“Hmm … let’s fix that grip.”
– Anonymous PGA Professional
Poor Arnold Palmer. The mid-1960s weren’t working out for him quite the way he’d hoped. Sure, he continued to be the world’s most famous, wealthiest, and most-beloved golfer. But he just couldn’t seem to get the better of Jack Nicklaus. Not in the big ones, anyway.
In 1962, Arnold won the Masters in April, finished second in the U.S. Open in June, and won the British Open in July – while claiming six other PGA Tour victories throughout the year (not the mention the Canada Cup, paired with Sam Snead). By any standard, it was a phenomenal year. Palmer had clearly established himself as the “King.”
But that narrow U.S. Open loss was tough to take. It was also a harbinger of things to come. Held practically in Arnie’s own backyard, at Oakmont in Pennsylvania, in front of a vast “Army” of adoring fans, Palmer lost the title in an 18-hole playoff to a 22-year-old Nicklaus. It was the Tour rookie’s first professional victory, a big upset, and a huge disappointment to Arnie’s fans.
Palmer bounced right back with his second consecutive British Open title the very next month, but winning the big ones became a lot more difficult after that, thanks in large part to the emergence of the man they called “Fat Jack” at Oakmont.
By the time the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol rolled around, Jack had clearly displaced Palmer as the world’s best golfer. And Arnie’s fans were growing uneasy. Palmer hadn’t won a major championship since the 1964 Masters. The triumph at Augusta National was his seventh major overall, but his first since the 1962 British. In the meantime, Nicklaus had nabbed five more major victories, including the 1966 Masters and British Open.
But 1967 had not started well for the Golden Bear. He missed the cut at the Masters (something he would not do again until 1994, at the age of 54) and seemed to be mired in something of a putting slump. Plus, Baltusrol is located in Springfield, New Jersey, close enough to Arnie’s home turf to ensure a full complement of passionate legions.
And that’s exactly what he got.
In his wonderful book about golf’s most celebrated rivalry, Arnie & Jack, author Ian O’Connor writes of the Baltusrol Open, “Not since Oakmont [in the1962 Open] had Nicklaus confronted a pro-Palmer gallery that, in his words, was so ‘blatantly partisan.’”
If ever there was a time and place for the “King” to wrest his crown back from the heir apparent, it would seem to be 1967 at Baltusrol.
But little did Arnie or his fans know that a new putter (the famed “White Fang” Bullseye model given to Jack by Fred Mueller, a friend of his good friend Deane Beaman) and a timely tip from Gordon Jones, an old pal from Ohio, would help bring his short strokes back to life. (It’s good to have friends.)
Palmer’s best friends that week were, indeed, his ever-vocal fans. Buoyed by their boisterous support, Palmer came out of the gate strong, and found himself alone at the top of the leaderboard at the completion of the second round. With White Fang working its magic, Nicklaus lurked just a stroke behind.
The two were paired together for round three – and perhaps their intense rivalry and focus on each other hurt their play, as neither emerged from the matchup the third-round leader. That honor instead went to unknown amateur Marty Fleckman.
It had been 44 years since an amateur had won the U.S. Open. The last to do it was Johnny Goodman in 1933 – and the feat hasn’t been repeated to this day. Fleckman, however, a 23-year-old former University of Houston star, seemed determined to make a run at it. After opening with a 3-under 67 to take the first-round lead, most assumed he would quickly fall out of contention once the reality of the situation set in. It was not uncommon, after all, for a relative unknown to come out hot and lead the Open after the first day. Most were never heard from again.
Instead of stumbling, Fleckman backed up his stunning 67 with a solid 73 on Friday to remain even par for the tournament. On Saturday, following a shaky start, the young amateur ground out an impressive 69, to reclaim the lead – while Palmer and Nicklaus were busy trying only to beat one another. (Though accounts differ about which golfer said what, one suggested to the other on the eighth tee that they “stop playing each other and start playing the golf course.”)
In the end, Fleckman did stumble, staggering through a pressure-packed final round to a disappointing 80 and a tie for 18th.
Meanwhile, Palmer and Nicklaus, who began the day one stroke behind Fleckman in a three-way tie for second with Billy Casper, staged a battle for the ages. Arnie, with his 1-under 69, was one of only two golfers among the top 11 finishers to break par that day. The other, of course, was Jack, who put the hammer down for a stellar 65.
As his lead (and his legend) grew on the back nine, Nicklaus had the U.S. Open record of 276 within his sights. He stood on the tee at the par-5 18th knowing a birdie would give him 275. But he put thoughts of a record out of his mind, perhaps thinking about Arnie’s humiliating U.S. Open loss just a year earlier.
