I was well…. ‘A golfer’ back in the day. I’d thought competing for an O.G.A. championship at the age of 28 in front of a crowd of maybe 150 friends and family of the last 8 golfers remaining, was just about the toughest thing I’d ever have to do related to the sport of Golf. Little did I know!
The company I’d worked for at the time was a sister company of a major Import Automobile manufacturer in Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio. In my position, I spent an awful lot of time down in Ohio. Sometimes, 3 weeks out of 5. When it was summer in Ohio, there was only one place for me, Dublin. Central to both factories and a Golf Mecca for any time off I managed to finagle.
I was told about a special event that anyone with enough cash could take place in. Jack’s Memorial Tournament had a Pro-Am that would allow bidders to get involved in an auction, in order to gain entry into it. I was the first person in line and got bidder #3 to go to battle with. (#1 and #2 go to V.I.P.’s every year) The first golfer up, Jack himself! The idea is to set the bar for the charity involved. Great thinking on someone’s part. The bidding was incredible and I figured right then and there, that there was no way I was going to get in. Then came a miracle.
The golfer up for auction was a little known American pro that was probably shorter in height, than he was in recognition. Despite his lack of stature on “the Tour,” his sense of humanity and humour up on that stage, intrigued me in a way that no one else to that point had. The bidding was at an all time low $100. Since the man had my attention and I was prepared to bid up to $600 to play in the event, I bid $250 to shake off any suspects trying to get in free. I took it down. Someone told me that I could have gotten “that guy” for a whole lot less. I didn’t give a shit! I had never heard of him, but I knew I liked the man. I was about to be, Jeff Sluman’s “amateur.” We had a lot of laughs that night, as it seemed that he really appreciated my bumped up bid. I had his word that he’d try his best to win the whole “shebang.” I was willing to work with that. We called ourselves, “Team RESPECTLESS.”
Practice in the morning was beyond incredible. Putting on a Muirfield practice green was a great experience. Having Jack Nicholas line up and read a putt for you, no words can describe it. Having the one golfer you’ve always admired stand beside you and make the same putt with you several times, un-fucking-believable. I made six of ten… He made two. “Maybe I need you to teach me a thing or two.” Is how he made his departure from the green. I was speechless. Absoloutely and un-equivocally speechless.
“Lil’ Slu,” mentioned that we should, “check out your(my) swing.” So we headed off to the range. I’ve never been a big nailin’ Drivers at the range kind of golfer. I totally prefer to hit a few wedges to a few targets closer to the tee. Then I’ll work may way through the bag up to the woods. Once I have a small feel for how I’m hitting them, I’ll pick 6 target lines for the big stick. If I ain’t hitting those 6 shots right then and there, I have no business bringing out the weapon of mass destruction in a pressure situation. That day, I hit all six. I also called my shots to Slu before I did so. “This is going to be a lot of fun Bam!” he said shortly after. Slu stuck 8 in a row within 2’ of the 100 YD shot. “Damn right,” I said. As I backed up to watch Slu’s last wedge to the green, I ran into someone and apologized for not paying attention. “You again!” was the response. Followed by a manly handshake, as he took my arm and guided my hand into his. “No problem Mr. Canadian. Great accent and some great shots you hit there. Love your practice routine bud. Look’s like you got a live one there Slu. Guess we’re gunning for you today. Glad we’re right behind you. I can keep an eye on you two from there.”
“Don’t let him get to you. He’s sincere with his compliments and a hell of a nice guy.” Said Slu. “He’s one of my three heroes,” was what came out of my mouth. Slu stared at me for a second or two and asked, “who else?” “Dale Earnhardt and Paul Molitor.” I replied. “Holy shit! That’s some damn fine selections man.” He said.
Standing on the first tee and looking at the shot required is a daunting task in itself. Doing it with about 500 people lining the tee-blocks, is something else all together. I felt the presence immediately. It might have been the incredible amount of cheering and clapping that had started to make a thunderous noise at the time, or it could have been the fact that I’d grown accustomed to his presence from our earlier encounters. I just knew he was there. With his hand on my shoulders and using a calming and firm but comforting voice, “right down the middle like you did on the practice range. Make me beat you today Canadian.” Was the advice I’d heard. I lined up, caught my breathe and fired one of the best drives of my life straight down the center. A 5 to 6 yard draw that ran and ran. “Cripes man, I was only kidding!” came from behind me, as I started to walk off the tee.
