DUBLIN, OHIO | It was the belief of my first boss, a gentle soul named Alex Kahn, sports editor of the Los Angeles bureau of the late, kind-of-great news service UPI, the writer is never the story. And don’t forget that.
Sonny Liston might be the story, or Sandy Koufax, or in later years Joe Montana, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. Not the person typing the words about them. Even now there remains a personal discomfort in ruminating about personal achievements.
But you stay around long enough, learn the difference between a bogey and birdie, not to mention between imply and infer, and very nice people want to acknowledge your presence. So here I am, the latest winner of the Memorial Golf Journalism Award, given annually as part of Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament.
The award, to borrow from the media guide, “was created to honor and pay tribute to golf journalists, electronic as well as print media and broadcast, who have served their profession with conspicuous honor and made a major contribution and impact on golf journalism.’’
Which is why Herbert Warren Wind, Grantland Rice, Jim McKay, Jim Murray and Dan Jenkins have won it in the past. And why I wonder how I won it for 2011. I’m not complaining, but about the only impact I had on journalism was filling paste pots as a copy boy.
Still, there I was, in the traditional marching in ceremony, behind this year’s Memorial honoree, Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez. Well, in truth, behind Jack’s wife, Barbara Nicklaus, who was between Lopez and myself. Wouldn’t want royalty too close to the unwashed. And there I was being introduced by Jack to a crowd filling the grandstand at the driving range.
“Hey,” I could imagine someone whispering, “who is that guy?” And someone responding, “Isn’t he the one who gave Roberto De Vicenzo a 4 on 17 at Augusta when it should have been a 3?”
A couple hours earlier it had been lunch in the Captain’s Club, among Tony Jacklin, Andy North, Tom Watson, Tim Finchem, Mike Whan and others about whom who I probably typed an unkind word along the way. But gentlemen – and adding Judy Rankin, a lady – to the end, they offered smiles and congratulations.
It was Jim Murray, asked what it meant when he won the long-overdue Pulitzer Prize for commentary, who said, “Something to put between the commas when they write my obit.” As in “Jim Murray, who earned the Pulitzer Prize,”…
Jim, who died in 1998, was no less famous for making a hole-in-one on the sixth, the par-3 at his club, Riviera, with the bunker in the middle of the green. That he had bracketed the ace with 7s on the fifth and seventh holes provided a certain symmetry.
Murray idolized Ben Hogan, who won a U.S. Open and a couple of Los Angeles Opens at Riviera. There were worse golfers to admire.
One year, the L.A. Open having been shifted to the Rancho Park muni, Murray was following Arnold Palmer, who flew a ball into a tree basin and was trying to figure his next shot. Arnie saw Jim standing nearby.
“You’re always writing about Hogan,” Palmer said to Murray. “Well, what would Hogan do to get out of here?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Jim answered, “Hogan wouldn’t be there.”
I met Hogan a couple of times, using the loosest definition of “met.” My first year of being a “golf writer,” along with being a basketball, baseball and football writer, was 1966 when I was with the San Francisco Chronicle and the U.S. Open was at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
A week early, Hogan, Nicklaus and some other names already were playing practice rounds. There’s a sloping pathway between Olympic’s second and third holes, and few radio and TV types were alongside.
Remember now, this is eight or nine days before the tournament is to begin. Hogan comes along, an interviewer shoves a microphone in front of him and says, “Ben, would you stop and say a few words?”
He said one word, “No,” and moved along.
It was at that Open I connected with Nicklaus and a 19-year-old amateur, Johnny Miller, and friendships developed. In the good old days, players and writers often stayed at the same motels and hotels and – heavens to Tiger – even ate together.
I was there – my first Masters – when Hogan shot 66 on Saturday in ’67. I was there when Nicklaus hurled his putter after winning the British in ’70. I was there when Miller, with his 63, won the Open at Oakmont in ’73. I was there when Tom Watson, who had been called a choker after squandering the ’75 U.S. Open, roared back a month later to beat Jack Newton in a playoff in the British Open.
I was in the arena when the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic hockey semi, and I was in the stadium in 1982 when Cal ran that kickoff through Stanford and into the trombone player. But more than anything, I was there when 59-year-old Tom Watson missed that putt in the 2009 British. Oh, what might have been.