With a commanding lead (seven strokes with nine holes to play) over Billy Casper, Palmer seemed to have the title in his grasp – and Hogan’s record within reach. Taking his eyes off one to focus on the other proved a fatal mistake, as stellar play by Casper and careless mistakes by Palmer combined to produce a 72-hole tie between the two legends. The next day, Casper won the 18-hole playoff.
Nicklaus would not make the same mistakes. Showing characteristic shrewd course management, Nicklaus played it safe with a 1-iron off the 18th tee – and promptly hit into the right-hand rough. From there he chunked an 8-iron back into the fairway, well short of the water he was making sure to avoid. Left with a 230-yard uphill approach, he again pulled a 1-iron, this time knocking it safely on the green, 22-feet from the hole. Nicklaus, being Nicklaus, calmly rolled in the long birdie putt for 65 and a U.S. Open record 275 total.
It was Palmer’s fourth runner-up finish to go with his single U.S. Open victory, his thrilling come-from-behind win at Cherry Hills in 1960. And his Army was right about his glory days fading away. Though he would go on to record ten more top-10 finishes in majors – including five top-5s – he would never win another major title.
Nicklaus, being Nicklaus, spoke frankly after the tournament about his new U.S. Open scoring mark. “Records just come. Nobody should try to break a record,” he said, in an apparent reference to Palmer’s stumble the year before. “What you’re here for is to win a golf tournament.”
As it happens, the man whose record Jack broke on Sunday played in his final U.S. Open that week. By then the competitive playing days of Ben Hogan, 55, were long since past (though you probably wouldn’t want to tell him that). His last real hurrah came in 1960 at Cherry Hills. With Palmer and a 20-year-old amateur Nicklaus also in the hunt, Hogan, then 47, came within an uncharacteristically daring approach on the 71st hole of winning his long-sought fifth U.S. Open title. But the legendary “Hawk” still drew a lion’s share of fan and media attention whenever he teed it up.
So it was no surprise that of the 150 golfers hitting their opening tee shots that Thursday at Baltusrol, 54-year-old Ben Hogan would attract one of the largest crowds. Among those watching in awe as Hogan strode purposefully to the first tee was 26-year-old Carl Unis, the new assistant professional at Ozaukee Country Club in Mequon, Wisconsin. It was the last Open for Hogan, but the first for Unis, who would tee off two groups behind the Hawk.
“It was my first major, and I was in awe of everything that was going on,” Unis recalls. “I got there at 9:00 in the morning – and I didn’t tee off until 2:30! So I watched everybody hit balls, I practiced, I hit balls – just to burn up a lot of excess energy. Talk about being nervous – wow!
“I was practicing putting around 2:00, and they called Ben Hogan’s name around ten-after. There were a lot of people just sitting around the green, and when he came out of the locker room and started to walk to the first tee everybody just stood up. It looked like ‘J.C.’ himself had arrived!”
Given the physical struggles that Hogan was enduring by then, and the convoluted path Unis had taken to Baltusrol, it’s hard to say whose appearance in the 67th U.S. Open was more unlikely.
• • •
30-year-old Rose Unis was small in stature but large in heart. She was strong – in both body and character. Giving birth to her first child four years previously, on August 2, 1933, had been hard on her, but she got through it. And the arrival of baby Elizabeth made it all worthwhile. Though he had really wanted a boy, Rose’s husband, Collie, more than 20 years her senior, couldn’t have been prouder.
Now, with her second child due to arrive soon, Collie decided to send his young wife and daughter back to her family’s home in Cleveland, Ohio to wait for the arrival of the Elizabeth’s new sibling. It would be safer that way, the couple reasoned. There was plenty of family to look after her, and the hospitals were better than in remote Atlanta, Texas, where the family now lived. Meanwhile, Collie would continue to work hard to support them in Texas, where he had worked his way from being a peddler with a horse-drawn wagon to the owner of a successful dry goods store.
What they did not foresee, however, was that Collie would never make it back to Ohio. While on a buying trip to Dallas, Rose’s husband suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died suddenly – just a week before the arrival of the son he always wanted.
Back in Ohio, doctors and family members made the decision to withhold from Rose the news of her husband’s death. In her delicate condition, they reasoned, the stress would only add risk to the situation. And in those days, it was not uncommon to go weeks without hearing from a loved one traveling far away.
Nonetheless, Rose eagerly anticipated Collie’s return following their baby’s birth, and when time passed without his arrival, she grew worried. Finally, the family broke the news.
“‘Oh, he’s got a bad cold, some kind of a flu,’ I guess they told her,” says Elizabeth, known to family and friends as “Libby.” “So finally when she did find out, it was all very sad.”
The news devastated Rose, of course. But it only made her more determined to take good care of her young children. Once she and baby Carl were strong enough, Rose moved back to Texas with the children to put things in order. It took about four years, Carl says, to get everything settled. And then they all moved back to Cleveland to be near Rose’s family – and work in her parents’ restaurant.
