MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – They say you can tell a lot about a man from the way he plays golf. Maybe it's a true thing, maybe it's not, but it seems that everyone who played with Roger Clemens this year at the GOLF.com World Amateur Handicap Championship had the time of his life, going around with Rocket.
On Friday, he was playing for keeps. Yes, it's true that nobody is going to confuse representing Flight No. 18 for senior men between 50 and 59 in the finals of this thing with pitching a seventh game of the World Series, which Clemens has memorably done. Still, Clemens is Clemens, a competitor is a competitor and he was grinding it out.
He was playing with strangers yet treating them as if they were his buddies at a backyard barbecue. Naturally, he was driving the cart. You don't see Roger Clemens riding shotgun, do you?
He tended pins, praised shots, talked a little trash, had himself a good time. When he spun one from over the green to hole high on a par-3, he said proudly, "That's called spinnage!" When his diminutive cart partner killed a drive with a grip he borrowed from Ed Fiori, Clemens said, "He is strong like bull."
He had a big tour bag, Texas Longhorn headcovers and socklets – logoed socklets! – a variety of club brands, a steep backswing, shaved legs, bleached hair and a likable regular-guy manner. It was all good.
His wife, Debbie, who played in the event and played well (but not as well as Rog!) followed him around on Friday, along with maybe a dozen or so other spectators. The golfing couple first played in the event two years ago at the suggestion of their friend Bill Boykin, who followed Clemens on Friday. In 2010, Clemens played immediately after a grand jury indictment came down, charging the pitcher with lying to a Congressional committee about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. There was some question that year whether Clemens would show up, but he did. Then he was a 5-handicapper who played more like a 10. This year, just a few weeks after being acquitted of those charges, he was an 8-handicapper who played to it.
Boykin is in the spirits business, and one of his jobs used to be to provide wines to Augusta National for the Tuesday night Masters champions dinner. In that capacity, he was able to arrange for Debbie Clemens to play Augusta National years ago, when she was just starting in the game. (She's now a legit low 80s golfer.)
"I've played it three times now, but that first time, I didn't know what it was all about," she said on Friday, as her husband played TPC Myrtle Beach, smashing drives well over 300 yards, chipping with his wood-headed putter and putting with a claw grip. "I showed up with this big ol' Chanel bag, and I needed one caddie just to carry that!"
As a pitcher, Clemens was famously, ridiculously competitive. Remember the time he fielded Mike Piazza's broken bat and looked like was going to fling the jagged lumber at him? Right then, Clemens looked kind of crazy. 'Roid rage? George Mitchell (in a manner of speaking) says yes. But Rog says no! In any event, there was not even a hint of red ass from the man at MB.
The purpose of Friday's round was for the winners and co-winners of each of the 68 flights to play one round to determine an overall champion. Talk about your high stakes! In the early part of his back nine on Friday, Clemens was a shot off the lead. (Not that he knew. If he wanted to know how he stood, he could have found out, by way of cellphone, but he preferred to just keep grinding.) Then came the short par-5 6th.(He played the back nine first.) Clemens was licking his chops.
Dogleg right, playing maybe 520 yards. No professional caddie worth his bib would have let Rocket hit his 7.5-degree Titleist driver there, not with woods and OB left, a jungle right and traps at 280. But Clemens is a home-schooled grip-it-and-rip-it golfer. He unleashed a huge old cut shot that did not cut. A search party convened.
"You playing a Titleist 3 with two black dots?" one of his playing partners said, inspecting the ball like he was looking at road kill.
"Actually, blue dots, but that's mine," Clemens said calmly. "It's OB. Pick it up."
He went back to the tee, smashed the next one into the jungle right. He did well to make 7, but with a double on a hole where he really needed a birdie, he was pretty much out of it. Not that he really knew. But he could sense it.
There are a million things you could say about Roger Clemens, and the New York Daily News has said them all. In fact, when he played here two years ago, he talked to local reporters but wouldn't talk to anybody from the News, which has chronicled his life in such detail you'd need a whole career in country music to capture it all. Maybe you believe he used steroids. Maybe you don't. Maybe you believe he lied to Congress. Maybe you don't. Maybe you believe he tried to kill Mike Piazza with a pitch at his head. Maybe you don't. Clemens has led a life that's one-of-a-kind.
And, of course, it continues to be. He pitched 3 1/3 innings for the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent minor-league team, last week, and he's on the docket to make two more appearances for them. Nobody would be surprised to see him make a start for the Houston Astros before the year is over, although he told people last week that his stuff, at 50, is not nearly where it needs to be to get out major-league hitters. Not yet, that is.
At one point on Friday he said, "I feel like I'm in the third inning. Nice and hot and sweaty."