A (tall?) Tale of The Old Course

An economist friend, who is also an accomplished golfer, recently told me the following story.

He and two friends had made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of golf: the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. They had managed to secure a tee time and were just about to tee off when the starter stopped them and told them to wait — he had a fourth player who would be joining them. The three friends were disappointed; what sort of schmuck were they going to get stuck with?

After brief introductions, the fourth player asked them what their handicaps were. A handicap in golf more or less corresponds to how many strokes you shoot over par on average. They told him their handicaps, which were three, four, and seven (which by the way, means they are exceptionally good recreational golfers).

The fourth player, who was standing on the tee with a set of right-handed clubs, said “O.K., great, I get my left-handed clubs” — the implication being that if he instead played left-handed, it would be a more even match. He headed back to his car, grabbed a set of left-handed clubs, and true to his word, proceeded to shoot a three over par 75.

Who was this mysterious fourth player? None other than the dashing Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. Golf fans everywhere have been saddened by Ballesteros’s shocking recent battle with a brain tumor.

Ballesteros, who retired last year, was a brilliant golfer who won three Open Championships, two Masters, and 82 other titles. He is best remembered for his flair and creativity: like hitting a shot from a car park in the 1979 Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

My golfing friend conjectures that maybe playing left-handed on occasion helped Ballesteros learn to hit those creative shots which won him so many championships.

For instance, when your ball stops right next to a tree trunk, sometimes the only option is to flip a club around and try to swing left-handed. It is extremely difficult, because not only are you swinging left-handed, but you are using a club meant to be hit right-handed. My accomplished golfing friend has practiced this shot quite a bit, and says he once hit it 60 yards this way, but he averages about 20 yards.

He asked Seve that day how far he could hit it when in that situation. “About 150 yards,” Seve said. “It depends if I want a fade or a draw.”

Gambling on the Golf Course

It was my junior year at the University of Tennessee. I was playing the best golf of my career and one Sunday I went to practice at Pine Lakes golf course. Pine Lakes was a public course with a driving range that we were able to use any time we wanted to. The pro and owner, Ray Franklin was a Southern boy who used to bea great player in his day, until he got into a car wreck that ended his career. He would always tell us stories that seemed so astonishing that I would have bet he was fabricating them, but I knew better.

Anyway, I was on the driving range in the afternoon working on some short irons when this scruffy looking guy approaches me and asked, “Are you on the Tennessee golf team, boy?” I smiled and said “Yes I am.” It was pretty obvious since I had an orange Tennessee golf bag plus I had a white golf shirt that had Tennessee Golf printed on it. I was wondering what the hell this guy wanted.

He extended out his hand and introduced himself as Bill White. I told him my name and the next question he asked almost floored me. He looked me in the eye and said, “Do you want to play me for some money”? I stopped for awhile and thought to myself, hey, you can certainly beat this guy, go for it. So I told Bill, sure, I’ll play you for some money.

We stood on the first tee and made the bet. We were playing a twenty dollar Nassau with automatic two down presses and one down presses when asked, plus I had to give him seven shots each nine according to the handicap from the scorecard. Well, I had no idea what I was in store for. He was kicking my butt, because he was a gambler and knew the course pretty well and pressed every time he was one down when the next hole was a stroke hole.

I was standing on the seventeenth hole, down two hundred and forty dollars, thinking to myself, what am I going to do. I only had thirty dollars in my pocket and my checking account probably had another hundred in it. The only thing I had was my father’s 1972 Buick LeSabre. I certainly was in a bind, so what did I do, I asked if he would play me the last two holes for three hundred dollars. Plus I had to give him one stroke. I know I was stupid, risking my dad’s car, but I had no choice. I some how birdied the seventeenth hole and Bill made a bogey so we headed up the eighteenth with more money on the line than I ever dreamed of. I hit my tee shot on the short 395 yard par four down the right side of the fairway about 275. Bill hit his normal drive, 240 down the middle. He put his second shot just short of the green with an apparently easy chip shot left. I got to my ball and pulled out a nine iron and was so nervous that I almost couldn’t pull the trigger. I somehow kept thinking about losing my dad’s car. I looked at the pin placement and slowly took the club back and tried to focus on the flag.

Well, somehow I made one of the best swings of my life, the ball landed ten feet past the pin and since it was into the wind and I had a lot of juice on the shot, it spun back to within two feet of the hole. I turned to Bill and smiled, he also smiled and said, “Helluva Shot”

I made birdie and he paid me the sixty bucks. I was overcome with a sense of relief. He asked me what I was doing later that night? I told him that I had a date. He handed me his business card and told to stop at his restaurant for dinner. The business card said ‘Cherokee Supper Club’.

So I pick up Tammy at 6 o’clock and told her we were going to a new place for dinner. We arrived at Bill’s restaurant at 6:30 and when we got to the door, it was locked with rusted iron gates. I pressed the buzzer and this guy who looked like Lurch from the Adams Family show opened the door and said, “What do you two want?” I told him we were guests of Bill and he immediately opened the door.

We were seated in the corner of the place and were listening to a Country band playing on stage. All of a sudden, Bill strolls to our table and I almost didn’t even recognize him. He was dressed in a white suit, white lizard cowboy boots and a white hat. He sat down and told us that he would order dinner for us. He got up and left. I told Tammy that I was certain that this dinner would probably cost me a couple hundred dollars. Fifteen minutes later our dinner arrived, Filets and Lobster and a bottle of French wine. It was pretty amazing for a college date. After the wonderful dinner, Bill came back to our table and asked if we were pleased with the food and service. I told him everything was great, but that we needed our check, since there were only a few people in his place listening to the band. Bill smiled and told me that dinner was on the house.

I thanked him and asked, “Bill, I don’t want to sound strange, but you have a six member band, three bartenders, four waitresses and you have only a few people in here, how the hell do you make any money?” Bill stopped for a moment, looked me in the eye and said, “I thought you would ask me that, follow me!” We got up from the table and he took me through a long hallway and opened a door. My eyes almost popped out of my head, he had a full-fledged casino right in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I was laughing so hard. I stayed there till three in the morning playing blackjack. I became a member and went there every time I had a few extra dollars. Bill became a great supporter of the golf team and even threw a party for the entire golf team and had ten pounds of shrimp and steaks for everyone.

Bill, if you are out there and happen to read this, Thank You. I will never forget the Cherokee Supper Club.