In Cleveland, Rose did her best to make sure her children were well provided for. She worked hard. Her father opened the restaurant early in the morning; Rose would come in before noon and work late into the night – more specifically, until early in the morning. Located in a light industrial area in Cleveland – across the street from a large distribution center – the restaurant had a beer and wine license, making it a popular place for night-shift workers to grab a late meal and have a few drinks.
Rose worked hard – and so did everybody else.
“Mom gave me everything,” Carl says today. “But she made me realize values by making me work for it. So there were many days in the kitchen, scrubbing pots and pans, and cleaning out the grease trap, and all those wonderful jobs you don’t want to do as a kid.
“But when it came time to maybe get a new bike, Mom was the first one to allow that to happen. She really taught me to understand the values in life.”
Because their mother spent so many hours working, Carl spent a lot of time under the watchful eye of his older sister.
“Since I was a little bit older than my brother, I was always the one who had to look after him,” Libby recalls. “We would go to movies on Sunday afternoons, my girlfriend and I, who lived down the street. And I always had to have my little brother tag along!
“We would go into the storefronts, and look at things. And he, of course, was always fascinated by the things boys were interested in. And we, of course, were interested in the things girls were interested in, dolls, and clothes, and shoes. And so we’d go around the corner and kind of hide from him, but he always found us. It was fun. We’d tease him mercilessly!”
Libby characterizes the young Carl as a very busy boy, always into things, always looking for something new to do, for a new way to earn a few coins. He loved to fish and ride his bike. He dabbled in music, learning to play the drums and the accordion. And once he was old enough, he started delivering newspapers.
Even growing up without a dad, there was no shortage of father figures in the children’s lives. Rose was the oldest of six siblings, so there were plenty of aunts and uncles around. One was Uncle Isaiah, who remained close to the family in Texas following his brother Collie’s death.
“We called him ‘Uncle I,’” Libby recalls. “He was as close to a father figure as I can remember, before we moved up north to be with my grandparents.”
Carl also has vivid memories of “Mr. Cary,” a family friend who shared the boy’s love for fishing.
“He’s the one who showed me how to fish, and tie hooks, and catch fish,” he says. “And his wife would make the greatest brownies to take along when we’d go. Those brownies, they were unrivaled. But those are things you remember as a kid, you know?”
This, of course, was all before the golf bug bit. At the suggestion of his Uncle Jim, Carl started looping at Ridgewood Country Club in Parma at the age of 11. Completely ignorant of the sport to that point – no one in his family played – it took a little while to figure out what the big deal was about the game he would grow to love.
In 1950, when Carl was 13, Ridgewood hosted the third leg of the inaugural Weathervane Tourney, a 144-hole “cross-country” LPGA event played in four 36-hole legs at four different sites over several weeks. The legendary Babe Zaharias won both the Cleveland leg and the 144-hole overall title – but Carl was indifferent.
“I had no clue what a golf tournament was,” he says now. “They had them all there. Babe Zaharias was there. But I didn’t know from nothin’ what I missed out on, to see all those gals play.”
Three years later, in 1953, the men’s tour came to Ohio. A few years older and wiser – and beginning to fall in love with the game – Carl did not miss the chance to see the best in the world play in the Carling World Open, held at the Manakiki Country Club in nearby Willoughby Hills.
“That was my first encounter [with big-time golf], seeing Ed ‘Porky’ Oliver, Al Besselink, Sam Snead, and Lou Worsham – in one group. I took a bus to get out there, and had no clue what this was going to be. And I absolutely got bit. I saw these guys in tournament conditions and said, ‘This is something that could be for me.’”
Carl had begun playing a few years earlier when a restaurant customer from the Coca-Cola Company (which had a bottling plant nearby), had given him an old set of clubs in a beat-up canvas bag. Caddying, of course, gave Carl the opportunity to play Ridgewood on Mondays with the other caddies, a valuable perk he took absolute advantage of.
“It’d be nothing to play 72 holes on Monday,” he says. “We’d get there at 6:00 in the morning and we’d play until dark, sometimes until 10:00 at night.”
In addition to caddying, he soon started working other jobs around the golf course. One of his first was shining shoes in the clubhouse, where polishing 200 or more pairs of shoes was just a good day’s work on the weekend. From there he worked his way up to the halfway house, and eventually out to the golf course, performing general course maintenance such as cutting greens and raking traps. Basically, any job that needed doing, that’s what he would do.
His first exposure to tournament golf as a player was in the city caddy tournament, open to caddies from all across the Cleveland area. The first year he played, at age 14, he limped in with a 102. But just three years later, in his final year of eligibility, he shot 76 and won.
