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Around the block with Joe Dey Jr.

The ghost of Joe Dey Jr. arrived at the stroke of midnight, bearing paperwork.

"I'll grant an interview," he said, standing in the shadows by my desk, "but you need to fill this out first." He handed me a battered old clipboard and a golf pencil sharpened to a needle point.

"None of the other golf ghosts asked me to sign in," I said, casting a nervous eye on a two-page form titled gga field release and waiver.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Dey.

He put his finger on a line marked interviewee.

"My name goes there. And it's pronounced die."

He gave me a stern look, as if he expected me to make a joke.

Dey's appearance disinclined me to do so. A tall ghost with the erect posture of a military man, he wore a dark blazer over a crisp white shirt and striped tie. His raven hair was combed back from a square forehead. His eyes, under thick eyebrows, looked as if they could see through walls — or people.

I scribbled my signature and handed him the clipboard.

"Let's walk," he said.

I grabbed a reporter's notebook and followed him to the patio doors, which, in classic ghost fashion, he passed through without opening. (He waited outside in the dark while I fiddled with the locks and slid back the screen and glass doors.) He then circled around the house and up the driveway. I chased after him, catching up as he crossed the sidewalk into the street, where, to my consternation, he turned left and continued walking.

"Play away!" he said in a jovial tone.

It wasn't until I noticed his usga rules armband that I got it. Dey was executive director of the U.S. Golf Association from 1934 to 1969, and in that capacity he had sent competitors off the 1st tee of major championships and walked the fairways as golf's most respected rules official. He had also served five years, from '69 to '74, as the PGA Tour's first commissioner, a tenure that saw one of his ideas — a Tournament Players Championship — germinate into the so-called fifth major that we now call the Players.

"I was a sportswriter myself," he said, slowing to let me catch up. "I covered the final leg of Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in 1930."

"You were at Merion?" I opened my notebook and uncapped my pen.

"My job that week was to describe every shot Jones hit. I had a pad of paper and a relay of caddies. I'd write the text for each hole and then give it to a kid who legged it to the pressroom, where a telegrapher sent it into the office. It was a great experience."

It wasn't easy writing while walking. Some light from the street lamps filtered down through the pin oaks and maples, but I kept turning my head to see if any cars were coming.

"And you know," Dey continued, "I walked the final 36 holes with Ken Venturi when he won at Congressional in '64."

I thought it was my imagination, but the brick and clapboard houses on either side of us seemed to recede into the night, replaced by ranks of luminescent spectators. A phantom golfer, woozy with heat exhaustion, walked beside a dapper Dey, whose clipboard had become a shooting stick. But just as quickly, the first phantom vanished and another appeared, a man in a white cap keeping up with the unchanged Dey's purposeful stride.

"People thought Ben Hogan was absolutely cold and silent," Dey said, "but I refereed his last two rounds at Oakland Hills in '51, and we chatted most of the way around. I remember on the front nine in the afternoon, when he was really beginning to roll, he hit a three-wood off the tee and had only a pitch left to the green. People were flocking all around him, and he said to me, 'You know, golf spectators put up with a lot to watch us play. They park their cars a mile away and come out here and get pushed around by the marshals and police.'

And I said, 'Yes, they do, but did you ever consider that they greatly admire the skill you have?'

Ben looked at me and then at the club in his hands, and he said, 'You know, I guess it does take some skill to hit a little ball with this thing.'"

Dey turned to me as the phantom of Hogan dissolved into a thousand points of flickering light. "That's good conversation," he said, "and right in the middle of winning the U.S. Open."

At the second corner Dey's ghost turned left, leading me up the middle of another tree-lined street.

"Is it true what I've read?" I asked. "That you carried a Bible in one pocket of your jacket and the Rules of Golf in another?"

He pulled a tiny Bible out of his right inside pocket and raised it like an auction paddle. Shifting his shooting stick to the other hand, he fished a dog-eared booklet out of the opposite pocket and waved it.

"I almost became a minister," he said, putting the books away. "I taught Sunday school, and when the R&A made me only the second American captain of their club, I preached from a pulpit in St. Andrews, which was a great honor. It's only and finally in God that our hope really lies."

"But you were a stickler for the rules."

"Well, of course."

My comment seemed to annoy him.

"The integrity of golf is paramount," he declaimed. "If you don't have that, it's no game at all."

"It's just that you had a reputation for ..."

"I was in a position" — he emphasized the word — "in which I had to make unpopular decisions. I didn't always enjoy it."

