COMMMENTARY : Sammy: Persevering Cat Both On and Off Course

HARTFORD COURANT

Sammy Davis Jr. was dynamite. Yes he was.

He was a lousy golfer, but around Connecticut for 1 1/2 decades, people identified him with golf. They should. As celebrity partner to the Greater Hartford Jaycees, he was the man who brought show biz and Hollywood to Connecticut for one day each year, luring enormous crowds to the Greater Hartford Open courses and raising thousands of dollars for the Jaycees' charities.

He was mugging and hot-footin' on the vaudeville stage when he was 3 with his father and mentor, Will Mastin.

Dancer, singer, actor and comic, Davis may not have been much of a golfer, but he was probably the best athlete ever to play in the Greater Hartford Open, which took his name and his personality from 1973 to 1988, when the tournament was known as the SDJ-GHO.

He was surely Mr. Versatility and Entertainment. And Mr. Cool. He was the runt of Hollywood's famous "Rat Pack." He was Mr. Gold Chains, Flash and Dash. He called other people "cats." He was the Golden Boy, Mr. Wonderful and the Candy Man.

And for a number of years before 1984, he admitted later that he was Mr. Lush sometimes, right out there in the middle of the sun-scorched golf course in his own celebrity pro-am when he should have been Joe Sober, the gracious and solicitous host to 50,000 or so spectators.

Occasionally, Davis gave the sponsoring Jaycees headaches. His schedule sometimes conflicted with commitments he had made that were vital to the tournament. But drunkenness on the golf course was more than a headache. It was a disgrace and a danger. Davis knew it. It was just that, for a while, he couldn't change it.

Sammy had an alcohol problem. It was poorly disguised. When he drove his cart back to the clubhouse after playing only a few holes of a committed 18 and promptly disappeared, the word would come down: "He's sick. Sammy's sick." Or he had been unexpectedly called away. Or whatever. SDJ was fighting still another battle.

He was always fighting battles, often winning, never quitting. He had experienced bitter racism in his early life, especially in the Army, and fought it and rose above it. In his 1965 autobiography, "Yes I Can," he wrote, "I've got to be a star like another man has to breathe. I've got to get bigger. I've got to get so big, so powerful, so famous that they'll see a man and then somewhere along the way they'll notice he's a Negro."

He did it, too. Few ever danced, sang or charmed a crowd more powerfully. Even fewer can say that they had the staying power of Sammy Davis Jr.

He had lost his left eye in an auto accident as well and overcame that.

In the early 1980s, the dark tiger of drink nearly swallowed him.

The 1984 GHO arrived and with it, a new Sammy. He played the whole 18, and thousands cheered as he rolled up the 18th fairway at the TPC of Connecticut. The applause, he said later, was as pleasing to him as any he had ever bowed to, and he'd been a headline act for decades in the most elegant halls of entertainment and theater.

Later, he savored his sobriety on the golf course. He was seated on a sofa in a plush, air-conditioned Quonset tent on corporate row. His wife, Altovice, sat nearby, and a business associate, David Steinberg, walked around grinning. Steinberg had lost a bet, but it felt as good as any bet he ever won.

Davis produced a $100 bill with a hole punched right through Benjamin Franklin's nose. "I played 18," he said, "and won this from David. He told me before we went out there was no way I'd do it. He went around with us. We got to the 18th tee and David said, 'Give me your golf ball.' Then he took a tee and shoved it right through the middle of this C-note and teed it up.

"What a payoff. But I did it. I kicked the bottle."

That was Davis's finest day at the GHO. He played in the group with Peter Jacobson and walked much of the way, instead of riding a cart, mugging and doing schtick with the crowd of 52,000, which loved him.

"I just could never do that when I was drinking," said the Candy Man, swirling a strawberry soft drink in a tall glass. "I'd play six . . . five holes and go in."

"I've seen you play only three," Altovise Davis put in.

"Yeah," he said. "Then I couldn't have made 18 holes with a cart and seven cats to carry me."

A couple of years later, he was still drinking strawberry punch, but hip surgery kept him off the course. "I'll dance again," he promised. And he did.

Davis was the Willie Pep of the entertainment business. Pound for pound, the little hoofer with the big voice and absolutely astonishing perseverance became the best of the best.

On top, he passed the test so many others fail. He stayed on top almost to the terrible end, when cancer, with the cruelest irony, robbed him of his rich voice before killing him.

Celebrity golf tournaments were the fashion on the West Coast in 1973 when the Greater Hartford Jaycees and Davis hooked up. The SDJ-GHO was the first such tournament in the East and it would remain the only one.

Fans got used to Davis in the early part of each tournament when he would show up to do an elaborate show and then play in the Wednesday pro-am. Always on the final day he would schmooze with the TV announcers in the afternoon and then come down to present the check to the winner. When companies and corporations began to take over the sponsorship of big-time golf tournaments and the relationship with Sammy ended two summers ago with a mellow ceremony at the Old State House, all, especially the Jaycees, agreed it had been a strong and profitable one.

Davis' job during his 15 years in Hartford was being there, pushing the tournament. Mine was writing about it and often about him. Maybe it was just good public relations -- you'll never convince me -- but Davis never once tap-danced around me, though just about every minute he was here he had bigger fish to fry. He was pleasant, accommodating, friendly when he didn't always have to be.

"Yes I Can," written with Jane and Burt Boyer, came to my house as a book club selection in 1965. At the last SDJ-GHO in 1988, I talked my way into the clubhouse and sat at a table with him. When the interview, a good one as always, was over I asked him (sheepishly, I suppose) to autograph the 23-year-old book. He gladly did it, with a nice message.

As a kid and up to that moment, I was never an autograph collector. Never could figure out the kick of it. Now I know.

Yes I Do.

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