October 29, 2007

Old Pro Still Has Plenty Of Game

Finally and at last, Dave Anderson is on my side. A sports writing legend, he recently retired from The New York Times. He will, however, still do 18 columns a year for the newspaper. Knowing Dave's passion for golf, I'm guessing that, because he wishes to slow down, he chose 18 instead of 36. The upside for us is that Anderson has agreed to contribute to Golf World while adding to the list of courses he has played during his lifetime. He is at 571, which is a bunch, although one fewer than he planned. Seems that after covering the 1981 Masters, Anderson drove to Greenville, S.C., for a relaxed Monday round. No sooner did he arrive than native Dan Foster, another icon in the business, hailed Anderson in the parking lot.

"He told me, 'Call your office,' " Anderson said the other day. "They'd been trying to find me all morning. My first thought was, 'What do they want now?' " What they wanted was to tell Dave he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest accolade, and his presence was required in New York that evening. "It was a nice reason to put the clubs back in the car and head for the airport. But you know how it is when we get a call from the office. It's usually something bad."

Tell me about it. Thanks to Anderson, I experienced significant embarrassment as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. After chronicling a championship fight in Las Vegas, we flew to Phoenix for the inaugural Skins Game in 1983. The participants were Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player. Besides Anderson, Vin Scully and Dan Jenkins were there, too. I was surrounded by greatness. I felt like a ham sandwich at a black-tie banquet.

Upon completing my work at the event Sunday evening, I went to a Mexican restaurant with Dave and John Radosta, the Times' golf writer. I thought all was well until I returned to my hotel and a blinking red light. My office in Chicago had left an urgent message. I phoned, an editor answered, and you could have landed a small plane on his lower lip. "We have this column from Dave Anderson of the Times about a cheating scandal at the Skins Game," he said, not sounding especially imbued by Thanksgiving weekend spirit. "Know anything about it?" I knew nothing and suggested to my boss that he print Anderson's piece next to my rather lame epistle about birdies and bogeys. I then hung up and phoned Dave's room. "I have indigestion, and it wasn't the burrito," I said. "I just lucked into it," Anderson said, almost apologetically. "I didn't even tell Radosta."

Now, understand that getting scooped at a Skins Game wouldn't normally rank among one's greatest career fears, but at least my misery was accompanied. "I got one of those Monday-morning wake-up calls, too," said Jenkins, on assignment for Sports Illustrated. "Dave also got me." But such is the essence of Anderson's genius. Without pounding his fist, hosting his own radio program or blogging 24/7, Anderson does it the old-fashioned way. He goes the extra mile for a story, although his Skins Game trip was a short one along a dirt road. "I wanted to find Player after it was over," Anderson recalled. "I turned a corner, and there was Watson saying, 'I'm accusing you, Gary. You can't do that. I'm tired of this. I wasn't watching you, but I saw it.' " Alas, Watson thought Player had removed a rooted leaf resting against his ball on the 16th hole at Desert Highlands. Player made par there for a halve, then birdied the 17th for a carryover jackpot of $150,000. Player insisted "the piece of grass stayed where it was" after he investigated to see if it was a loose impediment. "When they saw me, they weren't too thrilled," Anderson went on. "I remember Tom saying something like, 'Dave, you're not going to write this, are you?' I told him that was my job."

Anderson's bombshell created quite a stir around the sports world, and when Watson was contacted the next day by a wire service, he did not back down. He expanded on his complaint lodged with Joe Dey, the referee at the match, and reiterated his belief that Player knowingly had violated a rule. Subsequently, Player wrote a book in which he branded Watson "too dour" and alleged that Watson won a couple majors with illegal clubs. To this day, you might not invite Watson and Player to dinner, although Anderson and I have broken burritos since without him serving me humble pie for dessert. In a racket featuring some outsized egos, Anderson has none. During the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, he commandeered a pay phone at the hockey rink while the Times' Gerald Eskenazi typed away in the press box above. Upon finishing each page, he rolled it into a ball and tossed it to Anderson, who uncrumpled the paper and dictated details of America's historic Miracle on Ice saga to the sports desk in Manhattan. Yes, Dave's a team player, and now he's part of our team, so if there's a cheating scandal during the 25th Skins Game later this month, I don't have to worry about a call from the office.