July 16, 2008

Inside Scoop

A longtime Nicklaus collaborator on the characters behind the scenes, from Seve to Snead to Trevino, and more

Seve Ballesteros took on Jack Nicklaus and Ben Krenshaw using a 3-iron from a bunker...and won

Seve Ballesteros took on Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw using a 3-iron from a bunker...and won

SEVE'S $1 BET

Many of Seve Ballesteros' opponents will vouch for his incredible ability to invent and execute unorthodox golf shots. Here's my favorite example.

Seve was practicing from a greenside bunker before the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont when Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw showed up to do the same. After watching them for a few moments, Seve sidled over, grinned and said, "I play you both for $1, closest to the hole," whereupon he upended the club he had been using to show them that it was a 3-iron. Momentarily puzzled, Jack and Ben stared at the long-iron head, then looked at the sand wedges in their hands. Finally, they grinned broadly, and nodded their agreement to what seemed like a sure thing. Going first, Nicklaus blasted a ball within a couple of feet of the cup, followed by Crenshaw, who got just inside him.

Smiling, Seve nodded his congratulations, then, crouching low to facilitate addressing the ball way outside his left foot and opening the 3-iron's blade until it faced the sky, he made a soft little swing that lofted the ball within a few feet of the hole, from where it ran to hang on the lip.

I can't recall ever seeing a couple of big-time sports figures looking as stunned as Jack and Ben did at that moment. When, after a moment, Ballesteros -- his expression a picture of innocence -- inquired, "Again?" both quickly declined.

'TICKLING YE UP'

Nicklaus, Crenshaw and two friends -- actor Sean Connery and singer Glen Campbell -- were playing a practice round at the Old Course of St. Andrews in preparation for a three-part BBC TV special to benefit a Scottish charity headed by Connery.

The Old Course was busy, but the illustrious foursome was in no hurry. At the fourth hole, a golf ball rolled past them as they walked to their approach shots, and a couple of more balls rolled past as they ambled toward their drives on No. 5.

This time the four stopped and stared back. As they did, a man on a moped rode up with the word "RANGER" across the front of his cap. Stopping, he offered a pleasant "Good day to ye, gentlemen." One could assume he recognized at least two of the four, but, if so, he showed no sign of it.

Campbell was the first to address him.

"Hi, there, Mr. Ranger," Glen said. "Listen, we're glad you showed up, because those guys behind us are hitting into us. Happened three times now. Would you mind asking them to quit?"

"Sorry, sir," the ranger said, "but I daresun't do that. Ye see, they're just tickling ye up because ye're playing too slowly. Speed up and they'll stop, and ye'll be just foine."

To which the ranger politely tipped his cap, said with a grin, "Aye, just tickling ye up, ye see," restarted his moped and drove away, leaving Connery -- an understanding native -- chuckling and the other three stunned.

I didn't have the nerve to ask Nicklaus if it was the first time he'd ever been "tickled up," but I'd have bet a fair sum that it was.

MR. GENEROSITY

Sam Snead showed up for the British Open at Royal Troon in 1962, having been persuaded to promote the interests of his lifelong clubmaker, the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. Snead had won the title at St. Andrews in 1946, despite considering the course little more than a goat track -- and that after finishing tied for 11th at Carnoustie, which he also disliked, in his only previous attempt, in 1937.

As is customary on most longer links holes, because of the severity of the trouble lining the fairways, Sam's caddie, Willie, would hand him his driver as they came off the previous green, then make his way well down the hole to help locate the tee shot.

Seemingly unhappy with life in general and his game in particular, after an unusually wild drive in his opening practice round, Sam let the club fall to the tee over his shoulder, then left it there, muttering to himself as he strutted up the fairway. Which, of course, meant that his caddie -- by then almost 300 yards away -- would have to return to the tee to retrieve the club.

Wordlessly and without expression, Willie gently laid Sam's bag where he'd been waiting, then marched smartly back to the tee. Upon arriving there, he picked up the offending club, but instead of heading back up the fairway with it, he stood and waved at Sam, as though indicating, OK, I got it, and I'll be back with it in a jiffy.

However, once he was sure he had Snead's full attention, Willie's next move was to swing the club in an ever-faster circling motion above his head until, letting it go, he whirligigged the thing a good 50 or 60 yards into some tall weeds. After bowing appreciatively for the spectators' applause, Willie turned to wave once more at his erstwhile employer, then headed for the clubhouse.

Fortunately for Snead, a spectator volunteered to retrieve the club and carry the bag for the rest of the round, and he did well enough for Sam to hire him for the championship. At age 50, Snead tied for sixth, 16 shots behind Arnold Palmer, and afterward I asked his volunteer caddie how much he'd been paid.

"Och aye, he was verra kind," came the response. "He gave me a five-pound note after each round, then a dozen new golf balls from his locker at the end." Mr. Generosity himself!

