Old Friends

The author got an inside-the-ropes look at a legend, plus a golfing education from a sage playing partner, when he teed it up in the over-50 circuit's version of the celebrity pro-am
March 05, 2007

My Friday 7:10a.m. tee time--first group, first round--was fast approaching, and there was nodaylight in the sky, and now in the clubhouse dining room Fuzzy Zoeller wasasking if he could join me for breakfast. Zoeller, winner of the 1979 Mastersand the '84 U.S. Open, a man who makes everything look easy, asking me, yourgarden-variety duffer with a golfing nervous disorder, if he could sit downwith me. ¶ I put my newspapers in a pile and down sat the Fuzz. Two guys,loading carbs. Two fellow competitors (in a manner of speaking) playing in theOutback Steakhouse Pro-Am, one of the best stops on the Champions tour.Whatever you think Fuzzy would have for breakfast, double it.

We talked aboutT-Bonz, the Augusta steak house favored by Fuzzy, and a seafood biker bar onWashington Road he likes as well. Florida's Indoor Clean Air Act must have beenkilling him. We were at the TPC Tampa Bay, a public course in a town calledLutz. As Fuzzy knifed his way through a sausage link, I snuck a look at mywatch. Getting on seven.

The previousnight, at a "mandatory" players-only meeting, I had learned, with nofanfare, who my playing partners would be, but I hadn't met them. The fieldcomprised 72 pros, many familiar names among them, and 72 amateurs, some ofthem well known: Bill Murray, the actor; Jim Courier, the Hall of Fame tennisplayer; Joe Theismann, the football legend. Most of the other amateurs wereloose-limbed Tampa businessmen who had made a tidy sum in some real thing:restaurant supplies, trucking, insurance, air-conditioning andrefrigeration.

The AT&TNational Pro-Am, the fabled Pebble Beach event, is choked with self-importantWall Streeters and corporate chieftains (and many obscure pros). The Outbackchain is now part of a massive public company, but the Outback Pro-Am field wasfilled with locals who could afford to spend about $12,000 for several days ofgolf that benefited various Tampa Bay children's charities. (The Outback peoplegave me my spot, knowing this story was coming, but not knowing what would bein it.) My pro, according to the slim packet I was given at the meeting, wasDale Douglass, a 70-year-old former Ryder Cupper whose calm swing and demeanorI had long admired. The other amateur was Ron Campbell, the president of theNHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. His pro was Gary Player. You know the list ofgolfers who have won all four modern professional majors? It's five names long.I didn't need my 5 a.m. wake-up call.

It was cold,dark, rainy and windy on Friday morning when the four of us congregated on the10th tee, our first hole. Player was wearing all black, his longtime callingcard. Douglass and Campbell were wearing nothing but black, too. I was wearingbrown shoes, tan slacks, a green windbreaker and a lucky red hat from lastyear's British Open. "Looks like somebody didn't get the memo about theteam uniform," said my pro, the comedian.

There wereactually a dozen or more spectators on hand at 7:10 at the 10th tee, standingobediently behind a yellow rope in the cold, the dark, the rain and the wind.They were enduring the conditions for one reason: to see a legend still at it.Do you have that quick-swing problem, flick-flack and it's over? Hey, a lot ofus do. Teeing off after Player, in front of a dozen or more spectators who arethere only to see the wee great mon, might very possibly exacerbate it. Myfirst swing at the 370-yard par-4 was a whir, producing a slapped 215-yard toehook that stayed in the fairway. I followed that with a solid seven-iron toabout 40 feet and a good lag putt to about four feet. For a little while there,I looked as advertised--a 12 handicapper. Then I capped the first hole with ayippy little jab that, had it fallen, could have been a 4 for a 3 and a hotstart. Over the next 35 holes my putting and driving only deteriorated, andTeam Douglass missed qualifying for the third and final round by a millionshots. I could detail for you the general decline of my game since the late1970s, but let's get back to something more interesting: Mr. Player. You seehim in a different way, inside the ropes.

He looksfantastic: Seventy-one years old, with bright-white teeth, silver-and-blackhair, tanned skin that's not leathery. The man exudes liveliness, and thatclipped, precise South African accent helps. Of course there are signs of age.His eyes were tearing in the endless cold wind, and he dabbed at them with thesleeve of his black sweater before nearly every shot. His swing is the same asforever--he belts the ball down the fairway using all his 140 pounds--but nowthe ball goes maybe 225 yards, often with the aid of a big bounce off asweeping hook.

His standards arehigh. What might seem to you like spectators having a good time is publicdrunkenness to him. On almost every hole he'd move a caddie or spectator ormarshal or photographer or anyone who might disrupt his peripheral vision. Heplayed his shots only when he was good and ready, and allowed himself to berushed by nobody, even when we were told at the turn on the first day that ourpace was too slow by eight minutes. When he plays, all eyes are on him. He'sstill a star.

And what apleasure it was to watch Player, watch him play for keeps, grinding over everyshot, looking lonely and almost ill when he didn't execute a shot as planned,or when the rub of the green conspired against him. There were manydeclarations from him, about Augusta National, about the condition of thecourse, about swings made and shots played by all quarters of our cheerfulgroup.

When Dale hit abeautiful spinning pitch shot, Player said to him, "Only you and I know howgood that shot is." He was hard on his caddie, a boy of 17 who was the sonof an employee in Player's course-design business, but something else wasplain, too: He was having the time of his life. I complimented him on his play,and he said, "It's such a pleasure to try to make a good score in theelements." Ee-lah-mints.

