January 20, 2008

More Than Just A Golfer

Bobby Fischer's mentor had a keen eye for golf as well as chess

Bobby Fischer was the Tiger Woods of chess, a progidy who became the best in the world, energizing his game in the process. Unfortunately for Fischer, who in 1972 became the first American to win the official world chess championship, strangeness put a checkmate on brilliance in the second half of his life. He died last week at age 64 in Iceland, a country with a growing interest in golf, but Fischer didn't live there so he could tee it up under the midnight sun.

In 2005 Iceland, site of Fischer's epic triumph over Soviet Boris Spassky, had offered citizenship to the enigmatic genius, whose later years were marked by a life of eccentricity and seclusion, denunciation of the United States and anti-Semitic bile.

One can only wonder what kind of golfer Fischer would have been, how it would have affected him if he had filled some of his idle hours with the game, if he had embraced the sport the way his first chess instructor, Carmine Nigro, did. It certainly couldn't have hurt.

Fischer was only 8 years old in 1951 when Nigro began teaching him in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Nigro was president of the YMCA chess club. "Dad recognized he was a kid who excelled at chess with little pushing," recalls Nigro's son, Bill, an architect. "He spent every weekend at our house for several years. He was an eccentric kid -- he so much loved to win, he would throw the pieces across the room if he lost. I would play a game or two with Fischer, then I was ready to go play outside. He stayed with Dad the whole day."

Nigro mentored Fischer for five years, before the stockbroker moved to Miami in 1956, when golf quickly became a serious passion. "Dad was a perfectionist and always wanted to be the best he could at whatever it was," says Bill Nigro. "There was a park near where we lived. He loved to fool around with his short game so much he had me take our lawnmower and mow a little green so he could improve his shotmaking. Every morning before work and every afternoon after work, he was out there in the park, hitting shots to this makeshift green."

When Nigro wasn't honing his golf game at the park, he was working on it at night at a driving range owned by Sam Snead's older brother, Homer, a quirkily smart man in his own right. "He was an electronic genius," says Homer's nephew, Jack Snead. "One summer I went to stay with Uncle Homer and brought a new CB radio kit with me. The whole thing was disassembled, and it was supposed to take 150 hours to put together if you followed all the instructions. I went fishing one morning, came back later that day and he had built it and had it working in one day. He never looked at the instructions."

Homer applied his inventive mind to golf, too, experimenting with driver inserts to try to hit the ball farther than he already did -- which was long. "He took a glass towel rod and cut it crossways, hoping it would compress the ball better. He was always monkeying around with something."

Before long, Homer had Nigro giving golf lessons at night. "He was a natural-born teacher," says Bill Nigro, noting his father, who passed away in 2001 at 91, counted a Florida junior champion among his pupils. "He felt it was his duty to share knowledge to help somebody improve in whatever it was they were doing. He really had the ability to teach beyond what he was capable of doing, because he could visualize and had such a terrific mind. He could play chess blindfolded, sitting in another room calling out the moves in multiple games and play just as well."

Bob Heintz can only imagine such skill, but the 37-year-old Yale graduate is the only player in the 2008 PGA Tour media guide to list chess as a special interest. "I don't think many guys play," says Heintz. "I've only heard one or two conversations about chess in my time as a professional. It's just not a common tie. I lack a chess partner at the moment. When John Rollins lived next door to me, we would play occasionally. I showed him how. The problem is, if you show someone how to play, they tend to play like you do. We tended to have boring games because we used the same strategies. I'd call myself a 'bogey' chess player. I understand the game, but if you put me against somebody who is reasonably serious, they would make me look stupid."

As for the parallels between his job and his hobby, Heintz is circumspect. "When conditions are quite difficult, you can try to think one or two shots ahead, plan where your misses are," he says. "But when we're at the John Deere on soft greens in the summertime, you're really not playing chess. You're smoking it out there and trying to stuff it next to the flag." Checkers, anyone?