The Old Men & The Tee

Unreal hits the links at the U.S. Senior Open

Things were pretty exciting in Boston last week, what with the Democratic National Convention and the media circus that went along with it. Here in the Boston of the Midwest, however, we had a Big Event of our own: the U.S. Senior Open. Woo-hoo!

A day after drawing the short straw at the Monday editorial staff meeting, Unreal found ourself in the unfamiliar wilds of west county, surrounded by ridiculously tanned old men named Bob.

But we were determined to make the best of the situation.

After locating the media tent at Bellerive Country Club, we notice that our place card is right next to the one designated for the Quincy Herald Whig. Though our colleague is apparently off somewhere covering the pre-tournament festivities, we're stoked at the knowledge that the organizers have grouped the area's most important newspapers together. Just as quickly, we're dismayed that that bastard Whig seems to have filched our vase of sunflowers. He's got two; we have none. Do we need to paint you a picture?

The tournament doesn't actually begin until Thursday; today is a day for journalists to get unfettered access to the players in the media room. The first press conference features defending Senior Open champ Bruce Lietzke, a double-chinned native of Kansas City, Kansas, whose main claim to fame seems to be his laziness. Unreal's fellow journalists waste no time getting to the tough questions.

Reporter: There was talk last year about possibly not being able to defend, with your daughter's graduation plans. How were you able to get that changed up?

Leitzke: We substituted two vacations for that one. We had signed up for a cruise this week, mainly because I had not known about this date change.... As it turns out, we did our cruise in March, which was her spring-break week, and then we decided, well, we still need a July vacation like we've always done.... So I'm coming off a two-week vacation. We were in the Bahamas for five or six days, and then we were in the Cayman Islands. I've got a wonderful tan.

Reporter: Is there a simple explanation for why your game holds up better off of an extended break than perhaps anyone else that has ever played the game?

Lietzke: Yeah, because I am kind of a one-trick pony. I have one golf swing, and it's the only golf swing that I've used in 30 years.... "Muscle memory" is the term used by a lot of teachers, and I'm the poster boy for muscle memory because I haven't worked anything else into my golf swing. No changes in my grip or setup or anything. I have one swing, and all I do every morning -- I don't go out and practice on anything, all I do is warm up my golf muscles and warm up that 30-year-old golf swing that has not changed.

The press tent is decked out with all the modern conveniences country clubs deploy to bribe journalists into giving positive coverage -- including free Pepsi products and golf magazines -- but after availing ourselves of the air-conditioned lavatory trailer, Unreal hits the links. After all, unlike the spectators who will crowd the place in the days to come, we've got a press credential that permits unfettered access to all that Bellerive has to offer. We want to get an early look at this modern-day Babylon all the players keep saying is "in great shape" (even if they themselves are far from it).

Of course, we aren't here just for the aesthetics. We're here to understand golf, to feel the passion for this great Scottish game that has captured the fancy of our nation's Republican males.

Barring this, we figure we can always fall back on Plan B and get drunk with the caddies.

But the latter is not to be, at least not today. No sooner do we stroll into the disheveled lair of the bag jockeys -- located (we kid you not) in the basement of the clubhouse -- than a beefy securibot spots us and escorts us out.

Apparently these press passes aren't all they're cracked up to be. But if we've learned anything today, it's that making one's way in the land of the manicured fairway requires a certain degree of self-manicurization. The trials and tribulations of the alternatively religoned, raced and gendered who've historically been rejected by country clubs are not lost on Unreal. No siree. The button-fly corduroys and T-shirt we chose from our wardrobe this morning are going straight into the laundry basket, we vow. From now on it'll be polo shirts and pleated khakis.

Then it dawns on us like a Bruce Lietzke Titleist to the temple: We own neither polo shirt nor khakis.

Clad in an outfit pilfered from a fellow staff writer, we march confidently past the volunteer sentries and partake of a free lunch in the clubhouse. Only the most special guests are allowed to dine on the spread of prime rib, salmon and fresh pineapple, and here we are rubbing elbows with them!

