Monday, 30 September 2013

Exclusion and racism in golf

There’s the tale of Zeke Hartsfield, a superb competitive golfer who used to caddie for Bobby Jones at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta and wondered why he wasn’t allowed to play Candler Park, another course in the Georgia capital. So he decided to tee it up there one morning in 1939. And when he arrived at the third hole, he was greeted by a posse of policemen who slapped a pair of handcuffs on Hartsfield and hauled him off to jail. Because he was black.

And also the story of Charlie Sifford, who carded a 68 to lead the first round of the 1960 Greater Greensboro Open and then listened to a man threaten his life over the telephone that night. As Sifford played that following morning, he heard the same man taunting him, following him around the course with a group of hecklers who constantly yelled in his backswing. And you can’t imagine anyone enduring something that bad.

But then you read about the Phoenix Open in 1952, which was one of the first times blacks were allowed to compete in a PGA Tour event. Sifford teed off in the first foursome, with boxer Joe Louis, who was a top amateur golfer as well, and two other African-Americans. And when he went to pull the flag out of the first hole, he saw that the cup was filled with human excrement. Because he, and six other golfers competing in that event, were black.

You have a hard time with stories like these, but at the same time you find you cannot stop reading about them. They make you angry and embarrassed. Sometimes they even make you smile. There was the time, for example, that Bill Spiller, a top African-American golfer who was the first to legally challenge the Tour’s despicable and long-standing Caucasian-only rule, crashed a country club dance after the Bakersfield Open. Dressed in coat and tie, he walked right to the head table in the clubhouse, where blacks were not allowed, and asked the wife of the club president to dance. She obliged, and the two of them took a whirl around the floor.

There are tales of triumph that make you glow. Like the one of Pete Brown when he became the first black to win a PGA Tour event (the 1964 Waco Turner Open). Or of Sifford winning the 1969 Los Angeles Open and setting off a long celebration in his adopted hometown that culminated in a parade through Watts. Or of Lee Elder becoming the first black to play in the Masters in 1975. Or of Calvin Peete capturing 11 PGA Tour titles in the 1980s.

But more than anything else, the stories make you sad. Sad for a guy like Spiller, who was never able to make a consistent living at the thing he loved most and did best – and that was hit a golf ball – because he, too, was black.

“The man was a great player and college-educated,” says John H. Kennedy, a longtime Boston Globe reporter who now teaches writing at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. “But he had to work as a railroad porter because he wasn’t able to compete on the PGA Tour. Or even work as a PGA pro because they wouldn’t let him become a member. He fought the PGA most of his life. And even on his death bed a dozen years ago, he still talked about his hatred for the organization. He hated what it did to him, and to others.”

Kennedy knows a lot about Spiller and Sifford and Elder and Peete because he has just written a history of African-American golfers. Titled “A Course of Their Own” (Stark Books), it gives a very readable, detailed and often harrowing account of blacks and their involvement in the game. Or should I say lack of involvement, because most of the golf establishment seemed determined to keep them out of the sport for as long as possible.

“I don’t think most people understand how long African-Americans have been playing golf,” Kennedy says. “They had their own tour for a while, sort of a Negro Leagues of golf, and there were some great players. I also don’t think many people really understand how hard it has been for them. They were shot at for playing white-only courses. They were arrested. Their lives were threatened. And all because they wanted to play a game.”

“A Course of Their Own” is a compelling read, a tough read, an enlightening read. And, perhaps most of all, it is an important read for anyone who knows and loves the game of golf.

Monday, 23 September 2013

All’s fair in love and (golf ball) war

Golf, it seems, used to be such a gentlemanly game, especially when talking about the way it was played in the marketplace.

Intense? Certainly. Competitive? Without a doubt. But even the strongest opponents managed to go at it with a some semblance of decorum and respect.

Things have become very different, however, especially as the battle for market share in the $725 million wholesale U.S. ball market has heated up.

And many of those fighting it out appear to have dropped all pretense of good behavior in favor of launching very public barbs at their business rivals.

