This is in memory of Sam (Slammin' Sammy) Snead and master instructor Harvey Penick as well as all the elder duffers of my youth who tried to help me relax.
I try to forget that regrettable September day in 1973 when I, an innocent 13-year-old punk, was invited to walk the hallowed fairgreens of what's now called Shawnee Golf Club, in Marion, Ill., alongside some psychotic golf-club-swinging, cursing peers. I had no particular interest in the game, and it was only out of boredom that I would idly take some air swings off to the side of the tee box as the lads waited for the group ahead to get out of range of the good shot that would never come from any of them. Then, it happened. About 50 yards in front of the 9th tee, one of the guys tossed a ball on the ground, handed me a seven-iron and told me to take a whack at it. Not wanting to scuff the beautiful grass, I asked for a wood and a tee and was given what I later learned was a First
Flight brassie (two-wood). I took some sort of whirling, Hail Maryish slap at the Kro-Flite ball and banged my neck with the shaft before spinning out of control and falling to the ground.
"You golfin' or diggin' for worms.... That's in the next county--to the right," were the needling vernacularisms that had been spouted after almost every shot by the three lads that day, but as I picked myself up off the ground after my wild swing, an eerie silence had fallen over the scene. And it wasn't a bird or a plane that the guy whose club I had used was pointing at; it was my friggin' shot making a magnificent trek toward the 9th green. Then we all started yelling, with extra gusto, a word we had to scream quite often that day--"Fore! Fore! Fore!"--at the foursome up on the green, but they were engrossed in totaling up their Nassau and were shocked when my ball caromed off the metal KEEP CARTS 30 FEET FROM GREEN sign behind the putting surface, rolled through their huddle and stopped in the front fringe.
Right there on the spot, an inner turmoil started to brew within me, as Old Tom Morris from the Royal & Ancient instantly anointed me a Golfer. My life would never be the same. I was hooked.
No Short Game Blues
My parents tried to dissuade me, but I made it clear that I wanted to play golf. I bought a five-, seven- and nine-iron, along with some 10-cent balls, from the pro shop for $9, and then set about hitting every chance I got, out where they eventually built Marion High's new football field. Slowly I added more clubs and better balls to the feed sack that held my precious dream sticks, and although I still hit four out of 10 shots totally sideways, or caught the turf three inches behind my ball, my self-taught progress was awesome.
In the summer of '76 I became a man among boys when I went out for the Marion High golf team. I rocketed drives 280 yards on the fly and hit long, towering irons like a PGA Tour player. Trouble was, my shots had the nasty habit of tracking to an area 10 to 20 yards left, right or behind the green. Most disturbing was my case of the yips when facing an innocent-looking chip or pitch. When I finally would pull the trigger, nobody but those behind me was safe from harm. Alas, I was still a hacker and didn't make the team. I was crushed.
I threw that first set of clubs into West End Creek and didn't play again until 1990, on a horrid day during which I was blessed with three holed putts of more than 20 feet, two par-4 greens hit in regulation, two par-3 greens hit (one converted for birdie), a chip-in for a heroic bogey and only one sideways tee shot for the entire nine holes. There was no stopping me, and once again I had stumbled upon the dreaded golf fever.
Sadly, by that time I also had manic-depression disorder in a big way, and the biochemical pranks going on upstairs in my coconut were no match for the things golf had in store for me. Some of you might remember me as the Screamin' Scotsman as I thrashed my way around courses in Little Egypt during the early to mid-'90s at the height of my tragic golf addiction.
Prelude to Doom
I should've listened to my team of mental-health professionals when they advised me that the only known cure for the diabolical Locked Address malady that dogged me around the links was to lock the clubs in a closet for three months or more--a fate worse than death, I thought. Then things came to a bizarre end on a cold December day in 1995 at Misty River Golf Club in Mount Vernon, Ill.