He raised his stick and pointed up the street, where another luminescent drama was being played out under a tree. A stocky woman in '50s golf garb was sobbing, surrounded by well-wishers and press photographers. I guessed that the disconsolate woman was the Hawaiian pro Jackie Pung, who was disqualified from the 1957 U.S. Women's Open for attesting to the wrong score on a hole, even though her final-round total was accurate. The ruling cost Pung a one-shot victory over Betsy Rawls.

"I didn't like that one at all," Dey said, "but there was nothing to be done about it. Where the possibility exists for mistakes or cheating, the rules must be shored up."

He shifted his attention to the opposite side of the street, where rising clearly from the sidewalk was a chubby phantom in prewar raiment hitting a tee shot.

"Porky Oliver in the final round of the U.S. Open at Canterbury, 1940," Dey narrated. "I was having lunch in the clubhouse that day when a messenger came up and told me three fellows had teed off 15 minutes early on the 1st hole, and three more were about to — and did. They just took their scorecards from the box on the 1st tee and went off. There was a storm threatening, and they wanted to get going. Well, Oliver and the other five were told to quit playing in the middle of the 1st fairway. But in the meantime another official, who didn't know what was going on, told them to continue playing and that a ruling would be made. So they played on and were disqualified. It was hardest on Oliver, who had tied for first."

Dey shook his head and the scene slowly dissolved as we continued by.

"A tragic consequence."

At the next corner he turned left again and abruptly stopped. The street was filled with evanescent Vietnam War protesters — spirits from the '72 Open at Pebble Beach, where radicals had chained themselves together in the 18th fairway.

Dey's lips twitched, and he gripped the handle of his shooting stick so hard that it made a snapping sound. But he said nothing, and after a few seconds the protesters literally dispersed.

We walked on.

"Here's one you probably don't know." His voice was calm.

"I was on the 1st tee at the 1953 U.S. Junior in Tulsa, when this crew-cut 13-year-old sauntered up about 30 seconds before his tee time. Naturally, I dressed him down. 'Young man,' I said, 'if you had been a little later, you'd be going to the 2nd hole 1 down.'"

He smiled at the memory.

"And that was my introduction to Jack Nicklaus."

I looked for a phantom 13-year-old, but I saw nothing but darkened houses and empty lawns.

"No visual for that one," Dey said with an apologetic shrug. "It's a rights issue."

"Speaking of Nicklaus ..." I wanted to get Dey talking about his Tour years.

"Jack won the first Tournament Players Championship," he said with a brisk nod. "Labor Day weekend, 1974. Atlanta Country Club. The purse was $250,000. Actually, Jack won three of the first five, which gave our tournament a real boost."

I turned to a fresh page in my notebook. "You left the USGA to become the Tour czar. Why?"

"Czar isn't the right word." He frowned. "You know, the last czar, Nicholas, contracted hemophilia, was assassinated and burned. Nothing like that happened to me."

I didn't bother to correct him.

"Commissioner, then."

Dey stopped in the middle of an empty intersection. "I wasn't even thinking of retirement from the USGA. My job remained interesting, and I was happy. But I was disturbed by the endless rumpus between the touring pros and the rest of the PGA. It was hurting golf. I thought long and hard and decided that I had an opportunity to help stabilize a very important part of the game. So I took the job."

He lifted his left arm in a showy manner and stared at his watch. Then he started walking again.

"You were a strong commissioner?" I was thinking of columnist Jim Murray's line about Dey — that he ran golf the way Charlemagne ran France.

"I don't know about that." He stopped in the middle of the block. "I had a tendency to deal too much with the minutiae of the job. Probably a carryover from my early days at the USGA, when the staff was so small."

He turned and looked directly at me. "I recognize" — he hesitated — "I know I was perceived as haughty. Imperious, if you will. But I never thought that golf was a hallowed thing. Sport is for fun, and sure, golf is a show."

"But it's a show," I ventured, "with rules."

"Exactly! What we're really selling is the skill that is necessary to play the game well. You never can sacrifice the quality of the game for more color, in my book."

Looking up from my notes, I noticed that we were standing in front of a large, ranch-style house with a mansard roof.

"Hey," I said, "that's Tom Watson's old house!"

"I know." Dey's ghost looked at his watch again and started walking toward the front door. His shooting stick had vanished, but the clipboard was tucked under his right arm. My voice rose to a stage whisper: "But Tom doesn't live there anymore!"

Dey looked back. "You really don't know much about haunting, do you?"

He then dissolved into the door, leaving a few sparks of luminescence on the knocker and mail slot.

I'll be honest. My feelings were hurt.

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