We feel even better upon emerging and watching the common folk wasting away in line at the public concessions. Which isn't to say the masses are loading up on ballpark food. Here, for instance, you may choose a "Turkey Focaccia Sandwich" for seven bucks or "Whole Fruit -- Apples & Bananas," priced to move at a buck-fifty per piece.

In general the crowd is notable for the lack of hoosier presence. Perhaps that's not surprising at a gig where a weeklong pass costs $130. Hell, even to volunteer costs $125. A tourney official assures a shaken Unreal that these folks aren't paying to volunteer, they're paying for their official volunteer outfit.

Ah, that explains it.

Finally it's time for the moment we've long dreaded: It's Time to Watch Golf. Surrounded by people who are violating the laws of nature by simultaneously drinking beer and speaking in a whisper, we are nonetheless relieved to hear that others are at least as clueless as we are.

"Zoeller?" says a man who looks like he subscribes to satellite television. "He's 68 years old!"

"No way," says his friend.

"He's at least 60."

"No he's not."

"He's pushing sixtysomething," the guy says, taking a sip and sticking to his story, sort of.

According to our program, Fuzzy's 52.

Arnold Palmer, who must be at least a hundred years old, is putting on a clinic. But we opt to skip it -- it's too crowded. Actually, that seems to be the case with every golfer we've ever heard of. If Gary Player is preparing to wipe his sun-leathered face with a hankie, you can bet there's a gaggle of men wearing sandals made out of space-age polymers gathered around to see it.

On the spot we make another command decision: If we're going to watch anybody play golf, it's going to have be someone who's patently obscure.

Enter George Green, a lanky high-school psychologist who just so happens to be shanking his way toward us up the sixteenth fairway. We soon discover that we've hit the jackpot. This fellow is an absolute gold mine of mediocrity.

According to our trusty media guide, Green has $750 in career Senior Tour winnings (all of which were culled from last year's Senior Open, where his lowest round was an 83) and finds it tough to balance golf with being a psychologist. He does it, he says, "because of faith that he can be competitive."

Maybe he's the one who needs therapy.

He warily agrees to an interview when we corner him after he finishes his practice round.

"Today went pretty good," Green imparts, having been joined by his wife, Holly. "I hit a lot of fairways and greens."

Great! So how does he feel about his chances of winning this major?

"My first goal would be to make the cut," he says, referring to the group of the top 60 (plus ties) who'll survive the first two rounds and play on the weekend. "I'd feel some satisfaction if I made the cut."

Then Green loosens up a little and reveals that he likes blues music and lives on a houseboat just south of San Francisco.

Unreal is now officially, unconditionally, rooting for George Green.

"Who was that?" one fan asks another, passing our man Green en route to scope out another golfer. They're aided only by a scorekeeping placard that reads "Green G."

"Gary Green," his buddy says confidently.

Seconds later the routine is repeated with another pair of geniuses. "Gilbert Green," one speculates.

Green, meanwhile, is on his way to equaling his Senior Open low round of 83. That's good enough to best 8 of his 156 fellow competitors, and to tie centenarian Arnold Palmer. Unfortunately, it's also bad enough to leave him 18 shots out of the lead.

Rain cancels the day's play before it commences, and United States Golf Association officials decide to postpone Round Two until tomorrow, then play 36 holes on Sunday, after the cut is made. Unreal figures this pretty much eliminates first-round leader Peter Jacobsen, who is still recovering from hip surgery and was barely able to walk through yesterday's opening round.

As we watch the most diehard of these old men practice their putting in the drizzle (one has a lackey plucking balls from the hole, wiping them off with a towel and then sending it back), it occurs to us that security is probably pretty lax on a blown-out day like today. Sure enough, no one checks for our credential as we nab another free lunch in the clubhouse.

Emboldened, we take the opportunity to poke around a little more. Most impressive is the men's locker room, which features golden garbage cans and perfectly finished wooden "lockers" equipped with gold nameplates, many of which are left unlocked. This hallowed place where the pros apply talcum powder to their nether regions is nicer than our living room.