Misty River was my favorite golfing spread, mostly because the course's genius designer saw fit to ignore the Sierra Club and construct 18 fine holes without using any of those darn things that my shots were drawn to, like a bee is drawn to flowers. They call them trees. Then there was my love-hate relationship with the tricky par4 16th hole, a nasty little creation that required a layup off the tee unless one dared to attempt the 300-yard carry over water. The 16th was relatively short, and the lure was always there, but I'd never try for the long carry with anything other than a second ball that wouldn't count on my scorecard.
There was no snow on the course that day, but the pro still thought I was nuts for wanting to brave the 10° windchill. What he had forgotten was that I'm a tough-as-nails Scot and that Old Tom Morris had been whispering more and more into my ear. The pro pocketed my $5 and, as he shook his head sadly, said I could play all day if I wanted, but the clubhouse was closed. (He didn't want me walking in on the high-stakes poker game going on in there.) As he was locking the clubhouse door from inside, I heard one of the poker players yell out, "You'd better run that crazy Screamin' Scotsman off the property!"
Yep, if he had run me off not only would my best round of golf not have happened, but also my third admission to a mental hospital would've been avoided. Rub of the green, I guess.
Too Much, Too Soon
Over the years I've often spoken about that magic round on that chilled December day, and nobody who played with me back then believes me. Everyone prefers to remember me as the volcanic dude who would blow up for a 9 and a 15 on the last two holes if that's what it took to butcher a decent score, but it was oh-so-different on that grand day in '95. Most every shot was struck pure and sweet and tracked like a Patriot missile to where I was aiming. Plenty of horrid ghosts were still in the machine, but it was evident that an evolutionary coup d'etat for the good was happening within my golfing DNA.
Hell's bells, I could've shot an 82 that glorious day, but my euphoria over my near flawless ball-striking left me with no patience for such petty matters as grinding over putts. In the past I had almost gained entrance to the promised land of wayward duffers on numerous occasions, only to leave the course with my head hung low in shame after another bout of Locked Address malady. But on that December day, I kid you not, I truly had the right stuff. I really shot a 93. That's right, I broke 100!
A Little Levity, Please
I didn't want to let the magic of that flush round die, so after I sank my last putt I emptied all the balls from my bag and flawlessly pumped them out into the fairway using the newfangled grip that was the cause for the metamorphosis in my game. After my last shot went straight as an arrow 320 yards toward the 18th tee, I maintained the secret grip on my driver, ran to the clubhouse and began kicking the door to get the pro's attention. I should've known better, what with the Jefferson County mafia being in there engrossed in a poker game, but I knew how precious and few golfing discoveries are, and I had to document my grip with photos before my shaky coconut forgot it.
After a few kicks the pro stormed outside cussing and reminded me that the clubhouse was closed. Then he grabbed me by the collar and gave me a firm shake while asking if I was too good to knock on the door with my hand, like a normal person. I explained that I had discovered the perfect grip, and that I couldn't let loose of the club until someone photographed it from all angles so it would remain with me always and forever throughout my golfing days.
As a golf pro he could empathize with me, but as a businessperson he had to make the difficult decision of banning me from Misty River, for fear that I was going off my rocker and might do harm to one of the club's well-heeled members. He said he had gotten bad reports about my screaming fits and club throwing from the summer and fall before, but he had cut me a break because of my $100-a-week habit at the course.
A tear was hanging on my cheek, and without loosening my treasured grip, I brushed my face with the sleeve of my windbreaker. Then, instead of walking back to the 18th green and putting my driver in my bag, I began walking down the driveway away from the clubhouse, toward I57. The pro knew I lived in Marion and probably thought I was going to walk on the shoulder the entire 45 miles home.
