As R.E.M. breaks up, reflections on the band and golf with bassist Mills and manager Downs

As R.E.M. breaks up, reflections on the band and golf with bassist Mills and manager Downs

Bertis Downs (lower left, in white shirt and blue cap) celebrated the United States' 1999 Ryder Cup win as the author (bottom center, pink shirt) looked on. <a href=""><strong>Enlarge image</strong></a>
Bob Martin/SI

Is there a song more wistful than “Wichita Lineman,” the Jimmy Webb composition that Glen Campbell turned into an A.M. anthem in the late 1960s ? Even all the schmaltzy strings backing him couldn’t kill its greatness. Maybe you remember Campbell as the host of the Los Angeles Open in the 1970s and early ’80s . When Campbell would talk to Vin Scully, he’d drawl like an Oklahoma quarterback, but his mod hair was always slightly long for golf.

He had just the right makeup for that tournament, as Bing Crosby did for his California event and Bob Hope did for his. It’s heartbreaking to think of Glen Campbell now, going around the country on his Goodbye Tour , the first signs of Alzheimer’s creeping into his memories. I’ll bet he can still make a graceful pass at the ball, though. Sam Snead once told me (and surely others) that his own golf rhythm and his gift for music came from the same place.

This comes to mind because of the news a few days ago that the band R.E.M. has decided, as its members said in a statement, “to call it a day.” The band’s bassist, Mike Mills, and its manager, Bertis Downs, are golf bums of the highest order. You’ll see them at Ryder Cups, at the Masters, at British Opens. A score of Tour players and caddies and writers count them as friends. On the Saturday night of the Tour Championship, a bunch of guys were going to an outdoor concert in Atlanta where Coldplay was playing, in part on the hope that Michael Stipe, R.E.M.’s lead singer, would be lured onstage. (Real life intervened; he didn’t perform.)

The band came together in 1980, in Athens , home of the University of Georgia, maybe 60 miles from East Lake . Bertis and Mike play at a Donald Ross course there, Athens Country Club , an old-school gem. R.E.M. turned into R.E.M. by playing a thousand shows in the South, working out of a van, hauling their own amps. The old Tour was the same way, and it was more Southern than anything else. I’m talking about the Rabbit Era, when Monday morning qualifying was a way of life and Tour players on the fringes all carried Rand McNally atlases and a dozen putters in the trunks of their cars. Talk to players Bertis’s age — he’s 55 — and older and they’ll tell you. Pensacola. Tallahassee. Columbus, Ga. Greensboro and Charlotte. Hattiesburg, Miss. Hilton Head. Atlanta, if you were on a roll. Augusta, if you caught fire. Some guy with a Bud in his hand and a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt would yell at a rolling putt, “Free bird!” Where was this? Anywhere with Bermuda greens. The girls wore halter-top sundresses and espadrilles and the players, the players among them, scored phone numbers on backed-up par-3s. Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Tour Championship was embryonic then but the men in marketing didn’t even know it.

The R.E.M. version of “Wichita Lineman” (Play video) is nothing like Glen Campbell’s (Play video). It’s stripped down. They sound like another garage band rehearsing for a Saturday night $5-at-the-door gig.

And I need you more than want you.
And I want you for all time.
And the Wichita Lineman
Is still on the line .

I don’t know why, but when I hear Michael Stipe sing those words I think of Tom Watson, and not just because he’s a Kansan. Loneliness and longing drip off “Wichita Lineman,” and Watson strikes me as somehow lonely, uncomfortable in groups but at peace on the golf course, in his twosome, comforted by the knowledge that he’s given the game more than it has given him. Believe me, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just telling you how I feel.

Bertis is a lawyer and a law professor and he has been with the band since its start. Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” he told me the other day, was the first album he ever bought. I can’t tell you how much fun we’ve had on golf courses together. The experiences won’t likely translate into typed words. When Tiger hit that long pull hook on the 72nd hole of the ’97 Masters, Bertis and I raced down the hill to catch up to it. A green coat yelled at us, “No running — no running!” Bertis called back, “We’re walking very fast!” In some of the photos of Woods playing his approach into 18, en route to his 12-shot win, Bertis and I are right there in the front row. Nobody drives it down there anymore. There’s rough, for one thing, and the tee box has been pushed back too far. Time has marched on.

Once, Mike and Bertis and I and another friend were heading off to play golf in Florida. I was driving. I picked them up at their hotel. Mike put his clubs in the trunk, and while he re-arranged some luggage I did something with his golf shoes. We headed out and Mike said, “Did you put the shoes in the trunk?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Both of them?” he asked.

“Two shoes,” I said.

We got to the course. There was only one shoe in the trunk. Maybe I left one on the roof, I don’t know. In any event, he bought shoes in the shop and tended to his blisters that night.

Bertis and Mike have known Jim (Bones) Mackay and Joe LaCava for years and, by extension, have a particular rooting interest in Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples, and also Davis Love. In 2002, when the British Open was at Muirfield , Phil and Bones and Bertis snuck away during one of the practice rounds and played the Old Course. A nightmare for Bertis is when Davis and Phil and Fred have Thursday-Friday tee times at Augusta that are scattered all over the tee sheet. He somehow manages to see everybody and everything he needs to see. He walks very fast.

Bill Berry, the band’s longtime drummer, is also a golf head, but I’ve never seen Michael Stipe or Peter Buck, the band’s lead guitarist, on a golf course. (Buck is deeply attached to baseball, as is Mills, who is often at Turner Field.) When R.E.M. was coming up in Athens, another band, Love Tractor, was starting to get noticed, too. Love Tractor had a unique, excellent sound, surfy and jazzy and folky, but R.E.M. ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I asked Mills once why R.E.M. made it big and Love Tractor did not. He said, “Because we had Michael Stipe. When we first started playing together, we knew Michael had a great voice. But when we started playing in front of audiences, we saw the people responded to Michael. He had charisma.”

When Rory McIlroy came to play in the U.S. for first time as a pro, in 2009, Geoff Ogilvy said something very similar about him. Ogilvy’s point was that McIlory had a certain extra something — a golfing charisma — that would help him win over crowds, intimidate opponents, fuel his confidence, give him half a shot or more on some Sunday afternoon when nobody can breathe.

When the stock-option crowd calls it a day, they usually cite a desire to spend more time with their families. Bertis has been taking his family all over the globe for years. On the Saturday morning of the Tour Championship, Bertis and his wife and their two daughters — and a bunch of their neighborhood friends — were at a 5K race in Athens, a fundraiser for their local middle school. Bertis, along with his girls, ran 3.1 hilly miles. Maybe it would be more accurate to say he walked them very fast. Bertis walks very fast.

After the race, the sponsors were thanked, R.E.M. among them, and Bertis asked for a moment of silence for the band. (At East Lake last week, a bunch of people were doing the same thing.) Bertis has a good sense of humor, a deep understanding of wistfulness and he values friendship as much as anybody I know. Useful qualities in golf and in life. Many of us were drawn to golf for the thrill of seeing our golf ball in the air. That thrill comes and goes. And then all you have left are the friendships you make through the game. And that’s enough to keep you at it, isn’t it?