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In a series of articles entitled Zero of the Lions (SI, Sept. 7 & 14, 1964), which he expanded into the best-selling book Paper Lion, the author wrote of his excruciating experiences as an amateur NFL quarterback. Now, despite an 18 handicap, he has pitted himself against big-time golf. The result, on the course, was what could be expected from Zero: nothing. But his account of his travails in last year's Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur, and during the two weeks that followed, constitutes an amusing and poignant look at the pro tour, the amateur golfer and the game itself. This first of a three-part series describes a ball-stealing caddie, the rage of a pro partner and two days in a cloud of bogey dust.
I had a notion that a month on the professional golf tour, competing steadily and under tournament conditions before crowds and under the scrutiny of the pros with whom I would be playing, might result in five, perhaps even six, strokes being pruned from my handicap, which is 18.
My friends thought so, too. They envied me my invitations to the Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur, the Lucky International in San Francisco and the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs—the near month of tournament play in the pro-ams that I would enjoy on the tour—and they said that the one compensation they could think of as they toiled at their desks was that on my return I would not be as likely to embarrass them with my bad golf on our occasional weekend rounds.
I was hopeful but also uneasy, aware that quite an overhaul of my game was going to be necessary. My woes in golf, I have felt, have been largely psychological. When I am playing well, in the low 90s, I am still plagued with small quirks—a suspicion that, for example, just as I begin my downswing, my eyes straining with concentration, a bug or a beetle is suddenly going to materialize on the ball. And when I am playing badly far more massive speculation occurs: I often sense as I commit myself to a golf swing that my body changes its corporeal status completely and becomes a mechanical entity, built of tubes and conduits and boiler rooms here and there, with big dials and gauges to check, a brobdingnagian structure put together by a team of brilliant engineers but manned by a dispirited, eccentric group of dissolutes.
I see myself as a monstrous, manned colossus poised high over the golf ball, a spheroid that is barely discernible 14 stories down on its tee. From above, staring through the windows of the eyes, which bulge like great bay porches, is an unsteady group (as I see them) of retired Japanese navy men. In their hands they hold ancient and useless voice tubes into which they yell the familiar orders: "Eye on the ball! Chin steady! Left arm stiff! Flex the knees! Swing from the inside out! Follow through! Keep head down!" Since the voice tubes are useless, the cries drift down the long corridors and shaftways between the iron tendons and muscles and echo into vacant chambers and out, until finally, as a burble of sound, they reach the control centers. These posts are situated at the joints, and in charge are the dissolutes I mentioned—typical of them a cantankerous elder perched on a metal stool, half a bottle of rye on the floor beside him, his ear cocked for the orders that he acknowledges with ancient epithets, yelling back up the corridors, "Ah, your father's mustache" and such things, and if he's of a mind he'll reach for the controls (like the banks of tall levers one remembers from a railroad-yard switch house) and perhaps he'll pull the proper lever and perhaps not. So that, in sum, the whole apparatus, bent on hitting a golf ball smartly, tips and convolutes and lunges, the Japanese navy men clutching each other for support in the main control center up in the head as the structure rocks and creaks. And when the golf shot is on its way the observers get to their feet and peer out through the eyes and report: "A shank! A shank! My God, we've hit another shank!"
The Japanese navy men stir about and shout, "Smarten up down there!"
In the dark reaches of the structure the dissolutes reach for their rye, tittering, and they've got their feet up on the levers and perhaps soon it will be time to read the evening newspaper.
When I got out to the Monterey Peninsula, where the Crosby is played, and met some of the professional golfers, I asked them timidly if such wayward thoughts ever popped into their minds at a moment of crisis on the course—some image quite apart from golf.
Well, what sort of thoughts, they wanted to know.
I told them, somewhat haltingly, about the retired Japanese naval officers, a phenomenon I had never been able to explain to myself, and they stared and said, well no, they weren't harassed by any such thoughts as that. If pressed, they would admit to an inner voice, cajoling and murmuring encouragement. Dave Marr told me that, as he stood over his putt on the 16th green during the PGA championship he won at Laurel Valley in 1965, clear as a bell he heard his baby's voice call in his head, "Careful, Daddy, careful!"—just as the baby did when he was being tossed joyfully in the air, roughhousing at home. Marr, hearing his son's voice, was careful, so careful that his putt ended up short. He two-putted from there. When Jack Nicklaus chipped in a remarkable shot on the 17th and came within two strokes of Marr's lead the childish voice disappeared, to Marr's relief, and in its place a somewhat more aggressive voice began to cajole, "Don't let him in, dammit, just lock the guy out!"—which Marr was able to do on the last hole to win his championship.