Actually, I planned to walk a mere six miles to the Kmart in Mount Vernon and get an employee to take pictures of my grip from all angles with one of those cheap disposable cameras. I was willing to pay $40 plus the cost of the friggin' camera for the service--shoot, yes!--but had barely gotten outside the gate at Misty River when some flunky from a private security firm stopped me on the road, ordered me to drop the driver and said he was taking me downtown for the crime of disturbing the peace at the clubhouse. I'd lost my grip and didn't really care what the authorities did with me.
And Then I Died
The security guy took me to the Jefferson County police station, and although no charges were filed against me, I was quickly transported to the county courthouse and made to sit in a holding cell while the judge finished up that day's traffic cases.
When I was called into court, the sheriff handed the judge my file and His Honor and the state's attorney gave it a brief look. Then the judge somberly asked me if I had anything to say for myself about the grave indiscretion I had committed yonder at Misty River, at which point my court-appointed attorney snickered and said, "Your honor, he's guilty of kicking the clubhouse in the first degree."
The judge asked if I agreed with my attorney, and my attorney had to elbow me in the ribs because he could see my attention was riveted not on the judge but instead upon the bombshell babe doing the court recording. The state's attorney blew snot when he saw me grimace from the blow, after which I proceeded to tell the judge about the beautiful game of golf and how it had been a long and winding road for me since that first purely struck two-wood in 1973, but that I'd finally discovered the proper way to grip a club, and would His Honor really mind if the sheriff would be so kind as to fetch my driver out on the county road and bring it to the courthouse so my new grip could be photographed from all angles for my peace of mind.
The judge then brought down his hammer and instructed the sheriff to have me, not my grip, photographed front, right and left, and said that I was not to set foot on a golf course within 150 miles of Marion for three years. His Honor cautioned that my photo would be displayed in the pro shop of all those golfing establishments to prevent me from sneaking in a round.
Forgive Them, Old Tom
After my Barred from Play photos were taken, I was transported to the edge of Franklin County, where officers from that district took custody of me and motored me to the Franklin/Williamson County Mental Health Clinic for an emergency evaluation by the shrink. I was whisked into the good doctor's office and attempted to clear things up by relating the story of the highly elusive perfect grip that I had discovered that day. The shrink held up five fingers on one hand and one on the other and asked me what I saw, to which I said, "Six-iron. Full shot, 200 yards. Three-quarter speed, 190 yards. Half-speed, 180 yards. But I haven't learned to flush that club pure enough to hold a green."
Then the Franklin County sheriff and some officers assisted in getting me supine on a gurney and tucked in for my ambulance ride to the state hospital in Anna, Ill. "Fer cryin' out loud," I yelled out as the doors to the ambulance slammed shut, "if I really juice it, I can nail it 215!" The good doctor was not impressed. I stayed at Choate Mental Health/Developmental Center for three weeks while my lithium levels were monitored and significantly increased to combat the cruel three-year golf drought I had been sentenced to.
I still say that judge and the shrink had probably never even hefted a darling golf club, for if they had, they wouldn't have been so quick to concoct a three-year halt to my life's only pleasure.
The age of darkness commenced for me. I was a golf exile, again.
Never Say Never
My golfless era ground well beyond my cruel sentence, as time and the ravages of depression conspired to take the hope out of my wish to become the envy of all local hackers.
Then, out of the blue in June 2003, my brother called asking me to accompany him to the practice range at Green Acres Golf Club and then the next day play a round at Shawnee with him and the 13year-old son of a buddy who had died suddenly that year. The kid's dad was the guy who had handed me that First Flight two-wood back in '73.
Golf isn't something you barrel back into on a whim, and I smelled trouble. Soon as I got off the phone I retrieved my beloved Little Red Book by Harvey Penick, the master instructor. I launched into Mr. Penick's Slow Motion Drill and proceeded to pull a muscle under my right shoulder blade. Things weren't looking good.
