How a revelation in Blackpool 16 years ago led to a future of hassle-free predictions

Wednesday July 18th, 2012
If the author was an accurate prognosticator, today Robert Karlsson would have about 30 major championship titles.
Stuart Franklin / Getty Images

BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND -- People ask why I pick Robert Karlsson to win every major championship. They say, “You don’t really think Karlsson is going to win the Open, do you? Aren’t you just treating it as a joke?”

If there’s time, I tell my story of the Gypsy Fortune-Teller and David Feherty’s Ball.

The year was 1996, the month was July, and the Open Championship was at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, a links course a few miles south of Blackpool. Blackpool, you should know, is a delightfully tacky British resort, and I had been assigned to write a Sports Illustrated feature about its seven-mile-long Promenade, including the piers, the mini-golf courses, the two-penny-slot arcades, the half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, and the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster.

Struggling to conflate the proletarian joys of Blackpool with the more staid entertainments at the Open, I booked a Thursday afternoon session with a Gypsy fortune-teller on the North Pier. “I’ll bring you a golfer from the Open,” I told her, “and you can read his fortune.”

Returning to Royal Lytham, I ambushed a young Irish pro named David Feherty as he practiced putting. “I’ll be your guinea pig,” he said, enchanted by the silliness of my proposal. “But it’ll cost you a pint and sandwiches.”

So the deal was struck. I would collect Feherty after his first round and deliver him to the North Pier, where photographer David Walberg would snap a shot of the Gypsy and the golfer hunched over her crystal ball.

Alas, it was not to be. When Feherty stepped out of the scorer’s cabin on Thursday afternoon, he had the haunted look of a man betrayed by his putter. “I hate to disappoint you,” he said, “but I really have to practice.” I must have looked crestfallen, because he quickly suggested a Plan B. “Maybe you could take something of mine to the fortune-teller, like a severed finger or a shoe …”

“A ball!” I blurted.

Brightening, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the ball he had holed out with on 18 -- a Titleist 1 with five green dimples, which was Feherty’s mark.

I snatched the ball, ran to the car park, and drove up the coast road to the North Pier, where I found Walberg and piles of his equipment outside the Gypsy’s shuttered kiosk. “Something unexpected came up, and she had to cancel,” he said. “She asked if we could do it on Saturday morning.”

My mind raced. The photo was already compromised without Feherty. Now it seemed likely that my fortune-teller angle would lead to nothing.

“Saturday,” I said with a shrug, trying not to sound too sullen.

So, I walked around Thursday night and Friday with Feherty’s golf ball in my pocket. I took it out from time to time to see if I could read anything in the five green dimples on its white balata surface. I could not.

Come Saturday morning, Walberg and I met again on the sunny pier, which was packed with running children and pensioners staring out to sea. The fortune-teller’s kiosk was still shuttered, but now there was a note taped to the window. It read, SARAH WILL BE A LITTLE LATE. CAR PROBLEMS.

I closed my eyes and rubbed my nose, frustrated to the brink of capitulation. “Let’s give it an hour,” I said. “No more.”

Fifty minutes later, our Gypsy arrived in a flutter of scarves and fringed shawl. Chattering about inadequate bus schedules and summer traffic, she rolled up the shutter. Walberg wanted to take advantage of the light, so we moved her table out of the kiosk. She followed with not one, but two crystal balls, which she placed on the table, wiping sea salt off them with a towel.

When they were ready -- Walberg with his cameras and reflectors, the fortune-teller with her folding chair and apparatus -- I pulled Feherty’s Titleist from my pocket and handed it to the Gypsy. She held it delicately between thumb and forefinger, frowning as she peered at it from all sides.

“It’s always better when the subject is present,” she said, establishing the limitations of totemic divination. I apologized and explained that Feherty couldn’t make it because he was holding a seance with a dead putter.

She nodded. “Well, I think he has a very strong personality. Green’s a good color, especially with him being Irish. He will be lucky because the Irish are very lucky.”

Was the number five significant? The five green dimples?

She shook her head. “Not really.”

Finally, after taking a deep breath, the Gypsy made her call. “I think he’s got a good chance, don’t you?”

Actually, I didn’t. Feherty had already shot rounds of 77-67 and missed the cut by a stroke. He was probably having his sandwich and pint at a pub back in Northern Ireland.

“Oh, well,” she said with a winning smile, “I don’t know anything about golf.”

That’s when I had my epiphany about sports predictions. Like the fortune-teller, I didn’t know anything about golf. But I was a golf writer, and people were always asking me for my pick to win this or that tournament. Even the Gypsy! As we were wrapping up, she looked up from her crystal ball and said, “So, who do you think is going to win?”

“John Cook,” I said, having already settled on the 1992 Open runner-up as my pick at Royal Lytham.

And that’s how it started, my forecasting meme. Having learned in Blackpool that even fortune-tellers can’t pick winners, I promised myself that I’d never again waste a minute arguing for some pro who was either “due to win the Masters” or “a lock to win the PGA.” Whenever I was asked to pick a favorite, I picked John Cook. And when the aging Cook was no longer viable, I adopted Karlsson as my favorite. I have probably picked the tall, handsome Swede to win 30 majors. Others, failing to grasp the impossibility of their task, have picked Tiger or Phil.

Incidentally, the fortune-teller made a couple more predictions that day. After leafing through my copy of the European Tour media guide, she picked Feherty to win a future Open Championship. “It’s not the ball I pick it up from, but reading that book,” she said. “He’s going to shock a few this year.”

A claret jug for Feherty? Okay, she got that wrong. But the “going to shock a few” part she nailed.

My pick for this week, by the way, is Karlsson. Assuming he’s in the field.

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