at riviera
I am a golfer—a game that cannot be explained to
anyone who doesn’t play it. I watched the super
bowl at the house of friends. There was a
commercial and I asked them to punch up TNT—
golf—the Mercedes from Hawaii. Ernie Els was
studying a putt. A short putt, downhill,  a curler.

He studied it from behind the hole and then in front
of the hole. He took a sideways look. He stood over
the putt and took a practice stroke, then another. A
pause. Now he strokes the putt, but too hard and
runs it through the break  and the ball slides by on
the high side.

Back to football. The quarterback takes the snap
and drops back to loop a bomb downfield, the
cornerback leaps, gathers in the pass, fakes out
the safety and streaks for the end zone.

Touchdown. The room went nuts.

I looked at them and said: “In other words, this is
more exciting than golf”.

Last week the tour rolled into Los Angeles for the
Nissan Open at Riviera. Riviera was the course OJ
belonged to before the trial. Following the trial the  
wives of the members held a meeting and the
result was an invitation for OJ to resign his
membership. I have zero sympathy for OJ Simpson
but I have to say—now that I have seen the
course—It’s a cruel blow. It’s a different world out
here. This is why you work hard to become rich-—
to fork over $200,000 to join the club at Riviera.
And worth every dime. Its paradise.

I arrived and  checked out the action at  the range.  
The pros all share two things in common: 1) they
hit the ball a mile, and 2) they are groomed to
within an inch of their life. Somewhere in the world
is a machine that presses the perfect pair of pants
and every pro golfer owns one.

I sat and watched for a bit. I already knew about
these guys from TV. TV is sensitive about golf. The
networks wont admit it’s a boring game-—TV-wise--
but they know it is a boring game and they are
desperate for an angle—-any angle. This is how you
come to know that:

Jerry Kelly is a hockey fan.
Joel Edwards’s wife was a biology major.
Jonathan Byrd enjoys reading.
Jerry Burns has a coaster collection.

Etc, etc.

The week kicks off on  Monday with the Nissan
people playing a round. Tuesday is a practice round
for the pros and Wednesday is the pro/am.

Tuesday is the day to catch some good action. I
wandered about following some different guys. I
followed  Hal Sutton because I like his swing and
he has been married 4 times.

I followed Craig Stadler because I was curious to
see, in the flesh, how a guy with so much flesh, 5’
-8” and 260 lbs, built like a giant turnip, manages
such an elegant touch around the greens—the short
game.

I followed Angel Cabrera—an Argentinean. Even for
these guys he hammers the ball. He is big, not tall
but wide-—a bull. And he gets it all into the swing.
I watched him tee off on 10. He smacks the shot
and there is a particular sound at impact, like the
rearrangement of molecules at the center of the
ball, and there goes the ball up, up, up, and it
disappears. It goes into orbit.

I followed Robert Gamez. Gamez, another latino,  
from a modest background, broke in as a rookie in
‘91 and won playing his  first tournament. He won
another tournament the same year, was rookie of
the year and on his way—or so everyone thought.  
He was young but no longer poor. The entourage
made its appearance and he started to party. He
partied on and his game floundered and he lost his
card. He was banished to the Nike tour, the minor
leagues of golf, to hack his way around there for a
few years.  But now he is back with a new attitude,
a stoic attitude, and playing well.

I visited the sixth hole and watched a few groups
play through.  Six is a famous hole-—a par 3, 199
yards. Its famous because  a perfect shot, to the
center of the green, dumps you  in a sandtrap. The
green is another problem. Take 6 poles of uneven
length and drive them into the ground in random
locations, then install a canopy that fastens itself to
the poletips. What do you have—a model of the
universe as conceived by Stephen Hawking?  No—
you have the sixth green at Riviera.

It was here at six I watched Joe Durant hit an
unbelievable shot. He yanked the tee shot left into
the rough. He is left, the pin is right, he has a
downslope type situation to contend with, also the
famous bunkerbetween him and the flag tucked
behind on the far side. He has no shot. But he finds
a shot. He rotates himself 90 degrees from the flag
and hits the shot. The flag is in the lower right
quadrant of the green. He hits a pitch into the
upper left quadrant-—an upslope.  The ball climbs
the upslope and veers right, traversing the back
rim of the green, wide of the bunker, over to the far
side and now it begins to slip back, down towards
the pin, down it comes, down, down, down and it
continues to track and stops a foot from the cup.
Unbelievable-—even for a pro. We go nuts.

