When golf came alive

Sandy Grady

August 15, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- LISTEN, IT'S mid-August, so let's talk about something important a few minutes here -- like sports.

I've always wondered about the haunting last line of the final column by America's best sportswriter ever, Red Smith.

"Someday, he knew, another Joe DiMaggio would come along," Smith wrote.

In a former incarnation as a sportswriter, I inhabited a lot press boxes and late-night saloons with Smith, a merry, literate soul. But after death closed up his typewriter, I had no chance to ask, "Red, what in hell did that final kicker mean?"

I think Red had in mind one element beneath the fascination people have for boys playing men's games -- that sports gives the promise of rejuvenation and renewal.

If you wait patiently through the dull years, eventually there will magically blossom another marvel of power and grace and character -- a Mays, Williams or DiMaggio. In real life the clock runs down. In sports the wheel of time will bring a new sensation like a second youth.

That's a dirty secret of sportswriters. They rarely root for team X or team Y. Hunched over a typewriter or computer, one eye on a game and the other on a deadline, they pray, "Please, Lord, let there be a story -- and let there be a hero."

Fans and writers -- often they're the same -- we're cynical romantics. We gripe about sports' big-buck callousness. But we're eager to be wowed by a fresh paragon, a Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson or Jose Canseco. We'd hope the paragon would be gifted, young and winsomely eccentric. And more splendid, a nobody busting out of nowhere, a 50-to-1 shock. Cliches, sure. But maybe that's what Red Smith, a wise man, was talking about in his elegiac last sentence: the myth of the recurring hero.

So I was thinking of Red Smith's enigmatic line Sunday as I watched on television while John Daly walked triumphantly up the last fairway of the Professional Golf Association championship.

I had covered professional golf when Hogan and Snead were fading, Arnold Palmer was hitching up his pants and slashing shots from jungles, and Jack Nicklaus was still unloved, ponderous Fat Jack.

But golf in the '80s got a case of the dulls. Pros were dour, colorless robots, blond automatons coddled by agents, accountants and gurus. It should have been called Golfers Anonoymous.

Then John Daly blew away the miasma.

I said Daly walked up the last fairway at the PGA tournament. Wrong. He pranced. He swaggered. He held arms aloft like a heavyweight who'd flattened the champ. He blew kisses to the mob. When the frenzy wasn't deafening enough, he twirled a fist in the air.

I could imagine sportswriters perched over computers saying grace, "Thank you, God, for providing a story -- and a real character."

John Daly seemed heaven-sent. No country-club clone, this one. A 25-year-old rube with a wispy mustache, a shaggy towhead and the bulk of a piano mover. A monster-swinging bumpkin out of Dardanelle, Ark., who trains on Big Macs and six-packs. The ninth alternate at the PGA. A 1,000-to-1 Everyman.

Daly was a self-taught Joe Palooka who reared up like a guy trying to ring the gong at a country carnival strength machine. Then, whap!, a blurred drive soared 300 yards. Not even young Nicklaus crushed a golf ball so explosively.

And another cliche came to life: the good woman who saves the reprobate. Daly's fiancee, Betty Fulwood, after a victory embrace that lasted longer than the sultriest Hollywood clinch, said: "He was a party animal. Liked to drink a lot. They called him 'Wild Man.' I gave him a new perspective."

The golf nabobs tried to shut up John Daly long enough to hand him the huge silver goblet and get the network off the air. But he wouldn't stop gushing -- an adrenaline-high Huck Finn who'd hit the million-dollar lottery. "Jack Nicklaus is my idol," Daly rambled. Then with a bellow like a moose's mating call, "Jack, I LOVE YA!"

When John Daly danced up the last fairway with his fist rousing the cheers, I understood Red Smith's final sentence. Smith knew the wheel always turns -- in politics or sports -- and a hero with guts, heart and pizzazz will show up.

I yearned to tell him: Red, as usual, you got it right.

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