The game’s unholy alliance : How golf and alcohol melded into a single, blurry image
‘TT is only a joke to say the Scots invented golf so they could sell their national beverage by the barrel. Still, can you name another sport that institutionalizes drinking as fully as golf does, from 10th-tee halfway houses to roaming beverage carts to the 19th hole?
Small wonder that spectators turned the air blue with such raucous proofs of intoxication during the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches that the European captain, Mark James, and his top player, Colin Montgomerie, called for a ban on the sale of alcohol at major golf events.
The Phoenix Open has taken a baby step in that direction. Rowdies now have a last call for beer at the TPC at Scottsdale’s par-3 16th, the PGA Tour’s most famous watering hole.
When John Daly, of all people, testifies to golf’s drinking problem, no further witnesses are necessary. “Everywhere you turn on our tour, there’s alcohol,” Daly said–and he said it during a dry spell preceding his eager leap off the wagon in the summer of 1999. “It’s the country-club scene with drinking before, during and after rounds, and at sponsor’s parties and pro-am cocktail parties, just everywhere.”
Drink even put a tour star, Notah Begay III, in jail this spring after he ker-lumphed his car into a Jaguar in a parking lot, drawing a week’s jail time for a second DUI offense.
An unholy alliance it is, and rooted deeply. Golf’s history staggers with drinking lore. There is Harry Vardon’s reply in 1915 when asked to join England’s temperance movement. “Moderation is essential in all things, madam,” he said, “but never in my life have I failed to beat a teetotaler.”
Walter Hagen’s blurry portrait suggests a drinking man of uncommon style. It’s said he once ran until dawn with Al Jolson, hired a limousine, changed from his tux to his plus fours en route and stepped lightly to the first tee, thereafter waxing all those who’d had a good night’s sleep.
Bobby Jones’ friend and biographer, Charles Price, said the great man favored corn whisky and “could drink with Ted Ray or Tommy Armour or Walter Hagen.” Sam Snead’s autobiography reported “players floating around barrooms at night trying to kiss the bartender good night, because they couldn’t tell him from their girlfriends.” As for his favorite drink, Jimmy Demaret said, “The next one.”
Golf’s leading playboy a generation ago was Doug Sanders, winner of 20 PGA Tour events and unofficial pro to Sinatra and cronies. Sanders once described a players’ party: “I don’t know how much wine we drank, but we had to empty the trash twice just to get rid of the corks.”
Today’s most voluble drinker may be U.S. Open and Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller, who says surgery will be necessary on his chronic bad back “only if the bars run out of vodka and drug stores stop selling Advil.”
Regrets? They’ve had a few
Baseball leads all sports in legendary drunks, Babe Ruth chief among them. Golf has its share.
“Jimmy Demaret was my mentor and my dear friend,” says five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson, “but I have to say he squandered his talent. If he’d ever gone to bed, he’d have won everything. With that talent, if he’d had the grimness of Hogan, he’d have won 10 U.S. Opens.”
Same song, different singer, this one sung under the spreading oak tree at Augusta National by the now-chastened 67-year-old Doug Sanders: “Gin rummy and drinking and golf, all of it went together. If I’d led just an abnormal life, I’d have won twice as many tournaments.”
Frank Beard led the PGA Tour’s money list in 1969. He won 11 tournaments and almost $1 million before realizing in 1977 that he needed a breakfast of vodka. “I couldn’t deal with my imperfections,” said the man working at a game that mercilessly reveals imperfections, “so I tried to deaden the pain with alcohol.” A recovering alcoholic since 1981, Beard at age 61 is a TV commentator on the senior tour.
Move from the British Open champion of 1868 to the British Open champion of 1995 and you’ve moved from Young Tom Morris to Daly, two more of an alcoholic kind. I’ve seen Daly in withdrawal, shivering in sunlight, bundled in a jacket, hugging himself, weeping. I’ve sat in a bar with Zoeller, Daly’s best friend, and heard Fuzzy order vodka for himself, Diet Coke for John, and talk about a night when John went on a suicidal drinking binge and screamed that he’d kill Fuzzy for saving him.
Good news: The times are changing. Alcohol is still a staple at many a country club, and one of the tour’s marketing partners is Anheuser-Busch. But today’s players have forsaken large quantities of beer, vodka, gin, rum, Scotch, bourbon and tequila for . . .
Well, listen to Roger Maltbie.
He’s the pro from Michelob, the last of two dozen pros hired 20 years ago to represent the beer on tour.
I said, “Roger, you got a minute? I’d like to talk to you about golf and drinking.”
He said, “Let’s go have a beer and talk about it.” This is a man famous for having divided his drinking into “Michelob when the sun is up and Scotch when the sun goes down.” His favorite hole? “The one on top of the can.”
Maltbie came on tour in the mid-1970s. “It was drinking every night,” he says, “just a social thing, better than looking at four walls.” One memorably social night in 1975, after winning the Pleasant Valley Classic, he lost his $40,000 winner’s check. It turned up inside the four walls of a bar. There were “isolated incidents” of players “imbibing while playing, to settle the ol’ nerves.” And Maltbie knows “one or two players who lost their careers to the jungle juice.”
But today there’s a difference.
“There’s so much money, the players take better care of themselves,” Maltbie says. “They’re more dedicated athletes.
It’s education. Like, nobody wore sunscreen 20 years ago, but now we find out the sun’s rays are bad for you. So guys aren’t drinking the way we did. They’re drinking . . . “
Here Maltbie cuts his eyes left and right. Then whispers “. . . apple juice.”
The road to sobriety
The growing temperance on tour is reflective of the real world, even in country clubs where alcohol has been the social lubricant of choice. Here’s Alice Dye, the wife/design partner of architect Pete Dye:
“The drunk-driving laws are so severe. How much ‘country-club camaraderie’ can you have on two Diet Cokes? And there’s so much traffic now around clubs that truly used to be in the ‘country.’ Now you go home where it’s safe to have a drink.”
Television broadcaster Pat Summerall and his former CBS colleague, Ben Wright, are alcohol-rehab veterans who have learned it’s no longer charming to be sloshed to the gills–a subject on which another TV guy, Peter Alliss of ABC and the BBC, has a wry take.
“When your host goes to so much trouble as to provide the alcohol for free,” says Alliss, a top player in Great Britain in the 1950s, “it is rather churlish to not avail oneself of a drink.
“I’ve enjoyed alcohol. And I’ve hated the hangovers. For those who insist they play well with a hangover, I say, ‘Try to play with one of my hangovers.’ There were times I’d stand over the ball saying, ‘Please, God, let me hit it.’ “
Alliss insisted that research for his book, Supreme Champions of Golf, revealed one and only one commonality among the heroes:
“All had at some time tasted alcohol, even Gary Player, who preaches ‘fitness’ and whom I’ve seen drunk as a skunk. Now, maybe it only took two or three drinks for Gary, but he was there.”
Still, Alliss acknowledges society’s changing patterns: “Drink, sex, smoking, exercise, political correctness–the whole thing has gone upside down in the last 40 years. The drink-and-drive laws in the U.K. now impose such punishment and shame on miscreants that it is no longer clever to drive home with one eye shut and the other striving to see the white line.”
I heard in Alliss’ mellifluous voice a certain longing for mornings such as one in France when, shades of Walter Hagen, he saw the Irish hero Christy O’Connor, “a man of iron constitution,” stroll to the first tee in evening dress, attended by a waiter bearing a tray of black coffee.
“Alas,” said Alliss, full of sweet lamentation, “you couldn’t get away with that today.”
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