Truth and Democracy

Inviting those who live in the right-wing alternate universe to join the rest of us out here in reality.

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Location: Hackensack, New Jersey, United States

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Just Let Him Play

“Known as a civilized game, golf is the only sport in America in which a player is compelled to call a penalty on themselves, even if no one else witnesses the infraction. Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring that philosophy into politics?” - Me

Tiger Woods is in Augusta, Georgia. Few phrases have ever evoked more excitement in golf fans. This year, however, no phrase has been cause for more controversy or more judgmental behavior, ironically coming from a gossip driven celebrity media. Tiger’s personal life is in tatters, OK? That’s Tiger’s business and that of his family and close friends, not mine and not yours either. I can appreciate the disappointment of a parent who is raising a child that idolizes Woods. But all he can ever do to mend that situation is live his life better going forward and continue to make all of us proud of him on the golf course. I heard something somewhere once about “he who is without sin” and casting “the first stone”. Tiger is a golfer, the greatest damn golfer who has ever lived. He is not, however, responsible for raising your children. In light of recent events, it may be all he can do to raise his own. Leave him alone now to do what he does best, win golf tournaments.

There is no better location or tournament in the world for Tiger to make a return to competitive golf than the Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters tournament. The level of control which Augusta’s board of directors and members enjoy over the entire event, far more than any other PGA Tour host club, will allow Tiger to enjoy relative privacy and freedom from negative attention. Augusta reserves the right to limit media access to the players and course in any way it sees fit. Tickets are not available to the general public, instead being reserved only for members of the club and those whom they wish to invite. No more protected atmosphere exists in professional golf. If you tune in on Thursday hoping to hear the crowd at the first tee booing Tiger emphatically when he is introduced, you will be sadly disappointed. Augusta National would simply never allow that to happen. Tiger’s welcome will likely be more reserved than in the past but it would never be downright rude or aggressively negative. Augusta National just doesn’t do that to its past champions, especially an historic four time champion whom the members have embraced as one of their own.

And Augusta’s warm embrace of Tiger Woods has been a great story in itself. Barely forty years ago, within my own lifetime, African-American players were barred from participating in The Masters tournament. Augusta has come a long way. When the club began lengthening their legendary course in the late 90s, after Woods had made it look a little obsolete in winning the ’97 Masters with an 18 under par finishing score, there were some who speculated that they were “Tiger-proofing” the layout because they didn’t like the idea of a black champion. But this train of thought is counterintuitive. Adding length to the course doesn’t make it harder for Tiger, it makes it more difficult for the shorter hitter instead. The real agenda behind the Augusta National redesign, a decade long project, was to update the course in such a way that it could no longer simply be “overpowered” by younger, stronger players using modern golf technology. The integrity of the original design was at stake and the course needed to be updated in order to bring it back in line with its intended challenging features. The vindication of this strategy came last year when Augusta National replaced New Jersey’s Pine Valley CC as the world’s most challenging golf course in a worldwide ranking survey.

In a press conference held on Monday, Tiger stated that he has been received back, by the Augusta fans and his fellow players alike, more warmly than he could have hoped. He also said that he believes he is going to win the championship. I would like to know why this comment raised eyebrows in some circles, as it apparently did. Anyone who knows the first thing about Tiger knows that he has never stepped on a golf course in his life without believing that he was going to win. It’s just not a part of his nature to consider losing. Yes, he is dealing with a lot of distractions which have nothing to do with golf. Yes, he has been away from competitive golf for longer than is normal for him. Yes, the odds are against him winning this time. How about that? Tiger Woods as the underdog. I happen to like underdogs myself. But whether he fails to make the weekend cut or triumphs for his fifth green jacket, the ceremonial garb bestowed by Augusta National on the winner, just having him back is enough for those of us who love the game. The Masters is a very special event for the players and the fans alike. It becomes that much more special when Tiger is in the field. Forget everything else for this one weekend, just let him play.

