Warm Memories of Yogi at the Golf Club
I remember the buzz in the caddie shack the day Yogi Berra played his first round as a member of Montclair Golf Club in West Orange, N.J., where I grew up caddieing and playing golf. One of the old-timers was assigned Yogi's bag and was pacing around like a crazy man. Soon they were off with the club pro and a couple of good-playing members. It didn't take long for the new guy to drop his first Yogi-ism. As the story goes, Yogi had about a 10-footer on the first green, and the caddie was stalking it from all angles. Now, you have to know here that Yogi was a right-handed golfer who putted lefty -- just the kind of thing you'd expect from a man known for his quirkiness. Anyway, after careful inspection, the caddie informs Yogi the putt will break a few inches left to right. Yogi gives a grateful nod, steps in and sends the ball on its way. But it breaks in the opposite direction. The caddie, aghast with embarrassment, says, "I'm so sorry, Mr. Berra! It went the other way." Yogi shrugs and smiles, "It's not your fault. I should've told you I putt lefty." With Yogi's passing Tuesday at 90, I'm reminded of these golf moments in which he starred. Little did we -- the members and caddies at Montclair -- know we'd get so many Yogi-isms over the next 20-plus years. In fact, as Yogi got older he'd often go to the club just to play cards or watch television. The locker room at Montclair, a two-floor space with big-screen TVs and a busy bar, was where he seemed to be most comfortable, probably a throwback to his locker-room days in baseball. Members would bring guests to his table, looking for a quick hello, and Yogi would immediately break the awkwardness with "You playing with this guy?" or a simple "Hit 'em straight, boys." He had no big shot in him. But on the course is where we collected our Yogi stories. During one of the 20 or so times I caddied for him, he was having a particularly bad day. Yogi was not a good golfer, but he loved playing matches. On this day he was topping the ball, chunking, skulling, you name it. After about five holes, he announced, "I can't do anything today. I've played here too many times this week." Everyone in the group paused -- members seemed to develop a sense for when Yogi was about to deliver a line. He continued, "But I'm not playing here this weekend." With giddy anticipation, one member asked, "Where are you going this weekend, Yog?" "Saturday I'm playing in Philadelphia, and Sunday I'm playing in Pennsylvania." My dad was a longtime Montclair member with a locker one down from Yogi's (my brother's was the one between them), and Yogi even came to my wedding and my brother's. Dad remembers a story about Yogi standing over a shot that had to carry a lake. With his all-too-intense playing partner standing next to him, Yogi admitted, "I might hit it in the water here." To which his partner said, "Yogi, you've got this shot. Be positive!" So Yogi quickly rethought his comment and said, "OK, I'll definitely hit it in the water." Another time I was on Yogi's bag, and we got to a par 3 with wind coming at us. Everyone in the group was analyzing what club to hit. Yogi looked around -- he never seemed to be grinding -- and said, "I'll go." So he grabbed an iron, hit it up in the breeze and ended up short, in the front bunker. The question came: "Yogi, how far did you hit that?" And the answer: "As far as I hit it." Now, whether that meant as far as he could hit that club or as far as he hit that shot, it was anyone's guess. That was often the case with Yogi-isms: What they meant -- and if they were genius or nonsense -- was not as important as the moment they created. The same can be said for the man. It was sometimes hard to connect Yogi Berra the baseball legend of the 1950s and '60s with Yogi Berra the 90s-shooter with the quiet voice and easygoing manner. To me, he was a locker-room regular who happened to have 10 World Series rings. And gave us all a lot of great one-liners.