July 22, 2007

Tees And Teens

An old scribe covers an LPGA event in 2009 and discovers a whole new world

Ask me if I've ever read one of those advice columns for teens in the newspapers, and I'll say, yeah, sure, all the time, don't I look like I have an eating disorder? Don't I look like I need help trying to find the mall? And, hey—it's 2009 and I think after 50 years I've pretty much figured out how to deal with my parents, OK?

On the other hand, I wasn't about to pass up a chance to cover the Emily Turner Clambake. After all, it was the year's first major. Emily Turner, in case you don't know, is the woman who influences the lives of so many young girls in her syndicated column, Babbling with Emily, and on her popular daytime TV show by the same name.

Like if a teen babe wants to know where to buy a pair of cheap chandelier earrings, she asks Emily. Or if a teen babe wants to know where to find that new video game where she can rescue her platoon from the Taliban, she asks Emily.

Emily Turner knows all kinds of things about life, of course, and for the past five years she's been dipping into golf.

I'd never met Emily, but I introduced myself to her when I arrived at Rancho Trusto Fundo Country Club the day before the tournament started.

Rancho Trusto Fundo is carved out of the melted cheese, chili con carne and chopped taco salad of a California area only an hour and a half from La Jolla and San Diego.

It's the toughest course Pete Dye, Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus ever collaborated on. Yeah, tougher, I think, than Piranha Nibbles, the course they designed on the banks of the Amazon in a part of the Brazilian jungle that can only be reached by paddle boat.

I might add that Rancho Trusto Fundo is woven through a residential area where the homes all look like two Merions and three Winged Foots have been added onto the Oakland Hills clubhouse.

The hills are alive with the sound of money, if you get my meaning, not to write a Broadway musical about it.

But it's sort of a fun place. When you're not playing the golf course, you can sit on the clubhouse terrace and watch the daily swarms of illegal immigrants go romping happily across the hills and valleys in their quaint regional costumes.

I found Emily Turner to be a trim, bouncy little thing. She's somewhere between the age of 55 and 82—it depends on which side of her most recent facelift you're standing on. I wanted to ask if those were her own eyebrows creeping up her forehead, but thought better of it.

You've seen women whose facelifts have left them looking surprised. Emily looks permanently startled.

Right away, she invited me to join her for an adult beverage in the Teen Vogue hospitality tent.

We clinked highball glasses, and I informed her that I actually preferred watching teen babes play golf these days. I said, "There's something about a young ponytail that can blow it out there 320 off the tee—uphill, into the wind."

She looked pleased, although she seemed preoccupied with adjusting the hearing aid in her right ear.

I explained to her how it came about that grown-ups had driven me to covering teen golf. Forced me to resign from Rampant Instruction, the largest selling golf monthly, and take a job writing for Divots and Shopping, the successful golf weekly, the magazine that's devoted to curing your slice and presenting full-page ads for thong underwear.

I said I'd finally grown tired of having an IMG agent tell me to make an appointment if I wanted to talk to his billionaire client. Some college dropout who didn't know how to do anything but hit a golf ball and would have trouble finding a real job outside of lawn care.

The last time it happened to me was on the veranda at Augusta this past spring. I was standing there trying to have a conversation with this player, Sluggo Simpo, I'll call him, and his agent, Kaiser Wilhelm.

But no matter what I said, Sluggo and the agent only looked at me like I was supposed to be sacking their groceries.

Then Kaiser Wilhelm said if I wanted an interview with Sluggo I should call him, the agent, not the player, and make an appointment.

I said, "Can I ask one question first?"

The agent frowned.

"Does the dummy talk?" I said.

Nothing. Blank faces. Both of them.

That's when I said to the agent, "Tell you what. Rather than you, I think I'll call and make an appointment with a brain surgeon and see if I can have your client's name cut out." And walked away. That was it for dealing with the guys.

