Editor's LetterJanuary 29, 2015

Life-takers and Heartbreakers

Navy SEAL Rob O'Neill turned the camera on Senior Staff Photographer Dom Furore.

Navy SEAL Rob O'Neill turned the camera on Senior Staff Photographer Dom Furore.

There are two stories in this issue about guys who broke the code. Phil Mickelson spoke out against his Ryder Cup captain, and it made us all gasp. And the golfer who shot Osama bin Laden shattered the Navy SEALs' vow of silence and talks openly about it. "Golf's more stressful than combat," he likes to say.

"To my eye, he's the most ordinary-looking man I've ever seen," says our longtime contributor Tom Callahan, who interviewed Rob O'Neill over two days in December. "Especially when you consider his dramatic life.

"O'Neill never bragged. He was actually quite soft-spoken, not full of himself. He didn't announce that he was a life-taker or a heartbreaker. And he didn't come across as a tough guy. Nothing about him said he was a killer. I asked him how many guys he's killed. He just said, '30, 30-something.' Obviously, not much would give him chills.

"I wanted us to spend time together, to get to know him a bit, to loosen up. He asked me if I was military. I said I was in the Marines. I told him I was a hero, but I don't like to talk about it. He knew that was Marine-speak for I didn't do a goddam thing after Quantico. I got a laugh out of Earl Woods with that line, too."

Tom once wrote a piece for Golf Digest investigating Earl's story about naming his son after a Vietnamese soldier who saved his life, Tiger Phong (see it at golfdigest.com/go/phong

).

My Top 5

"Earl talked about Phong being a tough guy, but in all the pictures he looked like a school teacher," Callahan says. "I know not everybody did, but I always had a warm spot for Earl. When I first met him in Milwaukee at Tiger's coming out as a pro [in 1996], I didn't believe a word he said. I asked him when he was in Vietnam. He said the '60s and the '70s but couldn't remember exactly when. I asked him if it was before the Tet Offensive. He didn't know when Tet was. I thought he was a four-flusher, vague on every detail. But I got it all through the Freedom of Information Act and spent a month in Vietnam checking him out. All his baseball stories about being a major-league prospect were fables, but everything Earl said about the military was the whole truth. I asked Oliver North about Earl. North said the guys who really lived it are trying to forget the details; it's the fakes who remember everything."

My favorite Callahan story is not when he rolled around a hotel breaking lamps and grappling with ex-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, but the time he and I walked the marketplace in Tangier, Morocco, and were clawed by street peddlers. I turned around to find that Callahan had knocked out an anti-Semitic seller with a single punch. "What happened?" I asked. "Every Irishman's a Jew when called one," he explained. "Let's get the hell out of here," our guide said.

This month, it was the Tiger Woods-Rob O'Neill connection that became a Golf Digest article, but I'll leave it to Callahan to tell you the rest (see "The Golfer Who Killed Osama bin Laden"

).

As for the Ryder Cup unraveling, I've known Tom Watson since he joined the Golf Digest staff in 1978, and I've known Mickelson since he was at Arizona State, even before he became one of our playing editors. And I like both of them a lot—they're big personalities, principled icons of their generations, but from different generations.

Today's pros are accustomed to being mollycoddled, preferring the soft touch of a private jet's leather seats over the crackling end of a bullwhip. Watson knows nothing but the lash, and that's why the PGA of America hired him: to turn around the U.S. losing streak with a Herb Brooks "Miracle" performance. But it all fell apart in a lopsided loss, and not since Watson upbraided Gary Player over a rules incident in the 1983 Skins Game had two Hall of Famers squared off so publicly. Senior Writer Jaime Diaz takes you inside the Tom-Phil rift (see "Ryder Cup Meltdown"

).

One thing to keep in mind: Over three days and 28 matches, Europe beat America in stroke-play terms, 110 under par to 78 under. Watson certainly made mistakes, but I don't know any captain who could have made up 32 birdies. Even tough guys have a limit.