- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

Welcome to professional golf’s unofficial exam stretch — the toughest two weeks on tour this season.

Between this week’s Booz Allen Classic, a U.S. Open primer at past-and-future Open site Congressional Country Club, and next week’s official USGA war of attrition at Pinehurst No.2, golf has arrived at the penalty phase of the 2005 season. Over the next fortnight, layouts and players will be pushed to extremes with high-stress conditions creating the ideal environment for a high-spirited eruption.

“It’s a tough time of the season,” said John Daly, who won’t be at the Booz Allen but knows a thing or two about Open angst. Daly stalked off the course midround the last time Old Blue played host to the Open in 1997 and played a little putting-green polo at Pinehurst in 1999. “I think we’re all a little edgy around the U.S. Open.”

Actually, Daly’s Open antics are tame when put in historical perspective. In the 1921 Open at Columbia CC (Chevy Chase), the legendary Bobby Jones threw a club that struck a female spectator in the leg, provoking a letter of rebuke and warning from then-USGA president George Herbert Walker, the namesake of the Walker Cup and the great grandfather of President Bush.

Jones, once famously described by Grantland Rice as possessing “the face of an angel and the temper of a timber wolf,” was a club-chucking, profanity-howling menace early in his career. In another legendary episode from 1921, Jones was well on his way to one of the highest scores of his career at the British Open at St. Andrews before picking up his ball and walking off the course midround, a decision he would lament for the rest of his career.

Fact is, temper tantrums on tour used to be a far more regular occurrence. One of the game’s most memorable photographs features Tommy “Thunder” Bolt behind the 18th green at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. In the photo, Bolt holds a wedge overhead in both hands, every muscle in his body tensed in a moment of pure fury as he prepares to hurl the offending club into the greenside pond.

Such images are a rarity among today’s tour brethren. Club-heaving virtuosos like Bolt have disappeared. Notable hotheads like Tom Weiskopf and Craig Stadler have segued into the semi-retirement of the Champions Tour. Even the tour’s onetime prince of pique, Steve “Volcano” Pate, has mellowed with age. Perhaps being steamrolled in his driveway by something as reputedly docile as a deer can have that affect.

“You don’t really see many major blowups out here anymore,” tour veteran Steve Lowery said recently.

Lowery, one of game’s most gentle souls, never has thrown a club nor received a disciplinary fine at a PGA Tour event.

“I think part of it is because of the exposure; you know there’s almost always a camera close by,” he said. “It’s bad enough to look like a jerk in front of a few fans, but nobody wants to watch themselves throw a fit over and over again on ‘SportsCenter’ for everyone to see.”

Luke Donald, one of golf’s coolest customers, makes a logical leap when asked about the trend away from tantrums.

“By and large, you aren’t out here if you can’t control your emotions,” said Donald, the 27-year-old Brit vying with two-time Open champion Retief Goosen for the tour’s title of “Mr. Horizontal.” “There are very few guys out here prone to losing it, and I’m certainly not one of them.”

But even the placid Donald admits to snapping a driver in Canada a few years back.

“I just leaned on it a bit too much,” said Donald, who apparently even goes about his club-breaking rather casually. “I guess everyone has his moments.”

And why not?

Can any game match golf when it comes to torturing the soul while at the same time allowing so little physical catharsis? In golf, there’s no opponent to foul. There’s no first serve to waste in a paroxysm of release. There’s no dugout into which to retreat. There’s rarely a legitimate foe present for blame transference. In golf, there is only the player, his own shortcomings and the inanimate — a set of sticks that occasionally seems forged by Satan himself and the course, that heartless, fickle, indiscriminate minx.

The reality is that there’s a part of every golfer that not only empathizes with but revels in a quality tantrum. There is an undeniable element of celebration in the heart of every player for a perfectly helicoptered club, a remorselessly snapped shaft or a creatively phrased string of expletives. Who did not smile both at and with Woody Austin as he repeatedly hammered the shaft of his putter into his head, eventually bending the former, after a dreadful approach putt at the 1997 Heritage Classic?

