In this mad, mad world of ours, golf on TV is a welcome escape

October 20, 2017

I think of Arnold Palmer on those nights when I watch “Golf Channel” before the eyelids go south. These days, the missus and I generally call it a day with Stephen Colbert’s monologue, because laughing at the madness is a better alternative to the deep frustration the other channels promote. But I think of Arnold on my GC nights because of something he said to me over 20 years ago, when the channel he co-founded was just getting off the ground. He said he wanted people to watch it as they watched Johnny Carson, as something pleasant and relaxing and a good way to head to the wonders of sleep.

On Thursday night, Christine nodded off early and I found myself watching a Tour event called the CJ Cup, played at a course called Nine Bridges, which is on Jeju Island, in South Korea. I had heard of the tournament, but that’s about it. There was Adam Scott, surfing on a longboard off the Jeju beaches. Jeju Island was compared to a Hawaiian island by an announcer I could not identify.

Suddenly, Sangmoon Bae, a golfer from South Korea, was playing golf across my flatscreen, and then K.J. Choi. An announcer said something about golfers returning to tournament play after serving in the military, which Choi, one of my favorites, had done years ago and Bae far more recently. My mind drifted to a topic that had been posed earlier on another channel, about the tiny percentage of Americans who knew Gold Star families, families where a member had been killed in the name of service to the country. I do, but not in an intimate way. By the time I got to the CJ Cup it was past midnight and my thoughts were drifting.

I watched the golf and thought about Donald Trump, and the 73 (or 74)​ Lindsey Graham claimed he recently shot. (Deeply improbable.) And from there to Kim Jong-un. And then to the insanely dangerous rhetoric about nuclear annihilation casually tossed about by both of them, like chum off the bow.

Now Patrick Reed, another of my favorites, appeared, pulling a ball out of a hole, his cowboy boots surely in the Nine Bridges clubhouse. He’s fit and strong and a little overweight—an American golfer of the old school. I thought there was something actually patriotic and inspiring, the act of Reed going about his professional life, amid the crazy rhetoric. I mean, let’s face facts. I am not riffing on the old Phil Mickelson spot when I ask, “What will Kim Jong-un do next?” From the little I could glean while watching Patrick Reed on my bedroom TV, that question did not seem to worry the golfer at all. There he was, in his tight red shirt, half a smile on his face as he pulled his dimpled ball from another dark hole before raising it to the fine island Jeju light. Another moment in the exorable march to a planned 72-hole score and another (in all likelihood) big, fat direct-deposit American check. Good for him.

An ad came one with the unmistakable light, electric and sparkly, that screams Las Vegas. I’m pretty sure the spot was for the Las Vegas World Amateur, which starts in February and is open to anybody with a credit card and a handicap. I’m not a Vegas guy, but work as brought me there maybe 10 times over the years. I seek hotels there that don’t have slot machines. (They exist.) The TV showed a good time at the Vegas World Am, offering the same promise made by the Myrtle Beach World Amateur Championship. But no one could watch that Vegas spot and not think of the unbearable sadness of the Mandalay Bay shooting and the 58 souls who went to a country concert and did not make it home. (Another 546 were injured.) Mandalay Bay has golf courses, of course, with Pat Perez and Natalie Gulbis and other names we know well affiliated with them. Any of us would play there, but now we would do it with a split in our hearts.

On a lighter note: I first went to Vegas in ‘85, to caddie in the Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational, then a spring Tour event. It was there that I heard a story about Ron Streck, the old Tour player, and his lack of engagement with his pro-am partners. This is the truncated version.

One of the ams said something like, “I realize we’re all playing lousy and this is not a good time for you, but could you maybe read some putts, maybe share a couple words with us?”

“You want a couple words?” Streck asked.

“Yeah, that’d be great. You know, lighten the mood.”

“Here’s two,” Streck (purportedly) said. “F— you.”

The old tour. It wasn’t so polite. Patrick Reed could have played it. You could see Reed hitting trap draws with a balata ball. Nick Price—I happened to be in the same group as he at that ’85 Las Vegas International—was the International team captain at the Presidents Cup this year. Nick is a gent, and a man who has seen more life than most. He served in the Rhodesian Air Force in the mid-1970s. Later, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and was run by the brutal dictator Robert Mugabe (“dictator” is Bishop Desmond Tutu’s word), Price renounced his citizenship. That was in the mid-1980s. He has since reclaimed it. A golfer with two feet in the real world. He made it to the world Golf Hall of Fame all the same. When I saw Nick at the Presidents Cup, we had a quick conversation about (it so happens) Patrick Reed. He loves Reed’s game. I’m sure it reminds him of his own. Trap draws and ready to play. Manly golf.

When I woke up Friday morning one of the first things that popped in my head was an old Herbert Warren Wind sentence from his 1964 New Yorker essay called “North to the Links at Dornoch.” Herb wrote: “I rank high among the pleasures of a misspent adulthood the dozen trips to Scotland I have been fortunate to make during the past 25 years.” Herb, by the way, played in the 1950 British Amateur in 1950 and served two years in the Air Force during World War II. He graduated from Yale in ’37. He was a poet, a novelist, something of a reading-and-writing polymath. I was lucky to know him. Those two words from Herb Wind, “misspent adulthood,” sometimes haunt me.

I have heard Davis Love talk about living in the cocoon of golf, and being grateful for it. But that was years ago. Everything’s more topsy-turvy now. “The whole world’s at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me,” Sabina says in the Thornton Wilder play “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Sixes and sevens is a phrase, used by Shakespeare and others, to depict a world in disarray.

At the CJ Open, various poor souls entered those numbers on their scorecards. At the moment, they had to be upset. The truth, of course, is that putting down high scores is a nice problem to have.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at​