Maybe the most beloved typist in the press tent for the latter half of the 20th century was the great Dave Anderson. He died on Oct. 4 at age 89, still with the title: nicest guy in sports.
One of our pals always said Dave was thought to be a boxing writer by the boxing writers, and he was known as a football writer by the football writers and a baseball writer by the baseball writers—and certainly he was a golf writer among the golf writers. That may be the highest tribute paid a sports columnist: to be considered an expert in every field by the experts.
My connection to Dave was all about golf, except for one time he smuggled me a press credential for Golf Digest to cover the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight fight, over in 91 seconds. Jack Nicklaus took longer to hit a putt in his prime.
The first time I met Dave was at the 1977 Walker Cup as a 21-year-old intern for Golf Digest, and he treated me like a colleague. I later learned he always befriended the youngest writers and helped them along. “You know,” he often said to me, “a lot happened before you came along.” Absent any discernible ego, he happily bunked with the Golf Digest editors every year in a crowded house at the Masters, where Dave was annually assigned to a children’s bed framed in a red plastic sports car. He never complained.
Dave referred to his newspaper as “The New York City Daily Times.” Much as he was liked throughout the sports world, he didn’t shy away from criticizing deserving miscreants. He disliked tennis and its crybabies and for a long period refused to cover the sport. He deservedly took George Steinbrenner to the woodshed. He was consistently hard on Augusta National and the Masters Tournament for, among other things, televising only the back nine in those days, and he could be relied upon to ask uncomfortable questions of Masters chairmen.
He may have won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, but he had a plain-spoken writing style, and it was his relentless reporting that brought Dave the greatest respect among his peers. In golf, the best example was his coverage of the 1983 Skins Game, when Tom Watson accused Gary Player of cheating by plucking a blade of grass before hitting a chip shot on the 16th hole. “Gary, I’m tired of this,” Dave overheard Watson say to Player in front of rules official Joe Dey on a dirt road after the gallery had all gone and only Dave and the three of them remained. Dey pleaded with Anderson not to pursue the story, but Dave was a pro’s pro, and his column became a sensation.
An old-fashioned gentleman to the end, Dave was the last adult I knew who didn’t have a cellphone or an email address. He told wonderful stories in a quivering voice better heard around a dining room table of friends than into the microphone of sports banquets. One of Dave’s favorites was a rare telephone interview he scored with the reclusive Ben Hogan. Afterward, Anderson called back Hogan’s secretary, Clarabelle, and asked if he could follow up with one more question for Mr. Hogan. Dave relished repeating the punchline. Clarabelle said in Dave’s version of a Texas accent, “Mr. Anderson, I think you should feel lucky to get what you got.”
I was witness to one of the sweetest days in Dave Anderson’s life in the mid-1980s at a Tillinghast course called Sunningdale in Westchester, N.Y., where Dave, Nick Seitz and I partnered in a member-guest with our host Tony Wimpfheimer, then managing editor of Random House. This was one of those beautiful afternoons away from work with only the chirping of birds and friendly banter in the air.
Dave was an 18-handicapper and proud of it. He was not better than an 18, either, and truth be told, on many days he was worse. His savior often was a replica of Bobby Jones’ putter known as Calamity Jane. Dave liked to tell us that Jack Nicklaus once asked to see his blade, gave it a few strokes, and said, “Nice putter” before handing it back: Picasso admiring the colors on your palette.
He always befriended the youngest writers and helped them along. “You know,” he often said to me, “a lot happened before you came along.”
The most distinctive part of Dave’s swing was the waggle that preceded it—an immense, rhythmic swish of the club back and forth. Grown men would step back. We often told him he had “the best waggle in golf.”
On this day of sweetness, Dave started better than usual with a couple of pars and then a surprising birdie, then a bounce-back bogey, then a string of one-putt pars. We all were focused on our own games, but hole by hole we noticed Dave was playing above his level. No one said a word, in the way friends root for friends quietly, so as not to break the streak. He had shot 36 on the front, but we didn’t count it up. By the time we got to 13 and 14, we were whispering to each other. After he made a 10-footer for par on 15, I remember saying to Tony, “If Dave pars in, he’ll shoot 72.” He bogeyed 16 but came back with a par on 17. I don’t think we ever felt more tension in the air at a U.S. Open than watching Dave in silence play 18. The tee shot went into the trees, the second advanced up the fairway, a 9-iron on and two solid putts for a bogey. A legitimate, strict-rules-of-golf, rattle-bottom 74 by an 18-handicapper. Net 56! At the prize-giving, our team won every award and trophy—we swept the tables like nothing I’d ever seen. Later I would ask Dean Knuth, who invented Slope handicapping, what the odds were for an 18 to shoot 74. “Incalculable,” he said. “It can’t happen.” It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
For many years, at the annual Gold Tee Dinner of the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Writers Association, Anderson would introduce the winner of the Linc Werden Award for journalism. Werden was an upright fellow, but a fairly undistinguished golf writer for The New York Times. Many of us have lobbied for years to change the name to the Dave Anderson Award, a much more fitting honor. Dave flatly refused. Keep watching this space.