March 31, 2008

Calculations

Mark Calcavecchia, the tour's anti-Tiger, is a refreshing mix of wit and unconventional wisdom

Mark Calcavecchia is a mess. A big, beautiful, rumpled mess. And he really doesn't care who knows it, which is exactly why everyone is so fond of him. His feet hurt, just like ours.

There is no better quote in golf than Calc. When he won the 1989 British Open, he joked about there not being enough room on the claret jug for his whole name. There is no bigger heart, either. When his caddie, Eric Larson, was in prison for a drug offense, Mark was the only person who visited him at all four of the places Larson did time. After he paid his debt to society, Larson had his job on the bag waiting for him. When a boyhood friend was trying to qualify for the '01 British Open, Calc drove the 90 minutes to the course and walked across the dunes with a sweater wrapped around his waist, a beer in his hand and his usual message, "Come on, let's go make some birdies." If you're Calcavecchia's friend, you're in for the long haul.

"Calc has evolved only because of age and wives," says his old buddy, Ken Green. "I don't believe Calc's ever really grown up, to be honest with you. Calc's still Calc."

At 47, Calcavecchia is an elder statesman with a jalopy for a body and a Peter Pan complex for a soul. He wears his foibles on his sleeve like service stripes and would rather be in a bowling alley than on ESPN's SportsCenter. If the King of the Hill needed a golfer to hang around in the back yard, Calc would be his guy.

"Golf is just a game," Calcavecchia once said, "and an idiotic game most of the time. " He has the perfect brain for golf, wired for electric shock. To Calc, golf is nothing but an endless series of tragedies, some of which are hopelessly comic once your blood pressure returns to normal and you step back and look at it. He watches leader boards because, "I like to know whether I don't need to do anything stupid or whether I need to try to do something stupid." What golfer doesn't understand that and what ordinary citizen does?

"Every time you go out with the guy, you have the potential for something extraordinary, off the wall," says David Roschman, who grew up with Calcavecchia in Florida. "Ten years later, you're laughing your butt off."

On a February day at their modest home in Phoenix, Mark and his second wife, Brenda, are packing to make the shift from west to east for the Florida swing where Calc would nearly win twice (at the Honda Classic and PODS Championship). Calcavecchia will wind up, ultimately, at Augusta National -- 20 years after he nearly got a green jacket, finishing a shot behind Sandy Lyle and his famous 7-iron out of the fairway bunker on the 18th hole. There's a pile of "Boston Legal" DVDs on the counter. Brenda makes sandwiches for the flight, wrapping extras for the pilots. They're taking a private plane so they can bring their three dogs. Mark more or less apologizes because they're not flying commercial.

"Sometimes," says another of his boyhood friends, Dave Pesacov, teaching professional at The President CC in West Palm Beach, "it almost seems like he's embarrassed [by] the success he has had." The dogs all have predominantly white coats. Mollie, a boxer puppy, Miss Ellie, a Dalmatian, and Brutus Buckeye, a Jack Russell, sit as if they are in a commercial for cell-phone reception at the top of the stairs, keeping a watchful eye on the activity below, not yet certain they're included.

Calc sits at the breakfast table wearing khaki shorts, tennis shoes and a Rush T-shirt in the full-figured, untucked position, waiting for a conference call with some Florida writers, many of whom he has known most of his adult life. The adult part hasn't been all grand. His first marriage ended badly. He lost his sweet little church-going mother a year and half ago. Life happens fast for Calcavecchia, on the up side and the down. Even when he was a kid, he was never late for anything, as if he couldn't wait to see what was going to happen that day. He's still one of the fastest, and most impatient, players on tour. If putts aren't falling, he'll change his grip six or seven times during a round, trying everything he can think of. When they are dropping, no one makes birdies in bigger bunches.

Calcavecchia's cell phone rings and he ignores it, then puts on his reading glasses to see who it was. He's got pairs of cheaters stashed all over the house, plus an extra pair that lives in Brenda's purse. He's got a bushel basket of them in Florida, too. He decides to return the call later. "Check this out," he says, and passes the picture phone across the table. The screen has a headshot of Calc with a Mohawk. Brenda gave him a buzz cut a couple of days earlier, and they paused at the Mohawk stage long enough to record it for posterity. "She wanted me to keep it," he says. "We were going out to dinner that night. I didn't have the [guts]." He tried to send the picture to Tiger Woods but encountered a fatal case of operator error. Calcavecchia is one of the handful of members in Woods' text-messaging club.

"I don't do it that often. Just now and then if I'm bored," Calc says. "One day we were going to Universal Studios, and I said, 'Hey, you want to go ride some roller coasters?' Tiger goes, 'I don't think so.' I said, 'What? Are you scared?' He texts me back and said, 'I jump out of airplanes. I'm not scared.' "He gives me s--- about how fat I am," Calc continues. "I put on like a wind shirt or something. He looked at the [tag]. 'What size is this, XXXXL? You look like a [expletive] tent. You look like you're 400 pounds.

"One day I actually was exercising, and I text him and said, 'I'm actually working out.' He says, 'Twelve-ounce curls don't count.' Even when I was working out, he gave me s---.

"I think he wants everybody to think that he's Superman, which most of us do anyway," Calc adds. "He's got the shorter sleeves now because he wants everybody to see his muscles. His shirt in San Diego, I couldn't believe how short the sleeves were. The shirt itself wasn't that tight, but the sleeves stopped right there. All you could see was bicep. I'm like, 'Wow.' "

At last year's Tour Championship, Calcavecchia said he thought Woods could run from East Lake all the way back to downtown Atlanta but that he, on the other hand, was so tired, "I couldn't run out of a burning building."

