Hit the Ball, Drag Louie : Sometimes a Hitch in Your Golf Swing and a Little Help From Your Friends Can Save Your Life

James Phelan , The Author of this true story, is also the author of an upcoming Random House book , "The Money," on the fight over the estate of billionaire Howard Hughes

ARNOLD Palmer said it all in 10 little words: "There are golfers--and there are people who play golf."

A chasm wider than the Grand Canyon separates these two groups. The true golfer, or addict, no more plays at golf than the Marines played at planting the U.S. flag on top of Mt. Suribachi. People who play at golf do so for pleasure. Addicts wage golf, suffer from golf, are consumed by golf. To call the ordeal they undergo a golf game is the most moronic of oxymorons.

The addict can be easily distinguished from the mere pleasure-seeker. When the latter dribbles his drive a pathetic 40 yards off the tee, he laughs idiotically. The addict who so disgraces himself is instantly stricken with what resembles a massive stroke or a terminal heart attack. He would no more laugh at his disgrace than Henry Kissinger would giggle if he tripped and fell flat as he made an entrance at Le Cirque.

The addict is not necessarily a skillful golfer. He may never have broken 90. His hallmark is grim determination, not performance. He addresses every shot as if he were on the last hole of the Masters, knotted in a tie with Greg Norman and Tom Kite.

This behavior is rooted in, and fertilized by, the unique nature of golf. Golf is the only sport in which the inept can, if blessed by fortune, match or surpass the performance of a professional. There are tournament professionals who have never scored a hole-in-one. Yet Richard Nixon, who took up golf in middle age, canned a tee shot in his first year of flailing at the ball. More incredibly, a young serviceman named Robert Halferty scored two consecutive aces--one on a par-4 hole--on April 21, 1945. In the long history of golf, no professional has ever matched this feat.

If he persists--and all addicts persist--random fortune eventually will smile on the addict, if only for a few holes. Suddenly and unaccountably, his drives are long and straight, the iron shots crisp, the putts unerring. This is known as The Day Everything Went Right. It floods the addict's being with ecstasy, superior even to an erotic encounter with the woman of his secret dreams. It also validates a delusion embedded in the mind of every addict: that inside him there is a handcuffed Jack Nicklaus struggling to be freed. Thereafter, his life is devoted to liberating Jack, regaining that ecstasy and becoming multi-orgasmic.

He buys how-to books, studies videotapes, takes lessons, chops up his lawn practicing his swing and buys every new "longest ball" and miracle-shafted club. When his non-golfing friends ask, "Why do you spend so much money making yourself so miserable?" he smiles with pity. He is pursuing a rapture they know not.

Addicts even die for golf. Every club has its honor roll of those who breathed their last on the course in defiance of their cardiologists. This dedication is reflected in the oldest of golf jokes, about the addict who comes home and complains to his wife that he has just completed the worst round of his life.

"Remember old Louie, who has been in our foursome for years? He had a fatal heart attack on the 10th hole."

"How sad," says his wife.

"Yeah," says the golfer. "For the rest of the round it was, 'Hit the ball, drag Louie, hit the ball, drag Louie.' "

What follows, happily, is a true story about how golf and its addicts saved the life of a fellow addict. And saved him as surely as if they had snatched him from the path of an onrushing train.

WHAT HAPPENED INVOLVED a long-running fivesome that was a fixture at Los Alamitos Country Club near Long Beach, a course recently bulldozed by some developer with a wallet for a heart.

They were an odd quintet, bound only by their addiction: a Moose Lodge bartender, a former municipal court judge, a meat salesman, a retired Air Force colonel and a Long Beach writer. They were known respectively as the Bartender, Hizzoner, the Butcher, the Wing Commander and the Author. They were a political gallimaufry: two right-wing Republicans, two confirmed Democrats and a political agnostic. They rarely socialized off the course.

