“You tried your best and you failed miserably.
The lesson is, ‘Never try.’”
– Homer Simpson
It’s quite a trick to get kicked out of band at age 9. But there I was, on the verge of tears, face to face with Mr. Picker: “If you’re not going to practice,” he said matter-of-factly, “you may as well not come back next week.”
Practice. Ugh. The very word sent shivers of disgust through my body. I mean, why practice when you could play? This was my attitude throughout most of my young life (and to a lesser extent, today). It’s not that I didn’t want to be good at things – whether it was baseball, piano, football, tennis, trombone, or golf. I enjoyed doing them all. I just didn’t want to practice. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
Take my trombone. Please.
When I was in grade school, my mom, a former music teacher, thought it was outrageous that the school system didn’t have us learning band instruments prior to the fifth grade. So she convinced the powers that be to let me start trombone lessons a year early. True, the trombone was my choice (I was drawn to the cool “slidey” thing), but I don’t remember having any urgent desire to learn a musical instrument.
Oh, I played it. I just paid little attention to the notes on the page. I loved making noise with it, and figuring out how it worked, and by and large doing my own thing. But I had a complete aversion to performing the prescribed drills. And since, for better or worse, my parents weren’t great at enforcing good practice habits (and I’m sure it had nothing to do with my resistance!), there were times when the entire week between my lessons would go by without my trombone ever once being liberated from its case.
But as much as I hated to practice, I dreaded even more that moment when Mr. Picker would realize I hadn’t kept up my end of the deal. He would put down his little white stick, sigh, pause for dramatic effect, look at me with disapproval oozing out of his pores, and say something like, “Did you practice at all this week?”
Yeah, right! would be more like it.
It got so bad that one time he eventually told me I might as well not bother. I think he meant it rhetorically, but I took it as, “Don’t come back, you’re hereby officially banished from band!”
Kicked out of band – at the tender age of 9.
Getting scolded by my band director was one thing; disappointing my parents – my mom, in particular – was quite another. I knew how important music was to her, so I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her I’d been kicked to the curb. I think I would rather have told her I’d been caught peeing in the sink. So when band day arrived a week later I tried to sneak out of the house without my trombone. But my mom saw me leaving: “Don’t forget your trombone, Mike!”
Now, I suppose I could have sustained the charade and just brought the blasted hunk of brass to school anyway. But I hated carrying that thing those four long blocks – both ways! It was heavy. Oh, how I envied those fifth-grade girls carrying around their tiny little flutes.
So I chose confession over physical labor and burdensome guilt. “Mom, I need to tell you something,” I started to say, with tears welling up in my sad little eyes.
Somewhat to my surprise, my mom was very understanding as I told her my pathetic tale. Yet what she did not say was, “Don’t worry, if you don’t want to take trombone lessons, you don’t have to.” What she did say was, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to the band director and straighten things out.”
Gee, thanks, Mom.
Against steep odds, I did learn to enjoy playing the trombone and by high school became modestly proficient – without hardly ever practicing. And if I hadn’t kept at it, I never would have met and fell in love with the sweet and lovely Barb Alexander, a fellow freshman and lady trombonist. Our relationship lasted nearly four years, all through high school. Who knows, it might have lasted even longer if I had ever summoned the courage to ask her out.
This same pattern was generally true of my sporting career. I loved to play, hated to work at it. Perhaps even more significantly, I hated the pressure of playing team sports. This is perhaps best exemplified by my big Little League choke in the all-city tournament.
When I was 11, I was on a pretty good team: Youthfit Shoes. We only lost a few games during the year and went into the city tournament confident that we could do well. After winning our first-round game rather handily, we faced a veritable goliath in the second: Sholem Shoes. (And yes, the competing shoe sponsorship made for a natural rivalry, a precursor to the great Nike-Reebok wars to come.) Sholem was undefeated and heavily favored to win it all. Yet, we managed to give them a good game and led by a run going into the sixth and final inning. But then some sloppy fielding (perhaps by me?) in the top half gave Sholem a one-run lead.
Wouldn’t you know it, I soon found myself in one those situations great players crave and adequate ones soil themselves over: trailing by a run, runner on second, two outs, full count. And Yours Truly at the plate. The wind-up (How old is that pitcher, anyway, like 15?!), the pitch (Oh, good, it’s low, I won’t have to do anything but stand here), and the call: strike three! (Wait … what!?)