Talking with Calc is like playing a slot machine that always pays off. You put the coin in, watch the wheels spin and it comes up cherries.

Calcavecchia has a particularly complex relationship with putters. "The ones that I putted with in the past that I actually had some success with, I keep those around," he says. "The putter I made a boatload of putts with back in the late '80s and early '90s is sitting in the garage. I look at him every day when I walk in the house. Say 'Hi' to him. Pull him out, look at him. He still looks great. Every time I try to putt with it, I can't make s---. He's just worn out. He made his share, and he's done."

Of course, not all of Calc's putters have earned the right to be turned out to pasture. There is the one he famously dragged outside the driver-side door from the Plantation Course to the Kapalua Bay Hotel in Hawaii. "Well, it didn't quite make it that far," he says. "I pulled over and threw it against a wall 10 times. The putter from last year's Bridgestone Invitational, the head is sitting in a rain gutter on the second floor of the Residence Inn. I sent him there and told him, 'I hope you enjoy the winters. Hope you freeze your ass off in the ice, sleet and snow and bake in the summer.' There's one in New York that's buried in a murky, cold flower bed. Sometimes they just die ugly deaths. Other times I just drown them.

"At times I've talked nicely to my putters," Calc goes on. "Patted them on the head. Gave them a little kiss. Other times I talk to them, and they don't listen. You have to threaten them. I think they can be mean. That's why I think buying putters is a good philosophy. A putter knows if it has been paid for, it is replaceable."

Photo: Lamar Standish

Calcavecchia's body is held together with duct tape and Super Glue. "The most painful problem is my brain. Not that I can feel it hurt, but it just thinks it does. Really in bad shape," he says. "I'd say the most annoying problem I have is my back, and it moves around. Feet. Everything from plantar fasciitis, bone spurs. I've got queer feet. I get blisters all the time. Hurts like hell. I can't wait to get out of my golf shoes. I've had two surgeries on each knee. These two fingers are arthritic. Elbows, I'm always massaging this muscle here. I can feel it all the way down into my wrist and my fingers. Came down with vertigo when we were in Ireland the week before the Ryder Cup. Sleep with a mask on every day. That's that dent in my nose. When I don't sleep with my mask on, I snore. Sometimes I'll wrestle it off at night. When Bren's there, she wakes me up and tells me to put my mask on. All three dogs sleep with us. It's a tussle. We need one of those Shaquille O'Neal beds, as wide as this kitchen."

He has experimented with exercise and sport psychologists just long enough to know neither is for him. And he thinks testing PGA Tour pros for drugs is probably a waste of time. "I don't see how steroids or human growth hormone could actually help, other than maybe speed up recovering," he says. "Cocaine, marijuana, none of that stuff is performance-enhancing. Guys who did that are playing mini-tours -- or in Panama or Shanghai, or selling golf shoes or something. I love going to rock concerts. What if you go to a Van Halen concert and 18 people around you are all smoking pot at the same time, and you get tested the next day?" he says. "I guarantee you, you're going to test positive. I don't know how long that lingers. I don't have a clue. If it's in the air, it's in the air. That's where [PGA Tour commissioner Tim] Finchem is just going to have to make the call, use good judgment."

Calc is a huge rock fan, particularly the band Rush. There is a collection of seven guitars, several autographed, under the photo of Mark and Brenda's wedding party that hangs above the fireplace in the den. "If I could play guitar like Alex Lifeson or Eddie Van Halen, I would trade that for golf any day," he says. "They're just great every night. They make one or two mistakes a show, nobody knows anyway. I make a mistake, and I'm done for the week. I love playing golf and always have but, to me, if you could play guitar like that and stand up on a stage in front of all those people and do that, it just seems to me that would be the ultimate."

In the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, Calcavecchia threw away a 5-up lead against Colin Montgomerie and wound up alone on the beach in tears. "I never, ever reacted like that after a round of golf. I don't know what happened to me," he says. "I just knew it was going to cost us the Ryder Cup, and I couldn't handle it. To this day I don't know if I mind-dumped it or whether I was in shock or what, but I remember absolutely zero of the rest of that day. I don't even remember when we went out in the ocean. The next thing I remember was being in San Antonio the next week and everybody congratulating me -- great playing because I won 2½ points. Everybody else was happier than hell, but I was still kind of freaked out. Yeah, that was the worst day I ever had."

Calc literally grew up in the bowling alley his father managed in Nebraska before the family moved to Florida when he was 9. When he joined the tour in '82, guys still drove from city to city, and Calc traveled with a pair of bowling balls in the back seat of his car. One year he bowled more than 2,000 games. "Love to bowl. Matter of fact, in our new house we're building a two-lane bowling alley," he says. "I'm sure it will be quite the neighborhood scene. [Camilo] Villegas bought the house two doors down. Olin Browne lives there. Will MacKenzie, [Jesper] Parnevik and all the Swedes. I said, 'All right, get your own ball and your own shoes.' There will be no shoe rental. We've got tons of parking. We're going to put up a hoop. It's going to be like an amusement park. Boating. Bowling. Basketball. Everything that starts with a B."

Across the kitchen the telephone rings. It's the newspaper guys from Florida. Calc leans back in his chair and talks about the week last year he went from clueless to holding the trophy in two days.

It happens just that fast in Calc's world. Always has.