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Lessons in Good Sportsmanship Are Par for the Course

May 30, 1993|DANA PARSONS

Vacation duties beckon, and I must answer the call.

Oh sure, I could have gone to Cabo or Cannes, but--and I mean this seriously--have you ever been to Omaha this time of year? It's quite lovely.

My oldest friends still live there, and since I haven't seen most of them for a couple of years, we're looking forward to comparing notes on our lives, our jobs, our hopes, our dreams. . . .

What a crock.

I couldn't care less about their hopes and dreams. I don't care about their mortgages and whether or not they should refinance. I don't care about how much it's going to cost them to send their kids to college. I don't care about their midlife crises.

I want to compare notes on only one thing: our golf games. That's the truest measure of how each of us has progressed over the last couple years.

Whether my buddies know it or not, I'm going back home for three reasons: to play golf with them, to defeat them in golf and then to gloat about my victories. Anything short of that will make for a sub-par vacation.

I'm especially anticipating a friendly round with a guy who's probably my favorite golf companion ever. He was one of my first editors, and I met him when I was in my early 20s. He had a face like St. Nick's and the perpetual mirth of an elf and was, without a doubt, the most annoying, ridiculing, unsportsmanlike, self-congratulatory golfer I ever played with.

He taught me everything I know about golf course etiquette.

During the several summers I worked in Omaha, we probably played golf most Sunday mornings. At one point, I think his winning streak over me reached five. Five years, that is.

For the last couple of those years, I was convinced I could beat him. I was 20 years younger, my game was improving, and he usually was complaining about either some physical ailment or a hangover.

The only thing he had going was psychological warfare.

No evil genius ever did it better.

He always arrived with a hangover, designed to let me know that while I'd gone to bed at 9 in anticipation of the big match, he had been so confident that he'd frolicked all night. Whenever I would get off to an early lead, he'd get this hangdog look that would make me feel sorry for him, and I'd let my guard down.

My graciousness was never repaid. I remember leading him once by six strokes after six holes, and he adopted the role of the tired old man. Then I hit three tee shots into the water on a par-three hole--eventually taking a nine to his three--and, my, how his vigor returned. Not to mention his venomous tongue.

He was a master, all right. Where most golfers won't talk during your backswing, he would read long passages from prepared texts. Where most golfers will lament your missed putts, he would applaud. Where most golfers will grimace if you hit into the water, he'd say, "Bet you can't do that again, kid."

His mastery over me was known to all. He made sure of that. "You'll never beat me, kid," he would say. "You just haven't got what it takes."

A sportsman, through and through. How I hated that man. How I loved playing golf with him.

I left Omaha in 1977 and have played a smattering of rounds with him in the years since. Yes, I have beaten him from time to time, but when we played two years ago on a short executive course he favored, he was up to his old tricks. He was knocking in 20-foot putts and blasting out of sand traps and driving his dinky drives right down the middle.

He was talking trash--how unbecoming of a now-60ish college journalism professor!--and I responded coolly by hitting into various natural habitats and missing every putt. "Some things never change, kid," he said.

We'll no doubt tee it up once or twice sometime in the next couple weeks. He knows I'll play him anywhere, anytime. I hear he's having back trouble. Good. I hope it's incapacitating and affects every swing. I'm fully prepared to chuckle at the slightest wincing on his part.

As for my preparation, I'm steeling for his verbal onslaught. Now that I'm of a certain age myself, I know a thing or two about psychology. I'm coming with a foot injury that I hope to exploit to the fullest.

The last time we played, I was too nice to him, too respectful of his age and too caught up in the sentimentality of the moment. Before I knew it, he was two up with one hole to play.

Not this time. I must show him how I have progressed in the last two years. I must show him that I am a better person through better golf. I must not lose.

I hope one thing doesn't change, though.

I hope he still calls me "kid."

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