I actually held it together pretty well for a while. Everyone consoled me and agreed that the pitch was low. But just as I was starting to feel a little better, John Karich (I’ll remember that name forever!) glared at me with his narrow, yellow eyes and hissed, “Why didn’t you swing?”
That’s when I lost it. I cried and cried and cried. And cried some more. The experience left a scar, no doubt. I was never quite the same player after that, and the following season would be my last of organized baseball.
Not coincidentally, that’s when I started gravitating toward individual sports.
Tennis was big with me for a while. And here I should clarify what I mean by “practice.” Because I worked at tennis pretty hard; I just never got much in the way of formal instruction. But I beat balls against the garage door relentlessly. How and why my parents put up with it I’ll never understand – especially since our garage door had four windows in it. One by one I broke them all. And one by one my dad replaced them with plexi-glass panes. But even they would crack on occasion when met with the force of one of my ferocious forehands.
I don’t know; maybe my parents just liked the idea that I was putting some actual effort into something. Anything!
After a time, during the summer following my Little League humiliation, my folks signed me up for some group tennis lessons with the local park district. Much to my surprise and delight, I was the best one in the class.
But I found out the hard way that being the best in a park district class is not saying very much. I was so excited by my newly discovered tennis prowess that I convinced my parents to enter me in a local youth tournament. We thought it was just a local park district event. Nope.
The first clue that I was getting in over my head should have been that I had to join the United States Tennis Association, which sanctioned the event. Cluelessly, I showed up that first morning innocent and undaunted, as a lamb to the slaughter – as Greg Norman to Nick Faldo on Sunday at Augusta. I was excited, but not really nervous. What was there to be nervous about? I was the best in my class! My opponent was a nice, polite young man about my own age. I remember it had rained the night before, so when we shook hands across the net before the match, he asked me very nicely to try not to let the balls roll into any of the puddles around the court.
“I have gut strings,” he said.
Blank stare. I had no idea what that meant, but I understood that it was important to him for some reason to keep the balls dry.
Next thing I knew, I turned around after chasing down a ball heading for a puddle, only to see Chip standing at the net again. In the blink of an eye he had beaten me 6-0 6-0. I scarcely remember winning a point, and I was so discouraged by my thrashing that I literally would not play the game again for years.
Decades later, I was telling this story to Tom Scaggs, an old friend who was and still is a serious tennis player. “Do you remember the guy’s name?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Chip Sweeney.”
Tom’s eyes widened. “Chip Sweeney?” he said. “Chip Sweeney?!” he repeated, this time with a bit more volume.
“You quit tennis because you lost a match to Chip Sweeney!? He was one of the best players in the whole state!”
Well, what do you know about that? Live and learn, I guess.
That fall, perhaps motivated by my latest athletic humiliation, I won the job of starting quarterback on my school’s 5th and 6th grade YMCA flag football team. My brother – 18 months younger, 10 pounds heavier, and less athletically inclined than I – was my center. To this day I shudder at the memory of having to place my hands against his upturned buttocks to receive the snap.
My quarterbacking career was quite forgettable. I had a good, accurate arm, which is how I won the job, but I had the steely nerves of a traumatized baby kinkajou. I was much more concerned about not screwing up than about trying to do something good. Our coach had me calling my own plays, and I quickly learned that the safest thing was to hand the ball off nearly every time to our talented running back. Three yards and a cloud of confusion.
When fall turned to winter, the YMCA action moved indoors to the basketball court, where I promptly got elbowed square in the mouth while fighting for a rebound during a game. Blood and tears flowed amidst the sweat.
The damage to my mouth was pretty significant, with the most extensive trauma being to my two lower front teeth. One was snapped off basically in half, requiring many visits to the dentist – and ultimately a root canal – to repair. And that was the easy part. X-rays revealed that my other tooth was broken into several pieces below the gum line. Ultimately, it took a crack team of oral surgeons to slice open my gum and pick out the pieces.
It was not a pleasant time in my life.
I share this painful tale to help explain the effective end of my career in team sports. My mother was horrified by the grisly turn of events – and ticked off that the YMCA was not held financial responsible for all the resulting dental bills. I can’t prove this, and my mom denies it, but I believe she quietly applied the pressure to my dad (maybe without even realizing it) to stop encouraging me to play such dangerous sports. It also didn’t help that so many of my friends from grade school ended up going to the other junior high school after 6th grade. When I arrived at the doorstep of Jefferson Junior High School, I suddenly found myself in a much bigger school, with a lot fewer friends, and less self-confidence than ever before. Going out for any team sports did not appeal to me at all.