Infiltrating the caddies' lair is a snap today as well. We even manage to snag an exclusive interview with the caddie of qualifier Richard Ziegler. That might be explained by the fact that when we accost eighteen-year-old Casey Oshita, he is virtually comatose on a couch, watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN.

"Do you think you could sit up a little, for the sake of the recorder?" we ask. Oshita obliges. We lean in. Unlike those weenies in the press tent, we're not lobbing any Lietzke-like softballs.

"So, is this like a dream come true?"

Oshita pauses. For a long time. So long, in fact, that we're not sure whether he has fallen asleep. Finally he replies: "Ah...pretty close."

Oshita goes on to explain that he's from the same Los Angeles club as Ziegler and had to pay for his own plane ticket here, not to mention a hotel room. Thankfully, he says, his parents helped out, and his boss at the club where he caddies forked over some spending money.

Why does he think Ziegler picked him? Is it because he's the best?

"No," Oshita says. "There's not many caddies at our golf course."

In fact, it turns out Ziegler ditched him a few hours ago. "He does not have a cell phone. He said he was going to come back, but that was before they announced there would be no more golf today," Oshita says.

So the two of us play Ping-Pong. We let him win a few points, figuring he might spill the beans and supply a little off-course gossip. It pays off.

The qualifiers' caddies are generally pretty friendly, Oshita reveals, but the touring pros' caddies only talk to each other. He gestures over at a man he identifies as Hale Irwin's caddie, Kenny Harms, whom we promptly approach.

Now, we're sympathetic to the plight of any Senior Open caddy, especially seeing as how in this event -- unlike the others on the so-called Champions Tour -- doesn't allow carts. The caddies are the ones who have to do all the heavy lifting. But that doesn't excuse Harms. Unreal has heard Irwin has a reputation for occasionally copping an attitude. We have absolutely no idea whether this slanderous morsel is true, but we're here to tell you that no matter how big a Big Bertha might be wedged up Irwin's butt, it can't possibly compare to the obstruction that's evidently in Harms' way.

"Do you think we could do a quick interview?" Unreal asks politely.

"Nah," says Harms, who's watching television. "Can't do it, especially since we're in Hale's hometown." His arm sweeps across the room. "But any of these other guys would be glad to do one."

Obligingly, we approach a caddie sitting a few feet away. He too turns us down.

"But he swore you'd talk to us!" we say, pointing at Harms.

"No I didn't," Harms lies, adding, "You press guys are all the same."

At this Unreal concedes defeat. Heisting a cup of coffee on the way out, we explore the course, which is empty save for a few members of the grounds crew tending to the bunkers. Before we know it, we're somewhere in the middle of rain-soaked Bellerive. It's amazing how well the drainage works, we muse.

Suddenly thinking about all that water brings to mind a matter of some urgency. Or maybe it was the coffee we just drank.

At any rate, the reporters' lavatory is miles away.

Oh well, Unreal rationalizes, a few more drops of moisture aren't going to postpone tomorrow's round.

Still no sign of the Quincy Herald Whigster. Japanese journalists, however, are out in force.

"How do you like St. Louis?" we ask one whose translator tells us is from Tokyo.

"There are many traditional buildings," she replies.

Nothing like a little hometown pride. Speaking of pride, the Open's only Japanese entrant, Hajime Meshiai, birdies the eighteenth hole with a nice chip shot. Going into round three, he stands at just two over, good enough to make the cut.

A gimpy Peter Jacobsen still holds his grip on the top spot. But with 36 holes scheduled for Sunday, the question on everyone's mind is how he and his surgically repaired left hip intend to survive. At the post-round press conference, Unreal is the only media maven brave enough to actually proffer a suggestion, permitting Jacobsen to supply a ration of his trademark sense of humor:

Unreal: Do you think performance-enhancing substances -- like, say, morphine in your case -- should be allowed on the Tour?

Jacobsen: One thing about performance-enhancing drugs in these sports -- I don't think anybody could play a round of golf on anything, because your performance is going to go away. You may feel better, but.... That's why it's tough to play when it's hot and humid. You get dizzy and lose your focus, so I don't think there's any worry of that in the PGA Tour.