### When I first sat down to write this column it was my intention to open with a brief biography of my life in the game of golf. Since I am not very skilled at saying things in a brief manner, that part of the column took on a life of its own and went on for many pages. So, for those who are interested, what follows is a narrative of my own golf career (with some additional comments on Tiger at the end). I sincerely hope that boredom is not the result. ### Paul

When I was about 5 or 6, I held a golf club in my hands for the first time. There must have been something natural about it because I took to the game right away. My family didn’t belong to a fancy private club. My father had spent his life around golf, caddying at the Knickerbocker Country Club in Tenafly, NJ during World War II and playing the game ever since. I spent the first few years of my “career” playing the nine 20 to 35 yard holes of a pitch and putt course at a nearby driving range. My equipment consisted of a 1940’s Tommy Armour 7-Iron and an equally ancient putter, which almost looked more like a 1-Iron, both were hand-me-downs from my father. At age 11, I played my first real 18-hole golf course, Waukewan Golf Club in Center Harbor, NH, while on vacation. I shot a 99*. A year later I astounded my father (and my mother, who joined us to watch) when I shot a 39 on the front nine of that same course.

* I shot a 13 on one hole on the back nine. However, when I reported this fact to my Uncle Jimmy at the next tee, who was keeping score for the group, he pretended not to hear me and insisted on writing down 8 instead. I protested but he wouldn’t listen to “a little kid”. So much for golf’s integrity!

I wasn’t a particularly special talent, although the occasional onlooker might see me hit a good shot and mutter something about a “future tour player”. I knew better. At 13, I played in my one and only junior tournament. I was so nervous that I barely slept the night before. After playing the first three holes in a respectable (for 13) one over par, my nerves got the better of me and I finished with a score somewhere in the mid-90s. When I saw the top scores of that day in my age bracket, from the mid-70s to the low 80s, I knew that my dreams of the tour were more fantasy than anything. By my mid-teens I had gotten bored with golf. I wasn’t really improving much and another priority had arrived on the scene, girls. Playing golf was not exactly your ticket to teenage social coolness circa 1980, far from it in fact. I eventually put the clubs away and rarely thought of the game for more than a decade.

In the mid-90s, however, my life had reached a crossroads. I had been working in the stand-up comedy business, as an agent, for several years but I was no longer happy with the daily stress level which that industry offered. After watching the 1995 US Open with my father, I asked him if I could join him and his friends at the Haworth Golf Club, the next morning. My first tee shot in many years was eventful, to say the least. I connected with a driver on Haworth’s par 5 first hole just well enough for the ball to rocket, at an altitude of about 2 inches, directly into one of the red tee markers ahead, which mark the ladies’ teeing area. The marker was completely obliterated. Undeterred, I continued. A more optimistic sign came on the 2nd hole, when I lofted a textbook greenside bunker shot to within 3 feet of the hole and tapped in the ensuing putt for a par.

That summer, I played as often as I could. Obviously, I was much stronger than I had been as a child and technology had advanced far enough that I could now hit the ball to lengths which I had only dreamed of as a child. More and more I was going out to play on my own, at public courses. Strangers were watching me play and, when they would discover that I hadn’t played regularly in over a decade, many were quite impressed. One afternoon, on a course operated by Bergen County, I busted a drive of over 280 yards on a long par 4 hole. As my group walked down the fairway from the tee, one fellow asked me, “Why don’t you try and become a pro”? This hadn’t occurred to me before. Why not try? The tour was well out of the question but maybe a club pro, a teaching professional. I was unhappy in my current line of work. What could it hurt to devote my life to getting better at the game and seeing how far I could take it? After all, in just a few weeks back I was regularly shooting in the low 80s. Just a couple of weeks later, I broke 80 for the first time in my life, shooting 77 at a not very difficult course in Parsippany, NJ. This strongly reinforced my budding dream.

