The most important man in golf has a ball retriever in his bag, a score counter on his belt and a loop in his backswing. He buys three balls for a dollar and shows up at the course in jeans. Reeboks and a golf shirt that's so old it has no emblem. He's the foot soldier of the game, the guy who's up at four in the morning to pay $12 to wait three hours to play a six-hour round to lose $6 in bets.
No company wants him to wear its name on his visor, and nobody shines his cleats. Yet he's the guy who keeps the sport alive. He's the guy who lines up three deep to hit a bucket of almost-round balls off AstroTurf mats, which stain his irons an unnatural green. That's him in the back of the clubhouse, lying about his round and playing gin rummy on a white Formica table that hasn't seen a busboy's rag since Easter.
Lately he's been forgotten. Lately people have thought of golf as some kind of 18-karat Aaron Spelling production, people driving up in expense-account Cadillacs wearing La Mode du Golf shirts and tipping doormen 10-spots. Every new course is more glamorous and exotic than the last. And "greens fees" mean you have to buy a Jack Nicklaus lot overlooking the 18th green.
But golf can't change neighborhoods on us. Truth is, underneath all that, the heart of the game is still the shot-and-a-beer hacker, the golf guerrilla, the guy playing courses that move about as fast as a Moscow meat line, and smiling about it. Fuzzy Zoeller may shoot 66 at Augusta and then gripe about the greens, but the essence of golf is still the 14 handicapper who doesn't mind if the tees are rough, the fairways look like the aftermath of a tractor-pull and the greens aren't. He loves the game for the game. It's Saturday. He's playing golf. He's gonna gripe?
At Beth page State Park on Long Island, golfers arrive at 2:30 in the morning in hopes of getting on the first tee by 6:30. Golfers who arrive at 7:30 are lucky to be planting a tee in the ground by noon. At Forest Preserve National in Oak Forest, Ill., players begin lining up at 3 p.m. the day before for a 6 a.m. tee time. They sleep in their cars. In Los Angeles, if you haven't called by 6:30 a.m. on a Monday for a tee time the next Saturday, you're usually shut out for that day on all 13 public courses. The switchboard opens at 6 a.m.
It's not uncommon for a round of golf to take almost seven hours. If you get around at all, that is. At Pelham Golf Course in the Bronx a few years ago, youths hiding in nearby woods robbed a man on a green of $65 and his credit cards. It is not known whether he then made the putt. When American Golf, a course management company, took over at Pelham, employees were surprised at what they found—dead bodies. Because of that, Kimble Knowlden of American Golf told The New York Times, "I try not to be the first one out on the course in the morning."
But warm bodies, too, keep flooding the Bronx's public links. Same as they do in Chicago and L.A. The country is four quarts low on reasonably priced golf courses for John Q. Public to play. The National Golf Foundation estimates that the number of golfers has grown 24%, to 20.2 million, over the last two years. To keep up with that pace, the foundation says, a course a day would have to be built between now and the turn of the century. Last year only 110 opened, and more than a third of those were private.
Still, for all of that—the ordeal of getting a tee time, the 20-minute waits between shots and the ungroomed greens—the public course golfer, one of the most abused sportsmen in America, pursues the game loyally and lovingly, as if he had invented it. And nobody's more loyal than the regulars at Ponkapoag Golf Club in Canton, Mass., known, for better or worse, as Ponky.
Overheard at a Ponky lunch table:
Ralphie: "You know what my problem is?"