Excerpt from MEN IN GREEN by Michael Bamberger. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Bamberger. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.
Augusta beckoned, as she does.
I was heading there by way of Charlotte, made one wrong turn, and found myself on Wilkinson Boulevard, pointing for downtown. One wrong turn and my mind went into a drift. All these old-timey motels hanging on. Which one was it?
I was remembering a day from thirty years earlier. More than thirty. It was the night of my brother’s college graduation, and I was flying from Boston to Charlotte to caddie in a tournament there, a professional tournament, with stars in the field and a big cardboard check for the winner. Fred Graham, one of Cronkite’s lieutenants on CBS News, was on my flight, sitting in first class, smoking a cigar. It was Fred Graham, for sure. He had that scar on his chin.
Scars were more common then. When I was growing up—in the village of Patchogue on the South Shore of Long Island in the sixties and seventies—there were still World War I vets on the benches by the VFW Hall with scars both visible and hidden. (We all knew thephrase combat fatigue.) My baseball hero, Cleon Jones, had a scar on his right cheek, the residue of a young-buck car accident that had sent him flying through a windshield. I learned about this face-changing mishap in Cleon, his 1970 autobiography, which I devoured when it became available at the Patchogue Library. Soon after, in that same library, I found Cleon Jones’s phone number in Mobile, Alabama. What a thrill, to look at that exotic 205 area code and imagine the scene on the other end. And in that same vein, here was Fred Graham of CBS News with his positive-ID chin scar. I caught my breath. He was famous, yes, but it was more than that. He was a member of a nomadic tribe— newsmen—a group forever on the prowl, always going to some new place. It was May 1979. I was newly nineteen and looking to join the circus myself. Not Fred’s. It was Golf Road that was calling.
Wilkinson Boulevard, when I stumbled on it en route to Augusta all those years later, was just another misstep in a long series of them for me, on the wrong street, likely heading the wrong direction, temperamentally incapable of using a smartphone map. No matter. Little waves of happiness were washing over me.
The accidental tourist: I know the concept well. Here I was, in the throes of middle age, and the song of the road was playing at full volume again. It plays for all of us, doesn’t it? My own wanderlust is tempered by a powerful desire to get home, be home, stay home. Those urges were especially strong in the years when our kids were in the house. But they had grown into collegians. (My wife, Christine, once brought home a small sign: checkout time is 18.) And even in our Swim Meet years, the pull of the road was always more than background music. In my line of work—sportswriter—if you’re home too long, something’s wrong.
I’ve never had a true office job, and in our married life Christineand I have both always been coming and going. Our honeymoon was seven months in Europe during which I worked as a caddie on Europe’s professional golf tour. On long drives, Christine read aloud Richard Halliburton’s The Royal Road to Romance. My parents had the massive Arthur Schlesinger biography of RFK that included a photo of Bobby in front of the King David Hotel—Jerusalem, 1948—when he was twenty-two with a gig as a reporter on the Boston Post. A snap that inspires me to this day.
My mother and father left Nazi Germany as children with their parents, and many years later they gave long formal interviews about their wartime experiences. They dressed up for the occasion, which my mother does with ease and my father less so. (His dress shoes all have Vibram soles.) My mother spoke of family vacations in a village near a Czechoslovakian forest in the 1930s and her fascination with the Gypsies on the edge of it, with their dark skin and light feet.
In 1959, when Khrushchev was coming to the United States, Mike Wallace was on TV conducting a contest: What one place should U.S. officials take the Soviet leader to show him the real America? The winner would get a car, and our family—with me on the way—needed one. In my father’s entry, he said the American hosts should have Khrushchev throw a dart at a U.S. wall map and wherever it stuck was where he would go, so that Nikita and his comrades back home would understand that democracy thrives everywhere in the United States. How did that not win?
One year my brother was given a globe with raised mountain ranges. That was a big deal. Our father had a collection of Mobil travel guides stacked on a basement shelf. I read them front to back. On our family trips, David would read those accordion Hess and Esso road maps for our father like he was reading the back of a baseball card.
David and I were devoted to the fine print of American life. We will know forever the name Lou Niss, traveling secretary of the New York Mets in the Cleon Jones years. He was in the team photo annually. What a job. Whatever that position actually entailed, I could not know. But he was at-large. In the agate type of the sports section in the New York Times, under the heading “Today’s Games,” whole cities were in transit: New York at St. Louis, Chicago at Philadelphia, Cincinnati at San Francisco.