Slu and I finished a respectable 2nd. that day. Had I not had a moment on the 13th. green that cost us a team birdie, at the same time that Slu had issues getting up and down, we could have at least tied for the win. One bad stroke each and on the same hole, it happens.
I walked into a little franchise-like place called Damon’s in Dublin. I immediately noticed the guy at the table in the bar area. It was him. I didn’t take advantage of my time with him when I had the chance earlier. Damn if I’m going to waste this opportunity now. “Mr. Stewart? I was wondering if you’d allow me to buy you a beer for everything I’ve ever enjoyed watching you do? I asked. With a devil’ish and quite humourous grin in his smile and eyes, he responded with this little gem. “Let me get this straight Mr. Canadian. You kicked my ass on the course, the range and the practice green…. And now you want to buy a millionaire a beer? Is that right?
We sat for hours discussing anything but golf, politics, religion or money. We were joined by his good friend Peter Jacobson. It was a drink, turned to a dinner, turned to a night out with the boys. Payne and Peter signed well over 500 autographs each and posed for no less than 100 photo’s with fans. (I’m in at least 75 of those!) It was a display of sportsmanship and professionalism that I will never forget. They gave of their time freely and not once, for even a second, did they appear the slightest bit upset at someone asking for piece of their time. I asked Payne if it ever got tiring or annoying. He said, “I’m the luckiest man in the world. Someone out there cares who I am. How can I get pissed about that? Why would I?”
I had an early morning planned and needed to make my way to the hotel. I planned to walk because heading over there, I already knew alcohol would be a factor. When you travel as much as I do, it happens on a regular basis. The hotel was a short 4 minute walk. I said my good-byes and thank you’s and left with one final, comment. “I took a great picture of you today Payne. It was as you were watching that shot you hit to 6” from about 119 YDS away on #12. I had Black & White film in the camera when I heard you’d be in the group behind me. I like the Classic look and that’s how I see you. A Classic.”
As I approached the hotel entrance, there was a figure sitting on the bench just outside. It was Payne. He typically stayed with The Bueter’s while in Columbus for the Memorial. That night, he created a “pass” to stay with me until I’d had enough. Sitting there with a six-pack and a smile or two, it became 3:00am in a hurry. I’d been in the presence of a master of humanity. A master of humanity with a swing as smooth a silk. The golf didn’t matter though. The man did.
I love my golf. It just hasn’t been the same since he passed.
That picture still graces the wall right in front of me now. There’s several others around the room as well. They serve to remind me of what a special time I had with a true professional and gentleman of the game. I don’t really need reminders, but they bring on the feelings more frequently as I age and require a little help.
Today’s golfers would do well to follow in Payne’s footsteps as they go along. Having a charity tournament and still taking first place cash, is a far cry from donating 100% of your 1st. place cheque to charity on not only your first professional win, but several others afterwards. Yelling at a kid, dressed in all of your Nike souvenir garb as he tells you what a great shot he thinks you just hit, is a far cry from signing over 2,300 autographs after your second U.S.Open Championship win.
I’m a golfer, I’ve got nothing against Tiger. The man has mad skills with a club and ball for certain. Probably the best pure golfer there ever has been as judged by results, swing and championship titles. No doubt about it. History could start to consider him “un-touchable” as far as someone coming along to dethrone him. But didn’t they say that about Jack, and Arnie before him. Oh… then there was Hogan, Nelson, Sneed and others before them.
But as for the total package, Tiger is a mere shadow of those that came before him. A weapon created by his Father to succeed. Nothing more but many, many things less. A media dream that needs that same media to turn off the microphones and tape delay his reactions to certain activities due to his so called “personality.” I’m not a hypocrite; I know Payne had his moments early in his career. But they were seriously short lived. He was, (as explained to me that night) confused between the difference of any attention and some deserving attention. A man’s statement, if I’d ever heard one.
IMHO... That beats the hell out of, “You! Get him kicked out. The little fucker said something in my swing.”
My sincerest thanks for stopping by….