Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I know I've said this somewhere before, but that "everything in moderation" deal says to me that you should be moderate in moderation. Otherwise, it would say, "almost everything in moderation."

In other words, everyone should be allowed to go berserk every now and then, especially on the golf course. It's been ages since I've seen a really good temper tantrum. You know -- the kind where one of your playing partners goes double postal after a string of rotten shots.

I'm not talking about simple club abuse or course molestation, either. I mean a full-on, Rottweiler-on-angel-dust, foaming-at-the-mouth, running-full-tilt-into-an-oak-tree, profanity-riddled seizure. For a start, it's great entertainment for everyone else. I have been guilty of such outbursts myself; granted, not for a while, but only because these days I just don't care where the ball goes.

At least these kinds of psychotechnics show that the offender has some interest, some passion. For me, the hardest part about witnessing such an event was always the struggle to keep a straight face. While the creator of such a self-inflicted mental misdemeanor is invariably left feeling stupid and humiliated, for some reason, those who stand by and watch are curiously cheered up by the whole grubby affair.

The spectacle of a fully grown man (I have never seen the female version of this phenomenon -- at least, not on the golf course) setting about an inanimate object, such as a golf bag, invariably reduced me to tears of laughter in a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of way. While most people wouldn't condone such behavior, I think it's safe to say that those of us who play can at least understand the reason for it.

Golf has always had its fair share of hotheads. Tommy Bolt, for instance, whose clubs were on a frequent flier program, was always one that the crowds loved to watch; and, my pal Steve Pate, even though he has mellowed with age, is still liable to erupt every now and then, usually at the U.S. Open. Speaking of which, when John Daly whacked his moving ball back up the slope last year at Pinehurst, he was simply doing exactly what every other player in the field would like to have done at some stage that week.

I think my favorite mind-loser, though, would have to be Zimbabwean Simon Hobday, who has brightened up the Senior PGA Tour for the last few years. Always a crowd favorite, Hobbers was prone to taking off his clothes and swimming across snake-infested water hazards and doing his laundry in the bathtub, stirring anti-clockwise with his laminated wooden driver. Golf needs more people like him. Even as a young man, Simon looked like he was holding an electric eel by the tail when he was putting, but as a ball-striker he was without an equal at the opposite end of the scale. Add these two properties together, and you have a recipe for severe, upper-level mental disturbances on the golf course. Fortunately, Simon's sense of humor is also legendary. Once, he turned up on the first tee wearing a giant sombrero. He horseshoed out from four feet on the first green, turned his face heavenward and screamed, "So you still recognized me, huh?"

Another real beauty is Tony Johnstone, also a Zimbabwean. (There must be something in their water.) A regular on the European Tour, Tony was the original red-haired, flaming nut case when things went awry, and like most golfers who wear their brains on their sleeves, was completely sweet-natured off the course.

On one occasion in the mid-'80s, he was drawn with the genial Englishman Carl Mason and me at the Lancome Trophy in Paris, which is -- some of you may not know -- just outside France. On the fourth hole, he took severe exception to a small spruce tree, which he felt had deliberately diverted the course of his downswing, causing him to miss that which he had been aiming at -- i.e., the ball.

Carl and I looked on somewhat bemused, as Tony started with a tirade of abuse, directed at the tree, which he immediately accused of being French, among other things. Actually, it was Japanese, but at the time I felt it wise not to point this out.

Selecting another club, our rabid partner quickly chipped out sideways and then set about reducing the unfortunate plant to matchwood, and he was well in front in the bout until suddenly the tree caught him with a recoiling branch right across the side of the head. He staggered back, holding his head in his hands.

This was enough to send Carl and me running for the bushes to find a safe place from which to watch -- and soil ourselves. Then, Tony took his sweater off, and we thought this signified the end of the contest, but no. With renewed fervor, he started flailing again, only stopping when he realized he lacked the strength to dig out the stump.

Breathing heavily, he marched across the fairway, quickly slashed his ball onto the green, and walked past our hiding place, saying, "It's all right, boys. You can come out now!" By this time, Carl had lost half his body fluid through his tear ducts, and I had pulled a muscle in my stomach.

Personally, I think it's kind of sad that this kind of behavior is dying out in the professional game. There is a kind of sterility to the atmosphere when everyone behaves perfectly, an unreal calm if you like, and I think that one of the unique aspects of the game of golf is that the best player in the world sometimes feels just as frustrated as the average hacker. I suspect that it's a source of comfort to a lot of people to see evidence of this.

As for my own greatest moment of madness, after a particularly ill-timed bogey in Belgium, I once sank my putter into the bottom pocket of my bag, breaking three shafts under the grip in the process. On the next tee, my caddie delved deep for a new ball, only to find I had also made solid contact with my Rolex, and a tube of Preparation H, which had spurted out all over every new ball I had left.

On the upside, the watch -- which had never kept time -- was dead-on twice a day, and after about 10 minutes, I found the golf ball considerably less irritating and somewhat smaller, which of course meant I hit it farther.

Instead of anger management counseling, I think judges would be well advised to sentence people to 18 holes a week instead, with a "Destroy One Tree, Plant 10" clause included.

Hey, the venting is therapeutic and the gardening is relaxing. What do you think?

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