Which ultimately just made it easier for me to turn my full attention to golf.
• • •
My golfing memories go back to about age 7, when I started playing in the yard with some of my dad’s old clubs; he had a bag full of them, hardly ever used. Though I vaguely remember my dad having a regular golf game for a while, he was one of those guys who basically gave it up once the kids came along.
It was an eclectic mix of clubs; a few of them even had names on them – such as mashie or spoon – rather than numbers. A couple had chipping, fake wood layered over steel shafts. There was even a 2-wood.
Eventually my dad cut down a couple clubs to fit me – one iron and one wood – and fashioned crude grips out of electrical tape. For the most part, I worked on my game alone in the front yard – with real golf balls. Gradually, my proficiency increased, until one day I caught one flush with my miniature 3-wood and sent it sailing across the street and over our neighbor’s hedge. THUD! The ball hit the side of the house with authority. Fortunately, no one was around to witness my transgression. Unfortunately, no one was around to witness the best shot of my life!
One day, I believe it was the summer I turned 8, I was playing front-yard golf with two friends, Andy Stallman (more about him later) and Tim Holmes. The problem was, we couldn’t find any golf balls. So we used a baseball. One baseball, shared by the three of us.
After taking a shot, each player would “mark” his ball with his foot before handing the ball and club off to the next player. Ours was not a large yard, and our 8-year-old brains were highly undeveloped, so you might imagine what happened next. Andy got too close to Tim while marking his ball and Tim whacked him square in the nose on his follow-through. Much blood, many tears, and loud screaming followed.
My mom was inside baking a cherry pie – which I remember because she didn’t bake very often and I loved cherry pie. She rushed out when she heard the uproar and took Andy inside. There she patched him up, and once he settled down and the bleeding stopped, she sent him home, about two blocks away, on his bike.
That evening, Mom was horrified to learn that Tim had, in fact, broken Andy’s nose. She felt so badly about not taking Andy’s injury more seriously that she brought that fresh-baked cherry pie over to his house. Forty years later, she still hasn’t forgiven herself for not driving Andy home that day. And I still haven’t forgiven her for giving him that pie.
As I got older, the local Par-3 course – 27 holes of modestly manicured wonder – became my primary golf stomping grounds. Andy, by then firmly entrenched as my best friend, was my primary playing partner.
All things considered, “Par-3” (as near as I could ever tell, that was the actual name of the place) was a pretty nice facility. In addition to the three 9-hole courses, two of which were lighted for night play, there was a small pro shop and driving range. It was run by a PGA Professional by the name of Bob Nelson – who I would later learn was also a math teacher, golf coach, assistant football coach and former wrestling coach at the local high school. Running Par-3 was his summer gig.
“Bulldog” Bob, as the high school kids called him, didn’t look much like a golfer. Short and stocky with stubby fingers and no neck, he looked more like a football player or wrestler than golf pro. I never saw him actually play, but I have seen him hit balls, and he was the real deal.
Andy and I would play at the Par-3 whenever we could scrape up a few bucks and a ride to the course. Some years we purchased season passes, making transportation the only issue. Fortunately, our parents were usually willing to make the 10-minute drive and drop us off pretty frequently. It was probably a small price to pay, in retrospect, for keeping us occupied for a few hours. I once played 54 holes in one day, all by myself. I was also the proud maker of two aces there: one with a bladed 7-iron that bounced the 76 yards to the hole; the other a couple years later with a well-struck 110-yard 5-iron.
In addition to being my best friend, Andy in those days was someone I looked up to – in spite of the abuse he sometimes dished out. He was a little bit taller than me, a little bit bigger, and generally a little bit better at everything. It frustrated me that he generally got the better of me on the golf course, which only motivated me to improve.
Most frustrating of all was the way he mocked me when I started trying to hit a 3-iron to one of the two 140-yard holes, the longest on the property. Historically, we both needed drivers to reach those greens. But I knew I could hit a 3-iron that far, because I had done it several times when Andy wasn’t there. The problem was, I would invariably miss-hit the shot in the face of Andy’s merciless taunting.
“Told ya!” he would cry out as my ball dribbled halfway to the hole or far off to the right.
Andy passed away unexpectedly at the age of 29, and whenever we talk about him, we remember his friendship, his sharp wit, his love of working for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, and his mean streak. We miss you, buddy.
