November 12, 2007

Buddies Trip: The Mild, Wild West

4 guys, 9 courses, 5 states, 1 RV and 2 deer

THE IDEA:

Put Callahan and Kindred on the road again. They could get a couple buddies and rent a motor home. It'd be four guys in a Winnebago for 10 days, lost in pursuit of golf.

I asked Tom, "Where do you want to drive to?"

He said, "Somewhere."

That narrowed it down from Everywhere. I narrowed it down to the United States of America. Then I studied the hot golf spots, Florida, California, the Carolinas.

So it remains a mystery to me how we came to be driving a 37-foot motor home the wrong way on a mountain road in South Dakota. We were headed to North Dakota, where we'd make a left into Montana before dropping into Wyoming and crossing over to Nebraska.

"What'd you do," a friend asked, "pick the five most boring states in America?"

Maybe we just wanted to get away from it all. Good place to do that, out there. Not that they'd done anything to deserve such punishment, but Callahan brought along Bill Nack, late of Sports Illustrated, and I dragooned Bud Shaw, the Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist.

We went to Deadwood and Agar, Medora and Hardin, Buffalo and Mullen. We drank Moose Drool in the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok died holding aces and eights. We heard Jon Beartusk's version of how George Custer got his. We hit lob wedges over the tail fins of Cadillacs half-buried nose down in Nebraska's sand. Speaking of noses, we looked into George Washington's nostrils.

Ten days, 2,091 miles.

Nine rounds, 3,213 shots.

"You take us to Wyoming," Callahan told me. "I'll get us back to South Dakota."

I'll start with the RV. You've seen those humongous things so luxurious they're called land yachts. Ours was a land barge. Nothing worked. The refrigerator was warm, the shower cold. The TV antenna wouldn't go up, the cargo doors wouldn't stay down.

Some guys could have fixed that stuff. But we're sportswriters. Our combined mechanical ability extended to knowing which end of a screwdriver to hold, though we had no idea what to do next. Every 13-year-old kid can manipulate MP3s, iPods, PlayStation 3s. Us, it took four days to play "Caddyshack" on the barge's VCR.

First turn out of the RV rental lot, I went up that mountain road instead of down. The road was maybe four inches wider than the motor home. It was steep and twisty with no guardrails to prevent a fiery plunge into the South Dakota wilderness, after which emergency personnel would remark on the foolishness of city folks driving a thing like that on that road.

"Dear God," I murmured, "let no one as dumb as us be coming the other way."

We picked up Shaw at the airport and must have left the terminal at an unusual rate of speed because, as he spun in a swiveling passenger chair, Bud said, "Dave, try keeping all four wheels on the ground." He later compared those early moments to "a bad amusement-park ride going 75 miles an hour."

Against the possibility of calamity, I had brought along dashboard statuettes of Ty Ming and Tem Po, who usually work as The Golf Gods but occasionally stand in for St. Christopher. They delivered us safely into Deadwood, after which we sought out a brothel.

History books told us that Pam's Purple Door was located in the town's Green Door District. Today's negligee'd girls sit coquettishly in second-story windows overlooking Main Street. Only problem is, they're mannequins. Pam closed her purple door in 1980.

So we convened downstairs in what used to be Nuttall & Mann's Saloon No. 10, where drunken Jack McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head. We ordered up Moose Drool beer and discussed a label for the frivolity of the next nine days.

"The Brokeback Mountain Wild West Golf Tour," Callahan said. "Get us some cowboy hats, sheepskin jackets."

As I said, "Uhhhh..." Bud drank deeply of his Moose Drool, and it was then, I believe, that Nack, our literatus, began quoting, in a rich baritone, the more lush passages of Nabokov's Lolita.

The next morning, high in the Black Hills outside Deadwood, we waited for deer to clear the first fairway at Tomahawk Lake Country Club. The opener is a par 5 uphill through a forest of pine trees. The second hole, a 90-degree dogleg right, has fewer pines because a member with a bad swing and a chain saw used the chain saw one night to do what his swing couldn't -- get rid of 200 trees in the dogleg corner.

