LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Shield your eyes. Derrick Brooks, the former hulking linebacker, has a driver in his hand on the fourth hole of the Magnolia Course. This is terrifying for many reasons. He doesn’t appear much less than his playing weight – 6 feet, 245 pounds – which makes you believe he still could spear a running back or, at the very least, pick up Martin Piller by the brim of his bucket hat. Brooks doesn’t grip the club so much as he swallows it whole. And his drives, well, blow the whistle. That ball is going anywhere.
So, on the fourth hole, Brooks is ready to unleash his fury once more. And he does, spectacularly, only he blasts the ball so far off-line that he’s right of the sixth hole on Disney’s Oak Trail Course, which unfortunately is not being used for this event. No excessive celebration here, either: Brooks flips his driver and snatches it out of the air. “Holy s—,” he groans. Then he stretches his shoulders and touches his toes – remember, always blame the achy muscles – before beginning the long, humbling walk to his ball, which is now resting in a hazard.
It should be noted that Brooks, 38, doesn’t so much as swing at the ball but tries to impale it. That’s not particularly helpful in this situation, for he has a grove of trees and another hazard to clear. Predictably, he thrashes it out, dumps the ball into another hazard, then walks forlornly up the cart path, wedge in his left hand, Gatorade towel in his right. What’s lost was found was lost again.
OK, now let’s regroup. Piller, about five inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter than Brooks, offers a tip: weaken your grip. “Just let it hang there,” he says. Brooks nods knowingly, and now appears ready to attack either the course or the ball. He ambles to the fifth tee, takes a few creaky, laborious practice swings – hey, he’s a grizzled veteran! – and settles into the shot. Up he goes, completely losing his spine angle. Around he goes, crossing the club over the line at the top. And away he goes, releasing the club with a furious lash. Another hazard.
That’s about how it went Thursday for Brooks, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star, who was among the notable athletes and celebrities who competed in the pro-am portion of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.
“Well,” Brooks said afterward, “no one was hurt by my ball.”
Somehow, Brooks, who plays to a 12-handicap, turned in a 5-under 67 (net) on the tougher Magnolia Course. That left him six back of the pro-am lead.
One shot better was Tampa Bay Rays flamethrower James Shields, a 15-handicap who was paired with former Florida Gators Chris DiMarco and Billy Horschel in the opening round. It didn’t take long for Shields to realize he was out of his element. “He turned to me on the second hole,” DiMarco said, “and goes, ‘We need some more noise around here.’ ”
Well, no, this isn’t Tropicana Field, but it’s hard to blame Shields for the early jitters. This was only his third round since February; the Rays play 162 games in 181 days from April through September.
With his white TaylorMade hat pulled low, and outfitted in a green polo and white slacks, Shields, 29, bore a resemblance to Dustin Johnson: tall, thin, freakishly flexible. When Shields hammered a drive down the fourth fairway, all three players in the group marveled, “Wow, that was smoked!”
“Nah,” Shields said, putting his driver back in the bag. “Hit it off the toe.” It still flew 310.
Up on the green, Horschel missed a par putt and then hurled his ball into the thicket. Shields smiled at the irony: That one’s outta here!
Shields has awesome power, but he’s far from refined. Mostly, he lacks on-course discipline. On the par-4 seventh, his 16th of the day, he turned to DiMarco’s son/caddie, Christian, and asked, “Just kill it?” The kid nodded, but it was a bad idea. Shields blocked his tee shot way right, over the porta potties, and into a hazard. He managed to save par.
After a massive drive down the left side on No. 8, Shields proceeded to go chunk-top-chunk-top – appreciate the symmetry – before holing a 15-foot bogey putt.
“Being a baseball player, it’s hard for me to trust my swing,” Shields said afterward. “As long as I don’t kill someone out there, it’s been a good day.”
Then consider today a success.