Early in 1996 I took a job at a golf retail store in nearby Rochelle Park. I can’t bring myself to provide details on just how significant the effective pay cut was. Suffice to say it was truly humbling. But I was neither a homeowner nor raising a family, so the sacrifices were my own. I played every day, practicing before and after each round as well. Before long I was playing below a 5 handicap. Ask the nearest golfer in your life if you don’t know what this means, I’m explaining too much detail already. There was a problem though. Because of my lack of experience under pressure, my scores would rise dramatically whenever I would enter a tournament. In ’96, I attempted to qualify for both the NJ Amateur and Mid-Amateur Championships. In both cases, I thoroughly embarrassed myself. However, unlike at age 13, I didn’t give up. I kept playing and gradually got better at controlling my nerves.

By 1999 I was ready to declare myself a professional, meaning that I could no longer play in amateur events. I could however accept prize money, lesson fees (I was not ready to teach at this point though) and seek work as an Assistant Golf Professional. These days, most golf pros reach this point after college, in their early 20s. I was 32 years old. After a few interviews, I was fortunate enough to be hired at one of the most prestigious private clubs in the entire northeast. The Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, NJ is an historic location. Its 27 holes, divided into East, Center and West nines, were designed by the legendary A.W. Tillinghast. It had played host to the prestigious Ryder Cup competition between US and European pros as well as several US Amateur Championships. In 2008, after a redesign and lengthening to bring it up to current tour standards, Ridgewood hosted The Barclays Championship, one of the final four PGA tour events of the season which now determine the season long winner of the FedEx Cup. Phil Mickelson won the event.

Being an assistant at Ridgewood also meant a very humbling link to the past. In the mid-1930s, one of the greatest golfers of all time, Byron Nelson, had been assistant professional at Ridgewood. I now held the same title as once had “Lord Byron”, as Nelson was known. Imagine the impact of that on my father. An assistant golf professional, however, does not gain automatic entrance into the PGA (Professional Golfers Association). In order to become a PGA Professional, one must first complete years of training. In order to enter into that training you must first prove that you possess adequate playing ability to represent the PGA. The PGA’s Players Ability Test (PAT) was designed to weed out possible wannabees from those who are the genuine article. Barely 10% of those who take the test ever pass it. In fact, the PAT is not so much a test as it is a tournament of sorts, and a challenging one at that. The PAT, held by regional offices of the PGA throughout the year is 36 holes of golf (2-18 hole rounds), usually played on the same day (morning and afternoon), with a “target score” requirement in order to pass. In other words, you aren’t playing against other competitors; you are playing against your own scorecard. Any serious golfer can tell you that knowing what score you have to shoot before even teeing off is a serious mental challenge.

On March 27, 2000 I entered the PAT through the New Jersey section of the PGA. This event was held at the Stanton Ridge Golf & Country Club in central NJ. Despite the early season date, the weather conditions were fairly favorable. It was unusually warm (in the 60s & low 70s) and sunny, although there was a significant wind out of the west (15-25 mph). The target score for this PAT was 154. A pair of 77s would therefore equal passage. While this may not sound overwhelmingly difficult to the highly skilled golfer, I reiterate that the real challenge is in knowing that you have to shoot this score right from the start. Out of nearly 60 entrants that day, only 4 players passed.

After playing the first nine holes in a somewhat lackluster 38 and gaining a par at number 10, I arrived at the 395 yard, par 4 11th hole. The 11th at Stanton Ridge is flanked on the right by forest running its entire length, which is marked as a hazard (for non-golfers, really bad place where you don’t want to go). After using a fairway wood off the tee to safely place myself on the left side of the fairway, I was left with about a 165 yard second shot to the hole. I hit a 7-iron a little bit thin (a little too low on the clubface) but watched as the ball landed on the front of the green, bounced once, and proceeded to roll into the hole for an “eagle” 2. I was now just 1-over par for the round. I finished the first round with a score of 74. Meaning that I would need to shoot 80 or better in the second round in order to pass. While hastily eating a brown-bagged lunch on the hood of my car in the parking lot, I recommitted myself to not thinking about score again on that day. I would play my 2nd round one shot at a time and one hole at a time, forgetting the previous and ignoring the next, in line with fundamental golf psychology.

