Old Friends

Old Friends

The teams (from left) of Player and Campbell, and Bamberger and Douglass were two of 72 competing in the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am at TPC Tampa Bay.
David Walberg/SI

My Friday 7:10 a.m. tee time — first group, first round — was fast approaching, and there was no daylight in the sky, and now in the clubhouse dining room Fuzzy Zoeller was asking if he could join me for breakfast. Zoeller, winner of the 1979 Masters and the ’84 U.S. Open, a man who makes everything look easy, asking me, your garden-variety duffer with a golfing nervous disorder, if he could sit down with me.

I put my newspapers in a pile and down sat the Fuzz. Two guys, loading carbs. Two fellow competitors (in a manner of speaking) playing in the Outback Steakhouse.

Pro-Am, one of the best stops on the Champions tour. Whatever you think Fuzzy would have for breakfast, double it.

We talked about T-Bonz, the Augusta steak house favored by Fuzzy, and a seafood biker bar on Washington Road he likes as well. Florida’s Indoor Clean Air Act must have been killing him. We were at the TPC Tampa Bay, a public course in a town called Lutz. As Fuzzy knifed his way through a sausage link, I snuck a look at my watch. Getting on seven.

The previous night, at a “mandatory” players-only meeting, I had learned, with no fanfare, who my playing partners would be, but I hadn’t met them. The field comprised 72 pros, many familiar names among them, and 72 amateurs, some of them well known: Bill Murray, the actor; Jim Courier, the Hall of Fame tennis player; Joe Theismann, the football legend. Most of the other amateurs were loose-limbed Tampa businessmen who had made a tidy sum in some real thing: restaurant supplies, trucking, insurance, air-conditioning and refrigeration.

The AT&T National Pro-Am, the fabled Pebble Beach event, is choked with self-important Wall Streeters and corporate chieftains (and many obscure pros). The Outback chain is now part of a massive public company, but the Outback Pro-Am field was filled with locals who could afford to spend about $12,000 for several days of golf that benefited various Tampa Bay children’s charities. (The Outback people gave me my spot, knowing this story was coming, but not knowing what would be in it.) My pro, according to the slim packet I was given at the meeting, was Dale Douglass, a 70-year-old former Ryder Cupper whose calm swing and demeanor I had long admired. The other amateur was Ron Campbell, the president of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. His pro was Gary Player. You know the list of golfers who have won all four modern professional majors? It’s five names long. I didn’t need my 5 a.m. wake-up call.

It was cold, dark, rainy and windy on Friday morning when the four of us congregated on the 10th tee, our first hole. Player was wearing all black, his longtime calling card. Douglass and Campbell were wearing nothing but black, too. I was wearing brown shoes, tan slacks, a green windbreaker and a lucky red hat from last year’s British Open. “Looks like somebody didn’t get the memo about the team uniform,” said my pro, the comedian.

There were actually a dozen or more spectators on hand at 7:10 at the 10th tee, standing obediently behind a yellow rope in the cold, the dark, the rain and the wind. They were enduring the conditions for one reason: to see a legend still at it. Do you have that quick-swing problem, flick-flack and it’s over? Hey, a lot of us do. Teeing off after Player, in front of a dozen or more spectators who are there only to see the wee great mon, might very possibly exacerbate it. My first swing at the 370-yard par-4 was a whir, producing a slapped 215-yard toe hook that stayed in the fairway. I followed that with a solid seven-iron to about 40 feet and a good lag putt to about four feet. For a little while there, I looked as advertised — a 12 handicapper. Then I capped the first hole with a yippy little jab that, had it fallen, could have been a 4 for a 3 and a hot start. Over the next 35 holes my putting and driving only deteriorated, and Team Douglass missed qualifying for the third and final round by a million shots. I could detail for you the general decline of my game since the late 1970s, but let’s get back to something more interesting: Mr. Player. You see him in a different way, inside the ropes.

He looks fantastic: Seventy-one years old, with bright-white teeth, silver-and-black hair, tanned skin that’s not leathery. The man exudes liveliness, and that clipped, precise South African accent helps. Of course there are signs of age. His eyes were tearing in the endless cold wind, and he dabbed at them with the sleeve of his black sweater before nearly every shot. His swing is the same as forever — he belts the ball down the fairway using all his 140 pounds — but now the ball goes maybe 225 yards, often with the aid of a big bounce off a sweeping hook.

His standards are high. What might seem to you like spectators having a good time is public drunkenness to him. On almost every hole he’d move a caddie or spectator or marshal or photographer or anyone who might disrupt his peripheral vision. He played his shots only when he was good and ready, and allowed himself to be rushed by nobody, even when we were told at the turn on the first day that our pace was too slow by eight minutes. When he plays, all eyes are on him. He’s still a star.

And what a pleasure it was to watch Player, watch him play for keeps, grinding over every shot, looking lonely and almost ill when he didn’t execute a shot as planned, or when the rub of the green conspired against him. There were many declarations from him, about Augusta National, about the condition of the course, about swings made and shots played by all quarters of our cheerful group.