The main messageof the Thursday-night pretournament players' meeting had been that the amateursshould be aware that the pros were out there to make a living and a score. Ron,a long-whacking eight handicapper, and I were mindful of that--we stayed out ofthe way and especially gave Player the space he needed. On one green myapproach shot created a minor crater of a ball mark on or near the line ofPlayer's putt. As I was fixing it, I felt a presence behind me, dressed all inblack. I guessed it was Player, inspecting my gardening. I've never workedharder on a ball mark. I stood up, and the man in black behind me said,"That's the best ball-mark repair I've ever seen." My pro, thecheerleader.

The Outbackpeople couldn't have given me a better teammate. In our first round, on thelast hole, I had about a 15-footer for bogey. Dale was already in for par, somy score was meaningless. I was about to pick up, to clear the way for Player,when Dale came over to read the putt for me. "Let's see you make this,"he said. "Give the people a thrill." I thought he was joking, but thenI hit an abnormally good putt that tickled the high-side lip and stayed out.There were a few hundred people around, and they groaned as if it mattered, andof course it did. They didn't know who I was or that I was putting for bogey.They wanted to see a putt drop, to complete the fantasy that it was their puttthat dropped. Dale understood that. He also understood that those people paythe money he earns.

Then came anotherlesson from Dale, on the final hole of our second round. I hit a good tee shot,then sliced my second into the water. I dropped where it went in and chunked myfourth into the water. I'm not that bad, but it's not easy making the swing youwant to make when a thousand or more people are watching. In my shame I broughtthe red brim of my lucky British Open hat down around my nose. Suddenly therewas a hand on my shoulder. "Put your hat on square, stand up straight andsmile," Dale said. "That's all you can do." My pro, an experiencedand kind man.

Douglass wonthree times on the regular Tour, often traveling with his wife, Joyce, andtheir dog, Niblick. He turned 50 in 1986 and won the U.S. Senior Open atScioto, the course Jack Nicklaus grew up playing.

"How many didyou win by?" I asked.

"One,"Dale said.

"Who'd youbeat?"

He pointed toPlayer and said, "That guy."

That's what theChampions tour has in spades: history--personal golfing histories. Every proplaying in the Outback had endured something to get to where he is in life. Youcould see it in their faces and hear it in their stories. Player and Douglasshad played in all 20 Tampa senior events (through various name changes), andthey were honored at a splashy pretournament party after the players' meeting.Player spoke from a podium and talked about the joy the game gives him, and hepraised some of the other golfing legends in the field, most particularly TomWatson. Watson sat in the back of the room, a little plate of fancy horsd'oeuvres under his chin, grinning. Player and Watson have sparred and spattedduring their careers, but that was a long time ago. Time heals, right?

Three days later,on a cold, windswept Sunday afternoon, Watson was playing the final holes ofthe tournament while Player, having played the back nine first, was finishingoff the week on the front side. There were still a dozen or more peoplefollowing him. He slipped off his shoes in the scorer's trailer, came out andsigned autographs, standing on pine needles in his black socks.

I was outside theropes again, where I belong. I didn't know whom to follow. When I was in highschool and Watson was first emerging as an elite player, he was one of mygolfing heroes. His caddie, Neil Oxman, is a long-standing friend. But Player,as it happened, was again going around with Douglass, near the bottom of thedraw sheet, and that sealed it. Jack Renner, now white-haired but still wearingthose Hogan caps, was their third. (The Player-Campbell team hadn't made thecut, either.) While following Player, Douglass and Renner, I could hear thegroans and cheers for Watson and Murray and the others on the side of thecourse where the real action was. Watson won, and Murray, playing with ScottSimpson, took the pro-am division. That should help sell next year'stournament. While those guys were doing whatever they were doing, I saw Dalemake a fine six-footer for par on his penultimate hole, using a blade putterthat's been in his bag since he stole it from Charlie Coody in 1965.

I paid myexcellent caddie, Greg Rencsak, who plays regularly at the TPC course, and wentto the practice tee. There were 20 or 30 perfect pyramids of Titleist Pro V1swaiting there. An embarrassment of riches. I had run out of balls at the end,and Ron, good man, gave me a couple from his bag stamped tampa bay lightning.The men working the range treated me as if I were still in the tournament, andI hit balls straight through dusk and then some, when the floodlights had comeon. At breakfast that first morning, Fuzzy had told me that they havefloodlights on the range so you can practice in the dark, before sunrise orafter sunset, if you're so inclined. Fuzzy didn't look as if he was tooinclined to go anywhere, and why should he? You and I, piles of brand-newTitleists waiting for us, we're going to the range every time, right?

PHOTOStan Badz/PGA Tour/WireImage.comPARDS The teams of (inset, from left) Player and Campbell, and Bamberger and Douglass were two of 72 competing in the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am at TPC Tampa Bay. PHOTODAVID WALBERG[See caption above.] FIVE PHOTOSDAVID WALBERG (5)STILL A BLAST The 71-year-old Player (far left), feted before the tournament for playing in all 20 senior events in Tampa, told the author (red hat) what a pleasure it was to shoot a score in the "ee-lah-mints." PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (SCOREBOARD)[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID WALBERGWARNING SIGN In the end, the score was beside the point--and a good thing too.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)