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Smith Takes a Few Shots at Being Golf’s Course Jester

Times Staff Writer

Golf is the most serious sport. There is a certain reverence surrounding it. The course is a cathedral. A foursome is a quorum. Double polyester is a vestment. The game is a religion.

As a rule, players approach golf with wrinkled brow. They participate in a hushed manner that precludes demonstrative behavior, albeit with the exception of an occasional thrown club.

In part, the resolute nature of golf stems from its difficulty.

With that as prelude, enter golf’s wayward son, Mike Smith of Thousand Oaks--a trick-shot artist who shamelessly toys with the exalted game. He makes golf harder than it already is. May the gods of the links forgive his soul.

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Smith is golf’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. He travels the world to put on exhibitions, display golf shots and golf club mutations that most people have never seen.

An example: Smith hits 200-yard drives off a three-foot tee while standing on one leg. He can drive the ball 240 yards while sitting in a chair. He can also hit three balls at one time--making one fly straight, one hook, and one slice.

Impressive stuff indeed--particularly if you attempt it yourself. A reporter on hand did. On his second try at driving off the three-foot tee, he struck the ball with the shaft of the driver, snapping the club head off and sending it 20 yards beyond the ball.

“That’s the hardest trick shot,” Smith said, “hitting off the elevated tee.”

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The reporter agreed.

Smith’s golf bag is the size of an outdoor garbage can. He carries an assortment of odd clubs that he developed for his exhibitions, including: a baseball bat with a six-iron screwed on its end, a 6 1/2-foot driver (nearly twice the normal length), a rubber-hose driver, a tennis racket six-iron, a three-headed iron and a three-jointed club.

“I’ve done exhibitions with Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Johnny Miller and others,” said Smith. “It’s funny because they always ask me not to ask them to do any of these trick shots.”

He admits, however, that many skilled golfers could learn his tricks if they practiced them.

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He also admits that he is not a great golfer. His handicap is three: respectable, but not PGA quality.

He was introduced to the game very young. He says his mother was a Canadian amateur champion, as well as a Michigan amateur champion. After high school, Smith played golf as a student at the University of Detroit.

“I didn’t win much in college,” Smith said. “I wasn’t serious enough about it. I never have played real serious,” which is, of course, evident to this day.

When he graduated from college with a business degree in 1966, he went to the Bahamas, he said, to “work in the pro shop at a resort, play some golf and escape the winters in Detroit.”

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He also wanted to figure out what to do with his life.

In 1968, he became golfing manager at the Princess Hotels International resort--and two years later, the company sent him to Acapulco to manage its golf courses there.

“That’s when I really got interested in trick shots,” he said. “I’d always done them just to entertain myself. But I did an exhibition for a convention and decided to continue doing them because it was fun and the money was good.”

Smith’s shows were sponsored by Princess. He entertained corporate conventions and private parties.

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Eventually, he became director of golf for the firm--and they let him take his show from Mexico to England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Taiwan. In the past 15 years, Smith has also put on exhibitions at prestigious country clubs such as Winged Foot in New York, Olympic in San Francisco, Medina in Chicago and St. Andrews in Scotland.

Smith now manages golf clinics and exhibitions from his headquarters in Thousand Oaks. He commands $1,000 to $2,000 for one-day exhibitions and two- to three-day clinics.

While Smith has coached Bob Hope, Merlin Olsen and Jerry Lewis in his travels, he says his most memorable days on the links were spent with the late President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Said Smith: “We became friends, but if you tried to tell him anything, he had a hard time accepting it. Once we were playing in Acapulco and we almost always had good weather there. But LBJ would not only play winter rules, meaning he would improve his lie, he’d pound his club on the ground to elevate his ball like it was on a tee.

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“I’d tell him, ‘Mr. President, you can’t do that.’

“He’d say, ‘What do you mean, I can’t do that?’

“I’d say, ‘Uh, it is against the rules.’

“He would just give me a dirty look and ignore me.”

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Rules notwithstanding, Smith said that in time the former president lowered his nine-hole score to the high 40s.

Once, Smith did his trick show two days before the British Open at Royal Birkdale in Southport.

What did the traditional golfing folk of England and Scotland think of his shots?

“It took them a while to get used to the idea,” Smith said. “I think I was walking on holy ground.

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“The Scots were really baffled. They would say to each other, ‘Did you see that, laddie? Impossible.’ ”


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