Accusations of patent infringement fly. Research tests are openly demeaned. Marketing campaigns are ridiculed, and product quality is questioned.

This is golf? Why, there is more fraternity in a cockfight, more order in the streets of Tirana and less jawing on a Brooklyn basketball court.

Consider some of the sniping that went on during the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., in February. Taylor Made, for example, chose to counteract quickly the introduction of Callaway’s new golf balls by televising a robot test that not only touted the superiority of its own product line but also chided Spalding for its recent decision to sell premium Strata balls through mass merchants by pulling the one used in the test out of a Wal-Mart bag.

Duck hunters call that a twofer, as in two birds with one shot.

At a cocktail party that same night, a major golf company executive systematically derided the golf balls made by a couple of his competitors to a group of journalists, even going so far as to suggest some days later that one of those companies might be engaged in highly unethical – and fraudulent – activities.

Military types call that a cluster bomb.

In fact, it never seemed to take much prodding during the show to get workers from one company to start yapping about their competition. And their words often sounded a lot like those negative campaign advertisements politicians say they will never resort to, yet always do.

Even Ely Callaway got into the act one day, interrupting the Merchandise Show news conference for his new golf balls to diss his chief rival from Titleist, Wally Uihlein, asking, “Anybody seen Wally?” before a crowd of nearly 1,000 journalists and guests.

“I don’t really understand what is going on,” said one equipment company executive. “There is so much trash being talked, so many attacks of the facts. People used to think that the best way to go was to judge your company and products on their – and your – own merits. But that no longer seems to be the case.”

What’s behind this increasingly mouthy behavior? Sociologists might point to a general breakdown in etiquette and decency, but the primary cause seems to be good old-fashioned competition and the fact that more and more people are fighting desperately for a piece of the golf ball pie. As a result, the stakes for them all are huge.

So it is not hard to understand why some of those in the trenches lose their heads on occasion and start barking rather loudly.

But that doesn’t mean they sound – or look – particularly good when that happens.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Country clubs for a day? No way

Perhaps the toughest thing a golfer has to endure each year is the seasonal closing of his club and course. As bad as winter weather gets up north and as depressing as short, cold days often are, nothing is quite so frustrating as your regular retreat being closed. To be sure, you still can get in your rounds during those months. But the games almost always are played at faraway resorts, and no matter how good the layouts, the experience is never really the same.

That’s partly because of a lack of familiarity with the courses and a lack of camaraderie around places that aren’t quite home. There are, however, other factors:

Take footwear. One of the pleasures of belonging to a club is having someone take meticulous care of your golf shoes. At my place, cleats are replaced promptly; new laces put in when needed; and leather shined, polished and conditioned after each round. Consequently, even the lousiest duffer can look like Beau Brummel when he struts to the first tee, his saddles shining in the early morning sun.
But forget about that at most resorts, where golf shoes are the subject of more neglect than a middle child. What that means for the club player is that his FootJoys and Nikes become as ratty as the work boots worn by a highway paver. That’s why the first thing I do at the start of each season is haul in the different shoes I have been wearing all winter to our trusty locker room attendant, and with a crisp twenty in hand, ask if he would please bring them all back to life.

Another issue, of course, are my street shoes, none of which would ever get buffed and polished (at least from May to October) if not for that same fellow. No one at the resorts I visit seems to know how to work a can of Kiwi black and a good brush.

Cleaning is a problem that can extend to irons and woods as well, and there are few, if any of those “pay to play for a day” retreats that do quite as good a job as your own club. I also like the luxury of my bag waiting for me when I get to the pro shop and not having to haul it in and out of the trunk of my car, or to and from my room, every time I want to play.

It also seems that at many resorts, you spend whatever time you are not on the course handing out dollars to whomever is handling your bag, as well as to starters, beverage cart drivers and assorted “valets” and “concierges.” After a while, you look and feel like Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack,” peeling ones from a big roll of bills to anyone and everyone who walks by. Back home, it’s $5 to the shoe guy every week and whatever I think the caddie deserves.

