June 6, 2007

My Shot: Dana Quigley

Golf's Iron Man on playing streaks, airborne boats and the three seconds that saved his life.

Dana Quigley, photographed Aug. 31, 2006, at Pebble Beach.

Dana Quigley, photographed Aug. 31, 2006, at Pebble Beach.

I'm the Iron Man. I played 278 consecutive Champions Tour events, the ones where I was eligible. When I came off the course after winning the Long Island Classic in 1997, I got word that my father had died. I was upset and crying, and for some reason I blurted out, "There's a new Iron Man in town. I'm going to play every damned week." I did, going from age 50 to 58 without missing a tournament.

I can promise you, no one will ever beat my record. There are fewer tournaments on the Champions Tour, for one thing. There's also the fact that when the streak started I was a Monday qualifier and didn't have a savings account. I was a club pro making $30,000 a year and needed the security. Most of the guys coming on the Champions Tour today are already set financially. They don't play every week now on the regular tour, so why would they play every week after they turn 50?

My kids were 15 and 12 years old when I started out on the Champions Tour, I was divorced from their mother, and with what I was making I didn't even have a formal amount of child support I was supposed to pay. I just gave them everything I won playing golf—which wasn't much—and more whenever I could. So let me tell you, when I won some money as a 50-year-old nonexempt player earlier in the year, then pulled down $150,000 for the win at Long Island, I thought, This is it. I'm playing this for all I can. That was 10 years and $13 million ago.

In July of 2005, I was in Providence, waiting for a plane to take us to Newark. From there we were to go to Scotland to play in the Senior British Open. But the flight was canceled, then another was canceled, and then they were reluctant to re-book us because it looked like the next flight was going to be canceled, too. My hip was hurting, and though there might still have been a way to get over there, something inside told me I shouldn't go. The streak was over. The next day I flew to Florida and played every day, usually 36 holes. It was the only way to get my mind off the disappointment. It was like a part of me had been amputated.

The secret to longevity is walking. I mean longevity not only in golf, but in life. I've never worked out, and I've never been injured, save for the sore hip that went away after I stretched a certain way. I tried lifting weights once but was so sore the next day that I said to heck with that. I do feel it's important to get your heart rate up—that's why I go to the casino.

Another key to longevity, at least for me, was learning how to swim. In 1981, I was fishing off the coast of Rhode Island with a buddy on a perfectly calm day. I was sitting on the back of the boat, 31 feet and made of wood, when suddenly it became airborne. I mean, it went 15 feet in the air, sending us flying, and I distinctly remember seeing the boat in the air above me before hitting the water. No life jackets. I had the presence of mind to surface very slowly; I thought the boat might very well come down on my head. When I broke the surface, my friend was screaming, "I can't swim!" They say never to grab a drowning man, because he'll pull you down with him, but I towed him toward some rocks not far away. The Coast Guard never found the boat, although my buddy's sneakers came ashore four days later. There was a lot of speculation about what caused the boat to come out of the water. They ruled out a rogue wave; it just couldn't have happened on a day like that. The old salts around town suspected it was a whale—whales have been known to hurl small boats out of the ocean like that. But that day, the Iron Man almost sank.

My friend Bob Rotella, the sport psychologist, talks about being committed to the game. Well, I'm committed to a level that even Bob does not understand. During the streak, there were weeks when he told me it might be a good idea not to play, that maybe I was playing so much that it was counterproductive, that the streak was unhealthy. I called him from Providence the night the streak ended, and he was not very sympathetic. Bob is familiar with addiction and obsession, but I'm in uncharted territory, even for him. When I get up in the morning it's not a question of whether I should play or if I'm going to play, but where and when. It's natural, like putting my shoes on.

I'm a recovering alcoholic. One reason I developed a drinking problem was, I never had hangovers. I could drink anything and everything, and I always felt fine the next day. A lot of people who drink would consider that a blessing. For me, it was a curse.

How was drinking a problem? I wasn't a very good drunk driver; I piled my car into trees twice. And I was a pain in the ass to be around. I'll argue with anyone about anything to begin with, and when I drank, I argued worse—or so I've been told. I thought I was a happy drunk. It's the same old story, a case of the guy with the drinking problems being the last one to know about it.