When Dale hit a beautiful spinning pitch shot, Player said to him, “Only you and I know how good that shot is.” He was hard on his caddie, a boy of 17 who was the son of an employee in Player’s course-design business, but something else was plain, too: He was having the time of his life. I complimented him on his play, and he said, “It’s such a pleasure to try to make a good score in the elements.” Ee-lah-mints.

The main message of the Thursday-night pretournament players’ meeting had been that the amateurs should be aware that the pros were out there to make a living and a score. Ron, a long-whacking eight handicapper, and I were mindful of that — we stayed out of the way and especially gave Player the space he needed. On one green my approach shot created a minor crater of a ball mark on or near the line of Player’s putt. As I was fixing it, I felt a presence behind me, dressed all in black. I guessed it was Player, inspecting my gardening. I’ve never worked harder on a ball mark. I stood up, and the man in black behind me said, “That’s the best ball-mark repair I’ve ever seen.” My pro, the cheerleader.

The Outback people couldn’t have given me a better teammate. In our first round, on the last hole, I had about a 15-footer for bogey. Dale was already in for par, so my score was meaningless. I was about to pick up, to clear the way for Player, when Dale came over to read the putt for me. “Let’s see you make this,” he said. “Give the people a thrill.” I thought he was joking, but then I hit an abnormally good putt that tickled the high-side lip and stayed out. There were a few hundred people around, and they groaned as if it mattered, and of course it did. They didn’t know who I was or that I was putting for bogey. They wanted to see a putt drop, to complete the fantasy that it was their putt that dropped. Dale understood that. He also understood that those people pay the money he earns.

Then came another lesson from Dale, on the final hole of our second round. I hit a good tee shot, then sliced my second into the water. I dropped where it went in and chunked my fourth into the water. I’m not that bad, but it’s not easy making the swing you want to make when a thousand or more people are watching. In my shame I brought the red brim of my lucky British Open hat down around my nose. Suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder. “Put your hat on square, stand up straight and smile,” Dale said. “That’s all you can do.” My pro, an experienced and kind man.

Douglass won three times on the regular Tour, often traveling with his wife, Joyce, and their dog, Niblick. He turned 50 in 1986 and won the U.S. Senior Open at Scioto, the course Jack Nicklaus grew up playing.

“How many did you win by?” I asked.

“One,” Dale said.

“Who’d you beat?”

He pointed to Player and said, “That guy.”

That’s what the Champions tour has in spades: history — personal golfing histories. Every pro playing in the Outback had endured something to get to where he is in life. You could see it in their faces and hear it in their stories. Player and Douglass had played in all 20 Tampa senior events (through various name changes), and they were honored at a splashy pretournament party after the players’ meeting. Player spoke from a podium and talked about the joy the game gives him, and he praised some of the other golfing legends in the field, most particularly Tom Watson. Watson sat in the back of the room, a little plate of fancy hors d’oeuvres under his chin, grinning. Player and Watson have sparred and spatted during their careers, but that was a long time ago. Time heals, right?

Three days later, on a cold, windswept Sunday afternoon, Watson was playing the final holes of the tournament while Player, having played the back nine first, was finishing off the week on the front side. There were still a dozen or more people following him. He slipped off his shoes in the scorer’s trailer, came out and signed autographs, standing on pine needles in his black socks.

I was outside the ropes again, where I belong. I didn’t know whom to follow. When I was in high school and Watson was first emerging as an elite player, he was one of my golfing heroes. His caddie, Neil Oxman, is a long-standing friend. But Player, as it happened, was again going around with Douglass, near the bottom of the draw sheet, and that sealed it. Jack Renner, now white-haired but still wearing those Hogan caps, was their third. (The Player-Campbell team hadn’t made the cut, either.) While following Player, Douglass and Renner, I could hear the groans and cheers for Watson and Murray and the others on the side of the course where the real action was. Watson won, and Murray, playing with Scott Simpson, took the pro-am division. That should help sell next year’s tournament. While those guys were doing whatever they were doing, I saw Dale make a fine six-footer for par on his penultimate hole, using a blade putter that’s been in his bag since he stole it from Charlie Coody in 1965.

I paid my excellent caddie, Greg Rencsak, who plays regularly at the TPC course, and went to the practice tee. There were 20 or 30 perfect pyramids of Titleist Pro V1s waiting there. An embarrassment of riches. I had run out of balls at the end, and Ron, good man, gave me a couple from his bag stamped tampa bay lightning. The men working the range treated me as if I were still in the tournament, and I hit balls straight through dusk and then some, when the floodlights had come on. At breakfast that first morning, Fuzzy had told me that they have floodlights on the range so you can practice in the dark, before sunrise or after sunset, if you’re so inclined. Fuzzy didn’t look as if he was too inclined to go anywhere, and why should he? You and I, piles of brand-new Titleists waiting for us, we’re going to the range every time, right?