Almost Persuaded

One year early in my PGA Tour career, I was playing in the Atlanta Classic at Atlanta Country Club and paired with a player whose name I will not divulge. He was a successful Tour player with whom I had gotten along with just fine.

In those days, Billy Casper was one of the top four players on the PGA Tour along with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. Casper was often bothered by allergies. I could relate to that because I was too. The media frequently badgered Billy about it and occasionally wrote about it in the newspapers. If I remember correctly, Casper sometimes passed on playing in tournaments in Florida because of the higher pollen count.

Well, I mentioned this subject to my fellow competitor while we were walking down the fairway together. He promptly started ripping into poor, suffering, portly Billy. In addition, Casper had just become a Mormon convert. So, this irreligious guy started criticizing Billy Casper for that, too.

Now, a golf course is a most suitable place to strike up a conversation about most anything. Businessmen cut many a deal on the links in their time between chopping divots out of those lush, green fairways and maybe depositing a few little white spheres into the watery blue. But during professional tournament play for the big bucks, a pro needs to keep his head in the game. So, I said to my fellow competitor, “How about us having lunch together after our round, and we can talk about this religion business some more.” He accepted my invitation.

After the round, we sat down together in the clubhouse for lunch, just the two of us. For about an hour, I talked to my fellow competitor about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and that God will forgive us of all our sins and give us eternal life if we believe this about Jesus. This guy said he hardly knew anything about Jesus and that this was the first time anyone had ever talked to him about such matters. He seemed intrigued. His concluding remark left quite an impression on me. It was just like what King Agrippa said to the Apostle Paul, that is, as it is recorded in the King James Version: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28). The modern English Standard Version puts it in question form: “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” It was an upbeat discussion, and we parted on friendly terms.

About a year later, however, I was paired again with this “Almost Persuaded” at the Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth, Texas. On the tenth green, he lagged his long birdie putt close to the hole for what appeared to be an easy par putt. I had a thirty-footer, putting for birdie. As he approached his ball, he turned to me and asked if I would mind if he putted out. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to step in the line of my putt if he took his normal stance, putted, and thus finished the hole. So, I didn’t see the need for him to ask me. After all, the Rules of Golf allow the player a choice—whether to mark your ball after your first putt, and thus permit the other player whose ball is farthest from the hole to play next, or finish putting.

Up to that point in my brief professional golf career, I had never asked a player that question. I hadn’t even thought of it. I just thought, “Who cares?” If I knew that I wasn’t going to step close to a player’s putting line, I just went ahead and putted out. I didn’t think you needed to ask. So, I thought it strange that he asked me. But that was something that was starting to change on the PGA Tour.

Now, this was back in the days before soft spikes were invented. We wore golf shoes with steel spikes. Some of the veteran players were getting upset about other players continuing play by putting out their short putts and, in the process, inadvertently making those metal spike marks near the hole, even if they were not in another player’s putting line. Such pros sometimes would prefer that you not hole out your short putt, but mark your ball and wait your turn. They were concerned with the possibility of their putt rolling to the side of the hole or past the hole and stopping in someone’s freshly-made spike marks, or such new spike marks being in the line of their next putt. Back then, we pro golfers could have nightmares about those big spike marks on the greens.

(My main nightmare is that I’m driving to the golf course to play a tournament, I can’t find the course, I arrive late, missing my tee time, and I therefore get disqualified.)

Lots of amateurs don’t play the same game the pros play. You know what I mean? Those silly spike marks: no problem, just tap ‘em down. That’s because amateurs either don’t know they’re breaking the rules of golf or they do know it but just play by their own rules. When a pro watches an amateur play golf, he or she can get a pretty good idea about whether that person plays by the IRS rules on April fifteenth!

Getting back to the game with Almost Persuaded in Fort Worth, I replied to his question something like, “Sure, go ahead.”