"Ex-member," said Jon Carter, the course superintendent.

Snow's a problem, too. "We had 220 inches in six weeks," he said. Temperatures got to 40 below.

"What do you do," I asked, "when it's that cold?"

He said, "Stay inside."

Four guys hitting 365 shots at Tomahawk should have one shot to write about. But bums who need 365 shots are happy just to escape with no broken bones. Smiling, we headed into the night, driving east 292 miles to a golf course that is "the most incredible place I have ever seen," to quote Wade Merry, executive director of the South Dakota Golf Association.

It's Sutton Bay, next to the tiny town of Agar, where you'll see a dozen pheasants before you see a dozen people. The course is built into the Great Plains' hills and ridges carved by glaciers. The land is covered in tawny grasses, dotted with giant boulders and striped with seams of rock. Like a diamond, Lake Oahe shimmers below the hills.

The feeling is, you're in another world, in another time.

Look. There. In that ravine. Imagination sees a dinosaur.

One day at Sutton Bay moves me to say this directly: If ever you get a chance to play there, go. If the boss won't let you off, quit. Spouse says no, change spouses. Go.

The night of our arrival, we ate in the lodge under the gaze of a giant moose whose presence prompted Callahan speculation: "Just think how fast that moose had to be going to get his head through that fireplace wall."

At Sutton Bay, the back tees are marked with cattle skulls. We chose the next-forward set, the rattlesnakes. I might have lost a half-dozen balls in the gnarl and scree a foot off the pure fairways. And it's almost true that I stayed in one bunker long enough to have written a legal brief asking the governor's mercy.

Trust me, those are mere details. Four guys never enjoyed rattlesnakes so much. Ask me one place to play forever, it's Sutton Bay.

If not there, at Bully Pulpit, our next stop, in western North Dakota. Shaw driving, Kindred the co-pilot, Nack quoting the last pages of Gatsby, Callahan studying the horizon-to-horizon prairie and announcing, "Don't know about you, but to my eye it looks a lot like South Dakota."

A young waitress in Bismarck tolerated our attempts at charm until someone told her we liked how they talked in the movie "Fargo," the way everyone meaning "Yes" always said "Yip."

"Nobody here liked that movie," she said.

Why not?

"Why do you think? Made us look like idiots."

It did?

"Yip."

Before Nack could beguile her with a Shakespearean sonnet, she said to someone, "Gonna push you out of here in that chair, pal." Callahan whispered behind his hand, "Threw a Fred Astaire at her, and it came out a Fred Mertz."

From Sutton Bay we drove 302 miles north and west to the small North Dakota resort town, Medora, hard by the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There we played Bully Pulpit. Like Sutton Bay, it is a course uniquely blessed by geography. Golf Digest's Senior Editor for Architecture, Ron Whitten, has written about "a three-hole stretch in nearly undisturbed Badlands that encapsulates the stark beauty of North Dakota."

This was the west, and it was wild. Mesas in the distance. Ravines slicing into darkness. Boulders hanging on hillsides. Wire-sharp bushes daring us to reach in.

Look. There. Coming down that limestone hill, white dust rising. Imagination sees a pale horse and rider.

Nack said, "I feel like Billy the Kid."

Bully Pulpit's 15th is unforgettable, a par 3, 151 yards for us. The tee box hangs from a hillside. The green is on the far, far, dangerously far, dizzyingly far side of a canyon. Anything hit less than perfectly, you reload. There's a ravine left, scrubby hillside right, heaven only knows what in the void behind. Easier to land a 7-iron in a birdbath.

It is "one of the greatest par 3s I've ever played," said Whitten, who during course construction paid homage to Teddy Roosevelt and the landscape by calling the 15th tee "a bully pulpit." Thus, the course's name.

