Fore Play

It's a gloriously sunny day in Miami, and I'm standing in a semicircle of maybe 500 people on a carpet of lush, sweet-smelling, green-glinting grass, the kind that makes you want to get naked and roll around on your back like a dog.

But the people around me are not doing that. They're silent and solemn, like a church congregation, except that a lot of them are smoking cigars. They're staring intently at some tiny figures way off in the distance. I'm staring, too, but I can't quite make out what the figures are doing.

Suddenly the crowd murmurs, and 500 heads jerk skyward in unison. I still can't see anything. The crowd holds its breath, waiting, waiting, and then suddenly . . .

PLOP . . .

a little white ball falls from the sky, lands in the middle of the semicircle, and starts rolling. Immediately the crowd members are shouting at it angrily.

"Bite!" they shout, spewing saliva and cigar flecks. "BITE!" This is how they tell the ball they want it to stop rolling.

The ball, apparently fearing for its life, stops. The crowd members applaud and cheer wildly. They're acting as though the arrival of this ball is the highlight of their lives.

Which maybe it is. These are, after all, golf fans. And this ball was personally hit by--prepare to experience a heart seizure--Jack Nicklaus.

This exciting moment in sports occurrred at the Doral-Ryder Open golf tournament, an event on the professional golf tour, wherein the top golfers from all over the world gather together to see who can take the longest amount of time to actually hit the ball.

I don't know about you, but when I play golf--which I have done a total of three times in my life--I don't waste a lot of time. I just grab a club, stride briskly to the ball, take a hearty swing, then check to see if the ball has moved from its original location. If it hasn't, I take another hearty swing, repeating this process as necessary until the ball is gone, which is my cue to get another ball, because I know from harsh experience that I will never in a million years find the first one. I keep this up until there are no balls left, which is my cue to locate the part of the golfing facility where they sell beer. In other words, I play an exciting, nonstop-action brand of golf that would be ideal for spectators, except for the fact that most of them would be killed within minutes.

Your professional golfer, on the other hand, does not even think about hitting a ball until he has conducted a complete geological and meteorological survey of the situation--circling the ball warily, as though it were a terrorist device, checking it out from every possible angle; squatting and squinting; checking the wind; taking soil samples; analyzing satellite photographs; testing the area for traces of O.J. Simpson's DNA, etc. Your professional golfer takes longer to line up a six-foot putt than the Toyota corporation takes to turn raw iron ore into a Corolla.

I know that it may sound boring to watch grown men squat for minutes on end, but when you see a pro tournament in person--when you're actually watching these world-class golfers line up their shots--it is in fact unbelievably boring. At least it was for me. I would rank it, as a spectator sport, with transmission repair.

"HIT THE BALL, ALREADY!" is what I wanted to shout at Jack Nicklaus, but I did not, because the crowd would have turned on me, and my lifeless body would have been found later buried in a sand trap, covered with cigar burns. Because these fans worship the golfers, and they seem to be truly fascinated by the squatting and squinting process. The more time that passed with virtually nothing happening, the more excited the golf fans became, until finally, when Jack got ready to take the extreme step of actually hitting the ball, everybody was nearly crazy with anticipation, although nobody was making a peep, because putting is an extremely difficult and highly technical activity that--unlike, for example, brain surgery, must be performed in absolute silence.

And so, amid an atmosphere of tension comparable to that of a Space Shuttle launch, Jack finally bent over the ball, drew back his putter, and gently tapped the ball.

"GET IN THE HOLE!" the crowd screamed at the ball. "GET IN THE HOLE!"

The ball, of course, did not go in the hole. Your world-class golfers miss a surprising number of short putts. Too much squatting, if you ask me.

"NO!" shouted the crowd, when the ball stopped, maybe an inch from the hole. Some men seemed to be near tears; some were cursing openly. These people were furious at the ball. They did not blame Jack. Jack worked hard to line up this putt, and here this idiot ball let him down.

But Jack was magnanimous. He tapped the ball in, and the fans applauded wildly, as well they should have, because it is not every day that you see a person cause a little ball to roll six feet.

When Jack had acknowledged the applause, the next famous world-class golfer in his group, John Daly, began considering the many, many complex factors involved in his putt, which he will probably be ready to attempt no later than June. Let me know if he makes it. I'll be in the grass just beyond the refreshment area, rolling around like a dog.