“It was a great environment to grow up in, with some great people,” Carl says. “Mr. Reese, the pro there … he never had a lot to say to me. But when I won the caddy tournament, he walked all the way around the clubhouse, to where I shined shoes at the back, and congratulated me. I thought that was the height of my career, that he would acknowledge the fact that I won anything. And Mr. [Larry] Tiedman [a club member] told me I could use his golf shoes, his white bucks [in the caddy tournament].
“FootJoy white bucks,” he says, with lingering pride in his voice. “I’ll never forget it. I still have a picture of it.”
By then Carl was living in Parma with his Aunt Ann, so that he could attend the new high school there. Getting the best education possible – something she never had the opportunity to do – was very important to his mother.
“She always said that what you put in your head, no one can take away from you,” Libby says. “And she didn’t want us to have to work as hard as she had to make a living. I guess she fancied that one of us would be a doctor or a lawyer or something. And then when I chose music performance, singing, and he chose golf competition, she said, ‘Oh, I wanted my children to learn something!’ But they had picked two of the most difficult careers that there are! We used to laugh about that. But she was a very strong, loving, strict head of the family.”
After he graduated, Carl received a golf scholarship to Ohio State University. He played on the freshman team, but that’s as far as his college career progressed. By his own account only an “average” student in high school, he found the rigors of a major university to be a little more than he was ready to handle.
“I joined a fraternity my first year and needless to say that didn’t work out so well,” he says with a chuckle. “And the coach gave me a job out at the golf course, making sure that all the rental clubs were in good shape, and just doing general chores around the pro shop. I guess I wasn’t organized enough to study. That was the hard part.”
After leaving OSU he attended John Carroll University in Cleveland and went to work for Wilson Sporting Goods. He had just begun a new career, in the insurance business, when the draft board called. Through the referral of an acquaintance at Ridgewood, who happened to be a colonel in the Army Reserves, Carl soon began a six-month stint in a reserve dental unit. After putting in his time, he got home just in time to win the club championship – before his unit got called back up. When he got back home again he went to work for another insurance company, and then for the Cleveland District Golf Association.
His golf game, meanwhile, continued to improve. In 1963 he reached the semi-finals of the Ohio State Amateur, and followed that performance with a victory in 1964. He was the first Public Links player to win the Ohio State Amateur, and to this day, that title remains one of his proudest golfing accomplishments. It’s a title that neither Jack Nicklaus nor Tom Weiskopf – two more-famous native Ohioans to happen to play a little golf – ever won.
“[But] Arnold Palmer won it,” Carl is quick to point out. “So I got my name on the same trophy with Arnold Palmer, even though he’s from Pennsylvania. He won when he was stationed in Cleveland with the Coast Guard there.”
Not long after, a friend asked him if he had ever considered turning professional. “I answered the question with a question and said, ‘Have you ever considered sponsoring someone?’ He said he’d never thought about it, but that he’d let me know in a couple weeks.”
True to his word, his friend called back and said he had gotten a group of investors together to sponsor him – “and I was on my way to the tour.” But first he had to qualify.
“I was one of the last individuals to get approved [to play on tour] the old way,” Carl explains. “I had to play with three different golf professionals on two different occasions, and they would grade me. [Then] they sent my qualifications into the tour board to get approval on a temporary basis.”
Eighteen months later, Carl was back home, having failed to earn enough money to keep his playing privileges.
Back in those days, the tour was much different from the “all exempt tour” the top pros play on today. Most players had to qualify for the tournament every week. If you made the cut, you were exempt from qualifying for next week’s event. But even that was no guarantee of a payday. The top 60 and ties made the cut, but only the top 45 finishers earned a check.
“I played in 36 events and made the cut in 18,” Carl says. “But I never finished in the top 45, I was always in the bottom rung. I couldn’t get over the hump.
“But it was an experience that you can’t really explain, the experience of a lifetime. You couldn’t learn it from a book, you had to be there, live and in living color – to know how to manage yourself under many, many different conditions.”
Back in Ohio, with his spirits at a low ebb, a fledgling career at a local men’s store loomed in his future. But then the phone rang again. This time it was Bernie Haas, a good friend and fellow professional, who urged him to get down to Tampa, Florida if he wanted to get his “Class A card,” which would make him eligible to become a club professional. It was not quite as enticing a thought as being a touring professional, but it sure would beat the men’s store option.
The decision to go was what you now might call a “no-brainer.” And it paid off quickly.
“While I was there, a fellow touring pro called me, who was getting a job in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, at the Ozaukee Country Club in Mequon. He asked me if I’d like to come up and work for him.”
By then he’d already put in applications to several other clubs – including the famous Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, host of several U.S. Open championships. And he felt an obligation to follow up with those clubs first. He told his friend, Bobby Brue, to call him in a month, half-thinking he’d never hear from him again.
But at the appointed time, Bobby called back, just as he said he would, and offered Carl the job. Before he knew it he was up in Wisconsin learning quickly how to be an assistant golf professional. He had barely gotten his feet wet before things got really interesting.