I proceeded to play the opening nine holes of the second round in a two under par 33. Five strokes better than I had played it in the first round. I coasted on the second nine to a score of 38, not playing extremely well but avoiding any disasters which could cause me to breakdown mentally. The final results; 74-71-145, I had passed the PAT by nine shots. I did not own a cell phone at the time and my resulting search for a way to inform my family of this achievement bordered on the comical. It was early evening by the time we finished play, the clubhouse was now closed, the pro shop empty and locked, and the lone remaining PGA of New Jersey official running the event did not have a phone with him either. I had to drive into the nearest town and search for a payphone. Upon finally finding one, I decided to play it cute. When my mother answered the phone, I informed her, in as dejected-sounding a voice as I could muster, that “It wasn’t even close”, implying that I had badly failed. After reiterating that “it wasn’t close” I followed with, “yeah, 74, 71, 145, I passed by nine shots”. My mother howled with approval and my father picked up an extension within seconds. My father, who had spent his life in the love of the game, was audibly crying as I recounted the details of the day which had made me a qualified candidate for PGA membership. He repeated each detail back to me in amazement when I finished describing it.

Later that summer, in July, I posted my best finish in a PGA tournament. In addition to holding the PAT throughout the year, regional sections of the PGA also sponsor tournaments for the pros and assistant pros in their area. Usually held on Mondays, when private clubs close for course repair, these events offer “teaching” professionals an outlet for competition. The prize money naturally pales in comparison with tour golf but the pride of competition and the chance to augment one’s salary a bit make it a worthwhile pursuit. At Harkers Hollow Golf Club in northwestern NJ, on a day also marked by significant winds, I shot a one under par 70 to finish a close second in that day’s NJPGA tournament. I won about $600, a pretty OK day’s wages, for playing golf! I hadn’t even played that great. I had just managed to make several crucial par putts, varying in length from 6 or 7 up to 14, 15 feet. This was not unusual for me; my best rounds of golf had more to do with short game superiority than tremendous ball striking. I was far from a “perfect ball striker”, as some golfers are known.

My professional golf career got sidetracked when, in 2003, another lifelong obsession supplanted it, politics. Golf has since become secondary but not forgotten entirely. Although I once again have not played regularly in several years, I am still possessed of an understanding of the game, even at its highest levels, so that watching a PGA Tour event with me can make listening to the TV announcers unnecessary. I can still identify the strategies, thoughts and concerns of a tour player, struggling for a victory, in a fashion which enhances even a non-golfer’s understanding and appreciation of the game.

I had many great experiences and fascinating encounters along the way in golf. The lowest 18 hole score I ever shot was 67. I did it twice, once at High Mountain GC in Franklin Lakes, NJ and also at Overpeck, a county run course in Teaneck, NJ. My skill at the game peaked in early 2003 when I carried a plus 1 handicap (again non-golfers, ask someone, it’s too complicated to detail here). I played golf with local sports heroes like former NY Giants Howard Cross, Phillippi Sparks and Phil Simms (a member at Ridgewood CC). This is rather ironic because I’m a lifelong Jets fan! I had the opportunity to meet former Cleveland Indian Larry Doby, the first African-American player in baseball’s American League shortly after Jackie Robinson broke in on the National League circuit.

Other sports heroes like Yankee greats Gene Michael and Yogi Berra were regular faces at Ridgewood CC along with other sports legends like Bobby Thompson (the shot heard round the world) and college basketball announcer Dick Vitale (yes, he’s really that enthusiastic off camera too).There were non-sports personalities as well, like singer Michael Bolton or actor Joe Pesci (you try telling him that his girlfriend’s outfit doesn’t meet the club’s dress code! I refused to sacrifice myself). One of the most unique moments, though, was sharing Ridgewood’s driving range with music legend Willie Nelson. Just Willie and me, out there all by ourselves, hitting balls together on a misty, overcast afternoon. He was wearing beat up blue jeans, black boots, an oversized raincoat, a bandana and had a pony tail all the way down his back. Talk about dress code violations, nobody cared though. Then there was golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

I grew up worshipping Nicklaus. When I was 13, my father took me to see the third round of the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol GC in Springfield, NJ. I followed Jack around the entire course as he set himself up to win the Open the following day. I almost didn’t find my dad when it was over (I wouldn’t have much cared after the day I had). In May of 2001, Ridgewood CC played host to the Senior PGA Championship. I was able to speak with Nicklaus for just a moment between holes during the final round. To my great shock, I was slightly taller than him (he had seemed a giant when I was 13). I told him that I had become a professional at the very club where they were playing and that my entire life in golf would not have happened but for his example. He thanked me and moved on to the next tee, leaving me hoping I hadn’t disturbed his focus any (I doubt it, knowing him).