It's impossible to find a Sutton Bay/Bully Pulpit equivalent anywhere. We just wanted to live through our next stop, at Hardin in southeastern Montana. "You gotta be careful when you're in Hardin," my Montana friend Liz had warned. "It is a seriously scary place, especially for four guys in a motor home."

Callahan might die for his art, but not for a night in an RV. "It's the James Jordan Rule," he explained, James being Michael's daddy shot dead while sleeping in his car. So he and Nack opted for hotel rooms while Bud and I stayed in the barge for nightly fixes of Carl Spackler's guerrilla war against the gophers of Bushwood Country Club.

At Hardin's Fort Custer Golf Club, a nine-holer, Nack birdied the first hole and said, "I am now one under par, lifetime, in Montana." Callahan winced, clenched his jaw, drew his neck muscles up tight, and muttered, "Oilcan, oilcan," whatever that meant.

Our RV attracted attention from a pair of retired Wyoming ranchers, Don and Diana Stetter, who asked the point of all our driving.

I said. "Just playing golf."

Don was puzzled.

I said, "We're writers. We'll write it up for Golf Digest."

The grizzled rancher tugged at the grease-blackened bill of his John Deere cap. Finally, he said, "Can you make a living at that?"

It's against the law to leave Montana without stopping at Little Bighorn Battlefield. Should be, anyway. There we listened to Frances Takes Enemy. She is a park ranger, a Crow. "They took defenseless elders, women and children," she said. The massacre by U.S. soldiers started it all, she said. Her voice cracked, and she wept for people dead 130 years. "I imagine myself there that day," she said. "What if I was one of them?"

In his store nearby, the artist Jon Beartusk told us that his Cheyenne nation believes that George Armstrong Custer fell under attack by a Cheyenne warrior's sister. He said, "On horseback, Buffalo Calf Road Woman chased Custer down and struck him with a club."

Pardon the foolishness here, but when you're four guys on a golf trip, any mention of a club is reason to discuss its components.

"A titanium shaft, I hope," I said to Beartusk.

"Ash wood," he said. "With a stone."

"Serves him right."

At the Wyoming border, we had driven 1,027 miles. The refrigerator was still warm, the shower still cold.

Maybe Callahan can get 'em working.

THE HANDOFF:

This might be an odd thing for a golf writer to admit, but, as I take the handoff from Kindred, you are entitled to know that I have never really liked golf. I feel about golf the way Robert F. Kennedy used to feel about mountain climbing. On the edge of some snowy and Godforsaken precipice, RFK confessed he didn't particularly like mountain climbing, but he liked hanging around guys who liked mountain climbing. I'm that way with golf, once you get the golf out of the way.

Not that Tiger, Vijay, Phil, Ernie and Per-Ulrik aren't interesting enough at times. I'm speaking more of amateur golf (in the derogatory sense of that word) and handicap golfers, who are never interesting on the subject of the game they can't play. I'm proficient at tuning out the typical stories that always end the same way: with somebody -- sometimes everybody -- shouting, "Draino!" However, when the symposiums begin on topics like spin rates, launch angles and coefficients of restitution, my jaw starts to rust shut like the Tin Man frozen in the forest, pleading for relief through gritted teeth ("Oilcan...oilcan"). I just have to oilcan them.

So many things about male amateur golfers, I don't want to understand. But, shoved off the subjects of their swings and shins, they're pretty nice guys and can be very good company. I eagerly -- well, willingly -- accepted the invitation, for three simple reasons: Kindred, Nack and Shaw.

Kindred and I are lifelong buddies, who have traveled together on elephants and the Orient Express to assignments as far away as Beijing, Calcutta, Moscow, Bophuthatswana and Katmandu. Once, we finished way down the board at an Arctic Open in Iceland, where our first-round tee times were after midnight. The sensation was exactly like playing in a Frigidaire by the 20-watt glow of its open door.