As for the women, well, I confessed to Emily Turner I'd never even tried to cover an event on the LPGA Tour—they hadn't played in a town I'd ever heard of in 25 years. I spoke a little louder to Emily and asked how she happened to become interested in golf in the first place. I knew her tournament, the Clambake, was in its fifth year.

She said, "I suppose you could say it started with Bing Crosby. I loved his songs. Straight down the middle … ba ba ba boo. And Dinah was an influence, naturally. My friend, Dinah Shore. Hidy, y'all."

"I see."

"All seven of my husbands played in the old Crosby every year. I would go with them, but only for the dinner parties and socializing with the movie stars at the Lodge. Jack Lemmon was such fun."

"The Monterey Peninsula is terrific."

"It's a quaint part of the state."

"Did you say you've had seven husbands?"

"Seven. Yes."

"And they all played golf?"

"Every waking moment, darling."

"But you didn't play?"

"No."

"It sounds like you didn't have much in common with any of your husbands, if you don't mind me saying so."

"Oh, we did," she said, smiling. "We liked being rich."

Emily's seventh and last husband, Elbert F. (Flash) Pembroke, was a former president of the American Junior Golf Association. He had been the person who encouraged her to sponsor a tournament for young girls.

The tournament ran smoothly for two years, she said, but the third one broke up her marriage. Two years ago, as it happened, Flash Pembroke fell hopelessly in love and ran away with the 16-year-old winner, Annika Danica Koonce.

Flash Pembroke and Annika Danica spent a romantic year together, but then Flash died suddenly this past February. His heart exploded as he was thumbing through an issue of Golf for Women.

Emily finished her highball and said she had a column to write about eating disorders, but she was delighted I was covering the Clambake, and she expected us to be seeing a lot of each other.

Other pressing matters in journalism kept me from covering last year's majors. I hated to miss the Clambake. I'd liked to have seen Harriet Scroggs shoot that 64 in the last round and win it by five.

Harriet Scroggs was a powerful, wide-body 17-year-old everyone thought was a cinch to be a star on the LPGA Tour. Unfortunately, she let her temper get the best of her after only six months with the pros.

I was sorry to hear it when she gave up golf completely, but I've read where she's doing quite well on the European track and field circuit. The javelin is her best event, and they say she's throwing it almost as far as she could throw her Ping putter.

Lurkers won the other three majors last year. Li Lang Lo took the iPod Invitational, Lang Lo Li captured the Nordstrom Mall Rat Classic, and Sing Sang Sung grabbed the Whataburger-USGA National Girls' Junior.

Research told me lurkers never do well in the Clambake. You can always count on a headliner to come through. That's because the par-72 Rancho Trusto Fundo course plays to 7,800 yards from the tips, or what the members call "the portfolio tees."

The Clambake drew its strongest field in history this time. The 60 invited contestants, who would battle it out over two rounds of stroke play, came from 32 states, six different countries, and ranged in age from 12 to 17. Between them, they had won 1,569 amateur tournaments.

Another statistical breakdown revealed that 16 of them were named Paula, 16 were named Michelle, six were named Lolita. The other 22 were South Koreans.

I was surprised by the press coverage. I didn't expect anybody to be on hand but myself and maybe a local reporter, but there were men and women writers from Teen Vogue, Cosmo Chick, Parent Zap, Hottie, Navels Galore, Back Talk, Me!, Greed, Where's Mine?, and the AP guy in his beard, khaki shorts, sombrero, Blackberry and backpack of fresh fruit and natural spring water.

Emily furnished me with a cart so I could drive around and watch the ponytails challenge Rancho Trusto Fundo in the first round.

I stuck with the feature twosome. I went the full 18 and watched the charismatic Paula Jean Wagner fire a four-under-par 68 to take a three-stroke lead over the charismatic Michelle Janine Taylor. Paula Jean Wagner was the fetching 14-year-old whose fame since age 6 had turned her mother into a terrified mute and transformed her father into a hunchback invalid from holding down five jobs at once in his effort to pay for his daughter's instruction and schooling at the golf academy in Florida.

