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All these are pale characters compared with Toby Lyons, our pro. I cheer up the minute I meet him: a gruff 75-year-old with a big-featured, leathery face and thin gray hair raked straight back over his skull.
"Ready to learn some golf, boys?" he asks, mauling a dinner roll. He answers his own question: "You bet you are."
In a matter of minutes, we coax the essentials out of him. He spends his summers teaching at the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Country Club, but his reputation is based on lessons given long ago to Yogi Berra, Joe Louis, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. He played in 15 U.S. Opens in the '40s and early '50s. The names of contemporaries fall freely from his lips: Sarazen, Snead, Nelson. "At one time I was probably the best putter in the world," he says, "but I could never hit the ball very far." He reaches for another roll. "It's a grand game, boys. It'll carry you through life."
Someone asks if Ben Sutton, the school founder, was ever a touring pro.
"Oh, no, no, no!" Lyons looks shocked. Sutton is no golfer, he says. Sutton is a former engineer for the Hoover vacuum cleaner company.
Just then, someone taps a glass at the head table, and the ceremonies begin. Sutton, a cheerful, cherubic 82-year-old, rises to say a few words. Welcome, he says, to the 485th Ben Sutton Golf School. He knows we will have a great time, and if we apply ourselves diligently, we will receive our diplomas on Saturday. He is sure of this, he says, because so far 40,000 students have enrolled in the school and only one has failed to graduate.
Sutton looks around the room, beaming. "His check bounced."
Oh, swell, I think. Another C.O.F.
A month later, I am on the practice tee at the Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where a swing doctor and his assistant, Igor, are fitting me for a straitjacket. Igor pulls a black strap across my chest and secures it with Velcro so tightly that I can barely breathe. The doctor gleefully binds my upper arms to my rib cage with more straps and rings. When Igor and the doctor finish, I can flap my forearms and walk like an emperor penguin, but if a bee lands on my nose it can camp there.
The doctor, in his Georgia drawl, says, "O.K., John, try hitting one." Igor hands me a five-iron and tees up a ball for me.