Features

The Next One’s Good

The art of improv in golf and music

February 19, 2021

PLAY IT AGAIN Hip-hop artist ScHoolboy Q finds inspiration and familiarity in golf.

Atiba Jefferson

Frank Hannigan, the golf bureaucrat and jazz aficionado, liked to tell the story of Wild Bill Davison who played a wicked cornet early in his career until, abruptly and forever, he switched to the trumpet. “Why?” he was asked. Davison said the night he heard Bix Beiderbecke play the cornet he knew “there was nothing left to say on the cornet.”

Good thing I never used the same logic with golf. We all would have given up the game after watching Trevino check up a wedge or Crenshaw brushstroke a putter or Tiger sting a driver. There might be nothing left to say with any of those clubs, but we keep trying.

American golf came to a head in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, like Beiderbecke and Bobby Jones. It began the intersection of music and golf that continues today. Billy Eckstine hired Charlie Sifford as his personal pro. From Bing Crosby to Vince Gill, front men were scratch players. You always have a second chance, says the hip-hop artist ScHoolboy Q, an avid player. “One sHot don’t matter—it’s How you finisH,” he texted me. “It ain’t ova til it’s ova.”

Kind of a purist in golf and jazz, Branford Marsalis told me, “Golf is more like classical music than jazz. Non-classical relies on personal expression. It takes limitations and makes them strengths—getting away with it. You can sing flat or with a raspy voice like Louis Armstrong and be totally cool. But you can’t sing opera by Verdi that way.” Hogan in 1953 performed his own “Otello,” and the audience wept.

“Playing music is about eliminating mistakes,” Marsalis said. “There are only 12 notes; repetition is assured. The myth is that every solo is different; it’s not.”

I replied, “Tiger says golf is only nine shots.”

“I’ve seen him hit a lot more than nine shots,” Marsalis cut me off. “Did you ever notice the verb people use when they attend a concert? They see a concert; they don’t hear a concert—that’s not accidental. They identify with the lyrics; they don’t understand the music.” I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Jack Nicklaus over the years, and I could hear Jack’s high-pitched voice when Branford told me, “You don’t know what you’re listening to.”

The most famous piece of real estate in golf is named for a Southern shout performed by the jazz singer Mildred Bailey with the Dorsey Brothers. Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker might have coined the term, but it took Golf World’s Bill Fields to unearth its provenance:

If your name ain’t on that roll,
All that noise won’t save your soul,
So stop your shoutin’ in that
Amen Corner.

Augusta National is a wellspring of inspiration, says my friend Irving Azoff, the entertainment impresario who just got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Irving has managed the Eagles for more than 40 years. “I played a lot of golf with the late Glenn Frey,” he said on his cellphone from Pebble Beach (Irving is always on his cellphone). “Glenn told me he was working on the Long Road Out of Eden album when Amen Corner inspired him to write ‘No More Cloudy Days.’ I said, ‘What hole?’ He said all of them—from the tee shot at 11 to putting out on 13, even the turtles in Rae’s Creek. The heartbreak he wrote about, Glenn said that’s No. 12.”

Sitting by a foggy window
Staring at the pouring rain
Falling down like lonely teardrops,
Memories of love in vain.
These cloudy days,
they make you wanna cry.
It breaks your heart when someone
leaves and you don’t know why.

This search led me to Ken Tackett, a rules official on the PGA Tour by day and jazz drummer by night. “Life is about improvisation,” he said. “You start on the tee and end on the green, but where you go in between is endlessly different. Jazz or golf can be played from cradle to grave; it’s a lifelong art about coming together.”

In the movie “La La Land,” Ryan Gosling’s jazz-loving character said flophouses were packed in New Orleans where people spoke five languages, but “jazz was how they talked to each other.”

That’s it. Golf is how we talk to each other. Dan Jenkins always said the trouble with sitting around talking is you never know when you’re finished. That’s how we think about golf and music—when it’s going good, you never want it to finish.