“Bob came to me one day, in the latter part of April and said, ‘Are you going to try to qualify for the U.S. Open?’ I said ‘Nah, I have no desire to do that, not the way I feel after losing my card and all that.’ He said, ‘Well, you better start practicing, because I signed you up for the local qualifying tournament at [nearby] Tripoli [Country Club]!’
“So I accepted his invitation, went over to play, and led the qualifier there,” Carl says. “And nobody knew who Carl Unis was until after that. But the members at Ozaukee were really great, they were so nice and supportive.”
The sectional qualifier was a few weeks later at Chicago Golf Club, the oldest golf course in the Midwest. A “very, very private club,” Carl explains.
“So I went down the night before and got up early the next morning to go over the course. We played 36 holes, and I remember shooting 74 in the morning and then came back and shot 71 in the afternoon, and I was in second place to go to the U.S. Open!
“Unfortunately, Bobby didn’t qualify – but I did. So as the hot-shot assistant I headed out to Baltusrol Country Club in Springfield, New Jersey.”
• • •
At Baltusrol, once he burned up all that nervous energy and got over his awe of Ben Hogan, Carl performed beyond anyone’s expectations. His 298 (+18) total did not threaten any records, but his 74-72 start put him three shots inside the cut line. In the process, he also led the field in one very impressive category.
“That was the first year they took the long-drive average for the players all four rounds. And I had the long drive average at the U.S. Open, 285 yards – with the balata ball and the wooden head,” he says proudly.
His T54 finished earned him a well-deserved $655 check as a keepsake. It was his first significant payday as a playing professional.
“My first U.S. Open and I made the cut!” he says. “Everybody back [in Wisconsin] was so excited. So it was more telegrams, more of everything. It was just an exciting time in my life.
“And when I got back, people must have thought I must have known something. I was on the lesson tee giving anywhere between 12 and 16 lessons a day.”
The surprising performance not only raised his profile around his home club, it also grabbed the attention of others. Before long, Bobby Brue got a call from nearby Brynwood Country Club, asking permission to interview Carl for their vacant head professional job. He gave it, they called Carl, and soon he was offered the job.
It’s unusual, Carl says, to rise through the ranks so quickly. “But I got my name in the paper a few times, because of the U.S. Open, and that got people talking about it, and word spreads. So I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
• • •
Forty-three years later, sitting down with Coach Carl for lunch at the Silver Spring House, I had no need to be convinced of his credentials. He had come with a strong recommendation, and a cursory internet “background check” had revealed that he had spent those intervening years generally making the world (Wisconsin in particular) a better, lower-scoring place for golfers of all ability and ages. I saw that he had remained head professional at Brynwood for 23 years. And that he had served as executive director of the Golf Foundation of Wisconsin after that. That he had appeared in a series of golf instruction videos with Tom Pipines (a local sportscasting legend) on Channel 6 in the mid-1990s. And that teaching golf continued to be a driving passion in his life. He was clearly on the up-and-up.
No, there would be no need for him to persuade me of anything. I’m not worthy! This would be a one-way pitch, for sure.
I was desperate, after all – a crazy man with an insane idea about learning to play golf left-handed for no good reason other than to write a book about it. At least, that’s how it sometimes felt. And so I would need to spend the next 45 to 60 minutes madly attempting to hide my lunacy from the sane and distinguished golf professional sitting across from me.
As I told him my story and gave him my pitch, my Buffalo chicken wrap grew cold on my plate. As I continued to rant, I hoped that Coach Carl would notice my uneaten food and see just how passionate I was about this idea. And I congratulated myself for having the foresight to prepare for the meeting by eating three pieces of birthday cake before I left the office.
I told him everything. About my love of the game. How I’ve always hated to practice. I told him that I’ve always had a good short game but that my ball-striking has been very limited by my crappy, deeply ingrained swing. I tried very hard not to spit while I talked. I bragged about how I had once bowled a 300 game and won pool championships in college. I did this not to glorify myself but to convey the confidence I have in my physical ability to accomplish things when I really set my mind to them. I told him I was committed to letting him be 100 percent in charge of my golf game. Whatever he said, I would do.
I told him I didn’t have a lot of money to invest in lessons but was looking for someone to “partner” with – someone who was willing to invest in me and my cockamamie scheme by offering free or reduced rate lessons in return for a share of the (eventual) book proceeds. I told him I was hoping he might look at this as a unique coaching challenge – as well as an opportunity to put a lot of his teaching into book form for posterity.
I told him I was prepared to commit a year of my life to this project and would give it everything I could for that stretch – within the context of maintaining a full-time job and not neglecting my family. That I was planning to give up right-handed golf completely for at least a year – and that my “best case” scenario was that the left-handed golf would go so well that there would be no need to ever return to the other side.