In 1988 I went into rehab for 30 days, got educated, and then stayed sober for six months. I started having a glass of wine here and there, and before I knew it, was drinking as much as ever. In 1990, a funny thing happened. I was out with a buddy and drinking pretty good, and we decided to go to a restaurant for dinner and more drinks. Following him in my car, I suddenly came up on the exit to my house. I'd been looking forward to dinner, but in the course of about three seconds I had this moment of clarity. My wife was at home waiting for me, I was drunk already and going to get more, and I realized I was driving drunk. I thought, This is nuts! and at the last second whipped the car off the Interstate. I was going 65 miles an hour, and I almost rolled the car taking that exit. But I knew at that moment I would never take another drink. For all the education, the rehab, friends and family trying to talk me into quitting drinking, this three-second moment of decisiveness is what did it. I wish all alcoholics could have the moment I did.

When I went to the club the next day and ordered a nonalcoholic beer, my buddies roared. They really busted my chops, but underneath the teasing was the clear message that they didn't want to lose a drinking buddy. I liked those people and enjoyed the lifestyle, and all of a sudden I had to stop going to the places I went to and had to adopt almost an entire new set of friends. When you've been drinking your whole life and then stop, you don't just crave alcohol, you crave your friends, the laughter, the settings you're used to. It's a hard thing for the nondrinker to understand.

If you play golf your whole life, you'll see some strange things. Years ago a bunch of us were asked to make a TV commercial promoting the tour. The premise was, a machine would fire clay pigeons across the sky, and a group of us—Gil Morgan, Hale Irwin, Chi Chi Rodriguez and I—would take turns hitting balls and try to knock the clay pigeons out of the air. I told the film crew they had to be kidding. Hitting a clay pigeon with a golf ball was close to impossible, and we might be there all day, maybe all month, trying to hit one. Well, Gil Morgan yells, "Pull!" and knocks one out of the sky. It was a total freak occurrence, and we were almost on the ground, laughing that he did that. Then Irwin hit one, then Chi Chi. Then I hit one. To this day, I think it was a miracle.

Great players have high self-esteem. I always had the game to play the regular tour, and actually played for three full seasons, but I never felt I belonged out there. I would actually avoid warming up next to a guy like, say, Tom Weiskopf, because I was self-conscious about what the people in the bleachers would think about the way I hit the ball next to him. Then, in 1996, I stopped by Bob Rotella's place, and he told me a few things. For the life of me, I can't remember what. Anyway, I went down to play a mini-tour in Florida and won six events. My big rookie year on the Champions Tour followed. I don't win now without thanking that man, every time. He gave me my self-esteem.

The most amazing thing about hybrid clubs is that every single golfer doesn't carry at least one. I have a hybrid 3- and 4-iron like almost everybody else, but my 5- and 6-irons also are hybrids, and today I'm trying out a 7-hybrid. Every shot is like hitting the ball off a tee. The ball goes higher and stops just as quickly. You're asking all the questions; now let me ask you one: If I've made $13 million, and I'm hitting hybrids, why are you still using irons?

__

The secret to playing the modern game is this:

__ Hit your short irons and wedges low, and all the other clubs high.

I'm 59, and I've got to tell you, my mind is going to hell. My memory stinks. I honestly don't know the name of one golf course we play out here. I know the names of the cities and the tournaments, but not the courses. The one here is real nice. I lost a playoff here last year. But all I can tell you about it is, it has 18 holes.

I played with Tiger Woods and Greg Norman once. It was a practice round before the 1995 U.S. Open at that course in New York, on Long Island. My Rhode Island buddy Brad Faxon set up the game. I remember Norman teasing Tiger about his golf shoes being sort of dirty and beat up—Tiger was still in college. It was fun. I made a hole-in-one. Tiger was good at that time, but Greg Norman was better.

The Champions Tour has been referred to as one giant mulligan, but it's better than that. There's no cut, so you get a mulligan every Friday night. If you have a bad week, you get a mulligan for the next week: You just go tee it up again with a check waiting for you, guaranteed. It's probably the best thing, career-wise, available not only in sports but in all of America.

I just remembered where the '95 U.S. Open was played. It was at Shinnecock Hills. Please don't ask me where it was this year.