Early in my career, there was an unwritten rule that if a young basketball coach harbored any hope of moving up in the profession, playing golf was taboo. While it was unwritten, it was not unspoken. Both Abe Lemons and Jerry Tarkanian used to say, when asked about their hiring philosophy, “I never hire any coach who owns an RV or golf clubs.” In fact, of all the head coaches I worked for throughout my 30-year career (10), only two could be considered golf enthusiasts – and four of them didn’t play at all.
The first time I actually played golf was at a media event in the late ’70s. I “competed” in couple more of those outings but, as far as playing a sport, I enjoyed tennis a good deal more. It was a better workout, didn’t take as long and was a whole lot less expensive. Plus, I had more skill with a racquet in my hand than a club. It wasn’t until early in my stint at Fresno State – ironically, working for Tark – when I was properly introduced to golf.
The athletics department had the annual Xmas party and the format was everybody donated something – so everybody won. Kinda like Little League. When my name was picked, wouldn’t you know it, my prize was a free lesson with golf coach Mike Watney, coach/uncle to PGA pro Nick Watney and a member of the Golf Hall of Fame. Mike and I shared a mutual respect for each other (me for him for obvious reasons, and him for me . . . because he told me so). He approached me after the luncheon and asked when we could get together. As I tossed the piece of paper with the “one free golf lesson” written on it in a trash can, I joked that if I was to take up golf, the worst golfer in the world would move up one notch. “No, c’mon, meet me outside my office” (where there was an open field) “and I’ll give you a couple pointers.”
By that time in his career, Jerry had relaxed his “no golf for coaches” rule. There were so many Fresno State tournaments in which boosters played, our AD, who was an avid golfer, wanted coaches to participate and mingle. While Jerry never swung a club, his son, Danny, a marvelous athlete, would represent the basketball department. I set a date with Mike and he had me swing a 7-iron. I gripped it like I would a baseball bat (a sport I was familiar with, had played in high school and loved). After a couple serious slices, Mike diagnosed (one of) my major problem(s). “Try turning your grip so the ‘V’ between your left thumb and index finger points, instead of toward your left shoulder, as it is now, toward your right shoulder. Same with the right hand. Point that ‘V’ to your right shoulder as well.”
I’m nothing if not coachable, so I followed his instructions and – how about that – the ball started straightening out. Not bombs, mind you, but at least shots I’d be easily able to find. Our beat writer happened to be there (at that time, he and I were extremely good friends) and even he, a total non-athlete, was impressed. That made two of us. Mike claims he was never in doubt. Kind of him to say.
Since there were so many others in the department who played and because the weather was always good, I began playing once the season ended. I admit I was hit by the bug and couldn’t wait to get on a course. In addition, one of my surgeries had resulted in nerve damage in my feet, causing neuropathy, a condition in which the feet tingle – like the feeling you get when your foot falls asleep – so my tennis days were long gone.
After a few more surgeries, playing golf became impossible as well. I still loved the game – I mean, you’re playing with friends (the guys I played with weren’t bettors, so it remained a fun game), in a beautiful setting with green grass, sand, water, shrubbery and trees (I’ve spent more time in them than is recommended), in great weather (otherwise, I waited until it improved), riding in carts and, once in a while (more often for me than I was supposed to), you hit the ball. As a golfer, you play against the course. Even though I knew I’d never come remotely close to beating it, it’s the 120 yard 9-iron that I holed out for the only eagle of my life, or the sinking of a left-to-right 30-foot putt that would bring me back – even though my scores might have been in triple figures. I have missed playing tennis and golf (if I were a jogger, I’d miss that too). Now, yoga (no one will ever confuse me with Eddie George but my flexibility has improved) and 30-60 minutes on a recumbent bike have been the totality of my athletic accomplishments.
Maybe because I have learned to live with pain, maybe because I just have to give it another try, I’m thinking about playing golf again. I haven’t reserved a room at the hospital – and hope I don’t need to – but a person can do sudokus (there has never been one I couldn’t complete) only so long. Joni Mitchell was right:
“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”