As much time as I spent on the Red, White, and Blue, rarely did I grace the driving range with my presence. Beating balls held virtually no appeal to me. Again, why practice when you could play? Limited funds, I’m sure, were also a factor. Still, the course was an excellent training ground, even as I continued to ingrain bad swing habits.
As Andy and I got older, our golf outings sometimes took us to the ancient University of Illinois 9-hole course – which I believe the University kept in operation only to serve as a parking lot for football games. We called it “Dogpatch” or “Rinky-Dink.” It was not a very impressive course. But this is where my dad occasionally took me to play after work. After dinner. After dessert. He knew that if we waited until it was almost dusk, the tiny little clubhouse would be closed and we could walk on and play a few holes for free. Those days were the best of my young life, as I enjoyed playing golf with my dad more than anything.
More often, however, my playing partner there would be Andy or Mark Sweeney (no relation to Chip).
Mark Sweeney. Now there’s a name that brings back memories! It was Mark who introduced me to caddying at the local country club. It was Mark who introduced me to the Beatles. It was Mark who introduced me to certain kinds of “literature.” And it was Mark who introduced me to almost burning down my house.
In fairness, this particular incident was as much my doing as Mark’s. But I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened without Sweeney’s nefarious influence. He had a certain effect on me.
One fine summer evening during our junior high school years, Sweeney (we hardly ever called him “Mark”) and I were hanging out in my backyard just after dark. I don’t remember where the rest of my family was, but I had somehow finagled permission to stay home alone. So Sweeney came over. We had grilled out for dinner that night, so there was a pile of smoldering coals in the bottom of our little grill. Sweeney and I were sitting around what was left of the fire talking – likely about our growing appreciation for boobs and who amongst the 9th grade girls might be considered an “ultra-fox” – absent-mindedly poking at the coals with the thin metal skewers we used to toast marshmallows. Somehow, we figured out that the little circle on the handle end was just the right size and shape for picking up a hot coal.
Next thing you know, said hot coal is exploding against a tree in a burst of glowing orange cinders. Wow, that was cool!
Fling! Fling! Fling!
After a few flings, however, that tree wasn’t providing quite the same level of excitement anymore. Somebody – coulda been me, coulda been Sweeney – eyed the steeply pitched roof of my house. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Now, wait just a second! Lest I create the impression that Sweeney and I were a couple of crazed, brainless, 13-year-old pyromaniacs, I want you to know that before any red hot coals were flung onto the backside of the Zimmerman abode, yours truly smartly watered it down with our garden hose. Safety first!
Fling! POOF! Fling! POOF! Fling! POOF!
In a matter of moments, we were enjoying a fireworks display rivaled only by the carefully controlled and properly licensed shows we witnessed each Fourth of July at Memorial Stadium – from a proximity to which we had previously only dreamed of. This … is … AWESOME!
Sure, it’s awesome until someone loses an eye – or flings a flaming fireball so far it flies over the roof and into the front yard.
In a mild panic, I ran around the house, only to be greeted by a woman walking her dog. “What was that!?” she asked with appropriate alarm.
Confession, they say, is good for the soul – but bald-faced denial comes more quickly to the tongue: “I don’t know!” I replied. “Something just came flying over the house!”
Thinking I had dodged a bullet, and undoubtedly proud of my brilliant cover story, I ran and rejoined Sweeney in the back yard. A few minutes later, after we had gone inside, we heard sirens. They came closer. And closer. We quickly realized they were coming down my street – toward my house. Again with minds focused solely on “doing the right thing,” we hid, cowering in the kitchen as the fire trucks rolled slowly by, presumably scanning the skies for glowing chunks of Kingsford’s.
But they never found one. And they never found us. Our secret has remained safe – until now. (Sweeney, if you’re reading this, I blame you completely!)
Despite his propensity for helping me find trouble where none had previously existed, I also have Mark Sweeney to thank for a short game that later helped earn me a spot on the high school golf team. When we weren’t up to no good, Sweeney and I spent many summer evenings “chipping around” in his yard. We made up a game: Each tree was assigned a number, and we designed “holes” that were described something like this: “Go to the left of #2, around #6, and back to #3” – meaning you had to hit the trunk of tree #3 with your ball to “hole out.” We played for something like a nickel a hole, and whoever lost the hole got to choose/design the next.
