Sometimes I wish I were a little kid again. Skinned knees are easier to fix than broken hearts.
– Author unknown
As we cover The Year in Golf 2006 in sheets of shiny wrapping paper and prepare to affix a bright red velvet bow, we close a year that has been defined by great loss.
In a span of 16 days this autumn, the game bade farewell to a pair of its true legends, Patty Berg and Byron Nelson. It only seemed that they would be with us forever.
Berg, who was 88, and Nelson, 94, were links to a bygone era, and to refreshingly simpler times. Berg, who would win 15 major championships (including the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946), once took home a $100 war bond for a victory. Nelson, whose 18-triumph 1945 season was one this game never again will witness, was motivated by, of all things, dirt. It was his dream to buy a farm. Every key putt he made in every big final round might mean one more cow for that new 630-acre spread in Roanoke, Texas.
A decade ago, at a dinner in Orlando, Fla., honoring the 50th anniversary of Nelson’s winning 11 in a row, Sam Snead, another main cog in the legendary 1912 triumvirate (Ben Hogan being the third), slowly made his way to the podium to talk about his old rival. Snead said Nelson may have won his share of golf tournaments, but he never smoked, drank, cursed or danced.
“Byron,” Snead drawled, “never had any fun.”
Soon it was the guest of honor’s turn to speak. Nelson could not resist sticking the needle into Snead.
“Sam, as I recall, in 1945, I won 18 times,” Lord Byron said, pausing for effect as he looked Snead’s way. “That was fun.”
Nelson’s greatest tribute wasn’t in being remembered as a great golfer, but as a great man. A gentleman in every sense, kind and thoughtful, a man who still penned congratulatory notes to winners of PGA Tour events. He gave members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team handcrafted wooden mementos sporting an inscription from the Bible: “With your help I can advance against a troop. With my God, I can scale a wall.”
Likewise, Berg was a tremendous player, but she was just as well known for her personality. She was fiery. As a child, she played quarterback on the football team on her street, and in her later years, she was known to walk past portraits of herself and quietly salute, “Hello, Dynamite.” She, like Nelson, was one of a kind. To her, golf was a gospel that needed spreading, and she did that through clinics she performed for Wilson for decades.
“It was like another era just drifted away,” said Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth.
The great Mickey Wright once asked Berg if she’d do anything differently if she were offered a second chance at life. Not a thing, answered Berg. “I couldn’t be this lucky twice.”
In May, today’s greatest player, Tiger Woods, lost his best friend – his father, Earl Woods. The chain-smoking Earl could come off as a gruff Green Beret, but inside beat the heart of a pussycat. He was an emotional man whose eyes could brim with tears when talking about the special son he had raised to be a champion. Other players may come along with as much talent, he would acknowledge, but no player ever would be as mentally tough.
Earl and Tiger were a formidable team. The son’s heart aches for his pop. Tiger wasn’t quite ready to come back at the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut, but was rock-solid in July upon the hardened links of Hoylake. It was there, as Tiger exited the 18th green as Open champion on Sunday, that we saw a man we’ve not seen before, the tears pouring off his cheeks as he collapsed into the arms of his caddie, Steve Williams, and then the arms of his wife, Elin.
At that same tournament, Chris DiMarco drew divine inspiration following the sudden passing of his mother, Norma, and Darren Clarke exited quietly by saying he’d be leaving competitive golf for a while
to be with his lovely wife, Heather, who was battling cancer. In less than a month, Heather Clarke, 39, mother of two, was gone. Darren Clarke and his European teammates honored Heather by winning the Ryder Cup on Irish soil in late September.
There were losses far less tragic in 2006. Phil Mickelson had the world on a string until he reached the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in June. His errant drive on the 72nd hole hit a tent, his next shot hit a tree, and Lefty lost his golden opportunity at securing three legs toward the MickelSlam. He hasn’t been the same since.
The PGA Tour waved farewell to its marathon season that stretched from January to November, announcing a more abbreviated schedule for 2007. With that, we said goodbye to the money list as we
all knew it, and now will deal in FedEx points. Go figure. We watched ABC’s talented trio of Mike Tirico, Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger sign off one last time. And we Americans endured another Ryder Cup blowout that was all but over before Sunday singles.
On a nondescript day in mid-September, we sustained another loss that would test the heart. Arnold Palmer was struggling through a few holes at the Administaff Small Business Classic in Texas when he told himself he just can’t do this anymore. He withdrew after four holes, but, exhibiting typical Palmer class, played on, finishing his round with Lee Trevino and John Mahaffey. Then he hung up his spikes.
Last week in Orlando – on a day when Palmer acknowledged he soon will become a great grandfather – the King, now 77, was asked what he will miss most.
“I’ll miss whatever kind of golf I won’t be playing,” he said. “My game is not up to playing competitive golf anymore. And I’ve always said that, at some point, you need to turn your guns and holsters in. Even old cowboys did that. They either got shot or they turned them in.”
He may be right, but it hardly ebbs the emptiness of seeing one more old cowboy riding off into the sunset.