As Dave has said, each buddy enlisted an extra buddy to make a foursome. Kindred and Shaw go back together to newspaper days in Atlanta, when both the world and Dale Murphy were young, and Nack has been my absolute best friend since we met at Riva Ridge's Kentucky Derby, one year before Secretariat. The proof of our friendship is that, because of some important disagreement neither of us could recall, we hadn't spoken to each other in two years.

The reason might have been automotive. Many of Bill's slight mishaps in life have been automotive. Such as the time he made me late for a World Series game searching for a white car he had rented in Los Angeles. Eventually we had to take a cab to Dodger Stadium. In the press box later, I was interrupted in mid-paragraph to hear Bill say, in his "well-I'll-be-darned" tone of voice, that it was a black car in L.A. It was a white one in Kansas City. And he still had both sets of keys!

Anyway, you can see why we elected to let Shaw and Kindred do the driving.

Early on -- was it at Sutton Bay? -- a wild horse appeared like a Frankie Laine song on a high bluff overlooking our fairway. This was a happy omen for Nack, both Secretariat and Ruffian's biographer.

"There's nothing prettier," he said, "than a horse in silhouette. Look at him! A stallion! Mane flying! Nostrils flaring! He's the leader of the herd, all right. He looks like a horse General Sherman would slap a saddle on that would end up bronzed in Central Park."

"You're away," I said.

At the Powder Horn Ranch and Golf Club in Sheridan, Wyo., we took advantage of a handsome practice facility to cement the bad habits we had developed so far, then spent a gentle afternoon seeing the beauty of Big Horn Mountain from essentially every angle. Shaw graciously passed his hybrid woods around to those of us still getting by with our original persimmon Walter Burkemos. The main attraction of hybrid clubs, I'm convinced, is that they appeal to the natural larceny in all sportsmen that only golfers try to subjugate. "They're so easy to hit," Bud said, "they ought to be illegal."

At the Buffalo Golf Club, still in Wyoming, we encountered a couple of semi-locals from Sheridan, Mike Stadick and Bob Benjamin. "This is a narrow course," Benjamin warned. "You've got to manage it." He wasn't kidding. "Are you guys going to make it to Three Crowns?" Stadick asked, referring to the most celebrated course in Casper. We were. "You played there, didn't you?" Benjamin said to Stadick. "No, I got rained out, remember? My wife did, though. That's still a sore point in our house."

I thought of Mrs. Benjamin when, on the first tee at Buffalo, Nack punched the ignition switch on his downswing just as a woman two fairways over let go a bloodcurdling laugh. As a result, Bill's shot was unsatisfactory. "How little it takes to make life unbearable," he said in his thespian's tone of voice. "A pebble in the shoe. A cockroach in the spaghetti. A woman's laugh."

"Nabokov?" I asked, always a good guess with Nack.

"H.L. Mencken," he said.

By the way, the Buffalo course was wormy with wildlife, astonishing numbers of deer and elk. The deer ran. The elk bounced. They were as unself-consciously comfortable on the golf course during the day as the bucks and does of Spyglass in Pebble Beach are at night. The biggest and oldest-looking elk -- more than just old, maybe also a little sick -- was nearly conked by a 7-iron shot one of us hit. He didn't move a hair, or so much as sigh. (Before long, you might as well know now, two of his kind would die horribly at our hands.)

Perhaps I should introduce Greenfly next. A photographer joined us in midstream. As you can see from the beautiful pictures accompanying this report, he was a very good photographer, a hairy little guy who would have been a dead ringer for the wrestler Haystack Calhoun if someone dropped a bus on Haystack's head. The first day, Greenfly took 300 pictures of us on a golf course. The next day, he took 300 more pictures of us on a golf course. The third day, he took another 300 pictures of us on a golf course. Now he had 900 pictures of four guys mis-hitting golf balls. After that, I shooed him away. "But they told me I should be a fly on the wall," he said. That's when I named him Greenfly.

