Some, Like Lemmon, Like the Game of Golf, but Some Like It Not

The most dreaded label in sports is choker, yet Jack Lemmon wears that label bravely.

Lemmon, who also does some acting, is a golfer. More accurately, when the TV cameras zero in on him on the golf course, Lemmon is a choker.

And not just an ordinary choker.

No, Jack Lemmon tells tales of choking that would curl your putter.

He tells of weird bounces and freakish shots, with the world watching, that would send the weekend hacker screaming into the clubhouse to order a double. He is a walking Steven Spielberg golf movie.

Lemmon chokes so consistently and so creatively that witnesses to the disasters assume that he’s going for laughs. So they laugh, and he laughs on the outside, but inside is a golfer longing to cry out in anguish and dump his golf bag into a trash compactor.

Lemmon was, and is, a decent golfer, a 15-handicapper who has fun playing. But 18 years ago he was invited to play in the Bing Crosby Clambake. It was there that Lemmon learned about pressure.


“I was OK until the damn TV cameras came on, and then you’d think I’d never seen one in my life,” he said.

Lemmon has only delivered about 500 television performances, most of them live, and has starred in 41 movies, winning two Oscars. He was voted best actor for his performance in “Save the Tiger,” and best supporting actor in “Mr. Roberts”.

It took him only one role to get over choking as an actor. On his first job in Hollywood, live TV, Lemmon played a surgeon, fighting to save a patient’s life, solemnly calling for instruments: “Forceps. Scalpel. Hypodermic nurdle.”

Golf, though, is a different ballgame. Lemmon has been choking for 18 years.

“I’ve yet to not be nervous playing in a big tournament,” Lemmon said. “I’d rather do ‘Hamlet’ on Broadway, and open with no rehearsal, ad lib the sucker, than I would tee off in the Crosby. . . . It’s just incredible what an ass you’re making out of yourself in front of all these people.”

In that first Crosby, Lemmon came in with confidence and left town a broken golfer three days later. They assigned Jack a caddy who carried several pint bottles of liquid in the lining of his coat, just in case he had to carry for a golfer like Jack Lemmon.

By the 18th green that first day, Lemmon was well into triple figures for the round and lying 11 on the hole, with a 40-foot putt for a sextuple bogey.

“My caddy, who is in a catatonic state of shock, is right behind me. I’m plumbing my putt, I look over my shoulder and say, ‘Which way does it break,’ and he says, ‘Who cares?’ ”

The answer to that cosmic question, of course, is that Jack Lemmon cares, desperately.

“You can take my Oscars and all my awards, if I could just make the cut (at the Crosby), just once .”

And he could, if only things didn’t happen.

Like the time at Cypress he landed in the rough, the ball half buried in mud. Go for the sand wedge. Scoop it out and float it to the green, baby. But the ball and the mud stuck to the club on the follow-through, and the shot carried 20 yards--directly behind Lemmon.

Or another year at Cypress, again after a hard rain, when Lemmon hit into the sand. The ball was dry, but he had to plant one foot in a large puddle of water. He addressed the ball.

“Then I realize . . . I’m sinking! I hit the ball, fly the green. I go to get out and I can’t. I’m stuck.”

His caddy grabbed one end of Lemmon’s club and pulled him to safety, but the shoe was lost, sucked into the quicksand. To this day it has not been found. Lemmon played the rest of the round with one shoe. Why not, he was getting laughs.

One day at the Bob Hope tournament, Chi Chi Rodriguez was chiding Lemmon.

“Nobody in the history of golf has made more impossible shots than you,” Rodriguez told Lemmon.

Lemmon assured Rodriguez that the funny stuff was in the past, that he was playing superb golf, which was true. In the middle of the round, Lemmon was about to tee off. Rodriguez, putting out with the foursome behind Lemmon, yelled out to Jack, ‘How ya doin’ so far?’

Lemmon gave Chi Chi a big smile and the OK sign, and stepped up to the tee.

“I take out the big one, the driver, and I swing as hard as I can,” he said. “I hit a screaming, low line drive, very left. Just clears the heads of some people. It hits a palm tree flush and comes screaming right back at me like a bullet.

“I duck. Chi Chi is bent over, putting on his green, 30 yards away. My drive takes one bounce and hits Chi Chi . . . and he putts right off the green.”

Lemmon shook his head and rested his sorry case.

But he keeps trying, playing the big celebrity pro-ams. He even co-founded his own tournament, The Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau Golf Classic, scheduled Oct. 14 at the Wilshire Country Club to benefit the Daniel Freeman Hospitals.

But being a co-host does not grant a golfer immunity from choking. Lemmon will toss and turn the night before the tournament, and he will probably delight the galleries with some cosmic and comic shot making, inwardly dying a choker’s death.

Matthau, by the way, does not choke. Matthau does not play golf.