The game called for us to hit a wide variety of shots with just one club – I used a pitching wedge. You might have to open it up to get a high bounce off the concrete walkway (which was treated as a water hazard when you were not required to hit it as part of a hole). You might need to close the face to hit it low, under the branches. And, what I think was most important of all, we played the ball as it lay, which required shots from all manner of challenging lies on the not-so-beautifully manicured lawn.
I would need that strong short game as I moved from Dog-Patch/Rinky-Dink to the 18-hole Orange and Blue Courses at the “new” U of I golf courses by Willard Airport in nearby Savoy. What distinguishes both – the Blue Course especially, even more so back then – are the wide-open spaces.
Both the airport and its adjacent golf courses were built on what used to be cornfields. The natural landscape is flat, treeless, windswept, and flat. The Blue Course was and still is the easier course, with no real trouble to speak of. With no real rough, it was “bomb and gouge” without the gouge. I’m not sure they irrigated at all in those days, making the entire course run faster than Tiger through a pack of autograph hounds. I especially looked forward to the ninth hole on the Blue, a 470-yard dogleg right par-5, where the prevailing southwesterly breeze made it possible for even barely pubescent 14-year-old boys to think about hitting the green in two.
The Orange Course was more challenging – more of a real golf course. Whereas I don’t think they moved any earth to build the Blue, they compensated for the lack of topography on the orange by elevating a few of the greens and sloping most others sharply from back to front. Large sand traps also gobbled up shots that wandered too far left or right. Over the years, they gradually added more trees to give the course some definition. It was not a pretty track, but it was not an easy one. And it suited my scrambling style.
Though the University of Illinois golf team has since moved its operations to a newer, better course across town in Urbana, the beloved Orange Course (as I now refer to it) is what Steve Stricker called “home” during his Big Ten Championship seasons. Which I think gives the place some lingering prestige.
Neither the Orange nor the Blue, however, adequately prepared me for my stint on the high school golf team.
• • •
Mike Hagan hated me – and I really don’t know why. No, wait … I think I do. I think he hated me because it drove him crazy how I played golf.
My swing back then was not at all pretty to look at. I had a very strong grip and played the ball just inside my left foot. With my hands thrust forward, I slashed at the ball with a vicious out-to-in motion, producing a wildly unpredictable slice. It was very unrefined, and I’m sure it offended Mike’s more-sophisticated golfing sensibilities.
Hagan was a country club guy – his dad was one of the men I would occasionally caddy for. I’m sure he had gotten all the appropriate lessons and learned to swing a club in all the right ways. His swing was pretty. And yet … whenever we played together, he couldn’t seem to beat me. He would hit a nice drive down the middle of the fairway and a nice approach to the green. Then he would two-putt for par. On the same hole I might drive it wildly right, hit a desperate recovery shot left of the green, but then chip close and sink the putt. There was no question he was the better golfer, but when we played together I got into his head – big time. The whole situation reminds me of what Bobby Jones once said about Walter Hagen, a legendary scrambler and showman:
I would far rather play a man who is straight down the fairway with his drive, on the green with his second, and down in two putts for his par. I can play a man like that at his own game which is par golf .... But when a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins a hole with a birdie – it gets my goat!
I had first tried out for the golf team as a sophomore – a broken leg had taken me out the fall of my freshman year. But to illustrate where my level of interest was, I had no idea about when or where the tryouts were – nor had I even really given it any thought – until someone (it may actually have been Mike) mentioned to me that they were that afternoon! I made hasty arrangements to get out to the driving range at the Par-3 to have my game thoroughly evaluated by Bulldog Bob.
Over the course of the next two days, I showed Bulldog enough to make what was essentially the practice squad. This meant I was invited to come practice (free of charge) at the range every day after school but would not be taking part in practices at the team’s home course or compete in matches.
In retrospect, this was a golden opportunity I did not truly appreciate. I showed up dutifully for a while but soon got bored with the proceedings. I wanted to play; this was too much like practice. Eventually I unofficially dropped off the team. I say “unofficially” because I never really told anyone; I just stopped showing up. Truth is I couldn’t bring myself to face the coach, much in the way I couldn’t face my mom when I was “kicked out” of band.
And nobody ever said anything.
When next fall rolled around, I didn’t bother to try out again; I figured I had blown my chance. And the truth is it just didn’t matter that much to me. I loved playing golf as much as ever, but playing on a team was not high on my list of priorities. Perhaps my previous sporting humiliations were a factor. I was learning to fear letting my teammates down.
