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His Latest Sport Fits Him to a Tee

March 26, 1985|Jim Murray

It's a familiar sad story of might-have-been. Thirty years ago, he was an outstanding high school athlete. He could high jump 6 feet 9 inches, he topped his conference in the high hurdles and he was a playmaking guard with an exceptional jump shot. He could even hit the curve.

But, since then, he's spent his life keeping late hours in night clubs and smoke-filled rooms. He went for the bright lights, loud clothes, fast cars, name in the gossip columns, life in the fast lane.

Gone were the chances for an Olympic medal, gone his day in the sun, his name in the record book, his picture on the cover of Track & Field News. Even in high school you could find him in the pre-dawn hours, wending his way home from another night in a North Beach saloon, another session of wine, laughter and song.

He wasn't the first athlete to succumb to the siren song of the night and the neon, to abandon the wholesome pursuits of the locker room for the blandishments of the show world.

You all know the next scene in this morality play. Down-and-out ex-athlete is seen mourning what might have been, cursing the life that was wasted, sitting in the back seat of a car, a la Marlon Brando moaning piteously, "I coulda been a contendah!"

But, before you light a candle or take up a collection for this derelict, be advised we are talking here not about an unknown loser.

He never did jump 7 feet in an Olympic trial or break the tape for the gold in the high hurdles, but you'd recognize him instantly if he hit four notes at once singing a single word, or if he sailed through a single song in octaves between a smoky baritone and a mezzo soprano, if he would do a chorus of "Misty" or "It's Not for Me to Say" in sharps only a hoarse thrush could duplicate.

We're talking about Johnny Mathis here.

Right. That Johnny Mathis. The millionaire Johnny Mathis. The Johnny Mathis with all the gold and platinum records. The Johnny Mathis who can fill an amphitheater, a Broadway show, a television studio, a theater.

Mathis is a man who put a misspent youth to good use, who has been one of the most durable troubadours on the American scene.

Still, he's a Johnny Mathis who can never forget he came within a meet or two of trying out for, and probably making, the U.S. Olympic team, who has never quite ceased to be rankled that he didn't get a gold medal to go with the gold records.

To that end, Mathis has never been comfortable too far from the playing fields. Some years ago, he took up tennis. Bjorn Borg, he was not, but it did tone up the leg muscles. Then, someone put a golf club in his hand--and Johnny had not felt that way since someone pressed the sheet music to "Misty" on him. It was love at first shot.

Johnny became as enthusiastic a player as the game has ever seen. His manager was under instruction to schedule gigs as close to championship golf layouts as possible. When Johnny wasn't on stage, he was on a tee. No one loved golf more than Mathis. Not Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Jimmy Demaret or Arnold Palmer, Walter Hagen or Gene Sarazen.

He got good. Not great, but rough competition. Like, don't give him any strokes, fellows, he'll send you home in a barrel.

No one was more faithful to the game than Johnny Mathis. Any charity tournament anywhere in the world reachable could count on Mathis, 1-iron in hand.

Which makes it altogether fitting that Johnny Mathis has his own tournament. He will join the long line of show-biz types who have their own tourneys when the great seniors tee it up this week in Mathis' tournament at the Mountaingate course high above the San Diego freeway in West Los Angeles.

For Mathis, it's a dream come true. "I'm thrilled to give something back to golf, to be part of a game I love," he explains. "Golf, for me, has always been a great social lubricant. You meet many people in my business. But you get to know them on a golf course.

"It's a great game. No, make that, the great game. I think it appeals to singers because it's somewhat the same thing, a medium of self-expression. In singing, you strive to make certain muscles do the same thing over and over again to produce the same effect. Ditto golf. It's the pursuit of perfection. It's never boring. It's a challenge to perform up to your best in public.

"It's a shared intimacy. Golfers have an affinity for one another like stamp collectors or history buffs. It's our little world."

Musicologists tell you that you can always tell a Johnny Mathis song. You never hear a Johnny Mathis record and say, 'Now, was that so-and-so, or was it what's-his-name?' It's a distinct style.

Are his golf shots staccato, chopped off at the vowel, so to speak?

"Well, some of them are inventive, to say the least," Mathis says, laughing. "But, in music, I try not to imitate anybody, to be just Johnny Mathis. In golf, there are times when I want to be mistaken for anyone but."

Some people want a bridge, a library, a theater named after them. Johnny Mathis is glad to settle for a golf tournament. He has made 60 gold records in his time. But, if you sit in his dressing room, his talk is not about them, it's about the most exciting part of his life, the hole-in-one he made in the Crosby at Cypress Point last year. It was the greatest standing ovation of a life that's full of them.

Best of all, it means that Johnny Mathis doesn't have to go back 30 years to tell people about the athlete he might have been. He only has to go back to last February. The hole-in-one was only yesterday. And the 67 might come tomorrow. That would be a gold record all its own.

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