- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2007

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Before Tiger Woods, who came to the District this week to announce his tour stop, the list of recognized black golfers in the history of the PGA Tour was a short one — Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Calvin Peete.

If circumstances had been slightly different, there could have been one more name on that list from the early 1960s — a young black man from Norfolk named Gary Anderson. But “New Orleans” — the top 10 song, not the city — changed all that.

You might know him better as Gary “U.S.” Bonds, who developed one of the most distinctive rock and soul sounds of the 1960s but could have wound up a professional golfer instead.

Bonds was in Melbourne, Fla., recently, just a few miles from the Washington Nationals spring training complex, to perform at a concert at Cocoa Village. Unfortunately, he said, he wouldn’t have any time for golf on this trip. He is busier than he has been for years, he said.

“I built a studio in the house [in Long Island], and have been working more, so I don’t get out as much as I used to,” the 67-year-old Bonds said. “I still do a few of major celebrity tournaments. I used to get out two or three days a week. Now I probably get out there four or five times a year, so needless to say, I am not doing that good right now.”

On the golf course, maybe. But on stage and in recording studios, Gary U.S. Bonds has managed to stay relevant from the time in 1960 when he emerged a star with the song “New Orleans” and his beach party infectious style of music, to nearly 20 years later, when he recorded the album “Dedication” with Bruce Springsteen, which featured the hit song, “This Little Girl is Mine,” and then, in 2005, winning the W.C. Handy music award from the Blues Foundation for his album “Back in 20.”

Generations of music lovers would have missed out on the joy of the Bonds sound, if he had pursued what was another love of his — golf.

“We lived by a public course in Norfolk,” he said. “I was about 13 years old, and found a club one day. I started hitting balls around. I got interested in it, and finally the pro at the golf course gave me a set of clubs to play with. I used to hang out with him every day and play some holes until I learned how to play. There weren’t many kids who played golf then. I was the only one in my neighborhood.”

He got pretty good at it — good enough for qualifying school for the PGA Tour — a remarkable achievement for a young black man in the early 1960s. And he was good enough to win there.

“At the same time, I had just recorded ‘New Orleans,’ so I had to make a decision as whether I wanted to play golf or be a star,” Bonds said.

Charlie Sifford — the first black golfer on the PGA tour — helped Bonds make his decision, laying out the racial barriers that he faced as a golf pioneer.

“He told me because of the racial divide, if you win all of the four tournaments that you can play in, you can only win about $100,000,” Bonds said. “But you can make one record and make a million. So you figure it out.”

Bonds chose music. “Quarter to Three,” another great party song followed, then came “School Is Out” and other hits that defined the Gary “U.S.” Bonds style that left its mark on the music business.

“Golf is hard, much harder than music,” he said. “You are on the road, and work all day to be good. And you have to go to bed early to get up so early in the morning. I love playing golf, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as a profession.”

When he chose music, he thought he had given up golf altogether.

“I put the sticks in the closet and that was where they stayed for 10 years,” he said. “Then, when I went back to play again, it was like starting all over again. I went from scratch to maybe about 15 over. I never did get back to scratch again. The closest I ever got back was a handicap of four.”

But that was good enough to be a standout on the celebrity golf tour, where Bonds has been a fixture over the years. And now, he finds that many musicians have picked up the game in their later years.

“Dickey Betts [the legendary Allman Brothers guitarist] plays a lot of golf,” Bonds said. “I played with him a couple of times, and he’s a really good golfer, too. He can kick. And all the guys that I know when I was growing up that used to make fun of me playing golf are now on the golf course every day — and playing bad.”

Bonds even tried to get Springsteen to take up the game.

“That only lasted about 10 minutes,” Bonds said. “He and Miami Steve [Van Zandt], the last I heard they were cursing on their way home.”

He doesn’t play so much anymore, but still follows the game and, of course, Tiger Woods. He doesn’t dwell on what might have been, though, if he had chosen the road Tiger is on. He’s had too much fun being Gary “U.S.” Bonds, performer, instead of Gary Anderson, pro golfer.

“Whenever we recorded, we just tried to have fun, and still do,” he said. “We didn’t preplan anything. I hate that. I like going in and just knocking it out. It keeps it alive. I don’t try to master anything that I record. I don’t try to make sure every note is perfect. I think you can hear in my music that we are having fun, and I think people like that. Fun was had by all.”

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