The 26-foot Winnebago was hurtling west on a Sunday morning. Twenty golf bags were piled on bunks like stacked cordwood and squeezed into the remaining space were 20 golfers on their way to a round of ugly golf at Elkins Ranch in Fillmore. On the stereo an oldie by the Fortunes, loud enough to be heard over punch lines, zingers and jangling beer bottles, was portending a destiny of hacking and duffing for the hackers and duffers on board the motor home. A particularly disturbing line: "You've got your troubles, I've got mine."
"Bad omen," said Roger Johnson, not trying very hard to convince everybody he was taking golf seriously. "Real bad omen."
When the Winnebago finally disgorged its stiff and aching passengers after the long ride from the Valley, most of the golfers headed for the practice area in hopes of finding the magic touch. Ron Kraushar (26 handicap) stayed in the camper "because I screw up my game if I practice." It wasn't long before he was joined by Bobby Curtis (30 handicap), who had been on the putting green and "didn't want to leave my game there." Soon, the camper was packed again. The late-morning sun's rays were beginning to steam up the course. In a few minutes, the golfers would stuff cold beers in their bags and tee off on an 18-hole adventure, the sixth annual Larry Keith Rightmer Invitational. The LKR, as it's called, has become a ritual for most of the men, several of whom are from out of town, and a sentimental journey for Larry's older brother Jerry, 37.
Since 1982, Jerry and his wife Connie, who are from Sepulveda, have been holding the LKR to bring friends together for a long day of food, folly and frolic, but the tournament isn't just an excuse to get down and party. Underneath all the loud laughter and heavy-duty male bonding is a seriousness of purpose. Like his golfing pals, Larry Rightmer was a man who loved parties, people and life. Then one day the good times ended in tragic suddenness. At 29, Larry Rightmer was dead, bludgeoned by robbers as he slept in a Reno hotel room.
"We played golf the last day I ever saw him," DeWayne Quirico, his best friend, said wistfully. "He loved the game."
A tournament, with hats and T-shirts featuring the LKR logo, seemed a fitting way to perpetuate his memory. "We wanted to have his friends remember who he was," Jerry said. "And we wanted to remind them that you can disappear overnight."
Rightmer, a bass player with the Sanford Townsend Band ("Smoke From a Distant Fire"), plans the tournament for three months, leads the merrymaking and makes sure that nobody forgets why they are there. On the first tee, before sending them out in foursomes, he solemnly assembled the group for a traditional moment of silence.
"I challenge everybody to live this day like it's your last," he told them. "Enjoy the friendship. Enjoy being with each other. You don't know what tomorrow will bring. Larry didn't know he'd be gone the next day."
When noise was restored on the tee, Jerry became just as earnest about his golf game. Despite his assurances that camaraderie was more important than competition, the others were well aware that nobody was going to try harder than Rightmer to win the two-foot-tall team trophy. He is still ribbed about his so-called miracle recovery last year, when he managed to win the tourney despite a bad back that had laid him up for six weeks. According to an observer, "He'd been walking around like one of the Seven Dwarfs."
Quirico, who lives in North Hollywood, had the bad luck of the blind draw to be the first player off the tee. On subsequent holes, the gallery would diminish as the foursomes began to spread out in a procession of golf carts. But on No. 1, the other 19 players would be scrutinizing Quirico's form and his drive. A video camera, manned by a nonplayer named Mike Condello, would be recording the moment for history to judge.
Ever since Larry Rightmer had introduced him to golf a decade ago, Quirico has been an intense golfer who takes a lot of pride in his game. Standing on the first tee in his baggy red shorts, he knew the pressure was on. Taking a deep breath, he glared at the ball and then shanked it into the woods. So began the LKR.
By the ninth hole, the beers were getting warm and the golfers were divided into three categories: tepid, cold and below freezing. On successive holes, Paul Andrews, wearing wrestling shoes, had wedged a tee shot in the crotch of a tree and teed a wedge shot into a water hazard. Things got so dire that one foursome was heard congratulating each other on a "nice putt" when the ball came within three feet of going in.
On No. 5, a 405-yard par 4, a foursome approached the green looking haggard and disconsolate. "We're a pretty serious group," said Sean McCarthy, who was wearing blue high-top Pumas. "We'll lighten up as soon as one of us scores below 10."