The men's grill of the Essex County Country Club in West Orange, N.J. is a cozy room. It has wall-to-wall carpeting, a mahogany bar with golfing figurines on a shelf above it, an enormous mural of the 11th hole on one wall and, on another, three wooden scrolls listing in gold letters the club's golf champions since 1895. One of the names that dominates the scrolls is that of Charles R. McMillen, who won in 1912, again in 1922 and six more times between 1924 and 1931. Downstairs in the men's locker is another scroll, this one carrying the winners of the Charles R. McMillen Memorial Tournament, which a group of his friends started in 1953, the year he died. Today, Mr. Mac, as he was called, is a legend at Essex County, a man who never played the game until he was 30, who shot an 83 his first round and was never that bad again, a man who was generous with advice to younger players and then beat their brains out. Charles R. McMillen was my grandfather.
The name Walter A. Bingham appears twice on the list of champions, in 1932 and again in 1950. Walter A. Bingham is my father. In his younger days he was an even bet to shoot somewhere in the mid-70s and now, at the age of 67, he is only a few strokes higher. The first time he won the club championship he played my grandfather—who else?—in the finals and was naturally something of an underdog. I wish I could have seen that one. When Dad won there were those who accused my grandfather of throwing the match to please his daughter. Some joke.
Almost everyone else in my family played some golf—my other grandfather, my mother, aunts, uncles, cousins—so it was not unnatural that as soon as I could hold a club I did, too. For four years I lived with my grandfather Bingham, a New Jersey obstetrician who kept his own backyard putting green, and I spent long hours alone chipping and putting. During the summers between my ninth and 12th birthdays the whole family went to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Every morning my cousin Larry and I were turned loose on the golf course and not expected to return until dusk. I made my first birdie at 10, driving the green with a brassie on a par 3 and sinking the putt. At 13 I played in the third flight of the club championship, losing in the first round to a Mr. Uhl on the 19th hole. During those years Larry and I played a thousand rounds of golf, or so it seemed, and when we reached home in the evenings we would dig a hole at the bottom of the long driveway and play that makeshift course until it became too dark to see.
But, somehow, I never became Jack Nicklaus. I didn't even become Charles R. McMillen or Walter A. Bingham. As a teen-ager I was shooting regularly in the low 90s and I had several nine-hole scores of 42 or so, but I never broke 90. Nor did I do it when, after an early retirement from the game, I began playing steadily again in my late 20s. A friend wanted to learn golf and so one day we took the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island and played over there. He shot 134 and I had a 94. A year later we were both shooting 94. And the year after that he was in the low 80s regularly while I, of course, was still at 94.
It didn't bother me. I had my game, such as it was, and was happy with it. Put me on a course even after a year or so in drydock and I would produce maybe five pars and a birdie. I would also come through with a few 7s. Or 9s. And perhaps an X. Most often, this would be the result of hitting a titanic drive straight down the middle and following it with an eight-iron 25 yards along the ground, a wedge into a trap, several unsuccessful attempts to get out—well, there you are. That night I could review the scorecard and see where on two holes if I had kicked the ball toward the green I might have saved five shots and had an 89. One time, playing with my friend, I reached the 15th tee needing four bogeys for an 87. I finished triple bogey, quadruple bogey, double bogey, double bogey for a good old 94. Another time I came to the 18th, an easy par 4, needing a 5 for an 89. I took an 8. So what? My thrashings amused me. There had been enough champions in the family.
My carefree attitude changed about two years ago. I was golf editor of this magazine at the time—my grandfather would have loved that—and Dan Jenkins, who covers the major golf events, decided we should play a round at Champions in Houston since it was to be the site of the U.S. Open a month or so later. Jenkins had never seen me play. I knew that he was a 70s shooter though he seldom swung a club anymore. I told him with some confidence that I would probably have five pars and a few 8s.
We arrived at Champions early one morning and were just about to tee off with two club members when Jimmy Demaret, the three-time Masters winner, appeared. Jenkins introduced us and Demaret decided to watch his old friend Dan hit one. Being courteous, he waited around then until all of us had teed off.
Now I would have sworn that in my sleep, blindfolded and hung over, I could have hit the ball somewhere off the tee. Maybe not a boomer, but at least an ugly little low line drive of sorts. Not so. I did a total Spiro, except I caught mine on the heel of the club, sending the ball almost directly behind me. A moment of utter silence followed before there were a few lame jokes and someone mentioned a mulligan. Still flushed with embarrassment, I teed up another ball. And did the same thing again. Precisely. The two shots finished within 10 feet of each other. Nor did I improve once I had gotten out from under Demaret's gaze. It was absolutely the worst round of golf I have ever played, a hacking, divot-digging disaster. When it was over and I had time to think about my performance, I realized that I had lost that smug self-confidence, that I was no longer good for a 93-98 every time with enough laudable shots during a round to make people forget the atrocities. My game improved on the few occasions I played after that, but I had to face up to it. I could no longer call myself a 90s shooter.
Recently Bert Yancey, the touring pro and a friend, invited me to play a round with him. It was a loose invitation, good anytime over a two-week period, and I told Bert I'd try to make it. But I had no intention of doing so. Foolish, maybe, but the Demaret incident had shaken me badly. It occurred to me then that I should either give up the game permanently or do just the opposite—go into it all the way and take a lot of lessons, a sort of crash course in golf, to see if at 40 it was possible for me to produce a little of whatever it was that put my grandfather's and father's names on the wall of the Essex County Country Club. I decided to try.
Remembering my contacts as golf editor, my first thought was Ben Hogan. What better way to learn the game. But Hogan, I was assured, would not have time. Ditto Jack Nicklaus, who just then was getting himself ready for the Masters. Besides what I really needed were lessons from a professional whose business was teaching, not playing. I called Frank Hannigan, an official of the USGA, and asked for suggestions. He rattled off the names of several good teaching pros, one of them Mac Hunter at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Mac Hunter. I had heard of him, I thought, or was that MacDivot of the comic strips? No, I was certain Mac Hunter was a famous teaching pro, a Scotsman about 60 or 70 years old, and that seemed just right.