“There’s that split-second of complete fury when you close your eyes and fantasize about exactly what you’d like to do,” Stuart Appleby said. “Then it passes, and with me all that usually comes out is a quick punch. I punch the bag. I punch the offending club. I’ve punched myself in the head a bunch of times. That must be quite a sight.

“At Augusta this year I really cut one loose on a water cooler after making a hash of the 12th hole. It was one of those big green metal coolers that don’t give much, so I suppose it would have hurt considerably had I been in a normal frame of mind. All I know is after I killed a drive on the 13th, I look down as I’m walking down the fairway and see there’s blood all over my hand. I’ve still got a nice little scar here on my salute finger.”

That split-second eruption has led to the assassination of many tee markers over the years.

“When they used to use the little tractors as tee markers at the John Deere [Classic], that got pretty ugly,” Lowery said. “Guys just mangled those things, just reduced them to matchsticks. The pineapple tee markers at Sony have also taken a beating. You’d walk up to a tee there, and one of the markers would be nothing but a stump, the pineapple vaporized, and you’d start chuckling and say, ‘Well, I guess Steve [Pate]’s been here.’”

Equipment abuse is slightly more rare. Rich Beem, the 1999 Booz Allen champion, remembers snapping a pair of sticks that same season during the opening round of the Reno-Tahoe Open. But like most players, Beem can tab only one such explosion. Few players can boast of multiple same-day assaults or homicides in the equipment category.

“I think that’s because the guys today don’t really know the proper way to throw a club,” said Bolt, always the showman, in a recent interview. “First, you’ve got to helicopter a club. Throw it so it spins parallel to the ground. Don’t tomahawk it, not if you plan on hitting it again. Those tomahawk jobs almost always break. Plus, I’ve had more than a few jagged shafts lunge back at me for revenge when I’ve broken them like that.

“Second, always throw clubs down the fairway, so you don’t have to waste energy and suffer the indignity of walking back for the darn thing. I always suggest putters for beginners because not only will those suckers really fly, but I haven’t met one yet that didn’t deserve some abuse.”

Bolt was notorious for his extended tantrums, the aforementioned instant of rage becoming an impresario’s somewhat choreographed series of eruptions. Such displays are completely alien to today’s tour, though Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik recalled a moment of somewhat premeditated mania from early in his career.

“One of my first years on the European Tour we were in Spain and I was over a 3-foot putt, and this Spanish guy up in the TV tower wouldn’t stop talking on his cell phone,” Parnevik said. “I screamed at him, and he didn’t stop. He just kept right on chattering away, very loud. So, finally, I marked my ball, very calmly, picked it up, and threw it at him up in the tower. Unfortunately, I missed the putt. More unfortunately, I missed him.”

Most unfortunately, such moments are desperately rare.

The Vesuvius of tantrums is still out there in the ether, waiting to be authored by a player who, whether purists and officials would admit it, would become an instant pop-cult icon. Perhaps just once it would be nice to see a tragicomic figure like a Van de Velde or a Norman lapse into the kind of cathartic extended insanity Beem described in his all-time eruption classic:

“My best story is about my dad,” Beem said. “I was in college, beating him handily on a regular basis for the first time, and he really didn’t like that very much. So, anyway, one day in the midst of that transition period, I’m lighting it up, and he’s just having an awful day — like career bad.

“We’re on this par-3 and it’s a little windy, so he’s takes four clubs with him to the tee — like 5-iron through 8-iron. I can’t remember which club he hit, but they all four paid for the shot. It was kind of like the guy in the comic strip BC. His feet were literally off the ground, and he was wailing away, whacking like a mad man until all four clubs were in tiny little pieces. There were like three holes left, and he proceeds to kill off every club left in the bag before we finish. He holes out on 18 with like a 4-iron, which was all he had left, and then … twang … that’s gone, too. It was absolutely hysterical, hands-down the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on the golf course, but I knew if I laughed he might kill me.”


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