I’ve never had a hole in one. Ironically, the closest I ever came to one was on a par four hole, rather than the usual par three. The 7th hole on the Pines course at nearby Blue Hills GC is a 300 yard par four on which both tee and green are slightly elevated, with the fairway running below. One summer afternoon I blasted a driver toward the green which landed on the front and rolled right past the hole, nearly falling in, before settling three feet to the other side. There’s a lot of luck involved in a hole in one no matter what the golfer’s skill level. My father played his entire life before finally scoring an “ace” while in his seventies. He has since been sidelined for several years now by arthritis and injuries to his hands and wrists. He is approaching 80 in just a couple of months and I know that he misses the game a great deal. I wish that I could find a way to help him play again, I have made overtures to this effect but he stubbornly refuses. He may never play golf again.

I run into a lot of people on the political left who can’t understand how I managed to thrive in a golf atmosphere which they see as being dominated by rich, fat, white Republicans. I admit there were times when I had to keep my mouth shut, which is against my very nature (in case readers hadn’t noticed). However, golf is not as one-sided or one-dimensional as some people may think. For example, it has been at times erroneously described as a game of man against nature. This is a fallacy. The true definition of the game of golf is in cooperation with nature. The best golf course designs, for example, do not destroy nature’s beauty but rather enhance and protect it. Many of today’s newer courses are being designed and constructed in a manner which intentionally protects and promotes the indigenous plant and animal life therein. Furthermore the game itself, when played properly, is not a struggle against nature’s elements but rather an effort to play within the elements and even use them to help one reach the game’s goal of using the least shots possible from teeing ground to hole. It is not man against nature; it is man cooperating with the landscape and weather conditions to produce the best result he can. That is the timeless beauty of the game of golf.

The vision of golf as being dominated by old, wealthy, white republicans wearing funny looking pants and hats, a decidedly American stereotype of the game to begin with; has become obsolete in recent decades as well. Today public courses, rather than their exclusive private counterparts, are swelled beyond capacity with very down to earth players while new public and municipal venues proliferate throughout the country. Young people, unlike what I described in my teens, are taking to the game of golf like wildfire. Gifted young athletes, who used to focus primarily on sports like baseball and basketball, are promising to make the next generation of professional golfers unlike any we have ever seen. A single person, more than any other, is responsible for the recent mainstream growth of golf. That individual, of course, is Tiger Woods. Only Arnold Palmer in the 1950s and 60s ever did nearly as much to remove the American stigma of golf as an elitist game. And only Tiger has ever influenced such an explosion of young people, excited to partake in this game. It may take up to 50 years or more for golf historians to truly appreciate what Tiger has meant for golf as a whole.

So just let him play. He will still have to deal with the damage he’s wrought in his personal life. But this is golf. This is more than just golf; this is The Masters, a rite of spring which means more to golfers than the opening day of baseball season. Having Tiger Woods there and competing elevates what would already have been one of the season’s highlights into the stratosphere of history. If he should win this Masters it will be talked about forever, right along with the rest of his incredible career. Tiger’s presence in a tournament makes the event exponentially more exciting. Tiger in The Masters is the stuff of which dreams are made. So sit back and enjoy. Forget the TMZ, gossip and scandal driven news culture for a weekend. Instead, focus on the greatest golfer of all times attempting to overcome yet another obstacle to his lofty place in sports history. For the first time, it’s an obstacle of his making. I, for one, in my lifelong love of golf, am going to be suspending personal judgments and rooting for him with all my energy.

Paul Roth, Jr.


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