The Washington Husky golf team is attempting to do what Seattle Slew did well: successfully come from behind.
Led by All-American junior Chris Williams, the Husky golf team is pushing to overtake others at the Pacific Palisades Riviera Country Club. On one hand, this dream is realistic because they recently defeated No. 1 seed Texas. On the other hand, the dream is challenging because, well, it’s golf. And regardless of who is attempting to control the direction, a golf ball has a mind of its own.
Nevertheless, in the U.S. where there are approximately 245 million people of ages 18 and above, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF) there are 26.2 million golfers. The NGF defines a golfer as anyone ages 18 and above who played at least one regulation round of golf in the past 12 months.
In other words, over 10% of the American adult population plays golf.
The majority of those who play golf, however, are not exceptionally good at it. Most golfers claim to be less-than-stellar but continue to play golf regularly, attempting but failing to get better because golf proficiently requires a knack, a gift with which one is born.
Those few who play golf well are consequently revered by the vast majority of golfers. While football fans will affectionately reminisce about former gridiron greats, when past golfing legends become the topic of conversation, golf fans speak reverently.
I was in Moore County, North Carolina this past week-end. Moore County is the “Home of American Golf” and within a radius of 15 miles there are 43 golf courses led by Pinehust which hosted the U.S. Open in 2005 and will host it again in 2014. Walking through the halls of older golf resorts in Moore County, looking at photos on walls, is like going through a golfing museum dedicated to the Who’s Who of golf.
Nelson, Jones, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Snead, Boros, Rodriguez, Norman, Woods…
Boros? For starters, Boros won the U.S. Open twice and was a Ryder Cup member four times. Known for his quick play on the ball, he would walk up to the ball, maybe take a practice swing, and then do whatever was needed. When asked why he didn’t take more time to line up his shots, Boros, who once did a Sports Illustrated article entitled, “Play Golf My Easy Way”, with wit replied, “By the time you get to your ball, if you don’t know what to do with it, try another sport.”
Boros died in 1994 and seemed to know his time had come. Physical disabilities dictated he no longer play golf but Boros would climb in a cart every morning and drive the fairways, 18 holes, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells along the course. He loved the game. Two club members found him in his cart parked under some trees near the 16th green, his favorite at that particular Florida course. To the men who knew him and found him, it seemed evident he had intentionally gone to that spot to pass on.
And although it’s been over 18 years since Boros passed away, they still love him at Mid-Pines. The second floor hallway is lined with photos of Boros. The conference room is named after him. There’s a “Boros Burger” on the bar menu. And these things are not named after Boros to make money for the club. In memoriam.
A good friend of Boros was the University of Washington’s second most famous golfer: big George Bayer. Bayer never played golf in college, however. At 6’ 5” 245 lbs., the Bremerton native was a three-year starter at tackle. While Bayer was not an All-American, he was all-conference, and an NFL draft pick.
Bayer quit pro football, however, in a dispute with Washington Redskins owner and micromanager George Preston Marshall, whom Bayer inwardly – and sometimes outwardly – detested.
After football, Bayer sold cars for a while in southern California, and took up golf for recreation.
He discovered he was average at most aspects of the game of golf. Except for one. He could tee-off further than any other man alive.
As Bayer’s reputation spread, he was ‘discovered’ by the comedian and avid golfer Bob Hope who introduced him to Toney Penna, a scout for MacGregor sporting goods. Penna convinced Bayer to forget about car sales, turn pro, and Penna signed Bayer to a MacGregor contract.
As Bayer’s professional participation became prominent, he, too, became a celebrity, and besides Bob Hope, Bayer began playing golf with well-known people in the entertainment and sports worlds including (much smaller) jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker.
Bayer always attracted a crowd whenever he pulled out his hickory-shaft driver. As highly literate writers of contemporary prose would say, “OMG.” People wanted to see George hit it. In a 1961 Sports Illustrated article entitled, “Golf’s Human Howitzer,” Bayer’s reputation was summarized: “Hardly a golf course where George Bayer has played during his six years on the professional golfing circuit is without a legend about one of his enormous drives. On the 250-yard 8th hole at Tam O’Shanter [Sharon, Pa], he scored a hole-in-one, using his one-iron. On the 445-yard 7th hole at Tucson…Bayer drove his tee shot 10 yards past the flag-stick…”
In 1956 at Sydney, Australia, Bayer hit a shot that stopped about 50 yards from the 589-yard hole.
This was before titanium and graphite shafts, and the modern variety of ‘live’ golf balls. What might Bayer do today?
If Bayer is Washington’s “second most famous golfer,” who’s first?
He’s not considered a pro golfer, and his foremost reputation has nothing to do with golf …although there’s a good possibility that by now, playing year around, he has accumulated more time on the golf course than he accumulated on the gridiron. A few years ago when serving as a keynote speaker at a large Bellevue banquet, Don James showed up in a green Master’s jacket, emphasizing what he had been doing since he retired from coaching.
Football will always be Coach James’ foremost passion but golf is not too far behind, and his name is actually becoming associated with golf – although the association is indirect. In its infancy, the Don James Classic tournament wasn’t much but now, in its 19th year, the Newcastle tournament fills up quickly at healthy fees – recession be damned – and is growing. It will be interesting to see where the Don James Classic is when present Washington Head Coach Sarkisian wins his first national championship. Becoming associated with golf can only perpetuate the James mystique, considering the grasp golf has on America.
“Who was Don James?” someone might ask in 30 years.
“He was a famous golfer, of course! That’s why the Don James Classic is named after him.”
For good reason, top golfers are well-remembered, more so than stars in other sports, e.g., pro football. Here’s a quick quiz to make that point.
Who are the two guys below? At one time, every sports fan knew the answer in the blink of an eye.
O.K., now, who are these two guys?
Arnie and the Bear were performing admirably well before and at the same time as Super Bowl MVP Len Dawson and Kansas City Chiefs Head Coach Hank Stram (first photo). During their brief time in the limelight, however, Dawson and Stram garnered larger headlines. Palmer and Nicklaus, on the other hand, continued to perform well after Dawson and Stram were done (Nicklaus retired in 2005; Palmer finally retired in 2006). In addition, as indicated at the start of this article, many people could do, can do, and will do what Arnie and Jack did although, obviously, not as well. Few, however, can do or will do what Dawson and Stram did.
Consequently, in much greater numbers, people relate to Nicklaus and Palmer for much longer, maintaining interest in golfing celebrities long after celebrities in other sports are mostly forgotten.
With respect to becoming immortalized, if one is good at assisting that little ball up and down fairways, and successful when encouraging it across greens, one will be remembered.
While, at worst, Chris Williams will be remembered by Husky golf enthusiasts, it will be interesting to see where Williams and teammates such as promising freshman Cheng-Tsung Pan wind up in years to come. Cheng-Tsung, from Taiwan, is being closely covered by the golf-happy Taiwanese press, receiving more publicity back home than in Seattle.
Will the fame of Williams and Cheng-Tsung surpass George Bayer and Don James? Is Cheng-Tsung in a position to kick off golf’s version of Lin-mania back home? It’s possible. The timing is good because in Taiwan golf is very popular, and courses and driving ranges are packed daily. The same is true in Japan, and mainland China is following suit as poverty declines and the middle class grows. In fact, in China golf is exploding.
Although no longer on the greens, Nicklaus, Boros and Palmer are being spoken of with reverence in more places than ever, as others discover that if they are able control the little round, dimpled ball, the world is their oyster. Chris Williams, Cheng-Tsung Pan and gang, the world is watching.