It's a few weeks after his last truly great season, and the most famous baseball player alive, New York Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle, pulls into the Southern Hills Golf Club parking lot like he owns it. He pops the trunk on his shiny-new '65 Cadillac, tosses a bag of Wilson blades over his right shoulder and strides toward the clubhouse. His friend, Marshall Smith, is waiting.
"Well hey, Mickey. How's your head?"
"Got in early last night. I'm fine. What's our time?"
"We have time to hit some warm-ups."
It's hot Indian-summer-in-Oklahoma hot so it doesn't take long for the pair and the other members of their foursome, Tulsa physician E.M. Stokes and former Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry, to get loose. The format for the Southern Hills Invitational this day is two-man better ball. Mantle and Smith's strategy is already well rehearsed: The slugger with the 19 1/2-inch neck hits crunching drives and plays for birdies, and the golf pro with the 29-inch waist piles up the pars. Their ham-and-egg enterprise had dominated games like this for the better part of a decade.
The first hole is a sweeping dogleg left that plays longer than the 454 yards on the card. Mantle soles his Louisville Grand Slam driver it's the size of a boy's fist firmly behind the ball and shifts every ounce of his 203 pounds to his back foot. His hands are turned so far to the right on the grip that he can watch the seconds tick by on his wristwatch, the band stretched tight by his piston-like forearms. The seconds tick, tick, tick. Suddenly, Mantle tenses, as if a chest-high fastball has entered his vision. Every muscle in his body begins to twitch. The club swings back. The great Mickey Mantle erupts.
IT SEEMED a lot farther than 358 yards," remembers Smith about Mantle's blast from the first tee that day, a distance not reached on the hole even by Tiger Woods and the other big hitters on Tour during last year's PGA Championship. "He hit sand wedge for his second shot. It was the most impressive thing I ever saw Mickey do on a golf course, until he unloaded on No. 17 later that round and drove the green."
Check the Southern Hills scorecard: No. 17, par 4,354 yards.
Mantle's monster drives were nothing new to Smith, who played more rounds with America's hero than anyone can remember. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed slugger had long established a Paul Bunyan-like reputation for power he led the American League in home runs four times, the first in 1955, just his fourth full season in the bigs. The swing that fueled one of the greatest offensive onslaughts on major league pitching in history (Mantle's Triple Crown season of 1956, where he hit 52 homers, batted .353 and drove in 130 runs) had made him a living legend. Fans went slack-jawed and wide-eyed with every at bat. Mantle was the corn-fed, Oklahoma-born embodiment of a time, as Tony Castro wrote in Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son, "when we last thought might did right." His tape-measure blasts became a symbol of America's post-WW II swagger. He was Elvis in cleats, Marilyn Monroe with a cannon right arm.
"Mickey was a lot of things to a lot of people," says Smith with an Oklahoma drawl that spoon-feeds his words into your ears. "But he hated the attention. Golf rejuvenated him. It's crazy to hear this, but he got as much satisfaction hitting a big drive as he did hitting a home run."
Mantle's beloved teammate Whitey Ford, who with second baseman Billy Martin and Mickey (a Rat Pack in pin-stripes) turned the austere Yankee dugout of the Joe DiMaggio era into a keg-strewn frat-house basement, also saw a change.
"Mickey enjoyed playing golf more than he enjoyed playing baseball," says Ford, who, at 80, still plays two times a week. "He loved baseball, but in the end it was just a way for him to make money."