Actually, there always is something disconcerting about the money a club member has to pay for an individual round of resort golf, and everything else that goes with it. A first-rate course, for example, costs $500 for a day, a price that includes the green fee, a caddie, a snack at the halfway house, a couple of tips and maybe some lunch and a drink afterward. That may be only slightly more than the per-round cost of a golfer paying $7,000 per year in dues for a club at which he plays, say, 25 times per year. But having to cough it up for each 18 you play just seems more expensive. And even if it is comparable financially, it rarely is emotionally, because it is not your place.

Then there is the concern of whom you play with. Unless you are foolish enough to sign up for an out-of-the-hat scramble, club golf ensures that you go out with people you generally like and enjoy. But visit a resort with anything other than your own foursome, and you are at the mercy of the draw and golf’s version of a blind date. Harvey Penick’s credo to the contrary, just because someone plays golf does not make him, or her, your friend.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Paranoid in Carlsbad

Covert operatives apparently moved to Carlsbad, Calif., when the Cold War ended. The golf equipment capital of the world seems like a second-career haven for intelligence types who don’t have the Soviet Union to kick around anymore. Physicists who once built missiles are designing irons, while agents who tried to keep the world safe from Communism are trying to keep club and ball makers safe from each other.

Those “Intell” alums can be a pretty cautious bunch, especially when it comes to matters of security. And the culture they have helped create in Carlsbad – similar to that of other industries with security concerns – has a way of making even the steadiest soul feel a little paranoid.

Consider, for example, the Callaway Golf Co. receptionist who cheerfully insisted I sign a “Non-Disclosure and Facility Admission Agreement” after I walked into one of the company’s buildings during an October visit. I resisted, largely because it seemed the document would prohibit a person from ever writing or saying anything about what he saw there. And I didn’t see how a journalist could consent to something that would prevent him from doing his job. Besides, I work for a well-respected golf publication and have never tried to overthrow a Third World country or sneak trade secrets out of a company lab.

But the receptionist refused to give in. I had no choice but to sign (if I wanted to make my meeting on time), although I assumed that whatever I would write about Callaway from then on would violate the agreement. The only question left to ponder now: Where will I serve out my time?

The second person I met was the “manager of investigations,” a former Army Intelligence officer who said he used to “catch spies.” Nice guy, but I still felt a little nervous sitting next to someone who once collared KGB agents for a living and probably knew dozens of ways to make them talk.
Then at the end of my afternoon, I got to enter the new, super-secret building from which Callaway will market and manufacture its line of golf balls. And as I was being escorted to the office of president Chuck Yash, I couldn’t help imagining what would happen if I suddenly bolted to some forbidden sector down the hall. Would I be “neutralized” by Dr. No-type drones clad in brightly-colored jumpsuits? Would I die in a hail of machine-gun fire like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? Was all this security stuff making me a little nuts?

The answer to the last question was probably yes. I tried to flush those ideas from my mind, but as soon as I walked out of the building, I saw a helicopter hovering overhead. And I instantly started to wonder: Who is up there, and what do they want?
See what just a few hours in Carlsbad did to me?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Hogan mystique still going strong

I was born a bit too late to be much of a fan of Ben Hogan the player, and he had stopped winning majors long before I ever got interested in golf. Sure, I remember seeing him bang balls around Merion before the 1971 U.S. Open, when I was 15 and watching practice rounds with my father. But Hogan hadn't been a factor in any big event for ages and wasn't much more than a hazy has-been to me. He was like Ted Williams in baseball or Sammy Baugh in football, great players that I knew only vaguely through stories I read and heard. And that made it difficult to truly appreciate him.

But not too many years later, I became a real fan of Ben Hogan the club maker. And that's because the first new set of sticks I ever owned bore his name. I had Ben Hogan Medallion irons and Ben Hogan woods, and I remember how stylish and sleek they looked, how crisply a well-hit ball came off of them and how happy I was to break 90 for the first time just a few weeks after I had put them in my bag.

