My Friday 7:10
a.m. tee time--first group, first round--was fast approaching, and there was no
daylight in the sky, and now in the clubhouse dining room Fuzzy Zoeller was
asking if he could join me for breakfast. Zoeller, winner of the 1979 Masters
and the '84 U.S. Open, a man who makes everything look easy, asking me, your
garden-variety duffer with a golfing nervous disorder, if he could sit down
with me. � I put my newspapers in a pile and down sat the Fuzz. Two guys,
loading carbs. Two fellow competitors (in a manner of speaking) playing in the
Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, one of the best stops on the Champions tour.
Whatever you think Fuzzy would have for breakfast, double it.
We talked about
T-Bonz, the Augusta steak house favored by Fuzzy, and a seafood biker bar on
Washington Road he likes as well. Florida's Indoor Clean Air Act must have been
killing him. We were at the TPC Tampa Bay, a public course in a town called
Lutz. As Fuzzy knifed his way through a sausage link, I snuck a look at my
watch. Getting on seven.
night, at a "mandatory" players-only meeting, I had learned, with no
fanfare, who my playing partners would be, but I hadn't met them. The field
comprised 72 pros, many familiar names among them, and 72 amateurs, some of
them well known: Bill Murray, the actor; Jim Courier, the Hall of Fame tennis
player; Joe Theismann, the football legend. Most of the other amateurs were
loose-limbed Tampa businessmen who had made a tidy sum in some real thing:
restaurant supplies, trucking, insurance, air-conditioning and
National Pro-Am, the fabled Pebble Beach event, is choked with self-important
Wall Streeters and corporate chieftains (and many obscure pros). The Outback
chain is now part of a massive public company, but the Outback Pro-Am field was
filled with locals who could afford to spend about $12,000 for several days of
golf that benefited various Tampa Bay children's charities. (The Outback people
gave me my spot, knowing this story was coming, but not knowing what would be
in it.) My pro, according to the slim packet I was given at the meeting, was
Dale Douglass, a 70-year-old former Ryder Cupper whose calm swing and demeanor
I had long admired. The other amateur was Ron Campbell, the president of the
NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. His pro was Gary Player. You know the list of
golfers who have won all four modern professional majors? It's five names long.
I didn't need my 5 a.m. wake-up call.
It was cold,
dark, rainy and windy on Friday morning when the four of us congregated on the
10th tee, our first hole. Player was wearing all black, his longtime calling
card. Douglass and Campbell were wearing nothing but black, too. I was wearing
brown shoes, tan slacks, a green windbreaker and a lucky red hat from last
year's British Open. "Looks like somebody didn't get the memo about the
team uniform," said my pro, the comedian.
actually a dozen or more spectators on hand at 7:10 at the 10th tee, standing
obediently behind a yellow rope in the cold, the dark, the rain and the wind.
They were enduring the conditions for one reason: to see a legend still at it.
Do you have that quick-swing problem, flick-flack and it's over? Hey, a lot of
us do. Teeing off after Player, in front of a dozen or more spectators who are
there only to see the wee great mon, might very possibly exacerbate it. My
first swing at the 370-yard par-4 was a whir, producing a slapped 215-yard toe
hook that stayed in the fairway. I followed that with a solid seven-iron to
about 40 feet and a good lag putt to about four feet. For a little while there,
I looked as advertised--a 12 handicapper. Then I capped the first hole with a
yippy little jab that, had it fallen, could have been a 4 for a 3 and a hot
start. Over the next 35 holes my putting and driving only deteriorated, and
Team Douglass missed qualifying for the third and final round by a million
shots. I could detail for you the general decline of my game since the late
1970s, but let's get back to something more interesting: Mr. Player. You see
him in a different way, inside the ropes.
fantastic: Seventy-one years old, with bright-white teeth, silver-and-black
hair, tanned skin that's not leathery. The man exudes liveliness, and that
clipped, precise South African accent helps. Of course there are signs of age.
His eyes were tearing in the endless cold wind, and he dabbed at them with the
sleeve of his black sweater before nearly every shot. His swing is the same as
forever--he belts the ball down the fairway using all his 140 pounds--but now
the ball goes maybe 225 yards, often with the aid of a big bounce off a
His standards are
high. What might seem to you like spectators having a good time is public
drunkenness to him. On almost every hole he'd move a caddie or spectator or
marshal or photographer or anyone who might disrupt his peripheral vision. He
played his shots only when he was good and ready, and allowed himself to be
rushed by nobody, even when we were told at the turn on the first day that our
pace was too slow by eight minutes. When he plays, all eyes are on him. He's
still a star.
And what a
pleasure it was to watch Player, watch him play for keeps, grinding over every
shot, looking lonely and almost ill when he didn't execute a shot as planned,
or when the rub of the green conspired against him. There were many
declarations from him, about Augusta National, about the condition of the
course, about swings made and shots played by all quarters of our cheerful
When Dale hit a
beautiful spinning pitch shot, Player said to him, "Only you and I know how
good that shot is." He was hard on his caddie, a boy of 17 who was the son
of an employee in Player's course-design business, but something else was
plain, too: He was having the time of his life. I complimented him on his play,
and he said, "It's such a pleasure to try to make a good score in the