In the rare moments when I actually let him talk, he told me about his experience at Baltusrol and a little bit about his teaching philosophy. I took advantage of these opportunities to wolf down my now cold lunch.
Finally, I gave him some written materials, including some samples of my previous writings.
By the time we parted company in the parking lot we had talked for about 90 minutes (sorry, Boss!). It was like a great first date! I felt good about how things went and was eager find out if we had a future together. Call me!
When I got back to the office I immediately wrote a thank-you e-mail. I told him I enjoyed our meeting and hoped we could work something out. I also said my dream was to learn lefty golf well enough to be able to compete in senior tournaments as a lefty a few years down the road. He replied:
I too enjoyed our meeting, I will look over the material you gave me. I feel after our lunch discussion we can work something out together. I like your last paragraph about your DREAM. "Old proverb": Let your dreams become a reality!
Have a great weekend,
• • •
Now that I had a coach lined up, it was time to think more seriously about getting some left-handed clubs – beyond my putter and wedges, that is. The problem is … I have a problem with golf equipment. And not the kind of problem where I can’t stop buying stuff. More of the opposite, in fact. It pains me to part with my hard-earned dollars to keep up with all the latest “revolutions” in golf technology. When will the technological revolution end!? I surrender already!
People who know me – such as, most notably, my wife – will tell you that I’m pretty cheap. Though I prefer to say "frugal," "fiscally conservative," or "tighter than John Daly's Lap-Band." How about, "family rich, golf poor"? That is to say, golf is high on my list of passions but fairly low on the financial priority scale. I prefer to put my limited golf budget toward greens fees, par-3 rounds with my son, and pre-round donuts rather than new stuff.
And when I'm honest with myself, that's at the heart of my love/hate relationship with equipment. It occurred to me recently that if I had unlimited resources I would probably be a golf club junkie. But I don't, so instead I find myself mildly resentful of the ongoing golf technology revolution.
When I was a naive teen-age golf nut poring over the pages of Golf Digest, there were lots of gadgets and gizmos advertised in the back that were said to add yards to your tee shots and cut strokes from your score. I remember once pointing some of these things out to my dad, who replied, "Well, according to these ads, if you used this, this, this, and this, and added up all those claims, you'd hit the ball 400 yards and shoot 60 every time. And I don't think that's going to happen." My dad was in advertising, and he knew not to take every claim literally. It was a lesson I took to heart. (He also taught me the value of hard work. Thanks for trying, Dad.)
When it came to clubs, there were good ones and not-as-good ones – but I never felt I was at a significant disadvantage when competing with my older Walter Hagen irons and Johnny Miller woods. When I splurged and bought myself a set of Wilson Staff woods as a high-school graduation gift to myself (Chargers RULE! Class of '81! Wooooo!!!), I didn't necessarily expect them to improve my game. I bought them partly for the prestige of owning fine clubs (I admit) and also because it seemed like a good investment (it was). I fully expected to play them for a lifetime, or at least until they wore out.
Things started changing in 1991 with the introduction of Callaway's Big Bertha driver. With a relatively tiny head (by today's standards), measuring just 190cc in volume, it was the first salvo in the modern equipment wars – and perhaps the first driver to offer a true advantage over more traditional clubs. Before long, drivers were topping out at a balloonish 460cc (now the legal limit) with price tags in the hundreds of dollars – for one club! I paid about $140 ($335 in 2010 dollars) for my set of four Staff woods: Driver, 3-, 4-, and 5-woods (set of four puffball knit headcovers not included).
As I write this, the big new thing in golf shops is the TaylorMade R11 driver. This technological monstrosity features adjustable loft, face angle, and center of gravity, along dual climate controls for player and caddie. I made that last bit up, of course, but it should have that for the whopping asking price of 400 smackers!
What would Old Tom Morris think? But then I remind myself that Old Tom himself was once all but disowned by his St. Andrews mentor and employer, Allan Robertson, for having the audacity to start using a gutta percha golf ball rather than the standard and time-tested “feathery” model in popular use at that time. Never mind that the new balls traveled much farther, were far more durable, and were much easier to make – at a tiny fraction of the cost of a feathery. (Now there’s a golf technology revolution I could get behind!) Not one to change easily with the times, Robertson gave the new technology a catchy nickname; he called it “the filth."
Of course, Robertson’s livelihood at that time depended on his skill as a feathery maker. So at its heart it really came down to a question of economics. Doesn’t it always?
As I embarked on my left-handed quest, one of the big, scary, unanswered questions was, “What about clubs?” I knew I’d have to buy some eventually, but my hope was that maybe I could get an equipment company or pro shop to sponsor me. That is, provide me with a set of clubs in return for a nice mention of them in the book. I even thought that I might devote a chapter to club fitting and such – as another way to make it worth someone’s while to set me up with a nice new set.
