You would not believe the looks on some of the faces. Three players will be waiting for the fairway to clear, waiting to hit their first drives of the day at the public Rancho Park Golf Course in Los Angeles, when the starter will crackle over the public-address system, "Sending a single to join you." And the threesome will turn to greet the stranger, only to find that he is O.J. Simpson, wearing a single black glove. "You get some pretty funny reactions," Simpson said during a one-hour interview at Rancho Park on March 19. "But nobody's walked away yet. Not once."
Of course, even Simpson, acquitted of double-murder charges but still guilty in the minds of countless Americans, including the 12 members of a civil jury that found him liable for the deaths, knows that given the choice between playing and not playing, golfers would tee it up with Mussolini if they had to.
So this is how Simpson will play out his life. Effectively banished from the posh Riviera Country Club (his status is "inactive"), where he has been a member for almost a decade, and not exactly somebody you'd like to sponsor at any club anywhere else in the world—You want us to consider whom?—the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Fame running back is confined to a world of shaggy greens, divot-ravaged tee boxes and $1.95 fried-egg sandwiches: a minimum-security facility known as public golf. He has no choice. He's a golf addict.
"Some days my mom and my sister [who live with him, along with his two youngest kids and his brother-in-law] notice how tense I am, and they say, 'Why don't you go play golf?' and I'll say, 'I played this morning!' " says Simpson, who also talked with me for 30 minutes by telephone last week. "For five hours a day golf takes all my concentration, and nobody bugs me. People are good about it. It's like a golf course is kind of sacred. If I didn't have golf, I'd be in Bellevue."
A lot of the regulars at Rancho Park, where Simpson plays two to three times a week—"two to three times a week too many," grumbles assistant pro Paul Hopps—wish he were in Bellevue or Leavenworth or anywhere else. He is a kind of human unplayable lie. "If he ever gets in my group," says two-time Rancho Park club champion Nicolas Beauvy, "I'll walk away. Just having him around here makes my skin crawl."
Simpson gets no preferential treatment at Rancho Park. Just to get a weekend tee time, he must call the computerized reservation line at 5 a.m. a week before and hold for at least an hour, until the system starts assigning times. Failing that, he shows up on the day he wants to play and puts his name on the singles list.
Simpson on a golf course is like having a wolf on the loose. Most people will look, but they won't get close. There are few autograph requests after he putts out on 18 and passes the golfers who are practicing at Rancho's dusty two-tiered driving range. There's whispering, there's pointing, but when he looks toward the range, there are suddenly a lot of heads snapping back to check foot alignment. And when he and his three playing partners that day take a table in the dim and bare Rancho bar to play the 19th hole, you can't help but notice that they are soon isolated from other groups. Not that it's anything new. You'd be amazed how many half-empty restaurants Simpson walks into that have an hour wait. "Hey, I'm not naive," he says in the Rancho bar. "I know that, looking around in this room, a lot of people think I'm an a———. I mean, it's easy to be anti-me. But nobody can say I wasn't nice to them and polite and cordial to them through this whole thing [his criminal and civil trials]."
One twentysomething Rancho regular, who begged anonymity, says Simpson flirts with her, adding, "He asked me one day, 'Do you believe in love at seventh sight?' And I said, 'O.J., if I went out with you, my parents would kill me. And my girlfriend would kill me. And then you'd kill me. Then where would I be?' "
Simpson actually laughed at that one. He even has a favorite O.J. joke. "O.K.," he says. "O.J. and A.C. [Al Cowlings] are in the Bronco. And O.J. is pissed. He goes, 'I said Costa Rica, mother———! Not Costa Mesa!' "
It is a curious situation. A guy who used to frolic at country clubs with movie stars while the valets washed his car now hits striped balls off sickly green driving-range mats while waiting for his turn on one of the most-played courses in America. "He gets the freeze out here," says Beauvy. Of course, some freezes thaw quicker than others. One night Simpson finished his second Heineken and left. The barmaid, who had cold-shouldered him, watched him go and then rushed to his table. She grabbed his signed scorecard and tucked it in the pocket of her apron. "A signed O.J. card?" she shrieked. "That's 300 bucks!"