By then my caddying career had pretty much come to an end. But I always had some sort of a job with which to earn my greens fees. At 9, I became the youngest paperboy in town. Once I got old enough to caddy, about age 13, that became my primary summer job. There wasn’t much I didn’t like about it – except the prospect of having to talk to people. I loved being out on the course and just being around the game. I learned a lot simply through osmosis.
I was a pretty good caddy, but never got a good reputation for it because I was so quiet. I envied the older boy who worked in the pro shop, and desperately wanted that job to one day be mine. But when the position opened up a few years later, I had no shot, as I had never done anything to garner the club pro’s attention. Nor did I ever feel compelled to make my ambitions known. More than anything, my goal in life at that age was to blend in.
In the winter months I worked a couple days a week cleaning my dad’s office; he owned a small advertising agency downtown. I really hated this job, and my dad was always on me to do it better. But I was handicapped by being naturally lazy. It wasn’t my fault, you see. It’s something I was born with – much to my dad’s eternal frustration.
The one nice thing about the job was that there was a little golf shop a couple blocks away. After I had put in my two hours pushing the dirt around the office, I would wander over and kill time window shopping for clubs, bags, balls, and assorted gadgets, gizmos, and swing-aids. I don’t know what the guy who owned the place thought. He was friendly and always nice to me. But now, as an adult, I wonder how much I might have annoyed him, spending so much time there without ever actually buying anything. But who knows – maybe the thought of a 14-year-old kid so deeply bitten by the golf bug just made him smile.
Ultimately I did buy something there: a set of used Johnny Miller woods – 1, 3, and 5 – for something like $40. They went nicely with the used Walter Hagen irons I had bought for $75 at the pro shop where I caddied.
Another significant event in my world at that point was the annual birthday golf outing with my dad. Even though he rarely played anymore, he knew how much I loved it – and was proud that I was getting good. So once a year he took off work, took me out to the Lake of the Woods Golf Club, and played 18 holes with me. The best part? We rented a cart, which was still something of a novelty back then. And he let me drive it! Wahoo!
It was the day of the year I most looked forward to, even more than Christmas.
In high school I started buying a summer student pass for the U of I courses in Savoy. It cost $90: an absolute steal, even in today’s dollars. It gave me unlimited greens fees for the months of June, July, and August. With pass in hand, the only thing limiting my golf was time and opportunity (i.e., transportation). But I had plenty of time on my hands and found various ways to get out to the course pretty frequently. At home, I began tracking all my scores, hole by hole, on graph-paper charts. Many a Saturday night was spent in my room, watching “Fantasy Island,” designing graph-paper golf courses, and analyzing my scores. To this day I remember charting three straight 82s on the Orange and thinking to myself that was pretty darn good. And it was.
The first time I broke 80 came in my first opportunity – which is something of an aberration considering my history of choking under pressure. But when I came to the 18th on the Orange, a 160-yard par-3, needing a par for 79, I stuck it to three feet and calmly (the pressure was off!) made the birdie for 78.
Despite my increasing skills, the fall of my junior year went by without a thought of playing on the golf team. Some of it may have had to do with my dad getting sick. He hadn’t been feeling well for months, and I don’t think encouraging me to try out again was top of mind. In December, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was bad. A heavy smoker for 30 years, my dad had put off going to the doctor for too long. There was very little they could do, and in April of the following year, 1980, he passed away.
My dad had always been the primary source of what little motivation I could muster. And without him there I just kind of drifted through life for a while. When my senior year began that fall, I had no intention of trying out for the golf team. Again, I never even gave it much, if any, thought.
But then, on what must have been one of the first days of my senior year, I happened to run into Bulldog Nelson in the hallway. I didn’t expect him to remember me, but if he did, I was sure his feelings toward me would be ill, considering how I had bailed on the team two years previously. I tried to avoid eye contact as we approached each other, but to no avail. He caught my attention and said something like, “Got your sticks? Tryouts are tomorrow.”
Perhaps my “betrayal” was bigger in my mind than in reality. His words felt like a personal invitation – and how could I refuse a personal invitation from Bulldog Bob? I tried out again, and this time made the team – the real team.
That year I had a blast. A new senior, Matt Reiter, had moved into our district and was a solid #1. My old rival, Mike Hagan, was pretty firmly entrenched at #2. Brad Miller, a junior, held the #3 spot, and I eventually settled in at #4.
