June 25, 2007

Driving par 4s with a tree trunk

Here's all I know about Dubai: It's one of those somewhere-over-there places where they make sand. So I wasn't impressed when Tiger Woods drove the green on a 359-yard hole in Dubai awhile back. It wasn't a major, was it? Where stuff really counts? Maybe if he'd used a 7-iron.

The thing is, it wasn't even in a headline. You had to dig down in the story to find out he did it. Down there where a guy gets colorfully quoted, saying, I thought it was in all the way.

Or a guy says, I went with the sand wedge.

Or he says, I played real good today, usually.

A few decades ago, Tiger driving a par 4 would have been a big, fat, screaming headline. Like an heiress got kidnapped.

TIGER WOODS DRIVES GREEN ON VERY LONG HOLE—RIOTOUS CROWD ESCAPES INJURY.

But it's commonplace now. Retired geezers I know who've moved into assisted-living complexes hit it 295 on average—315 if they're angry.

Their equipment probably helps. One guy, the head on his driver looks like a Dallas Cowboys helmet, his senior shaft is remindful of Sergei Bubka's vaulting pole, and his golf ball comes from an underground nuclear test site in Big Mamoo, N.M.

One of these days, sooner than we know, some kind of Bubba will drive the green on a par 5, hitting it about 540 yards, and deep down in the story I'll read where he says, I knew my tap-in was for a 59.

Or he'll say, I feel pretty good about my 58.

Or his quote will be, I think that was my third 61 this week.

Tell you what. I'm going to stop reading that far down in news reports until somebody calls my attention to one of our tour heroes saying, It's really fun to win this tournament, but not as much fun as the day I beat my mother-in-law to death with a turkey leg.

I genuinely miss the days when human beings played golf with golf clubs and golf balls.

Remember that? The golf clubs were made out of tree trunks and the golf balls had a peanut butter-and-jelly center.

But every so often back then a human being would do something unique and wonderful and headline-grabbing. The human being would drive the green of a par-4 hole at a crucial time in a U.S. Open with a golf club made out of a tree trunk and a golf ball with a peanut butter-and-jelly center.

Ben Hogan was such a human being, Oakmont's 17th was such a golf hole, and the '53 U.S. Open was such a championship.

That year, before some smart people ruined the hole by making it longer, the cute 17th at Oakmont played uphill at 292 yards, and it was surrounded by a supermarket's entire produce department.

Hogan played it cautiously through the first three rounds. He drove into the produce department and wedged onto the green. But in the last round (when he was out an hour ahead of Sam Snead, his nearest pursuer, who at the moment was only one stroke behind) Ben felt he needed to make a birdie at 17 and get to the house with a number that might be uncatchable.

So he jumped on his driver, and the ball found the spot he'd aimed at, a narrow pathway to the green. The ball bounded onto the putting surface amid the kind of roar that Woods hears so routinely today no matter what he does, good or bad, and Hogan had given himself a 35-foot putt for an eagle. The putt almost went in, missing by an inch, but he nabbed the birdie he thought he needed.

Which, as it turned out, he didn't need. Snead faltered on the back nine, and Ben wound up winning that Open, the middle leg of his Triple Crown, by six strokes. But he'd stood up to what he thought was the key moment there at 17 and strapped a little history on it.

Seven years later a fellow named Arnold Palmer, whom you might remember, did the same kind of thing. Starting the last round of the '60 U.S. Open and using a golf club made out of a tree trunk and a golf ball with a peanut butter-and-jelly center, Arnold took a wild cut from an elevated tee and drove the first green at Cherry Hills, which was a 346-yard par 4 well guarded by another produce department. He two-putted for a birdie and went on to fire a 65 and win the deal, coming from a record seven strokes and 14 players behind.

All this was back when men were human beings and golf clubs were golf clubs. It's one of the reasons I tend to live in the past.