Monday, April 28, 2008

In the last while or so (which, in Irish terms, can be anywhere from a few minutes to about 500 years), we've had our fair share of great sportsmen retire from the schoolboy pastimes they were lucky enough to have called their work.

We will not soon forget Wayne Gretzky, his gloveless hands raised, thanking the people of Edmonton. Nor will we forget John Elway and his emotional farewell in Denver. Michael Jordan, of course, left Chicagoans heartbroken.

In our own sport, first there was Arnie and then Jack on the Swilcan Bridge, waving farewell to their adoring public. Hard-bitten, cynical, and verbally flatulent as I am, even I couldn't watch either of them without welling up. I was astonished by my own ability to imagine how they must have felt, for in truth, I have absolutely no points of reference in my own career that allow me to feel even the slightest empathy. I don't even remember my own retirement. I just woke up one day and I was an announcer, although I do have a faint recollection of a fateful afternoon at the World Series in Akron, Ohio.

I was sitting in the bar at the Hilton, dressed in my Naugahyde shorts and coordinating purple Formica T-shirt, blending in with the decor as always. A creature in its natural habitat. Always the professional athlete, I was sipping an Absolut and Gatorade, when I was cornered by the then executive producer of CBS Sports, Rick Gentile, and coordinating producer of golf, Lance Barrow -- neither of whom I knew from a bag of French fries. I immediately tried to look as heterosexual as possible. Lance, a member of the Fort Worth Diplomatic Corps, went straight for my most vulnerable vital organ: my wallet.

"Hey, we've noticed that your game sucks worse than a nine-dollar vacuum cleaner. Here's what you could be makin' if you worked for us." He held up a check. I had no idea what either of them did for a living, but I agreed to their terms immediately, hoping against hope it didn't involve rubber gloves, Shetland wool underwear, or anyone named Nigel. People hate me because I'm lucky.

The rest is history. No tearful farewells, no emotional speeches, I just deleted myself from competitive golf, and I was the only one that noticed that something had disappeared. But, like a bad bottle of Guinness, I came back noisier, with greater force, and considerably more noticeable than before.

One of the strange side effects that comes with being an announcer is that, even though you might have the IQ of a slice of pizza with really stupid toppings -- like arugula and hearts of palm (in other words, "bits of wood") -- people suddenly consider you to be an authority, even if you didn't stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. Now, I'm even a writer, too, although you've probably noticed that if you are reading this. But I digress.

The reason that I set off on this particular tack, which has only re-occurred to me in the last few seconds, is I recently spotted someone who was allegedly playing his last competitive round on the PGA Tour, and if it wasn't for me, nobody might have noticed.

At the John Deere Classic, the majestic career of the great Charlie Rymer came to a fittingly moving close. After a glorious opening 76, Charlie, one of the game's best-loved congenital idiots, happened to bump into yours truly in the lobby of the delightful Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino, in Davenport, Iowa. We greeted each other in our customary style.

"Hey, fat boy," I said. "Nice playin' today...Four under, huh?"

"Yeah, up yours," came the reply. "That's it, nobody can force me to do this any more. I'm done."

It was the news I had been waiting to hear for a while. Charlie had had one foot on the Tour and the other in TV for too long, and his two chosen professions were now so far apart that his nuts had finally hit the deck. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can bounce.

The next day, I was up in my perch behind the 16th hole when Charlie blundered through, one-under for the day, but missing the cut by miles. He looked up at the tower, gave me the finger, threw a ball against the Plexiglas, and staggered off to the final two holes of his PGA Tour career. There were a couple of corn-fed bystanders who looked decidedly confused when I leaned over the edge and shouted, "I love you, Charlie!" and he blew me a kiss.

To me, it was a strange quirk of fate that Charlie had chosen the same day as Kathie Lee Gifford to pull the plug. Give or take a couple of hundred pounds, some makeup, and several enormous kidney stones, the two of them have a lot in common.

For a start, they both have multiple careers, talk about their kids a lot, and I think it's fair to assume that neither of them has slept with Frank Gifford recently. Also, they both have decided that they would be better off doing something else.

In Charlie's case, I think this is a great idea for both him and golf viewers, but lest we forget, here is a brief resume of a career that for most of us will be difficult to remember. I mean forget...No, I was right the first time.

Here is his career capsule, some of it in his own words.



Height: Six-foot-four.

Weight: At 13 years old, Charlie was six-foot-two and 240 pounds. He is now 32 years old and says he's taller.

Birthdate: December 18, 1967.

Birthplace: Cleveland, but not the one in Ohio.

Residence: Formerly Greene County, Georgia, where he was a prominent citizen and instrumental in the implementation of the area's landmark safe-sex legislation, which made it compulsory to mark the animals that kicked. He has now moved his triple-wide up the highway to Athens, Georgia.

Family: Wife, Carol, known in the area as "Saint Carol"; sons, Charlie, 2, and James, 4. Was introduced to golf by his grandparents, "To get him out of the house because he was eating the drapes."

College: Georgia Tech. (Chewing tobacco scholarship, 1991.)

Turned pro: 1991.

Professional summary: 1992. Made cut at Chattanooga Classic.

It was at this point that I decided that perhaps it would be better to ask Charlie for his own personal top three career highlights. We were in the production trailer at The International, and Peter Kostis had come up with the bright idea of putting a heart rate monitor on Charlie for the telecast, to see what his pulse got up to after some of the climbs in the rarified atmosphere. He sat across from me, strapping it onto his wrist. It read 105 beats a minute, just while he was sitting on the sofa.

I asked him, "Give me your three greatest moments in golf."

Quick as a flash, he pointed a finger at me and said, "I tied for 37th in the '97 Buick at Westchester...Tiger was 42d.

"Then there was that time I beat Davis Love by 10 shots in one day."

There was a pause, as Charlie looked vacantly at the ceiling and stroked his chin. He looked back at me, and for a moment, I saw a massive 10-year-old, shirtless, barefoot, in dungarees and a straw hat, sucking on a grass stalk. His head is the size of a watermelon. He is a gentle, misfit giant, who has probably listened to people make fun of him all his life. In that instant, I realize why we are all so fond of him. Then he looked at me with a crooked frown, reached into his pants to adjust his underwear, and said, "I can't think of another one."

You see, in the world of male professional sports, there is a jock mentality, a locker room protocol, in which the esteem that a man is held in is measured in inverse proportion to the amount of insult he can absorb. Simply put, if you walk through a crowded locker room, whether you are a hockey player, a football player, or a golfer, the rules are the same: If everybody calls you an asshole, you are probably a great guy; if you walk through that locker room and nobody calls you anything, you are probably an asshole.

This makes Charlie Rymer one of the greatest people in our sport. His presence evokes the most creative abuse, which is absorbed with easy grace and returned with self-effacing humor. Underneath the big Deputy Dawg disguise lies a razor-sharp wit, and this -- combined with the fact that he is actually a very fine player who has shot 61 three times -- makes him a perfect candidate for TV. All he needed to do was stop playing.

As Jack Nicklaus was making his way down the 18th fairway at St. Andrews this year, Tiger Woods, the man who could be King, was on the first tee. Such an occurrence happens in a hundred years or so, maybe. When Charlie Rymer was trudging down the last at the TPC at Deere Run, there was no logical successor on the first tee there or anywhere else, for that matter. An individual like Charlie will be pretty hard to replace. He said to me after his round:

"Y'know, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I think I just figgered it out. It's really hard to play this Tour when yer an 11-handicap."

I don't think so. I think it just took him a little while to figure out what he does best. I just hope the fat gasbag doesn't get my job.

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