Actually, it seemed as if most people I played with back then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used Hogans. So did many of the club pros I knew. The man after whom those woods and irons were named may not have played competitively any more, but his legend lived on in his clubs. And for a whole generation of golfers, that is how we came to know the Hawk.
Ben Hogan

So I was pretty excited when I had a chance to take a tour of the Ben Hogan manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year and then go tee it up at the Shady Oaks Country Club, which was one of his favorite, off-hours haunts. Yes, I had traded in my Medallions long ago for a set of oversized, perimeter-weighted irons and trashed my Hogan persimmons in favor of something a bit bigger in titanium. But I still held fond memories of those old clubs and was curious about what the company, which is now owned by Spalding, was turning out. Plus, I wanted to see where he had chosen to spend most of his post-playing days - in the office and at the club - before passing away more than two years ago. The Hogan plant is in a nondescript industrial area of Fort Worth, a new facility that opened last fall after Spalding had moved operations there from the original site, which had opened in 1953. The Hawk never saw this building, but Spalding brought his old office over, and it stands like a shrine just off the lobby by the receptionist's desk, manned by Sharon Rea, who worked as his secretary for many years. It has his name on the wall outside the door (office No. 111) as well as his desk, chair, photographs and books. I saw a notepad with Hogan's name on it, and a drawing of his late wife, Valerie, on the wall. Open the drawers, and there are old sleeves of golf balls as well as different brands of eye drops and throat lozenges. Workers say the room is pretty much as the Hawk left it the day he died, and you half expect him to walk in suddenly (and to be none too happy that you are gawking at his digs).

There was nothing particularly unusual about the plant tour, though it was amazing to meet men and women who had first come to work for Hogan in the 1950s and still punched their time cards there. Some had gone to Virginia in the early 1990s when the previous owners moved operations there, while others stayed behind. And then they all got back together in 1998, after Spalding bought the company and decided to relocate to Fort Worth. There was 70-year-old Dalton Grissom, who had started in 1954. And also Roger West.

"I was 19 years old when I came to work for Mr. Hogan in the fall of 1959," West says. "I stayed here for all those years and even went up to Virginia for a while. But I am glad they moved us back, because for Hogan, this is home."

The sense of the man and the history he made is just as evident at Shady Oaks, which opened in 1958 and served more or less as his second home. Though Robert Trent Jones designed the course, it was Hogan who put in the back tees. He was also the one who pounded balls on the driving range there, who played the occasional round and who used to sit in his favorite seat at a big table in the grill room for lunch almost every day, facing the ninth and 18th greens and watching players finish up.

Sometimes, the people coming in could see the Hawk peering at them from behind the glass, and the mere thought of the four-time U.S. Open champion checking them out made even the most collected players feel as if they were riding a runaway elevator after a seven course meal. Because of that, Hogan watched an inordinate number of Shady Oaks members and guests gag on their approach shots.

There is a plaque where the Hawk used to sit at his table, portraits of him on the walls, a display of his shag bag and the first set of Hogan irons in the pro shop. There is even his locker, still filled with his shoes, slacks, balls, hats, sweaters and at least a dozen different salves and ointments. And the name plate on front simply reads: "Ben Hogan".

That day, I was able to play nine holes with a set of the new Hogan Apex Plus irons. It seemed appropriate that I should use them in this spot, and I somehow managed to card two birdies on the back. I was only 1-over when I came to 18 and had visions of bragging to my friends back home about the way I tore up the back nine of the Hawk's old track. I liked the feel of those new sticks and the greater appreciation for Hogan as a player that I had developed over the years. It made playing his clubs - and his club - even better than I could have imagined.

But then I snap-hooked my second shot to the par-4 18th, chipped onto the green and three-putted, playing the hole as badly as so many others did when they knew the man was there, watching, between bites of his lunch.

I have no idea what my excuse was, but it didn't really matter. I was just happy to be there.