Proof of Life
This is where it gets ugly, for lo and behold, after 71/2 years of hitting not a single shot, Old Tom Morris and Harry Vardon and Harvey Penick smiled down upon me. After only half a bucket of balls off a driving range mat, I found my top-secret grip. Sure, I was rusty and had only four good shots to every 10 bad ones, but it was always a half-baked swing that caused my errant thrashes, never the grip. So I proceeded to buy five more buckets, even though I knew that after even one more I'd be too sore to hit the course the next day with my brother and our dead buddy's kid. But I was on a roll, and there was no stopping me. So surprised was I at how good I was striking the ball that I broke my cardinal rule and devoted a half bucket to my driver simply to witness the seven balls that were smoked 330 yards to the end of the range into the high grass fronting the irrigation lake. Mack the Hack was back!
My brother tried putting off the dreaded outing and at my behest attempted to persuade the kid, who had never played, that the practice tee was the place to get a grounding in golf's evil ways. But the kid pouted, and despite my sore muscles from the misguided binge at the driving range, we picked up the determined kid the next day and pointed toward our certain doom at Shawnee Golf Club.
On the 1st tee my brother and the kid urged me to hit first, seeing as how I was the golfer emeritus of the threesome. Not wanting to start off the round with the sting of a mishit long iron or the heartbreak of a duck-hooked wood, I wisely selected a five-iron and flushed it pure and straight, 190 yards with a smooth three-quarter swing--and let's not talk about the 90 seconds I spent in agony from my Locked Address demon before finally pulling the trigger.
My best effort of the day came at the par5 5th hole, as I cranked my forged MacGregor Tourney driving iron with Dynamic Gold shaft out there 295 yards, leaving only a 180yard seven-iron to the green. I missed a 22footer for eagle, but even if I hadn't made the five-foot comebacker for birdie, I still would've been recharged. I am a golfer, again.
Be warned: The dean of southern Illinois duffers is back! Just as spooky-quick as one of the pop-up thunderstorms that blow through our area, my golfing juices have been replenished. Even so, I won't be playing as much as I used to, and pharmaceutical advancements being what they've are, I've been calmed down to a lovable lap kitty.
I'm saddened that the First Flight people stopped making clubs a decade after I hit that great two-wood shot in 1973, for I'd surely be buying a set today, even though the old clubs' sweet spots were about as big as the head of a pin.
One thing hasn't changed--there are still plenty of 13year-olds with dreams of heroic athletic achievement. I saw one that June day in 2003, only minutes after my amazing seven-iron shot had found pay dirt on the 5th green. The kid had been having a tough time as he dug his way around the course, an 80yard grounder and an 18-inch putt being his only glory of the day.
Then I teed up a ball beside the 150yard marker on the 5th fairway and instructed the lad to make a smooth circle away from the ball, pause at the top, point his right elbow at his right hip, Johnny Miller--style, then trace that circle back through the ball. The kid tossed down the seven-iron that I'd handed him and pulled a seven-wood out of his bag. He loaded for bear and took dead aim at the green. Poor devil, I couldn't help thinking.
When the kid picked himself up off the ground after his John Daly--esque swipe and asked where the ball had gone, well, my brother and I were pointing at a rocket zooming high on the horizon toward the 3rd tee, which sat directly behind the 5th green. And we were yelling, "Fore! Fore! Fore!" The ball hit the ball washer next to the 3rd tee, a 180yard carry, then caromed backward onto the 5th green, leaving a 21/2-footer that he made.
Next Stop, Magnolia Lane
The kid carried himself with a spry confidence for the rest of the nine, standing more steadily over shots and taking more care to realize the possibilities that abound when a ball is struck in the middle of a squared club face. He's getting a later start than Tiger Woods, and he might not yet have the discipline and powerful muscles of Jack Nicklaus, but he has a shot at getting there. That kid's mother is going to kill me, I swear.
Remember, kid, only so firm as to not let the bird escape, and gentle enough to not injure tweety, all right? May Old Tom Morris have mercy on your soul, and by all means take dead aim. Shoot, yes!
Illustrations by David Hughes