But before I even had a chance to explore that option, I stumbled upon some new information about left-handed clubs.
The most common complaint you’ll hear from left-handed golfers is the limited club selection. It’s not that clubs are not available (though in the old days they were much harder to find), but when it comes to selection, your choices are very limited. And it’s true. Try it sometime – take a look around your local pro shop or sporting goods store and see how many left-handed sets are available. Shopping online offers more choices, but trying them out is problematic. People don’t usually like to buy golf clubs without at least being able to hold them in their hands before making a purchase decision. And you’d be surprised how often the words “right-hand only” pop up when you try to put a left-handed set in your online virtual shopping cart.
I discovered, however, that there’s a flip side to this phenomenon. That is, if you’re not picky about the clubs you’re buying – and/or don’t mind buying clubs that might be outdated by a couple of years – there are tremendous bargains to be had.
The day before I had that first meeting with Coach Carl, my wife was out for the evening (shopping, or knitting, or drag-racing with her greaser friends down by the airport, I can’t quite remember) – so I threw Jack in the car and took him to a big-name sporting goods store known for a large golf department. Let’s call it “Richard’s.” My intention was to buy some practice balls. But of course, while I was there I wanted to, you know, just look around a little. What I found amazed me. And I took it as a sign from God.
There, hanging on the wall amongst all the new, shiny, and expensive right-handed brand-name iron sets, was a set of left-handed Slazenger “Raw Distance” irons: 5-PW plus 3i and 4i hybrids. The “list price” said $299.95*. The sign on the wall said, “Clearance: $89.93.” And the sign below that one said, “Take an extra 25% off all clearance golf clubs.” Doing the math real quick in my head that came out to … six dollars and 80 cents! No, wait … 68 dollars! Still a great deal! Seven dollars less, in fact, than I paid for my set of used Walter Hagen irons in 1978.
(*I don’t believe anyone ever pays “list price” at this particular store. In fact, I later saw a disclaimer on their web site stating that the list price was for “comparison purposes only” and that no sales may have ever been made at that price.)
These were not top-of-the-line clubs, but they were nicer than the right-handed clubs I had in my bag at the time. And possibly – given the advancements in club technology – nicer than any irons I’ve ever owned! Was this too good to be true?
In true cheapskate fashion I hemmed and hawed at great length while mulling over this potential purchase decision, repeating the earlier scene at the pro shop with the $20 putter. I looked at the irons. I picked one up and held it in my hands (with my new lefty grip). I put it back. I walked away. (Where’s Jack? I had no idea. Probably putting … or learning to shoplift.) I looked at other stuff. I went back to the irons. Later, rinse, repeat. My mind was going a mile a minute.
I noticed that there were other bargain-bin lefty clubs – woods and drivers – on other racks. And all the really cheap stuff was left-handed. Believe it or not, they actually had a left-handed driver for sale for five dollars! Obviously, it was not a high-quality club. But it was five dollars!!
How can this be? I wondered, turning my attention back to the irons. This flies in the face of everything I’ve heard about buying left-handed clubs. But I realized a couple of things: One, that this was definitely the right time of year to find close-out sale items; and two, that it made sense that stores might get desperate to get rid of their surplus lefty clubs.
Finally, I pulled the trigger and told the guy I’d take the irons. These may or may not be the clubs I’d want to use long-term, but how could I go wrong with them as starter clubs? I still didn’t know at that point if I would even need them until spring, but if I waited, the chances of finding anywhere near close to such a deal at the dawn of golf season would be pretty much zero.
I resisted buying any woods (I refuse to say “metal woods” or “3-metal” or any other such nonsense, by the way, so just get used to it!), however, both because I didn’t want to be tempted to hit the Big Dog before I was ready and because … I don’t know, it would have seemed like I was pushing my luck somehow. But I did go back a couple of weeks later and bought some Walter Hagen (now a house brand at “Richard’s”) woods: driver, 3-wood, and 5-wood – for the ridiculously absurd price of $40. Not per-club, mind you – total. The driver was $19.93, and the woods were $9.93 each. If you believe the list price, I had saved somewhere north of 90%. And, unlike my c. 1981 Wilson Staff Woods, the deal even included three headcovers (with no puff balls).
(It should be noted, by the way – if only so no one takes me for a complete idiot – that the Walter Hagen clubs are fitted with high-quality Aldila shafts. I later confirmed via the interwebs that the shafts alone in these clubs run at least $60 apiece.)