TREVINO THE RECLUSE

Once the last putt was holed, Lee Trevino at his peak was surely the most reclusive of golf's superstars, very rarely partying publicly or even dining out. On the road, room service and TV were his almost invariable evening regimen. I once asked him about that. The answer came quietly:

*One night way back, my wife at the time and I, we're at some tournament, and we go out to dinner at a place she really liked. Just the two of us. So, we've settled in and had a drink, and just as the waiter brings the entrees, this drunk old guy -- really blasted -- staggers over with a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other and yells, "Hey, Lee Trevino! How ya doin', man? Listen, you're my favorite, and I just gotta get your damn autograph." *

Our table was small and really crowded with stuff. So, when the waiter arrives, he only just about finds room to put my wife's entree -- some kind of pasta dish all juicy and steaming hot -- down in front of her. And this drunken clown, he sticks out his arm and, in trying to push her plate aside so he can put the paper down for me to sign, he shoves this bowl of red-hot food smack into her lap. And, of course, the stuff burns her badly through her clothes and, quick as we can, we have to get out of there and get her to the hospital.

And, although that was the worst, it was far from the first time something like that had happened, or some idiot I'd never seen in my life before who wanted to be my instant best buddy gave me grief.

And so after that night, I promised myself, "That's it. From now on, it's room service every time I can."

'LET THE BUGGER GO!'

Exceptional characters are few in today's golf-writing gig, but that was far from the case in my early days.

I could, for instance, tell many diverting tales about Leonard Crawley, who reported on golf for a major British newspaper during my early magazine-editing days. And even more come to mind about his archrival, sometimes foe and at other times bosom friend, the inimitable Henry Longhurst. But we'll limit it here to a few remembrances.

Upon discovering late in life that he had inoperable cancer, Henry decided that a "comfortable" suicide was preferable to a drawn-out and arduous passing. Accordingly, one winter evening, armed with pills to do the job, he seated himself in his most comfortable chair in front of a fire, along with the pills, a glass and a bottle of his favorite scotch.

The plan was to imbibe sufficient whisky to obviate all distress upon swallowing the pills, then slip away to meet his maker. But there was a hitch. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on one's take on the man, unconsciousness coincided with his depletion of the scotch, resulting in Henry awakening to an empty bottle, an untouched supply of poison pills and a humongous hangover.

And he even had the savoir-faire to make the incident the basis of a column. Now to a tale of the twosome:

The occasion was the Walker Cup Match of 1965 at the Baltimore Country Club, more colloquially known as Five Farms.

Having been monstrously "overserved" for the better part of a day, Henry had appointed me his savior in terms of obtaining a courtesy-car ride for him from the course to the media's downtown hotel. Exacerbating his concern about being stranded overnight in the Maryland boonies was that he had agreed to join Britain's ambassador to the United States the next day at his Washington embassy for lunch with a couple of senators, which clearly required a change of clothes, a badly needed cleanup, a huge intake of aspirin and as much sleep as possible.

Because Crawley was often late completing and transmitting his reports, and Longhurst was persuaded by some new American friends to continue imbibing long after play ended, it so happened that both men would have to ride in the one courtesy car, the driver of which -- a young college student -- I'd been able to bribe into doing overtime. His was a splendid machine for the times, a huge Pontiac convertible seemingly straight off the factory floor. With the temperature and humidity still high, the youngster had kept the top of the car down for the greater comfort of his passengers. Crawley took the front seat next to him, and Longhurst somehow managed to stagger into the back, where I joined him.

At that point both men were engaged in one of their fairly regular phases of, if not bitter enmity, at least "not speaking" to each other -- a form of hauteur and disdain hanging over from their British upper-class backgrounds. And, in fact, Crawley had clearly indicated his feelings about Henry's condition via body language, facial expressions and gestures during Longhurst's lugubrious embarkation.

The route into the city was partly by freeway. We had been riding on it just long enough for the young driver to gun the car to well over the speed limit -- he had informed me that he was late for a very important date -- when Henry's conscience clicked in. Not for the first time, this precipitated a litany of mumbled, garbled self-abuse about his habitual overindulgence, the certainty of his never being able to get to Washington in time for the ambassador and the senators, and assorted other sins, which suddenly crescendoed with him deciding to end it all there and then.

Turning, he began struggling to ascend the car's rear seat back with, clearly, the objective of positioning himself on the trunk, from where, I assumed, it was his intention, as soon as a sufficiently large truck conveniently positioned itself, to eject himself into its thundering path.

Realizing, as he managed to clamber out of the car to spread-eagle much of his torso on the trunk, that he might just be far enough gone to commit such an act, I dived for his legs, grabbed them tightly, and began hauling him -- moaning and protesting -- back into the seat.

As this episode had begun, Crawley had half-turned to watch, his expression of disgust steadily escalating. But it wasn't until I began hauling Henry back into the Pontiac that Leonard decided to intervene.

"Dammit!" he roared. "Dammit all! After all these years, I swear, enough is enough. Just let the bugger go, do you hear me? Let the bugger go!" Periodically in later years -- at least during their further "nonspeaking" spells -- Leonard Crawley would inform me, "I still say you should have done the world a favor and let the bugger go."

Their frequent imbibing together at tournaments indicated, of course, how little he meant it.

MIGHTY MOUSE

In my days of editing golf Digest, I brought Bob Toski to its offices to sign the one-time tour star, also a legendary instructor, as a contributor.

