Founded in Northern Virginia by a fellow JMU’ster, early on 100% of the business was generated within a 30 mile radius of DC – Bethesda, Rockville, and NoVa. In early ’96, he got a tap on the shoulder from some hob knob clubs in Houston who had read about the services in a regional golf magazine. It was this opportunity outside of DC that precipitated my engagement.
Fast forward to the fall. I had been in Houston almost a month working at one of the previously visited clubs that requires a Thurston Howell imitation when you say its name. It’s an old-school joint with gobs of oil money and people like James Baker hanging out on the practice range. (A little side note – my accommodations were provided by one Mrs. Buckles, who was engaged to be Mrs. Buckles at the time. She was there getting her Masters at UT Houston. She worked as a waitress at a little joint down in the Rice U area called the Gingerman - I spent 3-4 nights per week there and untold dollars. Mrs. B. also introduced me to a lassie or two but that’s another story).
What was near my last week working in Houston the Head Pro, we’ll call him Dave, pages me, yes pages me on a Saturday evening when I’m sitting in Ms. Buckle’s apartment watching football. I call him back and he says that he has a VIP group coming in tomorrow and that he needs some good guys to caddie for them. I said, “No problem – what time and how many?” He tells me. I say, “Can I ask who it is?” and he says, “Sure, it’s President Bush, Arnold Palmer, Steve Pate who is the Chairman of Pennzoil, and myself.” He did add that there was a slight chance there could be a last minute cancellation.
I tried to sound cool, like I handled that sort of thing every day. I conveyed that he’d have the four best guys and I rattled off the names knowing he’d recognize who I was talking about and hopefully give his blessing.
He said, “Well, Dan, actually JT (Asst Pro) is going to caddie in the group. Two of those other guys you mentioned are fine but I’d like for you to be in the group as well.” Customer Service 101 requires you to say "OK” here, which I did. Having spent a month or so there by this time, it had been conveyed to me that Dave and H.W. were not just acquaintances but very good friends. Regardless, I like Dave and technically he’s my boss at this juncture so I don’t want to let him down.The next morning I get to the property at the normal weekend time, 6:30/7:00. The VIP’s aren’t scheduled to play until mid-late morning. By 9:30 or 10:00 there was no sign of them and doubt began to creep in among the staff as to whether they were going to show up. I had not eaten and desperately needed some coffee so I told one of the other Assistant Pro’s that I was going to head down the road to a bagel joint and to page me if he hears anything.
I head to Bagel Town, or whatever the hell it was called. I’m chomping on a nice warm and toasty onion bagel with a little bit of cream cheese and a big cup of joe. Hmmm. The club’s number comes up on my Motorola Advisor. It’s on bitches! I call the golf shop. One of the 12 Assistants answer and says, “they’re on their way.”I scoot back to the club and head to the golf shop. No one there yet. It’s time to get a little nervous. JT tells me that he and I are to take care of Mr. Palmer and the President, as per Dave. I say to JT – who do you want to caddie for? He was having trouble deciding. You know, because when your options are The King and a President it’s not a no-brainer, regardless of your political leanings.
He chose the King. I had mixed feelings but felt WAY better once we were told Mr. Palmer was going to be in a cart. So JT was simply going to be driving him all day. BOOOORRRRIIIIING!JT is already decked out in all white – white pants, white golf shirt, white shoes - rather than don the full white coveralls that were way beneath him. I should add that JT is actually a pretty good guy who is now a HP at another established old club in Louisiana. I see him every year at a golf boondoggle in Orlando.
He and I and the other 2 caddies are standing in front of the golf shop when a caravan of SUV’s pulls up to the bag drop. Two guys, one from each get out of the first two vehicles and come straight to us. There were surprisingly few questions asked and I don’t even remember being patted down, but I was nervous. He could have tugged on the twig’n berries and I may not have felt it.The next set of vehicles pulls in a few minutes later. More SUV’s and a limo. Remember – this is ’96 so Saddam is still in power and we are 4-5 years post-Gulf War and H.W. Presidency. (also, another side note, Clinton is in office and we are 30 days away from re-election)
The group goes to the range where we are to meet them and get introduced. We do so. Pleasantries are shared and they start beating balls. The President & Mr. P. are set up next to each on the range. With me. Pennzoil guy and Dave are further down the way. I am simply standing there watching them hit balls and listening to them shoot the shit while I try and look busy cleaning clubs. The Pres engages me in a conversation, asking what my story is. I tell him, tell him why I’m there and that my home is in Annandale at the time. He inquires a little bit about my work and says, “did ya hear that Arnold?” Arnold says “No” so George reiterates my purpose in life at the time. It was my first out of body experience.And we begin the round. The pairings are Dave & the President against Mr. P and Mr. Pennzoil. The day prior everyone was asked not to mention who was playing golf today and at a club like this where this is a pretty common occurrence, everyone abided and because so there was no one near the first tee to watch. Well, maybe a few people, a half dozen or so but not more than that.
