Every bookstore owner I've met got into the business after trying something else. That tends to make them an eclectic lot, with interesting past lives. Surrounded by books, they've all got stories to tell.
With his wife, Nancy, Brad Wilson owns The Book Store in Costa Mesa. In his previous life, Wilson, now 56, was a teaching golf pro, a job he parlayed into magazine assignments in which he'd write about playing golf with celebrities. While we weekend golfers hope we don't get stuck with duds on Saturday mornings, Wilson has played with Lawrence Welk, Billy Graham, Jack Lemmon and, would you believe, Muhammad Ali.
I stopped by Wilson's store on East 17th Street and he began regaling me with tales of Ali whiffing on a shot and twisting his ankle the week before a big fight, about Graham's agnosticism on the golf course, and about Lemmon's hilarious paranoia about Pebble Beach.
The outings occurred roughly 25 years ago, but Wilson tells the stories like they happened yesterday. "Ali supposedly hit his first golf balls ever for me," he says. It was 1973, and Ali was training in San Diego for his first fight against Ken Norton.
Wilson convinced Ali to "hit a few 8-irons" for the magazine story.
"He stepped up there and hit it," Wilson says, "and I thought, 'Damn, that's pretty good.' Then, he begins to get that mischievous look in his eye and all of a sudden, he's becoming the world's greatest golfer. He says, 'Muhammad Ali is the greatest golfer in the world! Nobody can beat me, not Arnold Palmer, not Jack Nicklaus. . . .!' Then he says, 'Anyone can hit a ball just standing there.' He said the world's greatest golfer was going to walk up to the ball and hit it. I said, 'Don't do that, Ali, you might hurt yourself,' but by then he was walking up and swinging at the same time, and the first one he nails.
"Now all of a sudden he's getting bigger crowds around him and he says he's going to run up and hit it. I said, 'Oh, no,' but he did it on kind of a double-quick step. He swings around, misses the ball completely and falls down. He reaches up and grabs his right ankle--I don't know if he's joking or not--but he gets a stern expression on his face and looks at me and says, 'You did this to me.' "
Wilson says Ali didn't run the next day, but then resumed normal training. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, later assured Wilson that the ankle wasn't a factor in what turned out to be an upset loss to Norton.
Wilson played his round with Lemmon at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Inevitably, their conversation turned to Lemmon's escapades in Bing Crosby's pro-am tournament in Pebble Beach. "We were going up the third fairway, and I asked him to tell me about the Crosby. Jack says, 'Can you believe that on national TV, [TV commentator] Byron Nelson found 11 things wrong with just one of my swings. How can 11 things be wrong?' "He's a delightful man and a better golfer than he was given credit for. But he said every time the camera came on at the Crosby, the wheels came off. He wanted so badly to play well for the camera."
Wilson's outing with Billy Graham occurred after the evangelist conducted a crusade at Anaheim Stadium. Wilson and Graham played as partners in a foursome, and Wilson remembers one of Graham's shots landing behind a tree. "He still had about 120 yards to the green. He had some room, but he had to go over a bunker onto an elevated green. He was kind of studying the shot and he says, 'What do you think I should do?' I said, 'It might be a good time to pray, Billy.' "
Without missing a beat, Wilson says, Graham responded: "I'm afraid golf is one place where God doesn't answer my prayers."
The yellowing pages of the golf magazines chronicle Wilson's forays with the celebrities 25 years ago. He recalls lending Graham a wrinkled windbreaker. He remembers the near-spiritual gentleness of Ali while they talked later in a hotel coffee shop. He remembers "laughing till tears rolled down my cheeks" as Jack Lemmon described permanently losing a shoe in a rain-flooded Pebble Beach sand trap.
Maybe that's why every so often, Wilson says, he thinks about doing some golf instruction on the side.
Without exception, he says, the famous people didn't act famous. "They were just regular down-to-earth people who wanted to be treated that way. They didn't want to be put on a pedestal or looked up to. And golf is that great common denominator, where it seems you can bring that out in people."
\o7 Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.\f7