They were the best of friends and the bitterest of enemies. They had contended against one another for 25 years. All had been respectable golfers in their prime, although not as good as they remembered themselves to be. In this they exemplified Chi Chi Rodriguez's axiom: "The older you get, the longer you used to hit the ball."

As their ages and waist sizes had increased, so had their golf scores. They discounted their deterioration with improbable alibis. The Butcher would attribute a bad round to a hangover. The Author sulked if someone whispered during his backswing. The Bartender blamed his bad shots on the malfunctioning of his contact lenses.

Each believed he was the best golfer in the group and reminisced relentlessly about his past glories. The Author boasted that he had once shot a 68 at Lakewood Country Club, and had verbally replayed the round so often that the group could join him in an a cappella recital. The Bartender countered with the assertion that he had broken par so many times in his prime that he had lost count. The Butcher related heady tales of pro-amateur tournaments in which he had outshot the pro.

They had an institutional history as rich as the Knights of Malta. There was the time, for example, that Hizzoner horrendously hooked his tee shot on a par 3 and then silenced the jeers by hitting a blind shot over a row of trees and into the cup. That day, the hole was rechristened "Here Comes the Judge."

In their weekly Armageddons, they competed in a bewildering web of team bets, side bets, press bets, skin games and $2 Nassaus. Settling up later in the clubhouse bar was a raucous undertaking comparable to auditing the finances of a defunct savings-and-loan. All were genial winners and surly losers. The losers routinely announced that they were quitting the group forever, only to depart promising to "see you guys next Saturday."

IT WAS THE AUTHOR WHO was snatched from the grave by his golfing brothers. One Saturday morning, rushing to get to the course on time, he stepped from the shower, slipped and struck the right side of his head against the tiled step. By the time he had shaved and hopped into his car, the pain had receded to a dull throb. Joining his group on the tee, he displayed the sizable lump and tried to negotiate a few extra strokes because of the trauma. "No way," said the Wing Commander. "Whacking yourself on the head will probably improve your golf swing. It's the only thing you haven't tried."

The Author shot his customary high-80s round. Then he regretfully announced that he would be out of action for a month or so. "I've got a book to finish," he said. "And I've got to get ready for that lawsuit of mine." He had sued a Beverly Hills lawyer-literary agent for legal malpractice, and the case was nearing trial.

"Hurry back," his friends said. "We need your money."

That evening, when his wife saw the lump on his head and heard how he had acquired it, she urged him to see a doctor. The Author, however, was one of those mulish people who submit to an annual checkup only once in five years. He was encouraged in this intransigence by the fact that he had never been seriously ill in his life. He regarded his wife and daughters, who took every symptom to a doctor, as afflicted with self-indulgence. "If you leave it alone, your body will heal itself," he enjoyed saying. "Doctors are like car mechanics. If you tell them there is something wrong, they'll install a new transmission and send you an ungodly bill."

In the next five weeks, he finished his manuscript and then attended to his lawsuit, in which two hostile lawyers grilled him for a week in a pretrial deposition. When it was over, the Beverly Hills agent settled out of court--for $61,000--rather than risk trial.

The Author also developed a marked drag in his left leg that heightened his wife's insistence that he see a doctor. "I think you injured your head in that fall," she said. "You don't walk the way you used to."

"I don't walk with my head ," he argued. "And how could I win a $61,000 settlement with a damaged brain? I'm going out and catch up with my golf." And out to his car he trudged.

The brotherhood welcomed him back, congratulated him on his legal victory and told him they were eager to share in his windfall.

"Over my dead body," said the Author. Then he waggled his driver, cranked up and sent the ball skittering a miserable 60 yards down the fairway.

On the front nine, he didn't hit a single decent shot. On the ninth green, faced with a 4-foot putt for a triple bogey, he stroked the ball and barely moved it a foot. He had lost every hole and was nine down to each of his opponents. He was 27 over par, and at that rate the man who had shot a 68 at Lakewood was headed for an unspeakable 124.

