If you come across an old catcher standing on the 1st green sizing up a four-foot putt, have some compassion. I'm still struggling with my short game. Last month I entered the first stage of the Senior tour's qualifying tournament at Rio Rico ( Ariz.) Resort and Country Club, where I shot a 27-over-par 315 and failed to advance to the final stage. I hit the ball well enough. The trouble was that the hole looked like a thimble when I had the putter in my hands. That experience reminded me of the Carolina League, where I spent my second season of pro baseball, in 1966. Then, same as at Q school, I had desperately wanted to succeed to please all those who had faith in me. The difference was that I could really play baseball.
When you drive away from the course after failing to qualify, you aren't certain which direction you're supposed to turn. You might be inclined to give up on the Senior tour. That is, until you shoot that elusive 68 or 70 and decide that you're coming back for more. Two weeks ago I shot par at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati, where I'm a member, even though I didn't hit the ball any better than I did at Q school. I couldn't help thinking that, given another chance, things might turn out differently.
Perhaps I should have practiced more. Maybe I should have spent more time working with Peter Kostis, Gary McCord, Jim McLean, Mac O'Grady and Phil Rodgers, all of whom encouraged me to try to make the Senior tour. I could've gone to Palm Springs, Calif., and played more. I could've spent more hours on the practice green. Then again, when you have a son in second grade, you understand what's most important in life.
My disappointment isn't so profound that I will give up my dream of playing on the Senior tour. There's no shame in failure or daring to accomplish something great. But can I hope to compete—really compete—at one of the highest levels of the sport? Can I handle the pressure? I remember my first tournament, the 1971 Bob Hope Classic. On Saturday I was paired with Arnold Palmer. The King ripped it down the 1st fairway at Bermuda Dunes and then hitched up his pants as he walked to the forward tees, where we amateurs were set to hit. I was shaking so bad that I had trouble setting my ball on the tee. Arnold said to me, "Are you all right?"
I told him I wasn't sure. Twenty-six years later, I'm still not sure. I think back to when I was six and playing for the Little League team my dad started in Binger, Okla. When we lost, he said, 'That's all right, we'll get 'em tomorrow." Today, I still keep that simple piece of advice in my bag as I head to the next tee.