. I hit it and I was over, and Sam wasn't, and we went into the back nine with me 3 up. Me up on Sam Snead. Three up on Sam Snead. Oh, c'mon, old Harry, let's have another brandy.
The interview after the ninth hole was great, too.
"How do you think you played, Sam?" the man asked. And I must say that Sam was kind of sporting about it all.
"I played purty good," he said, "but that other guy is really making the shots."
"And you, Harry?" the man asked.
"Well," I tried to drawl, "Ol' Sam's a purty good man with a club, and I ain't brushin' the pussy's whiskers till I done caught 'im."
Does that sound a little too Uncle Tomish? The hell with it, I'm an athlete, not a public speaker. What's important is that now we're on the 10th hole and I'm 3 up. And I still have my 200-yarders from Del Monte, Aldecress, Cascade, Olympia and the Desert Inn.
The 10th was a 450-yard par-4 straight ahead. It was Sam's honor, and he hit it nearly 300 yards. Three hundred yards! I used my Del Monte and was about 75 yards behind him. I must confess that I panicked a little bit again. It's discouraging to throw your Del Monte at a man and still end up 75 yards behind him. I figured I'd cheer myself up and use my Aldecress drive for my second shot. I did and I hit the green about 15 feet from the pin. Sam made the outside of the green and two-putted. I curled in a 15-footer that I sank up at the Tamarack Lodge when I was a senior at college and had just received money as a birthday present.
(I always tell Alice about that weekend and let her know what opportunities there are for nice young men. The fact of the matter is that I didn't do well at all that weekend and spent most of the time taking tango lessons. But I never told Alice that part of the story.) Anyway, that frustrating, lonely weekend paid off because I was now 4 up. We halved the 11th. The 12th was a par-3 210-yard hole over water. A natural for my Cascade whopper that traveled just about that distance. I hit it, and it landed on the back end of the green. I'm sure that didn't help Sam's morale any. But it didn't seem to bother it too much, either, because he parked one so close to the pin that it almost looked like a leaner. I didn't have one 45-footer that I could ever recall dropping, so I hit one on my own and hit it too strongly. It rolled off the green on the other side, and I laughed a little too loudly and conceded Sam his putt and the hole.
The 13th and 14th were halved, thanks to my, Olympia and Desert Inn drives, and we walked up to the 15th with me still 3 up. My palms felt wet on the brandy bottle as I realized that the only drives I had left after 21 years of love and devotion to the game were a motley collection of slices, hooks, duck hooks, shanks and half toppers that I had managed to accumulate over the muck and mire of a thousand courses.
And the 15th was a par-5—550 yards of land! I used my longest hook (the rough seemed shortest on the left) and ended up with an 8. I laughed too loudly again and smote Sam on the back good-naturedly. "Your hole, old man. I guess I just lost interest," I said.
I guess I just lost interest on the 16th, too, and all of a sudden I was only 1 up. Did you ever notice how thin a "1" is?
The 17th was the last par-3, and I got to the green in 3. At this point I was using sliced second shots to compensate for the hooked drives. All even.
The big 18th. And Alice wasn't going to be home from the class for another hour yet. This is the time you need a woman. And Alice is really a very nice woman. She insults me all the time, but she doesn't really mean it. When she takes a hole from me she always says, "I ought to take a sweepstakes ticket today, I'm so lucky." And I laugh and say in my most patronizing tone, "Nonsense, darling, you deserved that. But do watch your left hand or you won't be so lucky next time." But she's really a fine girl and I wish she were here.
Sam hit his last drive about 275 yards down the middle. Now panic hit me full in the face. I remembered the time I took that buyer from Canada out to Bethpage and I hit a 240-yard hook way over into the water. All I cared about now was to get out of the match with my pride reasonably intact. I couldn't even see the green, and it would have been too humiliating to put on my glasses at this late date. I gave him the Beth-page, and I heard applause.
"You got guts, man," I heard Sam say from the bottom of my brandy bottle. "That's a tough way to play a dogleg, but you did it."
There I was, 200 yards from the green with a perfect approach to it. It was a dogleg to the left from the tee and Sam played it safe, so that he was farther away than I was even with his 275-yarder. But he rectified that. He used some kind of a club, or a gun, or something, and the ball landed on the green 15 feet from the hole. He was on in 2, and I was 200 yards away in 1, armed with a miscellany of junk. All I could hope for was something straight, so that it would look as if I got a bad break at the end. It hurt me a little to think that in all that time, with all that money, nothing I ever did could bring me home in 2. I extemporized and hit a four-wood that was good for me. It went 175 yards right straight into a bunker in front of the green. I was in a bunker in 2, and Sam was on the green in 2. All seemed lost when suddenly, with the desperation of a maniac, I remembered Pinehurst. How could I ever forget Pinehurst? Pinehurst, the land of my dreams! I had played that shot over and over again since 1949. How many times I had seen the look on Simon's face (Alice's brother) when it flew into the air and bit, and then rolled another three feet right into the cup. Plink! And how about Alice? This was no dreamer. This was a man who had just hit a golf ball out of a bunker and it flew into the air and landed in the cup. Plink! And that's what I did to Sam. Plink! You should have heard the crowd roar.
Dammit! Where is Alice? Why couldn't she be here to see it? What a tumult. And it rattled Sam. He needed a 15-foot putt to tie the match. If he missed, I would win. It waddled right up to the cup and stopped. It was a good putt—but it stopped. "Not enough guts, Sammy boy," I said, and I clouted him on the back again, real friendly-like.
Then came the gallery and the man who wanted to ask me questions for the television audience. I told the man and the thousands of golfers out in videoland that Sam was a worthy opponent and that I just got a little bit hotter than I usually am. I was watching Sam walk into the clubhouse rubbing his neck when I heard the man say something about next week, and Arnold Palmer, and me playing him. And how great the match was going to be. It got through to me. What also got through to me was the fact that I had used up every good stroke I had ever made. What was I going to play Arnold Palmer with? Was I going to thrash through bushes and quagmires all afternoon while he waited patiently for me to hit my second shot into other bushes and quagmires? How many minutes would I spend in sand traps like an embattled Rudolph Valentino while he smirked and everyone smirked?
What would I do? What would I do next week? The bottle was empty, and I went for another one. I slipped on my own slippers and, mercifully, broke my arm. No, there will be no match next week. Old Harry, King of the Den, has retired.
AUTHOR AND INSPIRATION
Richard B. Jablow (left) is a New York attorney who, like his fictional hero, is a duffer at golf. There the resemblance ends, for he has never finished off a bottle of brandy in a single afternoon, and his wife does not arrange flowers. She is the former Judy Frank (right), three-time winner of the New York Women's Metropolitan Golf Association Championship, who acts as his literary agent. Although Mr. Jablow is attorney for the Writers Guild, she claims a commission of 100%.