His opponents' initial jubilation over the Author's malfunctioning had receded, after a few holes, into silence. It was permissible to jeer at a man's occasional blunder, but not at his utter collapse.

"You've got something wrong with you," said the Bartender.

"You're not yourself," said the Butcher.

"You ought to go and see a doctor," said the Wing Commander.

"You guys sound like my wife," the Author replied. He invoked the cliche of every unhappy golfer. "Maybe I'll do better on the back nine."

They shook their heads. "We don't want to play the back nine hitting the ball and dragging Louie," said the Bartender.

Hizzoner, conditioned by years on the bench to issuing judgments, issued a judgment. "You're in no shape to go on," he ruled. "Get in my cart and I'll take you to the parking lot."

The Author, impressed that no one had suggested that he pay off on the front-nine Nassaus he had so disastrously lost, reluctantly gave in. When he drove off to his doctor's office, he could barely depress the clutch with his left leg.

The doctor tested the Author's knee with a rubber mallet and got no more response than if he had whacked a wooden leg. He asked if the Author had injured his head and was told about the fall in the shower. He gave his patient a CAT scan and shook his head in disbelief.

"The left side of your body isn't functioning," he said. "You have a massive subdural hematoma. That's a blood clot on your brain, and, from the size of it, you've had it for weeks. We're going to wheel you over to the hospital for immediate surgery. Quite frankly, you're entitled to be dead."

"Well, I'll be damned," said the Author, "So that's what screwed up my golf swing!"

IN HIS FIRST TIME EVER in a hospital, they operated on him twice in three days. First, they removed the giant blood clot. Then they went in again to maneuver his displaced brain lobe back into the space left by the clot.

"Usually the brain just springs back when a clot is removed," the surgeon wryly observed. "But you have a stubborn brain."

"I can testify to that," said the Author's wife.

His golfing brothers sent him a round-robin get-well card. "Hurry back," it said. "We need your money."

Three weeks after the surgery, he rejoined them at Los Alamitos. He displayed the two deep indentations the operation had left in his right forehead and demanded extra strokes for his brain surgery.

"You just had head surgery," said the Wing Commander. "Anyone who would neglect a blood clot for five weeks doesn't have a brain."

On the first tee he drilled his drive more than 200 yards. He finished with an 86 and lost only $18. "Anyone who would take money from a brain-damaged golfer," he said as he paid up, "would snatch Twinkies from a child."

Two weeks later, there occurred a second miracle. The planets aligned themselves properly, his neurological system functioned as it had long ago at Lakewood and the Author was blessed with a Day When Everything Went Right.

By the 17th tee he had closed out the four Samaritans and was only 4 over par.

"Hey!" said the Author. "If I can par 17 and 18, I'll have a 74. A 74! That means I would . . . Shoot My Age!" To shoot one's age--or less--is the addict's impossible dream, rarer than a hole-in-one. No one in the fivesome had even come close.

The Author grew tense at the prospect. "I hope I don't bogey No. 17," he fretted. "Then I'd have to birdie the 18th."

"Not necessarily," said the Bartender. "You could just sit on the 18th tee until you're a year older. Then you'd only have to shoot a 75."

"He's the kind of guy who would do it, too," said the Butcher.

"That wouldn't be legal," Hizzoner ruled.

"Quiet on the tee," the Author ordered. With his jaw set firmly, his eyes steely and his brain unclotted, he parred in and Shot His Age. Yo!

That night he replayed the round, stroke by stroke, for his patient wife. He finally got down to the crucial last putt.

"It was at least 3 feet, with a left-to-right break," he said. "A once-in-a-lifetime chance. The pressure was unbearable.

"When I lined it up, a strange thing happened, and I still can't believe it. Nobody coughed, or whispered, or even moved. Nobody!

"You know," he marveled. "I think those four guys were pulling for me."

For the record Los Angeles Times Sunday March 4, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 14 words Type of Material: Correction "Hit the Ball, Drag Louie," in the Jan. 14 issue, was illustrated by Moira Hahn. --The Editors
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