We completed our business in the morning and decided to play golf at my Connecticut club, no pushover from the back tees. Having traveled light from his Florida home, Toski had to borrow a set of clubs, and being so small -- Sam Snead, in Bob's tour days, re-christened the 125-pounder Mighty Mouse -- Bob had no choice but to play in street shoes when we couldn't find a pair of spikes to fit him.

This was Bob's first look at the course. Playing from the tips with the borrowed clubs, in his wingtips and dress shirt, what would you guess Mighty Mouse shot? The answer is 67.

A member toasted Mouse's achievement in the bar after the round: "Once a player, always a player."

WORKING WITH MR. ROBERTS

The call came from the editorial director of Doubleday, the publishing goliath. Clifford Roberts, the Augusta National and Masters co-founder with Bob Jones, was writing a book about the club and the tournament, and he required help. Was I interested in supplying it? No joint credit, but the pay would be "decent." You betcha.

Mr. Roberts routinely spoke slowly, sparingly, and monotonically, with many utterances prefaced by an ahaar-type throat-clearing.

Mr. Roberts' habits and preferences were so well known by the Augusta National grillroom staff that he seemed never to need to order anything -- for lunch, a chicken sandwich followed by peach cobbler arrived automatically.

On one occasion -- assuming, I guess, that, being with the boss, I couldn't possibly choose anything else -- the waiter brought me the same chicken sandwich. When I demurred, Mr. Roberts gazed at me stonily for a few seconds, then crooked a finger at a senior club member at a nearby table.

"Ahaar . . . Joe, I hear the Masters coincides with Easter a couple of years from now. That won't do, so I need to know who's in charge of scheduling Easter. Find out, will you."

Pondering how he intended to go about getting the date of Easter changed, I forced down the chicken sandwich -- and, of course, the delicious peach cobbler.

ADVICE FOR POTENTIAL PROS

I was fortunate over the years to play with a lot of golf's top pros, but most often with the greatest of them all, Jack William Nicklaus. Most of the hundreds of things I learned from him about the game are in the books on which we collaborated, but a couple more come to mind as I look back over those memorable rounds.

No. 1 is a piece of advice to anyone contemplating a career as a professional tournament player. No matter how good you think you are or can become, don't make a decision until you have actually played with a superstar or someone close. The reason is that this is the only way to discover how incredibly accomplished in every regard are golf's very best. Observing from the gallery might give you a strong sense of their abilities, but comprehending the scale of the whole requires getting up close.

Second, if you want to be a great player, don't ever hit even one single shot sloppily or casually. In a near lifetime of studying the game's best, Jack is the only player I never saw do that.

"Either give it 100 percent effort or pick it up," he would say to me and other annoyed or frustrated companions who slapped halfheartedly at a "doesn't-matter-anymore" shorty.

The lesson was clear: Bad habits lead to bad play.

ALMOST BEATING JACK

The first time I thought I might beat Jack Nicklaus was at Augusta National many years before ex-chairman Hootie Johnson's course lengthening and other toughening.

Playing at plus-6 from the tips to my 4-handicap from the member tees, Jack was giving me 10 shots. Somehow, playing out of my mind, I arrived at 18 even with him. He'd been kidding around with the other pro in the group coming off 17 but suddenly got that famous all-business look as we reached the final tee. "Let's see," he said, "we're all square, and you get a shot, right?"

Well, 10 minutes later, the denouement was me handing Jack 10 bucks. Playing the hole as though the Masters were on the line, he had made a birdie 3 against my 5 for 4.

"Boy," I murmured, "are you one competitive son of a gun or what?" He grinned and patted me on the shoulder. "Hey, Kenny, 10 bucks is 10 bucks, right?"

BEATING JACK

In all our long association, I beat Jack once­ -- and gross, no strokes, believe it or not -- playing with him, his son Steve and Lenny Davis, a pal of ours from California, at Mauna Lani on Hawaii's Big Island.

The Bear had shot a par round of 72. By holing out from a bunker at the final green, I nipped him by a stroke, but awareness of that amazing achievement did not strike any of us until Lenny, totaling up the numbers, exclaimed, "Hey, Jack! Kenny beat you, 71 to 72!"

A surprised expression on his face, Nicklaus demanded, "Gimme that card!" which he checked very carefully before agreeing, "By golly, so he did."

"Jack," I said, "this one you have just got to sign for me."

Pulling out a felt-tip, he asked, "What do you want me to write?"

"How about," I responded, " 'Ken Bowden is a truly great golfer'?"

I got a flash of the steely blues, but Jack began writing, and he decided to add a postscript before signing his name.

Back came the card, and there it was, just as requested, neatly and boldly inscribed: Ken Bowden is a truly great golfer.

But then, in letters twice the size of their predecessors, came the postscript: BULL----!

Regardless, elegantly framed, the card will continue to occupy a place on my office wall until I go to my reward.

Excerpt from Teeing Off is printed with permission from Triumph Books, triumphbooks.com, by Ken Bowden, copyright © 2008 by Ken Bowden, 251 pages, $22.95.