Publish date:

GLORY GAME AT GOAT HILLS

Author:

IN SIX DECADES AS A WRITER, INCLUDING MORE THAN TWO AT SI, DAN JENKINS, WHO DIED ON MARCH 7 AT 90, TRANSFORMED THE PROFESSION WITH A MUCH-IMITATED, NEVER-MATCHED STYLE. HIS VIBRANT PROSE WAS INFUSED WITH HEART AND WRY HUMOR—TRAITS AMPLY ON DISPLAY IN THIS CLASSIC ABOUT THE FORT WORTH GOLF COURSE THAT HE CALLED, FOR A TIME, HOME

Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED AUGUST 16, 1965

GOAT HILLSis gone now. It was swallowed up almost four years ago by the bulldozers of progress, and in the end it was nice to learn that something could take a divot out of those hard fairways. But all of the regular players had left long before. We had grown up at last. Maybe it will be all right to talk about the place now, and about the people and the times we had. Maybe it will be therapeutic. At least it will help explain why I do not play golf so much anymore. I mean, I keep getting invited to Winged Head and Burning Foot and all those fancy clubs we sophisticated New Yorkers are supposed to frequent, places where, I hear, they have real flagsticks instead of broom handles. It sounds fine, but I usually beg off. I am, frankly, still over golfed from all those years at Goat Hills in Texas. You would be, too, if.... Well, let me tell you some of it. Not all. I will try to be truthful and not too sentimental. But where shall I begin? With Cecil? Yeah, I think so. He was sort of a symbol in those days, and....

WE CALLED HIM Cecil the Parachute, because he fell down a lot. He would attack the golf ball with a whining, leaping half-turn—more of a calisthenic than a swing, really—and occasionally, in his spectacular struggles for extra distance, he would soar right off the end of elevated tees.

He was a slim, bony, red-faced little man, who wore crepe-soled shoes and heavily starched shirts that crackled like crunched glass. When he was earthbound Cecil drove a delivery truck for a cooky factory, Grandma's Cookies, and he always parked it—hid it, rather—behind a tall hedge near the clubhouse. When the truck was there, out of sight of passing cars (or of cooky-company dispatchers snooping on cooky-truck drivers), you could be pretty sure that not only was Cecil out on the course but so were Tiny, Easy Reid, Magoo, Foot the Free, Grease Repellent, Ernie, Matty, Rush, Little Joe, Weldon the Oath, Jerry, John the Band-Aid and Moron Tom.

There was also the very good chance that all of us would be in one hollering, protesting, club-slinging fifteensome. The game was not the kind of golf that Gene Sarazen or any of his stodgy friends ever would have approved of. But it was, nevertheless, the kind we played for about 15 years, from the mid-'40s to the late '50s, at a windy, dusty, indifferently mowed, stone-hard, broomstick-flagged, practically treeless, residentially surrounded public course named Worth Hills, in Fort Worth. Goat Hills, we called it, not too originally.

It was a gambling game that went on in some fashion or another, involving from two to 20 players, almost every day of every year. The game survived not just my own shaft-bending, divot-stomping presence, but heat, rain, snow, war, tornadoes, jobs, studies, illness, divorces, birth, death and considerations of infinity. If there were certain days when it seemed the game might help pay part of my tuition through Texas Christian University—a jumble of yellow-brick buildings across the street from the course—there were others when it seemed certain to guarantee a lifetime of indebtedness. Either way you were trapped, incessantly drawn to the Hills, like Durrell to Alexandria.

Nearly all of the days at the Hills began the same way, with lazy conversations on the front porch of the small white clubhouse. We would be slouched in chairs, smoking, drinking coffee, complaining about worldly things, such as the Seventh Street Theater not changing its movie in weeks. Say it was August. We would be looking across the putting green at the heat. In Texas in August you can see the heat. It looks like germs under a microscope.

In fact, say it was the day of the Great Scooter Wreck. We were lounging. Matty, who had a crew cut and wore glasses and looked collegiate (and grew up to be a doctor), was resting against a rock pillar on the porch, playing tunes on his front teeth with his fingernails. He could do that. Learned it in study hall. For money he could even play "Sixty Minute Man" or "Rocket 88" or whatever happened to be No. 1 on the jukebox at Jack's Place on the Mansfield Highway. I was reading either The Best of S.J. Perelman or The Brothers Karamazov. Any kind of book would prompt needling whoops from Tiny, who was a railroad conductor, or Weldon the Oath, who was a postman, or Grease Repellent, who worked at the Texaco station three blocks away. ("Hey, Jenkins! What you gonna do with all them facts clangin' around in yer head?") Foot the Free, which was short for Big Foot the Freeloader, was there, practice-putting at a small, chipped-out crevice in the concrete of the porch, a spot that marked the finish of the finest one hole of golf I ever saw played—but more about that later. Magoo was around. And Little Joe. Presently John the Band-Aid showed up, striding grimly from the parking lot, clubs over his shoulder, ready to go. He had beaten a Turf King pinball machine somewhere on University Drive and he had some money.