Everyone on the planet knows that H.W. is a notoriously fast golfer and that is so very true. I was 26 at the time and though it was well before entering into my tri/fitness phase, I wasn’t a slouch. I REALLY had to hump it to keep even or ahead of him.I’m not going to give you a hole-by-hole description but very early on, he enlisted my services. On the 2nd hole just off the green, he was indecisive about whether to putt or chip as his ball lay just off the fringe of the green and just in the grass, probably about an inch or two at most. He was the first person I had ever seen use a long-putter. It was big and heavy, like my johnson and was a pain in the ass to have in the bag. He asked me what I thought he should do so I told him, and my advice had nothing to do with the type of putter in his bag but simply on the position of his golf ball relative to the fringe, slope of green, etc.
“Take your pitching or sand wedge and hit the ball right to this area (as I pointed with the end of the flagstick) and the ball will bleed right down within a few feet of the hole.”He grabbed his pitching wedge. I thought, holy shit. If this works out I’m going to be his bitch (in a good way) all day long. It really was an easy shot. I felt if he putted it he could easily get the putter stuck in the grass or not hit it hard enough through the fringe. It was a no-brainer.
I stand there silent as he takes a few practice strokes. Everyone is silent, not so much because it’s the game of golf but because it is George Bush. He addresses the ball, takes a few small waggles, looks at his spot and takes the club back. All looked good until he started the club’s descent. Oh boy. That looks a little slow there pards. Non-commit much? The clubhead gets to the ball and time just sorta stopped. And then it started again but slowly. The contact with the ball was not solid, not clean at all. Too much grass between the two. Add in the horrific execution and whaddaya get? That’s right people. He TC Chen’s it! For those too lazy to check out the link, he double hit the ball which results in a penalty. How do you double hit the ball might be a question of yours, especially if not a golfer. Well, a few things must happen to do so. And they all happened. The key ingredient though is a really shitty swing. George was irked. He looked at me. He gave me that look, ya know….he’s got that look. FUUUUUCK. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck. Fuck me. Fuck me runnin. If I had been in a situation where he was one of my pals and my playing partner, the feedback would have been anything but supportive – like a sarcastic “Nice, nice effort,” or a “don’t worry, you just lost the hole for us,” or simply “that was terrible.”He got over it after a couple of holes. I didn’t though. Anyway, a couple of holes later A.P. is chipping onto the green from about 10 yards off and in front. The others are already on, including his competitors who have the advantage. Arnie takes it back, clips it off the Texas hardpan and the ball takes one big kick before it sizzle spins, checks, bounces, and drops into the cup. “Sizzle spins” is a phrase I just now coined by the way. By this time we’ve got a few dozen people following the group, so the birdie is accompanied with a small roar. Because of where I was standing in relation to his position, about 15 yards off his belt buckle, with nary a reaction he watches the ball drop, looks right at me, smiles, and winks. Smiles. And winks. Arnold Palmer. At me. I spent about 4 ½ hours attached to a former President’s hip yet this is what made that day. That month. That year.
I’ve been fortunate to have been in his presence a handful of times since, as recent as this past Summer when I was invited to his club in Orlando, Bay Hill, by a good friend who works with a good friend of Arnie’s. Ya hear that a lot, “oh, I know a guy who is a friend of Arnold Palmer’s…” Well that’s because he does have a lot of friends. This guy is inner circle. When Arnie flew to Augusta for the last time this past April, this guy was on Palmer’s plane with him. My buddy has been trying to get me down there for the better part of the year to hang out and meet Arnie.So was able to make it happen. We play and then hang out down in the men’s locker room & grill. It’s a who’s who of older guys playing cards. Hawk Harrelson. Dick Ferris (Former United Airlines CEO and Pebble Beach owner along with Arnie and a few others you’ve heard of). Dow Finsterwald. A guy from the family who used to own the Minnesota Twins. A descendant of the guy who founded Oakmont. Former PGA Tour player Robert Damron. My buddy has gotten to know all of these guys because he spends no less than 30 days a year there at the club and these guys I mention – they’re there almost every day. Golf. Cards. Drink. Eat. Repeat. And A.P. is right there with them minus the golf.
My buddy and Bob (Arnie’s good pal) are at a table next to these guys playing cards. Dow comes over and sits down. An hour later he leaves our table. An hour of Arnie stories from Dow Finsterwald all the while sitting 8 feet from the subject, sippin on chilled Tito’s. Dow is an 11-time winner on Tour, PGA Champion, 4-time Ryder Cupper, and if it weren’t for Arnie would have another 3-4 majors under his belt. Dow and he were bro’s, neighbors, runnin buddies. I’m feeling for Mr. Finsterwald today among others.From that round in Houston I have a couple of mementos. Two golf balls with the presidential seal. One scorecard that I kept and had both Bush and Arnie sign. And a picture I took with my piece of shit disposable of those two guys posing for a picture. It would not have been kosher to ask someone to take a picture of us, so I did the next best thing. It’s a crappy picture but it’s one of those two guys standing side by side, posing for a picture that I took. I have the golf balls but after a few moves am unable to locate the other stuff. Here are the ballthz.
Though I didn’t get to sit and chat with the King as was expected (not be my but my buddy), I did get to shake his hand again and look him in the eye one last time. And I knew it was the last time.