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It may be of value to those golf fans who plan to attend the next Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs, Calif. to know that I intend to participate once more in that tournament. Forewarned, Cervantes said, is forearmed. Check the guest list before you venture out. I make no further promises, only that if crowds line the first tee the way they did in the past two years—a narrow corridor of flesh, toes to tee line, inviting mayhem—I may decide to tee up down the fairway. Despite the insinuations of a hundred cartoons inspired by my two appearances there, I do not really enjoy the sound of a golf ball making hard contact with members of the electorate.
Friends have said that it took rare courage to get back up on that tee last February, facing all those people, after striking Doug Sanders a three-wood to the head the year before. Others might call it stupidity. Or worse. I would think that the greater courage was demonstrated by Sanders in choosing to play with me again. In any case, after experiencing once more the preliminary trauma one necessarily goes through when facing unfamiliar hazards and golf critics, and then, to my horror, hitting three more people with two more shots, I was told, "Well, I guess this finishes you."
And my answer was, "No, I'll be back."
Predictably, I have been asked why I continue to put myself into such a wringer. What possible enjoyment could there be in it for me? The question seems simple enough, but it is fraught with implications, and my answer has a lot to do with the way I feel about many things—the lasting values and lessons of sport in our society, for one; the vital role competition plays in our system. Much of my philosophy of life, really. All of which I will get to shortly. So sit back. You are reasonably safe. A man can't shank a paragraph.
To begin at the obvious point: why golf? Actually, I have played the game seriously only a relatively short time, a few years. I started when I was in my 40s. I had some heartening early success and in the first months got my handicap down to 20. Now, eight years or so later, it is still 20. Those occasional good shots golfers revel in keep me coming back, but I doubt I will ever shoot a laudable score. I am, to borrow a friend's assessment of his game, convinced I can play better, but I never have.
Other sports came easier, though I can't say that I ever excelled. Table tennis is actually my best game, but that happens to be a touchy subject just now. Golf I have found to be a tremendously exciting, challenging, frustrating, torturing game, one that takes you out in beautiful surroundings and allows you—if you are playing poorly enough—to forget how beautiful all that scenery is. It is a great game, a genuine test of your ability to overcome adversity by yourself, to cope with failures you cannot blame on anyone else. In most games you are not always sure if you are doing well or your opponent is doing poorly. Golf removes the doubt. Furthermore, it is a scientific game; the margin for error is infinitesimal.
As has been pointed out, not without derision, I also play tennis. The scoreboard shows that I once nicked Dinah Shore with a shot (actually barely touched her) and on another occasion hit a doubles partner on the back of the head with my serve. It happens, though it should not be allowed to happen to controversial Vice-Presidents. But I have noticed a significant difference in the way I feel after a round of golf and how I feel after a few sets of tennis.
On days when I crowd it all in, which I sometimes try to do, I play 18 holes of golf, then four or five sets of tennis. But never in reverse order. After tennis, having run a lot and worked up a good lather, I feel relaxed. I feel calm. Contented. After a round of golf, I do not feel that way at all. If I have played relatively well, I feel almost compelled to go out and play some more before the magic leaves me. If I have played down to my level, I am irritated. I brood a little. I agonize over my mistakes. I have never agonized over tennis. Perhaps this explains why I can play acceptable tennis and do not play acceptable golf. Perhaps I could not stand golf if I did not have tennis to balance it out. I'm not sure.
For years I have been an avid reader of the golf periodicals and a collector of magazine stories that offered those splendid technical golf tips that are always so plausible and so simple, until you go out and try to implement them. I am, furthermore, the most overproed Vice-President ever elected. As the active symbol of the great American duffer, a teaching professional sees me and says to himself, "Now, there is a challenging piece of raw material. If I had two weeks with his game.... " And over the years as I traveled from place to place, I had my grip moved a quarter turn to the left and a quarter turn to the right; my stance opened, my stance closed; my backswing lengthened, then shortened. None of the worms in my game went unexamined.
And then, inevitably, I came to the maddening realization that golf is also a game some relaxed souls play reasonably well even though they do not hit the ball in the accepted fashion. Much of my trouble has been in trying to adjust back and forth, and I'm in the process of getting out of that. The only pros I'm listening to these days are Arthur O'Linger at Ocean City (Md.) and Jack Koennecker at the Canyon Country Club in Palm Springs, and I just can't be tuning in to anybody else, not even my friends Arnold and Doug. I realize this is not necessarily good publicity for Mr. O'Linger and Mr. Koennecker. Their roles in my life have been likened by the press to that of the navigator of the Titanic, the intelligence aide to General Custer and the campaign manager of Harold Stassen.