He didn't look it, but George Thomas was 40 years old, and he had been making a living as a golf professional for 13 years. A pro at a small country club in Indiana where it used to be a fellow took his golf clubs out on the course and somebody would run yelling to one of the members, "Hey, hey, some guy's out there playing on your golf course!" A living. He hustled golf balls and Arnold Palmer shirts and rented out electric carts and, as the membership became aware of his genius for teaching, he gave 200 lessons a year, at $4.50 per, and with all that he could net seven, eight thousand dollars tops. That was it.
So in the winter and in the evenings during the summer George Thomas filled little brown bottles with little blue capsules and made chocolate sodas for the clientele at the Central Drug on Franklin Street in Michigan City. He said the secret was to emulsify the ice cream. Stick that spoon in there real good and grind the ice cream down. He said four years of pharmaceutical school at Purdue University and you, too, could learn to count pills to 100 and make a good chocolate soda. Being a druggist was worth $5,000 a year. George Thomas did it with his left hand. It kept his wife and four growing boys in middle-class clover.
Clover was a tidy red ranch-style house bordering, backyard-to-apron, the 5th green of the Long Beach Country Club, where Club Pro Thomas had earned the friendship of a lot of rich people with his modest esprit and his faculty for taking the bends out of their tee shots. Long Beach is a commuter town for successful Chicago businessmen. Hard by Lake Michigan, it does not get much relief from the winter in March and April. The wind still rips in from the lake, and if it is not snowing it is probably June. Nevertheless, every morning at dawn in this his 40th year, George Thomas was out there behind his house striking golf balls. An hour, an hour and a half. Click. Click. Click. Click. Sweet, unwrinkled, instruction-booklet, any-pro-would-be-proud-of-it swing. And then he would go up to the club and, if the weather was bad enough, he would round up his one-legged buddy, Bill Stanley, who had a fancy house right on the lake, and they would con two more fools into a match. (If the weather was good, George had to stick around the tiny pro shop, signing out carts and collecting greens fees and telling the women members how nice their golf swings looked and how nice they looked, too, come to think of it.)
George and Bill would put on their rubberized golf suits and grab their hand warmers and go out and play 18 holes, or 27 or 36. Sometimes Bill Stanley's shots strayed too close to a water hazard and his wooden leg would slip into the freezing water, but this would not stop them. On the other hand, if his good leg got wet and started to freeze up, this would not stop them either. Nothing short of double pneumonia would stop them. To play, that was the thing, and to play with George Thomas in particular, because George could shoot a 64, and he knew why he could shoot a 64. "It's the rhythm that counts," he would say. "I know it sounds wild, but think of The Blue Danube Waltz. Hum the tune to yourself as you swing. 'One, two, three, hit...so clear, and blue....' "
Then in the evenings George would drive into Michigan City, where he grew up and was a very good athlete and where early rivals called him "hunky" and "guinea" because they did not know how else to slander a Lebanese boy. From 6 to closing time he whipped up prescriptions and sold eye shadow to sallow-faced teen-age girls, helping old Morrie Mitnick through another long day at the Central Drug. George and Morrie used to be partners. The neighborhood was not Beverly Hills. They fought shoplifters and addicts together.
And late at night when the four boys were scrubbed and kissed and Barbara, his wife, had put them to bed, George Thomas would take out his flat-blade putter with the center spot carefully marked with a groove and dump a big box of balls onto the floor. He would line up beside the credenza in the dining room and aim 25 feet across the beige rug to the third leg of the piano in the living room. He banged 100 balls a night into that piano leg. He hunched over his putter for 45 minutes at a time, until his back ached. He varied his shots. No table leg was safe. "Someday I'd like to tee it up in the U.S. Open," he told Barbara. He told her that over and over.
But there was a streak of pessimism in George Thomas. He believed his fate to be the sand traps of life, not the fairways. He had been a hotshot athlete in high school, but then he had to go off in a B-17 to drop bombs on Germany. When he came back three years later he got a scholarship to Purdue as a 159-pound quarterback, and he found he was not a hotshot anymore. He played on the meatball squad. He sat on the bench. A sympathetic Purdue coach told him he ought to pull out for a school that would appreciate him. His friend John McKay did. McKay quit and went to Oregon and got an All-America mention and became head coach at USC. But George stuck it out on the meatball squad four years and disliked every minute of it. When he was older he would call it a matter of guts.
He studied pharmacy when he felt he should have been in medical school. He studied golf harder. "If I had applied myself to pharmacy like I did to golf, I would be another Louie Pasteur," he said. But he barely made the Purdue golf team, and when the team went to the NCAA tournament George was not asked to go along. He stayed behind and won the amateur division of the Fort Wayne Open.
Now he was rolling balls into a table leg in his living room in the early spring and examining what he considered to be his uninterrupted unsuccess. He examined it with clinical detachment, as one explores under the hood of a deficient automobile.
"I have never arrived at anything," he said. "I reach a certain level, a certain plateau, and then I can't crack the barrier. I keep trying, because that's the way I am. You can't stop trying. Hell, I applied for medical school when I was 33 years old. Maybe I have too much confidence in my ability without having that little bit of superability that makes the difference. You suppose?