"Every time I think of the ball going right," Nack said on the tee at Three Crowns, "it goes right. It's a kind of cancer of the brain."

Built on top of a former Amoco Oil refinery, Three Crowns was a worthy golf course that smelled like a dipstick. The tee markers were gold drill bits that looked like teeth yanked by Robin Givens out of Mike Tyson's sad smile. The sand in the bunkers, as white as processed flour, was said to have been trucked in from Idaho. The fairways were broad. The greens were expansive, full of three-putts, except by Kindred. Dave had found the secret again. Maybe sleeping in an RV with one eye open, imagining every night sound to be the Wyoming Strangler, helps settle the nerves for the day.

We came to Sand Hills in Nebraska by way of Carhenge -- Stonehenge with distributor caps instead of Druids -- where Bud hit a sand wedge over a capsized Cadillac just for luck. Sand Hills figured to be the jewel of the trip, and it was. Ben Crenshaw designed it with Bill Coore and vouched for us. None of the American links claiming to be like British links really are, you know. They're too green. The ground isn't firm enough. The ball can't be played on the bounce. It has to be played in the air. But Sand Hills was pretty close. It felt like an ancient place, not like Nebraska.

We just missed our turnoff to Sand Hills, by the way; and, botching the subsequent U-turn, we sunk our spinning wheels into the sand. "What does this remind you of?" Nack said, as the four of us stood forlornly on the desolate road staring at a windblown horizon. "Oh yeah," he answered his own question. "The crop-dusting scene in 'North by Northwest.' " At which point a remarkably sweet thing happened.

Absolutely everybody on the highway stopped. Nobody just sped by. To a man and woman, they all wanted to help. A worker in a hurry, hauling stone; an elderly couple in a station wagon; a cowboy in denim trousers, checkered shirt and Stetson. The cowboy turned his convertible straight around and zoomed off in the new direction, returning not 10 minutes later in a borrowed truck. "It's my neighbor's," he said. With a chain wrapped around the rear axle, we were yanked out of the sand to cheers all around.

"We're not laughing at you," said several women in the Sand Hills offices. "We're laughing with you. We've all been there." That was another kindness. Before we took one swing at Ben's masterpiece, all four of us were already enchanted by Nebraska.

Back in the RV, as we were about to spend half of our bumper and all of our deductible on the two unfortunate deer, Nack mentioned that Ruffian would soon be a made-for-TV movie starring Sam Shepard.

"Who's playing you?" Kindred wondered.

"A character actor named Frank Whaley," Bill said.

Bud asked, "What's he been in?"

"A lot of things. 'Pulp Fiction.' He was murdered by Samuel Jackson."

"That narrows it down to about 300 people," I said.

Not long afterward, we heard the thud.

Almost completing the circle, we popped in like abject tourists at Mount Rushmore, flabbergasted to discover that the carving of Teddy Roosevelt looked only faintly like TR but exactly like Kindred. Shaw bought everybody golf balls with the monument stamped on it. In the spirit of Mac O'Grady, one of the balls was left on the mountain. Mac once hid a Titleist at the Taj Mahal just in case he ever found himself in Agra without a ball.

When a woman handed over a small camera and asked me to snap a picture of her family against the backdrop of Washington, Jefferson, Kindred and Lincoln, I said, "Better than that, I've got a real photographer here, a hell of a photographer, a pro, a champion. He'll do it." Greenfly took the picture but didn't smile. He still hated me.

Our final round was an unplanned one at Southern Hills off Highway 18 in Hot Springs, S.D., a leafy little course. To settle all the bets, we paced off a 100-foot putt on the 18th green, closest to the hole, winner take all. The one among us least likely to make any kind of putt threw down the first ball and stroked it. The rolling ball broke about four ways, the last time left to right straight into the cup.

Draino.

"Golf is a stupid game," Shaw said.

Isn't it?