Humanity Stripped Naked

I was playing the other day in one of those corporate outings in which I give a clinic to start off and then play a hole with each of the lucky groups to see how much they have benefited from my extraordinary coaching expertise.

Judging by the general ineptitude this bunch displayed, I think I may have missed my vocation. A group of apparently intelligent people have seldom been so confused, I felt, without first having suffered the words of a politician.

Anyway, this one guy hit a shot off the first tee that rocketed into the ball washer with a deafening clang, shot backwards -- narrowly missing the rest of his foursome -- and skipped about eight times across a little pond to the left before coming to rest in about an inch of water.

It really was a remarkable little shot, so totally pure in its absolute awfulness that it made me ache over the lack of anything remotely similar to talk about at work. No such luck. All I get these days on my job is a succession of high and handsome white streaks, homing in on a trembling hole. When I am working for CBS, I'm surrounded by flagstick molesters. I want to see a few duffs for a change, some hacks, shanks, and whizzers, and, maybe the rarest of all the miscues since the advent of steel shafts, the ancient scunge (pronounced "skundge"), which is a shank that never gets off the ground. Okay, I just made that up, but I think we've all hit the shot.

It seems like only yesterday that T.C. Chen was playing keepie-uppie with his sand wedge when his chip bounced twice off the face from just off the edge of the green at the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. He was called "Two-Chip" Chen for the rest of his career. That was entertaining, at least for the rest of us, but I have one better. In the early days of my career, I was playing in an Irish PGA Section tournament at Bundoran, way up northwest in Donegal. It was one of those days where there was a wind that pinned your ears back, accompanied by the occasional refreshing frozen rainsquall off the Atlantic. It was easy to stay awake, shall we say. I was playing with a great old Irish character named Andy Murphy, who had a head full of slamming doors at the best of times, but he hit a shot that day, the likes of which would have confused the best of Rules officials.

He was in a deep greenside bunker, playing into a vicious squall, when he took a swipe at the ball, which clipped the lip of the hazard and shot straight up. With the wind whipping back into his face, Andy staggered back and raised his arms to shield his eyes from the sand, just in time to hit the ball once more -- this time with the butt end of the grip, which deflected it right onto the end of his nose.

This, of course, deadened the impact somewhat, and the ball fell straight downward into Andy's rain jacket. The whole episode probably took about three or four seconds, but the Ruling, which I have no intention of trying to either recall or work out again, took considerably longer. I do remember, however, that Andy was told to drop the ball in the bunker, which he did, neatly into one of his own giant, blundering footprints. I bought him a pint afterward, telling him the story would one day be worth a great deal more than that to me. Cheers, Andy, wherever you are.

There must be something in the water in Donegal because another of the strangest things I have ever seen on a golf course also occurred there on a delightful little seaside links called Narin & Portnoo. I was playing a practice round with Peter Hanna, a friend of mine who, like me, was an assistant pro and an aspiring Tour player. We all called him "The Banana," due to the scything left-to-right shape of his game.

At Narin & Portnoo all the greens are surrounded by little electric fences that are supposed to keep the sheep, which wander freely, off the putting surfaces. It was a lonely, late afternoon, and The Banana and I were out on the ninth hole, miles from anywhere, with not another soul in sight. I was hitting a few practice chips when I noticed The Banana over on the other side of the green, facing away from me, out to sea.

He flexed his knees, fumbled with his zipper, and moments later a little leprechaun waterfall tinkled quietly out. Quietly, that is, until the moment it made contact with the fence -- that unfortunate moment in which about 8,000 volts came pulsing through.

\nThe Banana let out a blood curdling banshee wail, as he said in his own words some time later, "It felt like me plums lit up like Christmas tree ornaments." I bought him a pint, too, although he was shaking so badly, I think he spilled most of it.

Sadly, these classic blunders were never recorded on film, unlike that which was probably the greatest faux pas ever seen in this game. Jean Van de Velde's incredible last hole at the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie was the kind of bungling idiocy that this column is all about. There is nothing more magnetic, or morbidly entertaining, than the sight of someone who is supposed to know what he is doing in the process of behaving as if he has mysteriously swapped heads with a chicken that has not yet hatched -- especially if he can make the wreck last for 30 minutes, and even then, not manage to end it. Jean's debacle was made even more hideously attractive by the fact that he still had the opportunity to recover after it wasn't over, if you know what I mean.

I think ordinary people identify in a special way with this kind of humanity stripped naked, particularly when it is displayed by someone who is meant to be above stuff like that. Such a dreadful mistake makes one who is exalted seem all at once like an ordinary person, just like you and me, and in Jean's case, because of the grace and honesty he showed throughout and afterward, he immediately shot straight back up in the estimation of everyone who witnessed the scene.

People went from admiring him, to laughing at him, to feeling for him, to feeling with him, and back to admiring him again. Now that's a trip worth taking. Hell, Jean Van de Velde would be considerably less popular today if he had hit driver, then 3-wood to six feet, and made the putt. Mark my words: Jean will end up in television over here and make a great job of it.

Now, as for my own worst moment on the golf course, I have a sneaking suspicion I may not have had it yet. But I hope I have. The one that stands out so far was so embarrassing at the time, that even as I type I can feel my ears turn red. It was years ago in the South of France. I was playing in Cannes, and had been drawn with the great Seve Ballesteros for the first time in my career.

Naturally, I had taken the precaution of soiling myself in the locker room, to get that bit out of the way, and what's more, I birdied the first hole to his par so I had the honor on the second, which was a brutally difficult uphill par-three of about 200 yards. Around the tee, there was a big crowd of French people, most of whom thought I was a caddie. I unsheathed my trusty 2-iron and set up over the ball. After a stylish waggle, I made a graceful swing and clean socketed the ball straight into the middle branches of a beautiful willow that guarded the 17th green. There was a loud "THOK!" and the ball disappeared. The crowd craned their necks upward, hoping to trace the path of such a delicious disaster, but to no avail. The ball had simply vanished into thin air.

Now Seve was always inclined to barge right onto the tee behind you, into your personal space, as if to urge you to get out of his way, and on this occasion, I was still holding my follow-through position and scanning the sky in horror for my missing pill, when I caught a whiff of the great man's garlic.

Then there was a faint hiss, and a sudden "THWOP!" as the ball plummeted to earth and embedded itself in its own impression about six feet behind the spot from whence it had last been smitten. Seve and I were now standing shoulder to shoulder, staring at this sight, as if a meteorite had just landed. He looked at me, gave me one of his famous shrugs, and said, "Escuse me, Doug, you're away!" and backed off the tee.

I was Doug for the rest of the day, and I kind of preferred it that way. It was as if I had peed my pants, and somehow it was kind of comforting to delude myself that somebody else had done it.

Of course, I prayed for the ground to open up and swallow me, but alas, we were in France, where even the dirt is used to fare far superior than a hacker such as moi. If it had swallowed me, it would most likely have barfed me right back out. Even to this day, when I recall the incident, I shudder.

But then, perhaps that's why the game builds such intestinal fortitude. In golf, as in life, what matters is not what you are served, but whether or not you can hold it down, and it's obviously fun to watch people trying.

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