Mingling with professional golfers and carrying their clubs was quite a heady experience for a sixteen-year kid from a small town in California. I happened to be that kid. For two years, I lugged the clubs of an amateur, and watched in awe as the professionals hit golf shots I could only dream of. As the top-ranked golfer on my high school team, I actually thought I was pretty good- until I watched the pros up-close. Damn, they were good.
My father worked for a company that sponsored the golf tournament. He got me the job as a caddy, even though I had no experience. But I knew the game, and thanks to him, knew golf etiquette. The professional in our group was Dave Stockton, a guy who called everybody “partner,” and putted lights out. Dave smiled a lot and talked mostly about golf, and all about putting. He had my rapt attention, as he actually seemed interested in what I had to say.
I was in, I thought. He likes me. His caddy even allowed me to carry Dave’s clubs a few times. After completing our round for the day, I grabbed something to eat and hung out in front of the pro shop where every few minutes a golfer I was sure I had seen on television walked by.
A little later that day I heard a commotion to my left and spotted Lee Trevino striding towards me. Lee was talking to everyone and cracking jokes and signing autographs. I noticed a small band-aid on his left arm-which my dad told me later covered a tattoo of his ex-wife’s name.
He was short and stocky and blessed with a natural ability to relate to his fans. Before he made his way through the admiring crowd to the locker room, I had offered my program to him to sign. He scribbled his name and went on his way. Though barely recognizable, I could make out the L and the T.
That was good enough for me.
As I moved away from the crowd, I stopped in my tracks as the “Golden Bear” himself stood just ahead of me. Other people had spotted him as well. He wasn’t just a golfer though, he was the golfer. I walked over to Jack Nicklaus and said, “Mr. Nicklaus…would you sign my program?”
He smiled at me and nodded. I stood there, watching him, noting the plaid pants and yellow shirt, the white shoes, and long hair. As the crowd grew around him, he asked me a few questions of which I have no memory of answering. He winked at me after signing my program and moving away. I asked if I could take his picture. He agreed. Later, I checked out his autograph.
It was more than a scribble.
The Golden Bear, the greatest player in the game, and maybe the greatest player ever to swing a golf club, had signed my program.
I couldn’t wait to show my dad the autographs. There were benches along the way, where I saw another golfer and his caddy seated.I had no trouble recognizing the golfer as Johnny Miller, one of the best players on the planet.
His face was youthful and unlined. He was sitting rim rod straight on the bench. I stopped, thought about it, and then walked over to him. I was feeling good; one more autograph would be awesome.
I had my program and pen ready.
I said “Mr. Miller, could I have your autograph?”
He looked at his caddy and smirked. Then he looked at me and asked,
I hesitated for a minute before deciding to forge ahead. I tried again, “Mr. Miller, could I have your autograph”?
He glanced again at his caddy who was now chuckling. I was starting to get angry. Miller peeked at my program and then met my eyes. “Why?” he asked again, tilting his head.
The caddy looked amused. Miller kept smirking. I was steaming unsure what to do. I could feel some sweat building on my forehead. My eyes drifted to the program and Jack Nicklaus’s signature.
I took in some air, and made my decision.
“Well, forget it then,” I said, and walked away. Behind me, I could hear Miller and his caddy laughing, but I never looked back.
Years later, as I thought about my brief encounters with the three golf greats, it struck me how different the men were. Lee Trevino, seeming to glide as he quickly made his way through the crowd. Jack Nicklaus, kindly stopping and signing, the word classy came to mind. Then there was Johnny Miller, “the brat,” as some called him, living up to his nickname.
Yet, even if Johnny Miller’s childish behavior was a disappointment, I’ve never forgotten my fleeting encounters with greatness.