There is something to be said for being able to win today, but for me there is nothing quite like having won in the past and being now retired from competition. If you are still playing, your reputation is always in doubt. But no one is more imposing than a sport resting on his laurels, adding new incidents to the legends about him.
I have become very proficient at the fine art of polishing my legend, and I offer you the fruits of my experience. Briefly, gentlemen, I have heard the crowd roar: for me!
Maybe not in the Yankee Stadium. Nor at Forest Hills. But I have beat the game, and on occasion, the resident champion. I am an ex-champ at golf, tennis and baseball. And I've run up an endurance record of some sort at chess. What the championship value of the chess match was, I'll leave to you. The point is: I glow with eminence in sports discussions and at matches. My counsel is sought. While others sweat, I comment; usually acidly. And all because I had sense enough to reach a peak and quit.
The kind of champ I am is a Quick Ex-Champ. To pause for definition, a Quick Ex-Champ is he who has played the game against good odds and has attained the equivalent of the football heroic of running 90 yards for the winning touchdown in the last minute of play. Accomplish the feat once, and you're a champ. Quit then, and you retire undefeated. Anything else will be an anticlimax.
I would like to pretend I was smart enough to have discovered the Quick Ex-Champ gimmick myself. But I wasn't. I was taught it inadvertently by a caddie. To him I owe everything.
When I was 13, I lived in Atlanta, the home of Bobby Jones, where nine out of ten fathers still believe they can make their sons golf champions. Mine was one such father. And it was thus that I came to the public course in Piedmont Park.
On my first round, I shot nine holes in 175. With a billiard cue I could have done better. The course was rough and in all I played only eight games of golf. The eighth round of 18 holes I shot in 72. I finished amid a respectful silence. As we came back to the clubhouse, the caddie, a good five years my senior, trudged thoughtfully beside me. "Son," he said presently, "if I was you, I'd quit golf today. I'd stand pat."
SOME SAGE ADVICE
I asked him why. "Well," he said, "you just ain't this good a golfer. Trying to do this again, you'll spend a million bucks and drive yourself to drink."
Whether at 13 I would have had the sense to take his advice on my own volition, I don't know. But fate stepped in. On the second tee of the ninth round my partner borrowed my driver and broke it. Malice, I expect. I had no brassie. And I couldn't see going on with no artillery bigger than a spoon. So I turned to tennis.