It took a while for that to happen however. Playing at Lincolnshire Fields was a bit of a shock to my system. Unlike the wide-open Orange and Blue courses, Lincolnshire wound through an upper-middle-class subdivision on the outskirts of town. There was water or out-of-bounds lining nearly every hole, so the penalty for wayward shots was severe. In the first nine-hole practice round I shot 54 – or maybe it was 57. Keeping my driver in the bag, I gradually learned to play a more controlled game. My scores improved considerably, and by the end of the second week I had carded a nifty 38.
Brad Miller was a better golfer than I was, but he was cocky and kind of obnoxious. Truthfully, I found him extremely obnoxious. Occasionally, when he was frustrated with Brad, Coach Nelson would put me in Brad’s usual #3 spot. In contrast to Brad’s “challenging” personality, I think the coach appreciated my mild-mannered, cooperative nature. In retrospect, I think he just liked me. At one tournament, I started out hot and shot 38 on the front nine. With stars in my eyes, I let the pressure get to me and shot 10 strokes worse on the back for a total of 86, probably pretty close to average for me in those days. We did well that day, finishing third overall as a team. I remember we were ten strokes out of second, and some of the guys pointed out that that’s exactly how much I “choked” by. But Bulldog came to my defense, saying that 86 was a solid score and pointing out that if I hadn’t shot 38 on the front, we might not have even finished third.
If you’re reading this, Coach, thanks for that.
My rivalry with Hagan continued; it probably hadn’t helped that I ignorantly showed up for the team’s first match wearing shorts – which Hagan quickly, an none to tactfully, informed me was a no-no. Hey, it was warm out and I was used to playing at Savoy. He should have just been happy I was wearing a shirt!
And it even reared its ugly head on the course once in the middle of a dual match. He and I were paired together (not our usual lineup; I think Bulldog had shuffled the lineup to try to gain an edge) with two members of the opposing team. As usual, Mike let my presence get to him. He was not playing well and seemed ready to explode. Mid-way through the match, Mike found himself in a fairway bunker; I was standing next to his bag at the edge of the trap near the fairway. Mike muffed the shot and promptly whipped his club at his bag in anger. His aim, however, was a little high. The club hit me instead, right across the knee. Remarkably, the shaft must have made contact right at the balance point, as the club snapped in two without leaving a mark.
At the golf team banquet that fall, Coach Nelson told the assembled parents and loved ones that I had one of the best short games he had ever seen. I beamed. My long game … let’s just say I’m glad he didn’t mention it.
After graduation that spring, I really had no idea what to do next. With my dad gone and my mom still grieving, I was not pushed in any particular direction – though I really could have used it. I hadn’t done anything in the way of college prep, so I did the only thing I could think to do: buy myself a beautiful set of Wilson Staff woods as a graduation gift.
My grades, thanks to my poor-to-non-existent study habits, were respectable, but not stellar – a solid B average. Armed with a strong sense of “I guess I don’t know what else to do,” I enrolled at the local junior college in the two-year broadcast technology program.
I probably could have had a shot at making the golf team there, but didn’t consider it. I’m not sure why. If you had asked me during my high school years what I wanted to do for a living someday, I would have said “professional golfer.” I was enough of a realist to know I wasn’t good enough, but it’s the only thing I could think of. Back at the Orange Course, I used to envy the guys my age or a little older working there, driving the lawnmowers and what not. I thought it would be awesome to have such a job, but again, I never bothered to look into it, such was my lack of initiative. I think I also assumed you had to “know somebody” to get what was so clearly a fun and glamorous job. At least, that was my excuse for not trying. I would have killed to get a job in the pro shop – but was not willing to risk a blow to my fragile self-esteem by asking.
In retrospect, I don’t think I realized that there were potentially other career paths in golf to follow besides “touring professional.” If someone had steered me in that direction, I probably would have jumped at the opportunity. Or maybe not. I was pretty lazy and clueless.
After three years of on-again, off-again study at Parkland Junior College, I made my way to the University of Illinois to start over as a freshman, studying animal science with an eye on becoming a veterinarian. I was 21 by then and figured I had matured sufficiently to study hard enough to get into vet school (which is very difficult).
I was wrong.