Michelle Janine Taylor was the 14-year-old dynamo who'd won 233 tournaments since the age of 7, and had been found innocent of beating her mother to death with the 120-pound scrapbook the mother had kept of her daughter's golf accomplishments. A bushy-haired stranger, arranged by IMG, was later charged with the crime.

Michelle Janine came to the press room interview area first. Emily Turner took it upon herself to conduct the interview. She sat beside Michelle Janine at the table. They shared a microphone as they faced the press.

Emily said, "Michelle, would you like to make a general comment about your round before going through your card?"

"No," Michelle Janine said.

She looked very unhappy.

"No? No, what?" Emily said.

"I hate my round."

Michelle Janine stared off, tight-lipped.

"But you shot a wonderful 71," Emily said.

"I took a dirt nap."

Her eyes flashed with anger.

"You took a dirt nap? What's that?"

Emily smiled sweetly at the child, then glanced at the audience and shrugged, as if to say she was doing her best.

"It's a dirt nap, what do you think it is?" Michelle Janine said.

"You're saying dirt nap? Like someone would lie down in the dirt and go to sleep?"

"I played like I was dead, dumbo!"

After her press conference Michelle Janine went to the game room in the clubhouse to relax. She climbed into a seat in a large plastic bubble and began squeezing the trigger on a toy AK-47 that was pointed at a video screen on which swarms of Osama bin Ladens were rushing toward her.

I was pouring myself a Coke in a cup of ice as I waited for the tournament leader, Paula Jean Wagner, to come into the interview area. Suddenly, I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned around to find Paula Jean Wagner.

"Hi, sailor," she said with a grin. "Buy a lady a root-beer float?"

To say she won me over in that instant would be an understatement.

Studying her for a moment, I sized up a more mature person than I'd watched on the golf course. Even cuter, up close and personal. Shapely. Tan. Blond. Far beyond her 14 years. She could have been, oh, 16 or 17.

I told her I enjoyed watching her play today. Frankly, I was amazed at their length, she and Michelle Janine both.

She said, "We were laying metal on it."

"Michelle Janine is rather impressive herself."

"M. Diddy struck it, but she cratered on the greens."

"M. Diddy?"

"That's what we call her out here. M. Diddy."

"Which means … ?"

"I gotta go."

Up at the table with the microphone when Emily asked her to comment on her 68, Paula Jean said, "I lit it up, man."

She was bombarded with a variety of questions. Among them, the leader was asked if she considered it a two-player competition now, just she and Michelle Janine.

"No way," Paula Jean said. "There are a bunch of SoKos right behind us. They're pretty killer."

It was generally decided among the press that by SoKos she meant South Koreans.

Somebody asked Paula Jean which part of the golf game the South Koreans were best at.

"Chipping and bunkers," she said. "They can download it, man."

Another question. What was the favorite club in her bag?

"My 3-comp," she said.

"Your what?" said Emily.

"We don't call it a 3-wood or a 3-metal," Paula Jean said. "M. Diddy started calling it a 3-comp, and we picked it up. You know, like, the clubs are all composite material? Titanium, carbon, uranium … "

"Three comp!" Emily said, looking as if she'd just scored big on a "Jeopardy" question.

"You got it," Paula Jean said.

When the press conference ended, Paula Jean went to the game room and started cutting down her own share of Osamas.

That evening I accepted Emily's kind invitation to attend a dinner party at her home, which bordered the golf course. Home might not be the right word. It resembled four Rivieras with a Medinah soaring off of each end.

The best view was from the south veranda. You could look down on No. 7, one of the course's six island greens, the hole that inspires the most conversation because of the small replica of Mount Rushmore on a cliff behind the green.

I say Mount Rushmore. The faces carved into the rock of the cliff were actually those of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Jimmy Jack Foster.

I didn't know who Jimmy Jack Foster was either, but I learned that he was the man who originally developed the property and had the golf course built.

There were 16 for dinner. I was Emily's companion, seated on her right. All of the deeply tanned guests were dressed in various shades of pink, green and yellow. Each guest had a waiter standing directly behind him or her, and each waiter held a bottle of red and a bottle of white.