"You and you and you and you and you, too," said John. "All of you two, two, two automatic one-down presses, whatever gets even on 9 and 18, and whipsaw ever'body 70 or better for five." John the Band-Aid had lost the day before.

Little Joe and I took a scooter, one of those two-seaters with three wheels, and John and Magoo took one. The rest walked. We were an eightsome. If others came later they would join up along the way, as always, and there would be some action for them, too. Plenty.

With only eight players it was a fairly simple game to book keep. You played each of the other seven individually on the front nine, on the back and on the 18—three bets each to start. Without any presses—new bets—that was a sizable investment right there. But new bets came quickly, because of an automatic one-down press rule and big, get-even bets on 9 and 18. It was certainly nice to birdie the 9th and 18th holes sometimes. Like maybe $100 nice.

Naturally, there was always a long pause at both the 9th and 18th tees to figure out how everybody stood. Like this particular day. John the Band-Aid, I recall, had shot even par but was down to everyone.

"I got to be the alltime world's champion unlucky," he said, beating his driver against the tee marker. "Magoo can't play and he's beatin' me, and Matty can't play and he's beatin' me, and my young partner's dead as an old woman and...."

John the Band-Aid, who wore glasses and a straw hat and kept a handkerchief tied around his neck for protection against sunburn, rarely observed honors on the tee. In fact, the game sort of worked in reverse etiquette. The players who were losing teed off first.

"I'm gonna hit this one right into young Stadium Drive," said John, impatiently. The 9th at the Hills was a long par-4. The tee was on a bluff, above a desperate drop-off into a cluster of undernourished hackberry trees, a creek, rocks and weeds. Ideally, the drive had to carry over the trees and creek and into the uphill fairway, leaving about a seven-iron to the green. Stadium Drive was behind the green.

John the Band-Aid curved a wondrous slice into the right rough, and coming off of his follow-through slung the club in the general direction of Eagle Mountain Lake, just missing Little Joe. The Band-Aid's shot irritated Little Joe, and so did the flying club. "Man, man," said Joe. "They ought to put me in a box and take me to the state fair for bein' in this game."

I was fairly mad, too. One under par and no money ahead. Maybe that's why I pointed the scooter straight down the hill and let it run. We were almost instantly out of control. "Son of a young ..." said Joe, holding on. The scooter zoomed, but the front wheel struck a boulder and, like a plane taking off, we were in the air. I sailed straight over the front, and Joe went out the right side. The scooter, flipping and spewing clubs, landed on both of us, mostly on my left leg.

I think I was out for about 10 seconds before I heard all of the laughter behind me and felt the clubs and rocks underneath. They pulled the scooter off, and off Joe's white canvas bag—or what was left of it. Battery acid had been jolted out of the scooter and was already beginning to eat away at the bag.

"I got two says Joe don't have a bag before we get to 18," said Magoo. Foot called it. Although my left ankle was so swollen I had to play the rest of the way with only one shoe, we continued. It was on the 14th green that we noticed Magoo was a winner. When Joe went to pick up his bag after putting out, the only things left were the top metal ring, the bottom, the wooden stick and the shoulder strap. Not only that, Joe's left pants leg was going fast.

In or out of a runaway scooter, our game frequently took odd directions. Bored, we often played Goat Hills backward, to every other hole, to every third hole, entirely out of bounds except for the greens (which meant you had to stay in the roads and lawns), with only one club or at night, which was stimulating because of all the occupied cars parked on the more remote fairways. One of the most interesting games we invented, however, was the Thousand-yard Dash. This was a one-hole marathon. It started at the farthest point on the course from the clubhouse—and ended at the chipped-out place in the concrete on the porch.

There were 12 of us who each put $5 in the pot and started flailing away, cutting across fairways, intruding on other games, cursing and carefully counting the strokes of those who had chosen the same route as ours. Some went to the left of the stone restroom, some went to the right. I followed Foot the Free because he could never afford to lose. He carried the same $5 bill, I think, for eight years. We hit a hooked driver, another hooked driver, a third hooked driver and then a hooked 3-wood—you had to hook at the Hills to get the roll—and that got us both within pitching distance of the porch. The others were out of it by now, lost in the creek or in the flower beds of the apartment houses that bordered the No. 1 fairway.