I had clearly underestimated the temptations and distractions of full-time campus life and it didn’t take long for me to wander off the academic straight and narrow. I blame Mike “Scruffy” Neuses for this. The weekend before my first big biology test, Mike, who had moved to Champaign before our senior year in high school, convinced me to instead take a road trip to Iowa (where he’s originally from) for a football game.
“Well, okay,” I finally said reluctantly. “But I’m going to bring some books and study in the car.”
“If you do I’m going to throw them out the window!” he replied.
I believed him. He seemed so wise and mature. So I left the books at home and went to Iowa. Had a blast. And got a “B” on my biology exam. Not a disaster, but B’s weren’t going to get me into vet school. And a pattern had been set.
The vet school dream died relatively quickly, and without that as a goal my grades began to really suffer and I found myself on the verge of flunking out. Eventually I steadied myself, changed majors (to agricultural communications), and found my groove. I also discovered the Illini Union.
During the winter of my sophomore year I took advantage of being a hometown boy to get a job at the Illini Union bowling alley over the holidays. I had bowled some as a kid, so it was a good fit. And I enjoyed learning to fix pinsetters. But the job also involved working in the pool hall, which was overseen by the same office. This, it turns out, was where my true weakness (and latent talents) lay. Before long I had become a highly skilled pool player, a very good bowler, and a passable student. A renaissance man!
One of the other regulars in the pool hall was Chuck Fiser a member of the U of I golf team – which also included Mike Small, now the Illini men’s golf coach. But Steve Stricker was the big star, what with his multiple Big Ten championships and All-American status and such. I got a glimpse of him once when he stuck his head in the pool hall, presumably looking for Chuck. I don’t think he noticed me, though. Sigh. Another unrequited love.
After what felt like about 17 years I finally graduated. My career path took me briefly to New Jersey and then to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area, where I’ve lived ever since.
My golf game survived my college years pretty much intact, but in the working world it started to suffer a bit. Still very much single, it wasn’t an issue of time or opportunity, but my motivation seemed to slip. My game had peaked, and as it became harder to improve (always my primary motivation), I began to enjoy it less. Improving from where I was would have meant (gasp!) practice and hard work. And I wasn’t really willing to do that. As I started to play less, my scores crept up and the fun factor crept down. Eventually, I had to make a very conscious decision to enjoy the game for its own sake, and not depend on improvement as a measure of gratification. So I settled in to become a somewhat satisfied high-80s kind of player instead of a frustrated low-80s kind.
And that’s where it has stayed pretty much ever since, even as my game has evolved considerably. My ball striking has improved since then – I play a much more “controlled” game off the tee. I don’t slice it as much, but partly because I don’t swing as hard or hit it as far. I hit more fairways (or at least stay out of the trees more often) and more greens in regulation than I used to. Meanwhile, my short game has deteriorated through lack of use. Though it’s still solid compared to most people’s, I’m not the master of getting up-and-down I once was. Now that I’m married (God took pity on me and found me a wonderful wife, Elizabeth) and the ridiculously proud father of an amazing 9-year-old boy, I don’t get to play nearly as much as I’d like (not counting trips to the driving range and par-3 course with the boy). And so it goes. It’s a very good life.
And yet … there’s still this thought in the back of my brain: “What if?” What if I had practiced more and gotten more formal instruction? What if I’d pursued golf as a career path when I was younger – would I perhaps be a golf writer now? And what if I ever had the opportunity – and took advantage of it – to rebuild my swing from the ground up? My answer to the “lottery question” had always been: I’d quit my job and learn to play golf full-time, tearing down my swing completely and then rebuilding it from the resulting rubble.
Then one day it hit me: Why not “start over” by learning to play left-handed? For one thing, it would give you a head-start on tearing down your swing, I told myself. You could write a book about it and justify the time and potential expense to your loving wife and family as a “career move.” Find an experienced pro to guide you. Wherever possible, include your son, Jack (who has already learned to love the game – he’s probably digging a sand trap in our front yard as I write this), in the learning process. Finally, don’t just write about yourself, write about the science and theory of playing golf from the opposite side. Write about famous left-handed golfers. And don’t base your “success” on how proficient a lefty you become; base it on how much you learn and how much fun you have along the way.
The more I thought and prayed about it, the better idea it seemed, despite the challenges and misgivings previously discussed. Once I got Elizabeth on board the deal was sealed in my heart, mind, and spirit.
This is going to be awesome!
There’s just one problem. That pro … he’ll probably expect me to, you know, practice.
There’s that word again. Ugh. What am I getting myself into?