Emily asked that we all hold hands while she said a prayer before we dined. The thin lady on the other side of me removed all her jewelry before she gave me her hand. Emily then asked the Lord to continue to bless golf and wineries and fashion designers, and please tell the terrorists to show a greater respect for rich people.

Emily gave me a tour of her home after the guests either left or passed out. She said she believed she was developing a crush on me, and if I were to become her eighth husband, I could have an entire Medinah to myself.

The last round of the Clambake was full of surprises. Paula Jean and Michelle Janine each came out dressed for action—they wore short skirts that showed a lot of leg and breast-hugging, navel-exposing T-shirts. Ponytails dangled out of the back of their visors.

They both drove the first green, a downhill 345-yard par 4, and two-putted for birdies. Michelle Janine drew gasps from the gallery when she reached the 610-yard par-5 sixth hole in two with a driver and a 5-iron. She made the 20-foot eagle putt to pick up two strokes on Paula Jean.

Paula Jean pouted and bit her lip.

Michelle Janine picked up another shot on Paula Jean when she reached the 485-yard par-4 ninth with a 3-comp and wedge and made the six-footer for birdie.

Michelle Janine played with her earring as she walked down the fairway.

Paula Jean fought back at the 10th, a 490-yard par 4 that required a 280-yard carry off the tee over pure wasteland. She smashed a drive 320 yards and almost holed a 9-iron. She made the tap-in birdie and her lead was back to two strokes.

Paula Jean played with her own earring as she walked away.

Then it was Michelle Janine's turn. The 16th hole was the last of the island greens, a 287-yard par 3. They reached the green safely, but after Paula Jean three-putted for a bogey, Michelle sank a 25-foot birdie and now they were tied with two holes to play.

It was while they stood on the 17th tee that they heard the roar and found out what Hee Hon (The Hog) Ding, one of the SoKos, had done.

Hee Hon (The Hog) Ding had been five strokes back starting the last nine holes, but she had quietly birdied four holes in a row, the 10th through the 13th, two of them with chip-ins, and then (what the roar was all about) she had holed out a 2-iron at the 16th for an ace.

The SoKo was now the leader by one.

I might have kicked a tree trunk. I know I kicked the front wheel of my golf cart.

All Paula Jean and Michelle Janine could do was smote their foreheads at the news and try to par the last two holes. Which they did. The only thing they could do then was wait after the scoreboard confirmed that Hee Hon (The Hog) Ding had parred the 17th hole and needed a par on 18 to win the Clambake.

I waited by the 18th green with Paula Jean and Michelle Janine, and watched their eyes tear up when word reached us that Hee Hon had parred the 17th by holing out a 40-yard bunker shot.

The way Hee Hon (The Hog) Ding played the last hole, a par 5, was what I think almost any golfer would describe as unforgivable.

She topped her tee shot. She shanked her second. She topped her third. She put her fourth in the pond just short of the green, but she could see the ball only an inch or two below the surface, and decided to try to play it out with a sand wedge.

She took a mighty swing at the ball, made a horrendous splash and out came the ball along with about a half-pound of mud.

The ball and the mud all went into the cup together for Hee Hon's par 5 on the hole—and her victory in the Clambake.

A second after the ball landed in the cup I was driving the cart back to the press room to write the game story on my trusty laptop.

I finished in a little under an hour and went to find Emily Turner and say goodbye. She was in the Teen Vogue hospitality tent having a glass of vodka and pretending to be happy for Hee Hon (The Hog) Ding.

I explained to Emily about the mysterious skin disease I'd been fighting for the past nine months, but I said doctors had given me some reasons to be optimistic. She said she certainly hoped it could be cured before I came back for next year's tournament.

I left for the airport in a taxi and sat back to read a printout of the story I'd filed. I was satisfied that I'd pretty much summed up the event and how I felt about teen golf in general. My lead read: "I don't want to live in a world where the cutest girls don't win golf tournaments."