My approach shot carried the concrete porch, hit hard against the clubhouse wall, chased Wells Howard, the pro, back inside the door, brought a screech from his wife, Lola, glanced off one of the rock pillars and finally came to rest—puttable if I moved a chair—about 20 feet from the hole.

Foot played a bounce shot, lofting a high wedge, letting it plop in front of the porch on some gravel, then hop up over the curb and skid against the wall. He was only 10 feet from the hole. Hell of a shot.

We quickly got a broom and began sweeping dirt particles off the porch and took off our cleats because they are very bad for a stance on concrete and put Wells and Lola at ease by convincing them that this would look good in our memoirs one day after we had all won the young National Open and got famous.

A couple of rent-club players strolled out of the golf shop, and Foot asked them not to walk in his line. My putt offered one distinct danger, tapping it too firmly and having it roll past the hole and into a row of golf carts lined up at the far end—which is precisely what happened. I tried to argue that the carts were an unnatural hazard and that I deserved a free lift; but Wells, the pro, no doubt believing the game was my idea, ruled I had to play it. On in five, I 18-putted for a 23. Against anyone else I might still have had a chance. But Foot was one of the great putters in history. He calmly tapped his putt and it dribbled slowly, slowly, over the concrete, wavering, wobbling—and in.

TO AT LEAST partly understand why anyone would hang around a municipal golf course for one-third of his life playing games such as these you have to understand something about the town and the state and what golf means there.

First of all, Fort Worth is basically a quiet place with a river, the Trinity, a fragrant stockyard on the North Side a Convair plant, a couple of newspapers, a lot of beer taverns, a few elegant neighborhoods, a downtown area sparkling with loan companies, and a university, TCU, which is primarily noted for producing Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien. It is a town where little has happened, outside of a few important football games, since Vernon Castle, the famous dancer, was killed when he crashed a plane into a field in Benbrook during World War I. Nor has anyone cared to make something happen except, occasionally, on the golf courses.

Fort Worth is where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson came from, and this is one of the first facts I ever learned. It probably happened to other kids the same way. There you were one day, waving a yardstick like a sword, playing Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, when suddenly your parents decided you had a natural swing. They told you about Hogan and Nelson, and about Jimmy Demaret, who came from Houston, and about Ralph Guldahl, Lloyd Mangrum and Harry Cooper, who came from Dallas, and they shoved you onto the nearest course and said not to come home until you were ready for the Ethiopian Four Ball. So you stayed 20 years curing a shank and learning to love a duck hook.

Probably because of the climate—there are only two weeks out of the year when a man would not play golf, but even those February afternoons might be considered ideal in Pittsburgh—the sport has for 30 years been second in importance only to football. This is true throughout the state. Golf always received generous attention in the papers. Almost every town with a henhouse, some tin cans and broomsticks still has an annual invitational tournament. These begin in mid-March and last through mid-September. It is possible for an enterprising, neat-swinging high school or college golfer to play competitively for 22 weeks or more of the year, winning, if he is good enough, more sets of clubs, TV sets and silver trays than he can ever sell to get money to gamble with.

It was this vast amateur circuit that gave you Hogan and Nelson and Demaret, and later on, two whom I can relate, with a certain amount of pride, came right out of our game at Goat Hills—Ernie Vossler and Jerry Edwards. Ernie was a relentless competitor who could not understand why anyone but him ever sank a putt. Sometimes, when someone like Weldon the Oath, so named because he talked to the ball in oaths, made one, Ernie would just walk straight to the clubhouse.

After I holed out a 30-foot putt to halve a gimme birdie one afternoon, Vossler left for good. He moved on to bigger things, to the big-money games at Ridglea, to become city champion, state amateur champion, ultimately on to the PGA Tour. I have always considered Ernie our honor graduate, although Edwards may outdo him. Jerry could drive the ball four miles, or roughly the distance to old Paschal High School (now Tech), a Gibraltar of formative education that turned most of us out with degrees in Library Pass Forging, Double Lunch Period Registration, Boiler Room Smoking, Chug-a-Lug, Basketball and Marriage. Except for a recurring Goat Hills temper, Jerry has a sound game and has been in the money many times on the PGA Tour. So far, however, his greatest publicity came when he was rumored to have gone AWOL from the Army in 1962 to play in the U.S. Open.