Guess what? He blew that eighteen inch putt and came storming off the green blaming me for his miscue! Can you believe that? He claimed that he didn’t hear my reply and that my apparent silence upset his concentration. (He could have made sure I heard him by asking me again.) Then, he turned up the volume and blurted out angrily, “And by the way, don’t you ever talk to me about your religion again.”

Well, whaddya know about that? I proceeded to calmly assure him that although he might still have to worry about spike marks in the future, he would never have to worry about me talking to him again about my religion.

As the years rolled by, it was becoming painfully obvious to me that our talk about Jesus that day was bothering Almost Persuaded immensely. It seemed that we would be paired together in a PGA Tour tournament about once per year, and each time he’d blow his stack during that round for no good reason and get crossways with me. One particular episode really got me rattled.

One year Almost Persuaded and I were paired together at the Buick Invitational, at Grand Blanc, Michigan, near Flint. It was appropriate that we were playing the Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, because the war started again. As our group walked off the green of the par-three eighth hole, the other member of our threesome started accusing me of playing out of turn. His ball had been on that green, and mine was on the fringe of the green. I thought I was farthest from the hole and therefore had the honors. So, I putted before he did.

There is no penalty in medal play for unintentionally hitting out of turn. Yet, as we were walking off the green to the next tee, he kept sounding off about it so that we were getting into a bit of a stew.

Then, Almost Persuaded rushed up from behind us and passionately jumped into the contest, making it a three-ring circus. Speaking directly to me, he loudly interjected, “I don’t know what the hell this is about, but I’m on his side,” pointing his finger at the other dude. “What,” I thought. “Does this guy have an attitude or what?”

Now the conflict had switched, so that it was on again between me and Almost Persuaded. The volume between us was getting turned up very quickly. By the time we reached the next tee, I was so hacked off at him that I was almost persuaded to hack a divot out of him. I was so mad I could hardly tee up my ball, shaking so much. When I finished that ninth hole, I threw in the towel and quit.

In those days, when a player withdrew during a PGA Tour tournament round he usually was way over par. He’d give Tour officials some lame excuse about his back hurting or some such thing. This is the only time I can remember in my entire golf career when I quit during a tournament round. And I’ve played hurt a lot. We all have.

I admit that I was at the end of my fuse, that it looked as though I couldn’t take the heat of the battle any more with Almost Persuaded. He had gotten to me beyond almost, to where I was fully persuaded to get off the golf course. In fact, that’s the story that quickly circulated within minutes among many of the Touring pros both on the course and in the clubhouse. Some of them knew of this ongoing, subordinate contest between us. But no, that wasn’t the right story.

The week before, at the Memphis tournament, I had an accident in which I partially dislocated my right shoulder. I didn’t think it was that bad, so I didn’t see a doctor about it. But now, it was hurting badly, and I was favoring it in my swing. I was worried about injuring it further while swinging—the golf club, that is, not my dukes. Besides, I shot 37 that front nine, which was only one over par.

The next run-in I had with Almost Persuaded was the next year, at the Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island in North Carolina. This encounter topped all our previous skirmishes. By this time, I had tossed aside those ugly-looking, black, horn-rimmed glasses I used to wear and was sporting some little contact lenses you stick on your eyeballs and hope they stay there. They do, but they don’t work any good at Hilton Head Island in the springtime when the wind blows and causes something else to happen.

The Heritage Classic is always scheduled in April at Harbour Town Golf Links. It is such a lovely place, much like Augusta, Georgia, during the Masters Week. The azaleas are in full bloom with their bright colors of mostly red, pink, lavender, and white. Loads of Spanish moss drape down from the thick, yawning oak trees. Slender pines intermingle with scrub palms that dot the flat, sandy landscape which is sprinkled with thick beds of pine needles here and there. You can spot an occasional alligator sunning itself on the bank of one of the few small lakes lining some of the fairways that meander through the pine forests. Yachts and sailboats plow adjacent Hobe Sound that borders the picturesque eighteenth hole. From where your tee shot lies in the middle of that last fairway, there’s a statuesque lighthouse in the background behind the eighteenth green. What a picture of serenity—Harbour Town in the springtime! What peace and tranquility. But not if you’re wearing hard contact lenses that time of year and paired with Almost Persuaded.

