Remembering Slippers: A dog that had a feel for the game

Friday February 12th, 2010

The old pooch has made appearance in various stories over the years, and people will sometimes ask about her, so here's an update, the last. Forgive the indulgence. No Tiger news here, not even about his border collie, Taz, or his labradoodle, Yogi. If you want to click on the next thing, I understand. Maybe you like cats.

The old pooch might have had beagles and labs and whippets in her ancestry, but it's really a guess. You know how it is with shelter dogs. When she was a puppy, my wife and I had the bad idea that we could make Slippers (nee: Kathy, at the shelter) a swimmer by the immersion method. We dropped her into the stream from the bridge that crosses the creek that guards the eighth green at my home course, the Philadelphia Cricket Club. Turns out the water is cold and the current is fast. From that day the sight of a garden hose would cause her to freak.

\n Slippers liked golfers and golfers liked her. She met Annika Sorenstam once, at an interview in San Diego, and years later Annika would still ask how Slippers was doing. Ditto for Davis Love. One of my golf buddies insisted that our children must have come up with the name — no adult would choose something so infantile — but we did it all on our own. Slippers was on the scene before the kids were.

\n In the British Isles, golf and dogs go hand-in-hand, but that's less true here. I've stopped a swing for a dog over there more than once, but here you can only walk your dog on the course in the offseason, if that, or at least that's my experience. The Cricket Club used to have a nice Jan. 1 event, a dog race on the driving range run by Buddy, the club's dog-loving bartender. The race was about 300 yards long and people would coax their dogs along with a steak bone or something. In our first year at the Canine Classic, I would have bet big that Slippers would show or place or win, because she really was fast, despite her short legs and little stout yellow-brown body. Turns out we couldn't get her to the finish line. Too near that damn creek.

\n Dog people are often golf people and vice-versa. (I wonder how that Pete Dye course in the Dominican Republic, the Teeth of the Dog, got its name.) Both groups are drawn to the outdoors. I can't be the only golfer with the fantasy of the ball-sniffing dog. You apply some distinct aroma to your ball. You introduce your beagle-lab-whippet mongrel, or whomever you have at your feet, to the smell. You hit your ball to Timbuktu and the dog will find it! Genius, right? Maybe you've had better luck. I couldn't get Slippers interested in golf balls dipped in A-1 Sauce.

\n But she did like, on sunny winter afternoons, the sun-drenched elevated ninth tee on the nine-hole course near our house. She was, just as many golfers are, drawn to short grass and sunshine. You may have a dog that likes watching golf on TV on Sunday afternoons. Slippers didn't roll that way. She liked the real thing.

\n Our old neighbor Joe Winder, a Slippers fan and a golf buff, would on occasion take care of Slippers when Christine and the kids were on summer vacation and I was covering the PGA Championship or some such thing. It was almost the definition of a symbiotic relationship. I'd come home and Joe would have Slippers stories, and I'd tell Joe the swing tips I picked up from Lanny Wadkins and Co. at the Wednesday afternoon PGA Championship Champions Clinic.

\n We never knew Slippers' real birth date, but years ago Christine, one of those birthdayophiles, assigned her one: Feb. 15, 1992. I had the hope Slippers could make it to 18 — a number pregnant with meaning — and that if she made it to 18 she could make it to another spring and afternoon naps in the growing grass. But she died a few days ago during one of the snowstorms. Well, she was, what, nearly 126 in people years, or something like that. Quite a run. Gene Sarazen and then some. Still, ends are ends and never easy.

\n We buried her between snowstorms on the side yard. I shoveled off the snow, broke through the frozen ground with a heavy ice pick and dug down about four feet or so with a spade. It feels great, to get in the dirt. When they do projects at old courses, like Palmetto in Aiken, S.C., they find gutta percha balls and other signs of golfing antiquity. You'll probably always find something, whenever you dig. Our house was built in the '20s, and I found a heavy ceramic jar with a screw top, the likes of which you wouldn't see today.

\n While digging I thought of Slippers and I thought of golf-course construction as it used to be (done with shovels) and I thought of Hogan and his famous admonition, that the secret is in the dirt. Hogan had something there.

\n We laid her down, in an old soft pillow case, and slowly filled the excavation with rich brown Philadelphia dirt. Come spring we'll put down grass seed. Golf has divots and life does, too. If Slippers' soul shows up in a golfer the next time around, I'm sure that golfer will be a walker, a pleasure to play with and smart enough to use one extra club on the Cricket Club's eighth.

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