Friday, June 01, 2007

Note to self about growing old:

1. Try to be there when it's happening.

2. Try not to say stupid stuff about how much harder it was in the good old days.

3. Because it wasn't.

I may not be the most observant observer out here on the PGA Tour, but it appears to me that despite bulging purses and giant advances in equipment technology, it's as hard as ever to make a living playing golf.

Tour cards are scarcer than hen's teeth and if a pro gets one, he has to outwit, outplay and outlast the rest while sharks that have managed to perform the task for years are circling the terrified shoal of rookie minnows. Try getting that little high-octane sphere in-to a small cavity in the lawn with minimal swatting with all that going on.

Of course, if you believe some of the pundits, these days golf is not the challenge it once was, and there are fewer great players to beat. Toss in all the cash and apparently the modern professional scene is a private gravy plane with one class of service. "No need to upgrade here, sir. We have window and aisle seats available, every one of them a vibrating recliner, ergonomically designed to fit your powdered buttocks exactly!"

For the record, most players on the PGA Tour still heave their own sweaty luggage around municipal airports, often accompanied by a long-suffering spouse and a couple of squelching diapers. Yummy. OK, a courtesy car, free food and a decent hotel room can help, but very few rookies manage to stay on Tour long enough for that kind of routine to get old.

Frankly, I'm glad I don't play for a living anymore. I mean, never mind the top few in the World Rankings. Even the guys in the lower reaches are hitting shots that, just seven years ago, I never could've contemplated. Today's courses are more difficult and less forgiving, and the holes are cut in places that would have made that groovy swinging set of the 1960s and '70s soil their Sansabelts.

Greens have systems that suck air and water from underneath, turning what once would have been unmissable, boggy dartboards into surfaces as receptive as McCord's head while he's looking at a particularly obscure graphic from TourCast. You should see us trying to work some of those out — we're like a herd of mules staring at a brand-new gate.

No, like the advances made by athletes in other sports, golfers continue to get better, just as they always will. Yes, it's easier to hit the ball a long way and straight, but there has been no loss of talent on the PGA Tour as a result. These guys are taking advantage.

Conventional wisdom suggests that every now and then in every sport, someone like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky will come along and spark a period of conventional stupidity. Back in the early 1960s, the public and even the pencil squeezers disliked Jack Nicklaus because he had the audacity to upstage Arnold Palmer. Granted, Jack usually had the decency not to upstage anyone by 15 shots. But now that Tiger is here and there is no one like Arnold around — how could there be? — everyone says, "He can't be that good, so everyone else must suck!"

Well, I disagree and I think it's an insult — to Woods and the great golfers against whom he plays — to suggest that he wins because of anything other than his otherworldly brilliance. Today's players are better than yesterday's and they're making the most of the kind of equipment that's making the game more fun for everyone. I'm not just talking about the wrenches and pellets here either; now even the clothing and accessories are state of the art.

For instance, does anyone remember what playing in the rain used to be like, before Gustbuster brollies and short-sleeve, lightweight rain jackets? Not that Tour pros spend a lot of time playing in the rain anymore. The Tour is understandably wary of personal injury suits, so if a low-pressure system starts to develop over Hawaii, chances are that before long, instead of live golf we're all going to be treated to a few segments of last year's final round. They will be punctuated by idiotic locker room interviews from yours truly and the occasional light-em-up-so-they're-good'n-sweaty, please-God-take-me-now updates from Wadkins and Nantz.

If it's a USA Network show, you might get lucky and get a little Baywatch. Let me see: Wadkins, Nantz and me, or Pamela Anderson running in slo-mo down the beach? You make the call.

Playing golf in bad weather, especially wind and rain, used to be a real art, and Tom Watson was the great master. He battled to victory in five Open Championships wearing a dopey-looking bucket hat, full waterproofs and that famous, insane grin. And, of course, by his side was his most vital piece of bad-weather equipment: the great Bruce Edwards.

Watson and Edwards have seen their fair share of downpours over the years, but only Edwards ever got wet. Totally selfless and seemingly four-armed, Edwards was always forging ahead and letting the master draft, safe and dry, behind the shield he created with the big red and white Ram umbrella. What a caddie! To have Edwards carry your bag is to have Ralph Lauren choose your clothes or Annie Leibowitz take your picture.

Edwards will make you look good and feel good, and no one but you will know why. It brings a lump to my throat to think of what Edwards, diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, is going through, but I am comforted by the knowledge that in this, the toughest round of his life, it's still as it always was: Bruce Edwards is with Tom Watson.

Sadly, in most locker rooms, even the stench of wet golfer is a distant memory. It's hard to describe the steamy pong of damp cashmere on hot skin, combined with wet leather, decomposing grass, slow-draining urinals, Gold Bond medicated powder, cheap Clubman aftershave, buffet farts and AquaNet. But if you left several wet yellow Labs in a chemical toilet for a couple of hours, sprinkled them with compost, then hurled them into the emergency room at your local hospital, you'd be close. Ah, the memories!

Then there's the modern golf shoe. It comes in some seriously different shapes and sizes, from instep-hugging, inflatable pumps to open-tootsied slingbacks. Some of them look like standard astronaut issue, and all of them are equipped with the worst innovation to be inflicted on the locker-room shoe-jockey since Judge Smails: the dreaded plastic cleat.

Never mind that more golfers than ever are falling on their arses. Now they're lacing up at home and avoiding the locker room altogether! A lot of Tour pros, including Tiger and Phil, frequently wear nails, but for the club golfer, the transition to Softspikes is now almost total. Personally, I miss the sound and the sparks caused by carbon steel on concrete. It's a golf noise that has almost disappeared, but there I go again, whining about the good old days, when men were men and putting lipstick on a sheep didn't make you a bad person.

Nowadays, after the rare occasion on which a player has to play in the wet, he shrugs off a lightweight, often short-sleeve, Gore-Tex shell, slips into the old loafers and slinks casually into the players lounge. Luxury, eh?

Well, maybe. But these days, any player who has managed to get there and stay there is a pretty special golfer. It's damned difficult to make money playing golf, and it always will be — whether things seem cushy or not.

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