By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Bruce Boudreau's golf career began when he was 15. His golf bag -- a Christmas present from his parents -- held seven clubs: driver, 3-wood, four irons and a putter. His greens fees were processed in the woods around No. 5 at his local public track, where Boudreau and his buddies would sneak onto the course. And his instructional help came from his back pocket; with friends who loved betting on the sport, budgetary constraints forced Boudreau to whittle his handicap down to single digits without the benefit of a single lesson.
Several decades later, Boudreau entered the clubhouse at Congressional Country Club not as the beloved coach of the Washington Capitals, but as that teenager, beyond giddy that one of America's most prestigious clubs was welcoming him inside.
"This is the coolest thing for me, EVER," he announced to everyone in earshot a few minutes before playing a round on Congressional's championship Blue Course. "You have no idea how cool this is for me."
"He was like a 5-year-old kid on the way over here," said Boudreau's son Ben, attempting to be the stoic adult in the pairing.
Boudreau was at Congressional to play a round with head pro and director of golf John Lyberger in advance of this week's AT&T National. He plans to return several times this week, hoping to meet his favorite player -- fellow Canadian lefty Mike Weir -- and to follow around host Tiger Woods. But for Boudreau, the thrill of golf is the competition, whether the stakes include the hundreds of dollars he used to wager with minor league teammates, the bottles of wine he now plays for against Capitals assistant Dean Evason, or the dollar bill Lyberger jokingly offered as closest-to-the-hole stakes as the men approached the eighth green.
The competition is why Boudreau recently started buying beers on the course for Ben when the younger Boudreau was threatening his dad's score, and why Boudreau impatiently declined to visit the driving range before heading for Congressional's first tee. In hockey, the coach is relentless at the practice rink, obsessing over details and stressing repetition. In golf, he said, it's totally the opposite.
"I just don't think I'll get any better warming up," he explained. "I just want to play."
And so, on to the first tee. Two practice swings. A confident address. A smooth but powerful left-handed swing. A drive into the trees.
"And I never do that," he said sheepishly, before declaring: "Breakfast ball!" His next attempt was smacked long and true, about 265 yards down the middle of the first fairway. "I'm done," the coach said. Then he dropped his approach within about 17 feet. "Holy smokes, somebody pinch me," he said. He drained the putt with his supposedly unreliable 25-year-old putter, and then stood there, on the first green, laughing to himself.
"Wow," Boudreau said, "this must be an easy hole."
He paused. "Nobody mention that breakfast ball," he added.
On to the second tee, an uphill par 3 playing at around 200 yards. Boudreau launched a pretty hybrid onto the green. Lyberger hit his drive thin, and made a joke about "thin to win."
"I wish I was thin to win," Boudreau said.
But just as Boudreau's jovial reputation in hockey circles sometimes obscures his obsession with winning, so do his constant quips on the course belie his actual game.
Boudreau says he's a 9 handicap, but "if he's a 9 handicap, I'll take him anytime on my team," Lyberger said. "I think that he has got a wonderful golf game. You can obviously tell he was a professional athlete of some sort, but he really makes a good motion, and you don't see too many left-handers that feel so comfortable over the ball as he does."
It's a motion Boudreau honed with his Canadian buddies, playing nearly every day during the hockey offseason. They'd bet on everything, doubling and tripling their original bets, figuring out exotic ways to keep every shot interesting, carrying the fun into card games after their rounds.
"The thrill of playing for more money than you have in your pocket was so druggy, it really was," he said. "The adrenaline of the winning and losing; you can't afford to lose, so you have to bear down to win the competition. I lost a thousand bucks one day on the course and I think I was making 15 [thousand] a year."
If that was where Boudreau learned to play, golf now means something different; it's an insult from opposing fans, telling you that your season is over. He's helping run his own tournament this summer -- the Bruce Boudreau-John Anderson Celebrity Classic -- to raise money for kids who can't afford to play hockey, and was scheduled to play in this week's AT&T Pro-Am. But he refuses to golf until the offseason, and even then he plays only two or three times a week.
The thing he loves about golf, and the reason he admires the professionals so much, is the concentration required -- the singular focus necessary for four or five hours. After his hot start at Congressional, with his shaky putter operating as well as it ever had, Boudreau succumbed to the course. Discounting that breakfast ball, Boudreau was even through five holes, missed a four-footer on the sixth green to wander north of par for the first time, and finished the round with an 82, 10 over par.
He raved about the course, musing about "if I could do this every day for the rest of my life" as he navigated the back nine. But after his round, after being stopped by several members and employees to accept congratulations and reflect on the Caps' season, Boudreau said he has no plans to follow through on that thought.
"I would love to [play every day], but that means I'd have to be retired," he said from Congressional's patio. "And I don't want to be retired. I want to stay in the business that I'm in for as long as I can."