My amazing bargain club purchases, of course, inspired me to make the most of the remaining nice weather – and figure out an inexpensive and convenient way to practice over the winter. Chipping and putting in my basement works fine, but there’s no way to take a full swing with the low ceilings – otherwise I would set up some sort of hitting bay. And for some strange reason the living room was off-limits, as well. The Currie Park Golf Dome, where I’ll be taking my lessons, is a great facility, but it’s pretty expensive, anywhere between $15 and $20 per hour. I’d much rather pay by the bucket and take my time. Plus, it’s at least 20 minutes away, making it an impractical everyday option.
Fortunately, I had already talked to my bosses about setting something up at work. The GS Design “world headquarters” in Glendale, Wisconsin, where I work, is a fabulous facility. My bosses, Marc and Jeff, who started the company in 1986, have always strived to make it a fun place to work. As the company has grown over the years, they’ve built the offices (really just converted warehouse space) into a veritable office wonderland. It’s very roomy, including some storage space in the back. When I described my project to Jeff, I asked him if it might be possible to set something up in that back storage room. I envisioned hanging a blanket from the wall and hitting practice balls into it from a piece of carpeting – only during lunch hour and after-hours, of course. He said sure, that would be fine – though he appreciated it when I told him it would not be a “permanent” set-up, that I could put it up and take it down easily as needed.
One night after work I went back to the office and set up my new hitting bay. It turned out great! It even had a serendipitous built-in ball return, in the form of a slight incline leading to the door. After the balls hit the blanket, they dropped down, hit the incline and rolled right back to my feet.
The only glitch I encountered was that the blanket I was using was not quite heavy enough to absorb the full impact of the practice balls – they were hitting the overhead door behind the blanket with a pretty good “clunk” and bouncing back pretty hard. But that was easily remedied by sliding a couple of plastic cups behind the top corners of the blanket to hold it out a little farther from the wall.
I decided my new facility needed a name, so I dubbed it the “Bob Charles/Phil Mickelson Indoor Backhanded Practice Facility” – or the “Lefty Dome” for short.
By then, Coach Carl had called back. We worked out a deal and scheduled my first lesson for Saturday, November 13. In the meantime I continued my independent training regimen.
And boy, was I making progress! I was chipping little yellow balls into a little wicker basket with great proficiency in my basement. I was whacking more little yellow balls into the dusty old bedspread with a resounding thwack! at the Lefty Dome. And I was putting like a madman with my cheap, ridiculous-looking Odyssey “Two Ball” knockoff mail-order left-handed putter. I was way ahead of schedule and eagerly looking forward to showing Coach Carl what a great investment he was making in me.
Saturday morning arrived and I felt more than ready. The only real question in my mind was … what to wear?
Should I wear shorts? Golf pants? Are blue jeans OK? Should I wear my golf shoes? Would I feel stupid if I wore them and no one else there was wearing them? Would I feel like a dork if everybody else wore golf shoes and I was in sneakers? Ultimately, I settled on khaki pants, my favorite Steve Stricker/Greater Milwaukee Open golf shirt (c. 1991), and no golf shoes – but I put them in my golf bag just in case.
The weather outside was horrible – cold and raining hard. But inside the Golf Dome it was warm and dry – for the most part. Water dripped here and there through small holes in the dome’s outer shell. “I didn’t think I’d need to pack rain gear for an indoor lesson!” I said to Coach Carl when he arrived.
We exchanged pleasantries and he asked me how I was doing. “Well, I’m a little nervous,” I said. “How do you think I feel!?” he replied with a big laugh. I realized it’s probably a standard line, but also a sincere one. I would expect that many first-time students express nervousness, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to think that Coach Carl might be a little nervous, too. He wants to do a good job, after all, and there are a lot of unknowns heading into a new teaching situation.
At that point, I really had no idea what to expect. Was he going to ask to see me swing a club right-handed? I had packed my right-handed 7-iron just in case. But answer was no. (In fact, he has yet to ask to see me swing right-handed. I’ve come to realize that there’s no point in it.) Would he start me off with some putting? No. But the first part of the lesson was definitely evaluative. He began by just having me show him what I’ve got. All right, here goes! I thought to myself with great excitement.
We spent the next ten minutes or so with him watching me hit a variety of shots. Observation and analysis, it occurs to me, is an extremely important part of teaching golf – especially in the early stages. I didn’t hit anything near a full swing, of course. But I showed off my skill in hitting a variety of little chips and half-swing pitches. Surely I must be impressing him!
“Wow, Mike, you’re doing great! You’ve made great progress in three weeks on your own! I think you’re going to be a very good left-handed golfer in a very short period of time. Have you given any thought to the senior tour yet? Needless to say, I’m very impressed!”
That was the voice in my head – Coach Carl’s voice – as I imagined how that first lesson might go. Yes, I had gotten a little cocky, a little overconfident, a little ahead of myself – in just three weeks. Visions of grandeur danced through my head. But … surely no one had ever made such amazing progress in just a few short weeks as I have!
Instead, I got: “Hmm … let’s fix that grip.”
And that was just for starters!