All my youthful heroes were at-large: the ballplayers and the golfers, the beat writers and the war correspondents, the musicians and their silent roadies. A nod here to some hits from yesteryear: Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Five Hundred Miles,” Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman,” David Wiffen singing “Driving Wheel.” If you told me any of those songs were conceived on the side of the road, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
Just came up on the midnight special
Honey, how about that
My car broke down in Texas
She stopped dead in her tracks.
Do you like how Wiffen’s car gets the feminine pronoun treatment, as ships and principalities once did? My senior-year roommate called his boat of a station wagon Betsy. Another roommate, a physics major, wanted to be a long-distance truck driver. A high school buddy who shined shoes at the village course where I played in Bellport, one town east of Patchogue, saved his tip money for flying lessons. We were all in transit, at least in our dreams. The touring-caddie thing persisted in me for years.
Golf is a road game. Professional golf, of course, but the game as it is played on Sunday mornings, too. You start in one place, head out, have various adventures along the way, turn around, come on home. Chaucer would have had a field day with it, and Updike did. In one of the most beautiful sentences I know, from a short story for the ages, Updike describes an American banker on a Scottish links: “This was happiness, on this wasteland between the tracks and the beach, and freedom, of a wild and windy sort.”
I am certain of little—I am leery of the overconfident reporter—and at nineteen I knew even less. But I knew what anybody with a TV might know: Every week a group of professional golfers assembled in some new and glamorous place and played a leisurely ball-and-stick game for money and glory. I was never going to be one of those golfers. Even with the advantage of starting young, in gym class at South Ocean Avenue Middle School, I never was much better than an 85 shooter at marshy Bellport, where I knew every hump. (In middle age, I have been besieged with the yips, a putting illness that takes away your desire to write down scores.) But I was aware that the golfers on our family TV all had caddies. That’s where I saw my opening and my pathway to the circus.
In the winter of ’79, in the long winter break of freshman year, I had a brief stint catching T-bars flung by dismounting night skiers at the top of the Bald Hill Ski Bowl. (Named, we always said, for its distinct lack of snow.) On a Saturday afternoon in late January I was watching the Andy Williams San Diego Open in my parents’ living room. If golf was on TV, I watched. (My parents and brother had no interest. I had golf for myself.) At one point, CBS decided to show a journeyman doing nothing more than playing well: Randy Erskine, a reliable voice told us, of Battle Creek, Michigan.
I located this Randy Erskine of Battle Creek as I located Cleon Jones of Mobile. I wrote to him and asked him for a summer job as his traveling caddie. If the phrase tour caddie existed then, I doubt I knew it. The letter led to a phone call, which led me to a flight to Charlotte, site of the Kemper Open, on a May evening in 1979, when Fred Graham was sitting up front.
I headed out of the Charlotte airport that night and walked over to Wilkinson Boulevard and found a motel room for maybe fifteen dollars. It had to be the first night I was alone in a rented room. Early the next morning, the lady owner gave me a bowl of Raisin Bran and a tiny glass of orange juice and I was off. The hair on Randy Erskine’s arms was bleached blond by the sun and he kept his heavy watch, along with his wallet and wedding ring, in a purple velvet Crown Royal bag, which he stowed in his golf bag while he played. He had narrow hips that didn’t rotate much on his backswing and a big shoulder turn. He used a Ping Pal putter, the same model used by my putting hero, Tom Watson. (Watson, so bold on the greens, made everything.) I had brought a tiny tool to clean the grooves on his irons, and that seemed to impress Randy. He played a practice round with a golfer named John Adams.
After one practice round, I found myself sitting in the back of a camper-van set up for the week in the parking lot of the Quail Hollow Country Club. Three touring pros—Randy, Doug Tewell, and Wayne Levi—were the real occupants of that camper-van, but nobody was chasing me away. Wayne Levi’s denim golf bag was parked outside, standing up on its own. A rap session, tour-style, was under way. To this day, it all seems so unlikely. A fourth pro, a lanky man named Don Pooley, came by with his wife, and Randy said, “The Pooleys!” It was like a golf commune.
Randy Erskine’s golf skill was like nothing I had ever seen, not up close. But his two-day total—150 shots, each of them accounted for on scorecards and sworn to with his signature—left him outside the cutline. His presence would not be needed for the Saturday and Sunday rounds. He made nothing that week, not on the greens and not in the way of a paycheck. Still, he stayed around to prepare for the thirtysix‑hole U.S. Open qualifier that would be played on Monday.