Unreal: But specifically in your case, what about something that could give you a little more spring in your step?

Jacobsen: The only thing that will give me more spring in my step is to lose 30 pounds before tomorrow, and to do that I'd have to hack off a leg or an arm.

George Green, our dog in this fight, has come off the course with a second-round 86, leaving him 27 over par for the tourney. "I could do that," an overweight spectator editorializes, eyeing the score placard as Green finishes up his final hole.

"How do you feel about your performance?" we ask Green afterward.

"I just had some terrible holes today," he confesses. "I had a nine on a par-four. I was missing a lot of the shorter putts, which added up."

"So, are you going to stay around?" we persist, saddened at the thought that our hero will be abandoning ship in the middle of our narrative. "Or are you heading back?"

"I'm going to head out," he says and soon does so.

We assume his meager check is in the mail.

We infiltrate the Post-Dispatch hospitality tent to assuage ourselves with a few pilfered snacks. We momentarily consider getting really drunk on the P-D's top-shelf liquor, but it's too hot for that. Besides, we're too down in the dumps about George Green's early exit. Tonight, we mourn.

Unreal has somehow managed to find our way into Bryan Burwell's column in the Sunday Post-Dispatch!

"It was just about this time that someone with an odd sense of humor wondered if in this age of BALCO, if there was any magic juice Jake might like to suck down that might put a little pep in his step or an additional glide in his stride for that final demanding two-round march," Burwell writes.

It's rewarding to provide fodder to a fellow member of the fourth estate. And how cool that he's so tight with "Jake." It's only a little disappointing that the Burmeister fails to credit Unreal by name.

But things are looking bright today, and not we're not just talking about the sun, which feels like it's floating about two feet away. Two friends have tagged along with Unreal, and they've got access to the hospitality tent of a company-that-shall-remain-nameless. Translation: free booze.

We start off with a nod to the home team, snagging a few Michelob Ultras -- the only non-non-alcoholic beer available in this tent. We quickly come to our senses and switch to Tanqueray-and-tonics.

It isn't long before we find ourselves becoming increasingly distracted by things that have nothing to do with golf.

"Hello," we say to a group of five blondes from St. Charles who look like they would marry for the money. "Are any of you wearing Lily Pulitzer, by any chance?"

"No," says one. "We can't afford it. Somebody thought she had Gucci sunglasses, though."

"How about the men?" we continue. "Are they living up to their end of the fashion bargain?"

"They're hot," says one woman. "Except for that guy right there. That is really an ugly shirt."

We're pretty hot ourselves, so we head toward the country-club pool. Tournament organizers have clearly indicated that it's off-limits, but we consider diving in anyway. But instead we waylay competitor Mike Reid, who has just completed his 36-hole broil-a-thon, finishing the tournament at one over par.

Unreal: Mike, do you feel like golf is a pretty cool sport that appeals to the younger generation, or do you feel like you could do more?

Reid: Well, it's not a matter of what anyone can do. Golf either appeals to you or it doesn't, and it's not the kind of sport that lends itself to a lot of the flash and marketing that appeals to today's young world. It's a game that requires patience, and you've got to be willing to do repetitive things again and again and not get too terribly bored to be good at. Some people have a mindset for that at a young age, and some people don't.

Unreal: So, you don't think dancing elephants or scantily clad women in the middle of the fairway would be good?

Reid: No, that wouldn't be very appropriate.

Caught up in the moment (and the Tanqueray), Unreal has forgotten to check the leader board. We have no idea that Peter Jacobsen is about to snag victory and a $470,000 share of the purse from a fast-fading Tom Kite, who double-bogeys the final hole. Our best pal Hale Irwin ends up finishing second at eleven under par, one stroke shy of Jacobsen.

Oblivious, we decide to give the last word to whoever strolls in off the course next.

Unreal: Since you're a professional athlete, you probably have lots of groupies, right? Are you going to see them in the clubhouse now?

Golfer Who Turns Out to Be Jim Ahern, Who Finished at Eight Over Par: I don't have a gang of groupies. I have a wife and three kids, who I'm going to see.