I wandered around. Over by the press tent a
commercial was being filmed—a Nissan spot. The
golfer was David Duval. I watched them rehearse
the spot. I have seen Duval on TV before-—on
Charley Rose. I watched him on Charley Rose for 5
minutes and that was enough. Can a dead man
speak? No—but
if he could he would sound like David Duval. I
wanted to put a bullet through my head.

The Nissan spot was more of the same. They ran
through it once, then twice. Now the director gets
up and goes over to Duval, throws an arm around
his shoulder in a chummy way and reads the copy
himself, by way of demonstrating how to breathe
some life into this pitch. They take another crack.
Better but not much. Its a problem without a
solution-—like teaching the blind to see. I
wandered off.

The tournament began on Thursday.  These days
there are two kinds of tournaments: Tiger Woods
tournaments and non--Tiger Woods tournaments.
No one will admit to this, certainly not the PGA or
the players either, but that’s the way it is.  You
need only check the TV listings. If Tiger is playing
the match goes network. If he decides to pass  it
goes to cable. Nissan was a Tiger tournament. He
committed at the last minute and  on that day
requests for media credentials doubled—from 150-
300.

These are my thoughts on Tiger Woods. He has
been called the new Michael Jordan but this is
incorrect. He is the new Babe Ruth. I attended a
press conference, following the pro/am, and as I
stood there, with this kid five feet away, I felt
something--the presence of greatness. Maybe not
greatness as a human being but greatness
nevertheless.  I was moved. It was cool.

He is smooth at these things as he has learned to
be. He is reserved-—not an Arnold Palmer type.
Palmer thrived on the media circus—the adulation.
It was a drug. There is a story about Palmer,
signing autographs, two or three hundred, and
when he finished he went looking for more. He  
said: “Im just  getting warmed up!” The other
Palmer story is: he never had a conversation that
wasn’t about Arnold Palmer.

So it went. For a week I watched people  hit golf
balls—on the range, on the course, on TV in the
press tent. I met some of my fellow golf
journalists, not a bad job if you can master the
interviewing of people who look at you like
you’re covered with flies.

There was something I wanted to nail down-—a
story I  heard  about Tiger-–that he was cheap.
Sammy Snead had the same reputation. Ben Hogan
said: “Sam made a million dollars playing golf and
saved two million”.

I mentioned it to one of the stringers from the wire
service who said: “Ive heard something about that
but my question is: how would anyone know?
When was the last time a guy like that was invited
to pick up a tab?”

We spoke of the course. Joe—the stringer—said:
“You can have all the water holes with the railroad
ties and sand traps up the kazoo and fairways that
look like they have been trimmed with toenail
clippers but its trees that make a golf course”.

It was true. There was something about this place,
a character that absorbs itself into the landscape
over a period of time-—75 years. In high school I
scored a D in Botany—a hard D. Nature doesn’t
interest me.  But now, thanks to Riviera and a
guide to the horticulture of
the course, this blind spot had been addressed. I
know the difference between the Blue Gum
Eucalyptus and the Red Gum Eucalyptus and the
Silk Eucalyptus and the Sycamore, the Oak, the  
Meleleuca, etc.  The pros agreed. They were raving.
They play the best courses in the world and if  
something occurs  not to their approval they are
quick to point it out-—very. But this week—no
complaints.

The tournament began on Thursday and I
wandered around for  a few holes but by now I had
been watching guys hit golf balls for 4 days and
enough is enough—even at this level. Also--the
fans were beginning to arrive. By Saturday the
place would be a zoo. A mob is a mob—-golf or
otherwise.

I killed a few hours in the press tent watching on
TV and left early to avoid the crush. I climbed the
hill to the clubhouse and stood there looking down
on the course.

It was that time of day, mid afternoon, with the
sun filtering through the trees drenching the
course in this orangey light and it was awesome--
spectacular, amazing, gorgeous.

I stood there soaking it all up and I had a thought.
This was my story. Not the golf but the golf course.
Riviera. Paradise.
Hogan at Riviera
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