People were talking about how the United States Golf Association had essentially forced Arnold Palmer, who hadn’t met any of the automatic eligibility requirements for the ’79 Open, to play in that qualifier. In other words, the USGA, in its hard-boiled wisdom, had not given a special exemption to the game’s most popular and revered player, who was then chasing fifty. There were people who were offended by the way Palmer was being treated. But Palmer was registering no such complaint. He would not put himself above those who had to qualify. Randy allowed me to use the second bed in his Holiday Inn room that weekend. (Amazing.) When we showed up early on Monday morning at the Charlotte Country Club, we found out that Randy would be playing right behind Arnold Palmer himself.
“Great,” Randy said. “We gotta play in his wake all day.”
I felt he was feigning frustration, and noted his use of we. Randy Erskine was a touring professional in the vicinity of Arnold Palmer. How could that be anything but good?
There were at least a hundred people following Palmer that day, but it was never anything like bedlam. Palmer’s hair was already silver and his skin was bronzed. Palmer made it—he played his way into the U.S. Open. Randy did not. Still, he paid me one hundred dollars for the day. (Half that would have been generous.) He wasn’t playing in that week’s tournament in Atlanta. The week after that was the U.S. Open at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, and he had just failed to qualify. But he would be playing the following week, in the Canadian Open. He said I could work for him in Canada.
And here I was, thirty-something years later, back in Charlotte, heading to Augusta in the name of Sports Illustrated. I got myself from Wilkinson Boulevard to Billy Graham Parkway to I-77 and motored my way south. I could not identify my old motel. Maybe it was gone.
I found myself thinking, for the first time in forever, about that long-ago Monday morning at the Charlotte Country Club, Arnold Palmer arriving in a shiny white Cadillac from a dealership that bore his name. He emerged from his grand chariot. Everybody inhaled. Time stopped. Arnold Palmer, in the flesh.
In October 2012 the Ryder Cup was played at Medinah, outside Chicago, and my assignment for the magazine was to help Davis Love III write a deadline first-person piece about his experience as Ryder Cup captain, a task that would be fun if the Americans won and challenging if they did not. Late at night, after the first day of the three-day competition, I was in a downtown restaurant by myself at a table with a paper tablecloth, and I found myself writing names on it. The names came to me quickly. I marked one column LIVING LEGENDS, the other SECRET LEGENDS.
Dolphus Hull (aka Golf Ball)
Maybe I was subconsciously filling out lineup cards for a National League game, I don’t know, but when I was done I had two columns with nine names each for a total of eighteen golf’s holy number.
During dessert, I decided to add Mickey Wright to the Living Legends list. The Big Three of the modern American golf swing are Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods, and Mickey Wright, and the list just didn’t look right without her. (The first golf book I read was Power Golf by
Ben Hogan, published originally in 1948. It was a hardcover, and I read it outside with a club in hand. Where my mother found it I have no idea.) When I added Mickey, I took off Gary Player, a nod to symmetry more than anything else. That move, unintentionally, made the list all- American. Seventeen American men and one American woman.
The Living Legends were all players. The Secret Legends list included a club pro, a teaching pro, a tour caddie. A tournament director in his sixties, a TV producer in his eighties, a former USGA president in his nineties. They had all shaped my life. They all, in different ways, had driven deep stakes into the game long before I started poking around in it in the mid-1970s. Because of that, they were all elder statesmen to me—even Fred Couples, less than six months older than I.
Later, I got out a map and put a little check mark by each legend’s hometown. Before long, I had red marks in Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Texas, Virginia, Ohio, and some other states. I concocted a vague plan to try to see each of them, notebook in hand, wherever I might find them. I got a little shiver. Does anything give a man more of a sense of purpose than a list?
My combined list had built-in problems. I didn’t know if Golf Ball was alive or dead. Fred was impossible. (Likable but impossible.) Palmer could be a challenge to interview. Mickey Wright didn’t even come to the USGA museum for the dedication of its Mickey Wright Room. Nicklaus was far more interested in his work as a golf-course architect than in revisiting his old playing days.
Still, it was a good list. In that great episodic TV show of my youth—American Golf in the ’70s!—all eighteen had a role. Bit or starring or in between, they were all there.
My plan, to the extent that I had one, was to pack these questions in my Target knapsack, along with my Lipitor and my hearing-aid batteries and my notebooks. “What was it like? Who did you hang with? How does then look to you now?” Or ditch all that and steal a question from the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair: “When and where were you happiest?” A difficult question to answer, at least honestly. I wondered if I could answer it myself.