- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

You stare at your computer groaning inwardly at the first address screaming from your e-mail inbox: [email protected]

It’s Thursday morning at the Masters, one of your favorite days of the sports year. It’s springtime at Augusta National. The first round of the major season starts with a fresh cup of coffee, a nascent leader board full of potential stories … and the latest drive-by e-mail from [email protected]:

“You’re a little twerp of a self conscious writer barker. You ought to be a barker. Why dont you go to the Post, anywhere else.”

Though there’s no accounting for punctuation, most journalists receive feedback via e-mail. In a little more than a dozen years in the business, you have received hundreds of e-mails, their tone and content split relatively evenly between positive and negative.

Most negative feedback concerns content; rip Mack Brown and you’re bound to provoke a few Texas bullets. Few folks message you more than once. And most maintain a level of relative civility.

Then there’s [email protected]

Though you can’t remember the exact date of first contact, Sftspike has sent you dozens of e-mails since 2005, all of them negative, most of them questioning your style and many of them viscerally uncivil.

Through the marvels of technology, he has dogged you from St. Andrews to Shinnecock Hills, from North Carolina to County Kildare. Sftspike likes his writing spare and his subjects diverse. He thinks you use too many words and write too much Tiger. And to some extent, his criticism stings all the more for its accuracy.

But almost without exception, Sftspike’s objections are swamped in an ocean of personal venom. Typically, you are labeled some incarnation of fecal matter, though Sftspike also has called you a twit, twerp, jerk, hack, snob, snot, fraud, fool, clown, moron, idiot and even (to your ultimate horror) a liberal.

The profession never promised cheerleaders, but having your own heckler can be tedious.

Staring down at this e-assassin’s latest salvo at last month’s Masters, you make a decision. Enough. It’s time for face-to-face contact with Sftspike. It’s time to settle this like men. It’s time for a duel.

It’s time for a golfdown.

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After a good deal of cajoling, Sftspike, who actually is named Alan Nichols, has agreed to meet you for a match at Whiskey Creek, a solid public track in Ijamsville, Md., co-designed by Ernie Els.

You have arrived an hour before your appointed tee time with Nichols, primarily to placate your mother-in-law, who is afraid he might be lying in ambush. The journalist within is strangely tantalized by this unconsidered possibility. An actual assault, if survived, certainly would spice up the story.

Nichols also is alert to possible violence.

“I left a note on my bed at home explaining where I was in case I disappeared,” he informs you almost immediately. “A golf course is a pretty public place, but I wasn’t sure you wouldn’t attack me.”

You recognize Nichols immediately but can’t place him. He’s older, lean, deeply tanned and wears somewhat ludicrous rose-tinted sunglasses. He quickly fills in the blank for you, explaining that you met at a Pete Dye press conference at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Md., several years back. Nichols is a single, 61-year-old semiretired journalist from Bethesda who manages a Web site called golftravelreviews.com.

“We’ve been at some of the same media gatherings,” he says. “By the way, were you shorter back then? Have you grown a lot? I remember you shorter. Are you sure you’re who you say you are?”

This final comment, while temporarily disconcerting in its seeming neurosis, turns out to be pure Nichols. If Woody Allen were to make a golf picture, Nichols would be his protagonist.

You quickly discover Nichols has a dry, deeply ironic sense of humor that routinely flirts with emotional instability. Early in the round, he authors the perfect Nichols-ism when lamenting his social life:

“I’ve always been too dysfunctional for marriage or kids, but I’ve been searching for a female golf companion for decades. I’ve read 10,000 profiles on Match.com, and I can’t find a single decent-looking woman who plays golf competently. … I would kill myself, but I have to know who wins the U.S. Open.”

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Standing on the first tee, you want to strap the whipping of a lifetime on this spindly old man who insists you used to be a midget. But things change considerably over the next four hours.

For one, Nichols is a player, a serious player, which gives him a hand up on even the most gregarious chop. According to the latest statistics, only 6 percent of male golfers claim to be able to break 80. Being “able” and doing so regularly are vastly different. Throw in the fudge factor always associated with the male ego and you figure only about one or two out of 100 male golfers routinely can do it.

Nichols is in that twosome.

Sporting the fluid swing of a thirty-something, Nichols is the antithesis of the cotton-top norm: He’s an excellent ball-striker who struggles with his short game. With his Snead-esque swing, he routinely blasts it past you off the tee, yet misses only one fairway all day. That occurs on No. 2, when a preshot diatribe on U.S. politics leads to a snaphook.

“I should know better than to mix politics and golf,” says Nichols, wincing at the results of his only bad swing all day. “This country’s a mess. Idiots everywhere. You know, I’m an angry man.”

No kidding.

Nichols plays twice a week and carries a 10-handicap, but you would partner him in any four-ball on the planet getting double-digit pops.

Nichols’ shot of the day is the best you’ve seen this year — by anyone. On the 14th hole, a 440-yard par 4 from the back tees, you inform Nichols he’s one down and then smugly stuff a 6-iron within four feet for birdie. The paint isn’t even dry on your smile when Nichols steps up and jars a 7-iron for eagle from 154 yards.

Talk about a response.

He gifts you the 16th hole with some sloppy wedge play, but the match is unfortunately defined by his three-putt at the 17th, when your improbable recovery from a short-sided bunker cracks his concentration and yields an overly rushed and lamentably short first putt.

“God, I’m horrible. What an idiot,” Nichols says. “I just gave you the match. I’m going to think about this for weeks. And you’ll get a lot of mileage out of it I’m sure.”

The result is a 2 and 1 slaying of [email protected], but the reality is less satisfying. First, Nichols has shot 76, a better performance relative to his standard than your 74 as a 5-handicapper.

Second, over 18 holes of golf, you’ve come to really like this man.

Sure, he’s an opinionated curmudgeon and a misanthrope. But so are you.

As you shake hands for the final time in the parking lot, you agree to disagree when it comes to style. Nichols, a fellow English major, likes the spare prose of Hemingway. You prefer the wordier world of Faulkner. But you both love golf and share an abiding respect for the game’s subtle language.

“Don’t sweat the three-putt on No. 17. This was just the first of many matches,” you tell him. “And don’t forget to write.”

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