Those contact lenses—talk about stuck, they were killin’ me. On Hilton Head Island those spring winds blow that spring pollen off of those pine trees all over the place, and that stuff sticks to your contact lenses like glue. They feel like sandpaper on your eyeballs. It’ll turn your eyes red, bring tears, and make a grown man look like he’s cryin’ like a baby. Now, that’s not good playing with Almost Persuaded.

So, that week I decided to get innovative and try to do something about this contact lense problem. I went to a cycle shop and bought some motorcycle goggles. I swallowed my pride and put them on. Yeah, it looked ridiculous; I looked like “space cadet.” But I wasn’t the only contact lense-wearing pro on Tour who ever tried wearing motorcycle goggles to solve this problem. Then, too, wearing goggles seemed to fit my moniker: “the pro from the moon.” But realistically, that floating, sticking pine pollen could get so bad I had to try something like that or pack my bags and hit the road.

Orville Moody, may God have mercy on his soul, sometimes wore a gas mask-looking contraption in Tour tournaments because of his severe allergies to grass and pine pollen. I think Hilton Head Island was one of the main places he did that. Come to think of it, I wonder if ole “Sarge” took some government issue which included gas masks when he left the army to join us pros on the Tour.

Anyway, here we were, me and Almost Persuaded, paired together again. It was to become our last stand. But this time, I made it past the ninth hole. On the thirteenth, he pushed his tee shot a little to the right, but it looked like it would be okay. Wrong! As he was walking up to his ball and saw where it was, he started yellin’ and cussin’ a blue streak. So! What else is new? It’s not like I had never heard that kind of language on a golf course. Nevertheless, I quickly glanced over at him, not because of his foul speech but, to see what the heck was his problem. It is my constitutional right, you know! I should have guessed; his ball was stuck right smack up against the only palm little bush in that area. He had no shot. He couldn’t even advance the ball forward.

And would you believe it? As soon as I turned to see what the commotion was about, he simultaneously peered in my direction and we had eyeball lock. His eyes could have pierced the darkness like nighttime radar. I guess due to his obscenities, he must have thought I was giving him some disapproving stare, you know, like the evil eye or something.

Well, he came stompin’ across the fairway on a straight line towards me like a wild madman. He had his golf club raised in his right hand and pointing it skyward like a Japanese Samurai swordsman. And you might have guessed. He was yelling the whole time about my religion. Then he got right in my face with his bluster. We were so eyeball-to-eyeball that, man, in just no time, he got me fumin’ and literally steamin’. That’s right; my goggles got fogged up so bad on the inside that I could hardly see him. When he finally got finished with his diatribe, he screamed out this juicy little tidbit, “And by the way, you are the ugliest son-of-a-bitch out here.” Ha! With those terrible-looking motorcycle goggles on, I couldn’t argue with that.

At this point, the lady who was keeping score for our group—the lovely, soft-spoken, southern belle with a thick southern accent—was aghast! She soon came over and told me privately that she couldn’t believe what she was seeing and hearing. Bless her heart; she then tried to console me.

By the time our group reached the eighteenth tee, Almost Persuaded had cooled off and we had to wait for the group ahead. There hadn’t been anymore words said between us since that last episode on the thirteenth hole. So, for the first time I broached the subject, asking him, “why is that every time we get paired together we have a conflict?” It was obvious that it was due to our talk about Jesus several years prior, and I wanted him to ponder that.

I was pleasantly surprised when Almost Persuaded paused a while and then replied, “You’ve been nothing but a gentleman.” I thought. “Wow, did I hear that right? Did the demon leave or what?” I don’t know if he was right, but I was flattered. Then I got to thinking way back to that day when this friend of mine became my nemesis. And I thought to myself, “Heh, maybe there’s hope for this guy yet.”

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