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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT | GEORGE SKELTON

In Golf and in Life, Davis Has Eye on the Ball

November 05, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

To fathom California's new governor-elect, it helps to watch him handle a fairway wood. Maybe 200 yards short of the green, over on the right. In some rough. Behind an oak.

"I've got a shot," he told me in just such a situation several years ago. A shot? All I saw was tree foliage and a barely visible sliver of distant green.

What I saw next--and all that afternoon as we were teamed in a Capitol golf tournament--was the same focus and discipline that got Gray Davis elected governor Tuesday.

Head down, eye on the ball, but more than that: his mind in the game. Cool concentration.

Davis smacked that ball under a large limb and faded it to the right onto the center of the green.

Golf and politics are games of the psyche. Steel nerves are needed whether you're facing a tree or a TV debate. That day, I came to realize this was a man with extraordinary drive--excuse the pun--who was underrated by most Capitol insiders. He played at full tilt, but the insiders often mistook this for opportunistic showboating.

"He demands a lot of himself, no matter what he's doing," says his mother, Doris Morell, 75, of Juno Beach, Fla., who traipsed with her son on the campaign trail heading up to the election.

"If he's playing golf, he likes to play well. He has to satisfy himself he's done well. He'd stay up late plugging away at a school paper until he got it right."

Morell taught Davis about golf, life and discipline. "I wasn't running a popularity contest," says the mother of five. "They did what they were supposed to do."

Now his staffers know where that came from.

*

It's already folklore how Davis saw a shot for governor that virtually nobody else saw. Illusions of grandeur, scoffed the insiders.

He had just hit the ugliest shot of his career, whacking Dianne Feinstein with a nasty TV ad comparing her to tax evader Leona Helmsley, the hotelier. Davis was trounced by Feinstein in the 1992 U.S. Senate primary and learned from the humiliating defeat. He changed his game--eased up on the negative--and hired a new political team.

Against the advice of aides, Davis gave up the state controller's office to run for lieutenant governor in 1994. You could accomplish more as controller, he realized, but "lieutenant governor" would look better on a resume when running for governor in 1998.

The insiders' consensus, as another columnist wrote, was that Davis would be "road kill" in Feinstein's expected bid for governor. If not by her, he'd be run over by super-rich Al Checchi, former White House aide Leon Panetta or Rep. Jane Harman.

Even when you're swinging the club well, it helps to get good bounces. Feinstein and Panetta chickened out. Checchi committed murder-suicide with his nasty anti-Harman ads. Disciplined Davis saved his scarce TV money until six weeks before the Democratic primary, then teed up the best campaign slogan of the year: "Experience money can't buy."

His final good bounce came in the general election when Republican Dan Lungren ran an abysmal race, never giving moderates a reason to vote for him.

Davis kept focusing down the middle--emphasizing his Vietnam War record, endorsement by 100,000 cops and support of the death penalty. This shielded him from Lungren's inane charges that he was a Jerry Brown liberal. It turned out that Lungren was more unpopular than Brown, but the GOP candidate kept hitting those right-wing slices anyway.

Meanwhile, Davis had all the best clubs in his bag--education, health care, environment, abortion and guns.

*

"Let me tell you something," Davis says. "I'm very proud of this: My mother always rose to the occasion. She was a pretty fair amateur golfer who always played her best round of the year in the finals of a tournament. And she always won.

"Every time before a debate, I tell myself, 'I'm going to rise to the occasion. It's in my genes.' Who knows if it is or not, but I con myself into believing it. If Mother can do it, I can do it."

Davis, a mid-70s golfer at Stanford, adds: "Golf teaches you to be very disciplined. No matter how good a shot you've hit, you still have to hit the next one. So if you exult over a good shot, you'll screw up the next. You need to keep your emotions in check."

He can be forgiven for exulting today, however. Davis has just won the year's biggest tournament by a landslide.

But to win again in 2002, he'll need to discipline himself as governor to keep playing down the middle. He'll have to resist liberal legislators and special interests, such as trial lawyers and teachers unions.

He'll need to avoid hooking left. Maybe, occasionally, he should even try a strategic fade to the right.

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