"A true Hills man," Magoo said.

Although Vossler and Edwards were the only two who succeeded, all of us at one time, I believe, envisioned a pro career. Sadly, my own dreams were constantly interrupted by reality. The first time was early in the State Junior at San Antonio, when I was defeated 3 and 2 by a cross-handed kid wearing tennis shoes. Thirsting for some sort of revenge, I returned the following year and lost to a barefoot 14-year-old who had only five clubs.

IT WAS IN the last few years at Goat Hills, before the city sold those 106 acres to TCU so the school could build more yellow-brick buildings, that the games got too big, too outrageously expensive. One reason was that most of us were working by then, or were supposed to be. We somehow managed always to have the afternoons free. I had ingeniously slithered my way up to $87.50 per week at The Fort Worth Press. So I was a high player now. And then there was Moron Tom, who worked terribly hard at eight ball, poker, gin and pinball. He could high-play you.

Moron Tom was a likable, muscular West Texan who had gone to TCU to play football but had quit when he discovered you had to practice every day during the season. He was a brilliant hustler who talked in a fast code, often describing his long tee shots with such immodest expressions as "quadruple unreal." He almost never spoke English, only a weird gibberish that you had to learn or not know what bets you had with him.

There was one special day—the day of the last truly big game—that began with Moron Tom saying, "I'll take toops and threeps from Youngfut, Youngjun, Youngmut and Youngrus." Translated, that meant he wanted 2 up and 3 up from young Foot, young John, young Matty and young Rush. He wanted the same from Magoo, too, but Magoo said, "Kane go-fert," which was Moronese for "Can't go for it."

Somehow Magoo and I wound up as partners, and this was bad. Magoo was a good player, but he was unlucky. But this time, all the way around, it did not seem to matter. Frankly, we played superbly. We birdied so many holes between us that Moron Tom, each time either of us swung, said, "Cod Ee-rack Fockle-dim!" That was his pronunciation of Doc Cary Middlecoff spelled backward, and a compliment.

As we came off the 17th green, having birdied every hole since the 13th, Magoo and I calculated that if we could simply par the 18th we would not be able to get the money home in Cecil the Parachute's cooky truck. With all of the double and triple presses, it was up to around $600, at least.

The 18th was an easy par-4. You drove from a windy knoll, with the wind helping, to a wide, wide fairway across a creek and an embankment. The only conceivable trouble was far to the right, beyond the bordering 10th fairway, where Stadium Drive was out of bounds. In all my years I never saw anyone slice that badly—only Magoo when Moron Tom spoke to him for all that money.

At the top of Magoo's backswing, Moron Tom quietly said, "Tissim, Oogam," which of course was "Miss it, Magoo" backwards, and my poor partner sliced out of bounds. Well, we had to laugh about the irony of it. Once again Magoo had blown the Open. And there could be no protest. Needles were common. Sneezing, coughing, dropping a full bag of clubs on a player's back-swing were part of it. Normally, it was something you ignored.

Magoo simply looked at his club and then at me and said, "If you don't make four, I'm gonna stamp this Tommy Armour right on your young forehead."

Now, across the creek at the 18th, laid upright into the embankment, was a storm drain, roughly three feet around. We used to pitch at it with old balls from the ladies' tee, but it was a rare day when anyone ever actually hit it. From up on the men's tee 100 yards back, it was an awfully small target. In fact, it never even entered my mind. I was intending to drive the green, frankly, and get a birdie just to make up for Magoo's slice. That would have been quadruple unreal.

But at the height of my arc, Moron Tom whispered something again.

"Clutch, Mother Zilch," he said.

I did not fall completely down, but almost. The clubhead hit about two inches behind the ball. The shot snap-hooked into the ground just in front of the ladies' tee, took a giant hop to the right off some rocks and—I swear to you—went straight into the sewage drain.

It was the only hole in one I ever made, and the shot that semiretired me from golf. Forever.

"THE GAME SURVIVED NOT JUST MY OWN SHAFT-BENDING, DIVOT-STOMPING PRESENCE, BUT HEAT, RAIN, SNOW, WAR, TORNADOES, JOBS, ILLNESS, DIVORCES, BIRTH, DEATH AND CONSIDERATIONS OF INFINITY."

"ALL OF US ENVISIONED A PRO CAREER. SADLY, MY OWN DREAMS WERE CONSTANTLY INTERRUPTED BY REALITY. I LOST IN THE STATE JUNIOR TO A BAREFOOT 14-YEAR-OLD WHO HAD ONLY FIVE CLUBS."