Mike Mills may be shiny, but he's not especially happy. The bassist for the mega-rock band R.E.M. wipes away droplets of perspiration that have collected above the scraggly whiskers of his goatee. Then he walks past the number 9 flagstick at Green Hills Country Club in Athens, Ga., having just bladed his approach shot onto a pile of cedar chips 10 feet beyond the green. So what if this is not the best round of golf he has ever played? It's certainly my most memorable trip to the links. For that matter, it's my most memorable visit anywhere!
Golf with R.E.M. O.K., golf with a member of the Athens-based group. Not a bad gig, as we in the music biz like to say. This is the R.E.M. of Shiny Happy People fame, one of the songs that earned the group a worldwide following; the same guys who made the MTV Ball buzz during President Clinton's inauguration last January; the very foursome that since 1983 has sold 20 million records and collected enough Grammies to gold-plate a crate of Pings.
Seated beside Mills in a golf cart on a cloudless August afternoon, motoring down sun-bleached fairways, I chat with him about everything from pitch pipes to pitching wedges. Truly, this must be Generation X-stasy.
My personal rock 'n' jock weekend took seed last March during the NCAA basketball tournament. At the Final Four in New Orleans, I ran into a friend who had just met one of R.E.M.'s managers, Bertis Downs. Downs had told him that Mills and the band's drummer, Bill Berry, were rabid sports fans. Several months later I spoke with Downs myself and brazenly asked him whether I might play golf with Mills and Berry. (Front man Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck believe, in the words of Mark Twain, that golf is simply a good walk spoiled.)
So here I am in Athens, and Mills is giving me the grand tour of the town. As we pass the University of Georgia's basketball coliseum, he tells me that "the reason it's so ugly is that it was originally built to accommodate livestock shows." Big smile to all my friends back home in Cleveland: Get a load of me and Mills just cruisin' the streets in his Acura. The car is crammed with golf balls, Frisbees, aluminum soft-ball bats, a bowler's wrist support; Mills even has an Exerscience squeeze toy he uses to strengthen his fingers. But there's nothing to suggest this guy is actually one of the most successful musicians on the planet. Oh, and my new best pal.
Despite the sequined suit he sported at last month's MTV Music Awards and the fact that he owns a small antique table that belonged to Liberace, Mills possesses few of the trappings one associates with rock stars. Mills is so genuinely unassuming that you half expect to see him shagging fly balls with the locals at a neighborhood softball diamond. And in fact, he spends most Sunday afternoons in the summer doing just that, playing pitcher and second baseman for the Ga. Bar team in Athens's Bar and Restaurant League, affectionately known as the Hangover League.
Atlanta Brave baseball, though, is Mills's passion. For the past three years he has owned season tickets at Fulton County Stadium. And he counts as one of his greatest disappointments in life an ill-timed European tour last fall that forced him to miss the Braves' National League playoff series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fortunately, in London, Mills was able to keep a TV tuned to CNN for hourly game updates while he and Buck practiced chord progressions in their hotel room. He was also able to commute from London and Rome to Atlanta for the Braves' three home World Series games against the Toronto Blue Jays. "Sometimes the music business sucks," says Mills wistfully. "Like when it gets in the way of Brave baseball or my golf."
The next day our first stop is Berry's house. He's not golfing, but he has offered to lend me his clubs. When, not so coincidentally, an R.E.M. song comes on the radio in Mills's car (this is Athens), I tell him that my ex-girlfriend and I used to listen to that disc nonstop. I comment on how many people, myself included, mark periods of our lives by the band's music.
Graciously, he thanks me and says he does the same thing with sports. He vividly remembers a Hawaiian cruise he took with his girlfriend in August 1987 because the Braves had just traded pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers for then minor leaguer John Smoltz. "I didn't know anything about the guy," says Mills. "But I got to talking with one of the other passengers on the ship, and it turned out he was Smoltz's high school coach. He told me it was a great trade for the Braves, and that made the trip go a lot better."
As we are unloading our golf clubs in the parking lot of Green Hills, it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't yet issued my disclaimer to Mills: I'm a putrid golfer. But before I can say anything, I'm introduced to the third member of our party, Tony Eubanks, who is the bar manager at Athens's famed 40 Watt music club. This guy I can take—doesn't loud music mess up your equilibrium? My spirits plummet, though, when I'm told that Eubanks is no stranger to competition: He was a member of the 1993 world-championship masters' Ultimate Frisbee team.
The trouble begins for me before I even swing a club. Forget the fact that my heart is beating like a synthesizer. After all, this is golf with Mike Mills! Bending down, I snap two tees as I attempt to set my ball into the firm earth. But Mills is a courteous host, congratulating me after decent shots and consoling me after poor ones. His own golf game mirrors his proficiency on the bass: rarely flashy, but most effective.
On this day, however, Mills isn't quite himself. Poised at the 4th tee, Eubanks raises his arms and motions to an undulating stand of trees. "Do you hear that?" he asks. "They're calling our names." Indeed they are: All three of us slice our tee shots dead into the thickest part of the woods.
We complete the round with similarly uninspired play. (I am compelled, though, to mention Mills's first shot on the dogleg 8th—a beautiful fade that lands fairway-perfect.) As we head toward the clubhouse, Patrick Murphy-Racey, a photographer who is shooting our outing for this magazine, takes a few pictures. When he finishes and begins repacking his equipment, Mills leans down to lend assistance.
"Can you believe that?" Murphy-Racey whispers to me. "I've been doing this for years, and nobody has ever offered to help me before."
Soon afterward I am reminded of a Mills quote that appeared in Details magazine last February: "I know [golf] has a certain amount of baggage because it's played by rich people with terrible taste in trousers who are racist snobs, and I'm sorry about that."
Golf Illustrated ran the quote in its April issue, launching a spate of angry letters. However, as I watch Berry's clubs disappear into the trunk of Mills's car, hot Georgia sunshine banking off the rear windshield, it occurs to me that the golfing community would be hard-pressed to find a better ambassador for its game than Mills.
Our scores? I'd like to reveal those numbers, honestly, but the three of us swore a blood oath to carry the particulars of the scorecard to our graves. I can, however, divulge that Eubanks and Mills finished ahead of me.
Our threesome retreats to the 19th hole. There Mills and I watch the Braves come from behind to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in 12 innings. A perfect day. In fact, when I tell Mills that this has been positively the best day of a truly forgettable year, he puts his arm around my shoulder and insists things will get better.
They will, I say, if we can do this every weekend.
Now, though, I long for serious REM action in my hotel room. Drifting off, I marvel that the fellas could have had my golf game in mind when deciding the order of the songs on their latest CD, Automatic for the People. It opens with the optimistic long-hitter's anthem, Drive, and ends with a song that describes what my Titleist attempted to do for most of the afternoon: Find the River.
Even after a fairly dismal round, Mills (right) and his new best pal shared some laughs.
The author lined up a putt while Mills held the flag.
The boys in the R.E.M. band: Mills (in glasses) with (from left) Stipe, Berry and Buck.