There is something magnificently unique about each of the great golf courses of the world. At the legendary Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, there is the damnably deceptive rolling dune land. At the spectacular Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Monterey Peninsula in California, there are the craggy, unforgiving headlands above Carmel Bay. And at Rock Creek Park Golf Course, just off 16th Street NW in the District, there is Seymour (Jelly Belly) Silverstein.
Seymour Silverstein, 66, is a retired cabdriver. "I carried all the big celebrities," he says. Broad of belly, broad of behind, he prides himself on his clothes. "I'm an extrovert," he says. "If I like it, I wear it."
Silverstein was seen last week in the Rock Creek clubhouse wearing white bermuda shorts, a dark blue jersey with "WHO CARES" printed on the chest, a Los Angeles Dodgers cap and his usual complement of four flashy rings. He also was smoking a cigar, the quality of which he took no pride in. He explains: "I'll smoke anything that doesn't explode."
Silverstein, who has been playing Rock Creek since 1944, cannot hit a golf ball very far, but he can hit it straight. "You drive for show," he says, "you putt for dough."
He is also a shameless "poocher." That means when he is on a fairway--in order to get maximum distance from his short, spasmodic swing--he will use a golf club to dig up a small mound of sod atop which he illegally moves his ball. In the clubhouse, when asked to point out the biggest cheater at Rock Creek, he pointed, without hesitation, to his friend, Harold Schwartz.
At that same moment, Schwartz, 67, a retired insurance salesman, joined everyone within earshot in pointing at Silverstein.
Silverstein refuses to play golf anywhere but at Rock Creek, a short, tree-crowded course surrounded by the city. His foursome partner, Wilfred (Willie the Lawyer) Milofsky, says that's because Silverstein, with his stubby swing, cannot win money at a longer course. The former cabby, however, claims his allegiance to Rock Creek derives not from greed but from aesthetics.
"Say you come out of traffic on 16th Street early in the morning after they cut the grass. You breathe in that air," says Silverstein, extracting the cigar from his mouth, breathing in that air. "There is nothing like it. It is like you are in the mountains. For a cabdriver, it is the way to go."
When Silverstein waxes eloquent about Rock Creek Park Golf Course, he echoes the sentiments of a hundred or so retired gentlemen of his acquaintance who play the scruffy 18-hole course nearly every day, weather permitting, and regard it as their private club.
The 60-year-old course, however, is public. It is one of only three 18-hole public courses in the nation owned by the federal government. (The other two, East Potomac Park and Langston golf courses, also are in the District.) About 45,500 rounds of golf are played every year at Rock Creek and it shows. Grass on the tees has been killed, the sod masticated by gouging golf swings. Cigarette butts dot the greens. Rock Creek regulars know well these unfortunate flaws, having caused many of them.
Shortly after dawn, the regulars begin arriving in the parking lot. Men in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Many are bald, bent, gray, slow-moving. They straggle inside the charmless brick and cinderblock clubhouse for coffee, a pre-golf hand of gin and, occasionally, an argument.
The management has been forced several times to suspend all card playing because of bickering and fisticuffs.
On their way into the clubhouse, the regulars always check the bulletin board. It often carries news about friends who will never golf again.
A notice posted last Tuesday said Lou Spangler, 86, who had played at Rock Creek for decades, "passed away at home in his sleep." As is customary, the regulars took up a collection and made plans to look in at the funeral home. Then, they strolled out to the first tee.
"If it weren't for this place, there'd be a helluva lot of us dead a long time ago," said Delbert Todd, 67, a retired plumber and former greenskeeper at Rock Creek.
Silverstein, while seated last week with Schwartz at one of the faded Formica tables in the clubhouse, concurred: "If they took away Rock Creek, a lot a guys would not have a home. It is like one big happy family with a lot of irritation, like Schwartz here."
Occasionally, the golf course-cum-retirement home is irritated by far worse than the likes of Schwartz.
For example, six years ago two men--one with a pistol, the other with a sawed-off shotgun--walked into the clubhouse. The one with the shotgun ordered 15 golfers to take off their pants. The thieves then fled with a bag full of wallets.
Clubhouse regulars still giggle about the robbery because one of the unlucky golfers, a man who since has stopped playing at Rock Creek, dropped his pants that day and wasn't wearing any underwear.
Thick stands of trees and brush give Rock Creek Park Golf Course a pastoral feeling, a distance from the encircling city.
The city, however, has a way of insinuating itself on the 108-acre course. A golfer once was held up by teen-agers on the sixth tee. A woman's body was once found on the golf-cart path between the third green and the fourth tee. A man (not a golfer) hanged himself with his belt in the woods near the 12th tee. These kinds of things, of course, don't happen everyday.
"I wouldn't want to give the impression that there is a lot of murdering and hangings and that sort of thing out here," says Schwartz, a bald, bewhiskered man who has been playing Rock Creek since the early 1930s. "That's not the way it really is."
To understood how it really is, one needs to join the foursome of Silverstein, Schwartz, Milofsky and Hal Posey for a round of golf on the back nine at Rock Creek. These four men have been playing together for about 15 years, polishing a ritual of harangue, mendacity and baldfaced cheating that makes them, according to course manager Franklin Coates, "the slowest playing foursome in the world."
By way of introduction, Schwartz, who lives on Massachusetts Avenue NW in the city, is a short hitter, much like Silverstein, except that Schwartz tends to hit his short shots into the woods. When he played last week, Schwartz had a chronic bad back, a pulled muscle in his left thigh and knee brace on his left knee. After hitting a particulary pitiful fairway shot, he was heard to say, "It's my back."
Milofsky, 63, of Bethesda, has the sweetest swing of the foursome, a swing held together, in part, by a steel-reenforced corset. He is the only one of the four, he insists, who can be trusted to report his score honestly. Milofsky refuses, however, to disclose how much money he bets on golf, explaining: "I got kids in college."
Rounding out the foursome is Hal (Music Man) Posey, 53, a professional trumpeter from Wheaton. Posey, who has toured with Woody Herman and Charlie Byrd, has sensitive ears. Much of his golf strategy consists of warning Silverstein, Schwartz and Milofsky to shut up.
On the first tee, after renting two golf carts, the quarrelsome foursome chose up sides. Silverstein and Schwartz versus Milofsky and Posey. They made plans to switch partners every three holes so everyone would have an equal chance to win money (partners can make $20 for each three-hole match) and so no one would be stuck for nine holes with Schwartz.
After three holes, the twosomes had both scored two over par. (Only the lowest score of two partners counted in the scoring.) Schwartz lost a ball in the woods on the 13th hole, got mad because no one would help him find it and refused to play any further on the hole. But Silverstein, pooching whenever possible, had two pars. That equaled Milofsky and Posey, who managed to cover for each other's failings.
The trouble started, as it has for years, when Schwartz and Silverstein were no longer partners.
"You should now observe," said Milofsky, a longtime student of those who abuse the rules of golf, "that your partner has now become your mortal enemy. You follow him everywhere to make sure he doesn't cheat. Schwartz and Seymour don't trust each other."
As if on cue, Silverstein accused Schwartz, who appeared to have hit his tee shot into the woods on the 14th fairway, of misstating the location of his ball.
"What a lying dog," Silverstein said.
Distrust simmered for three more holes. It boiled over when Silverstein, on the 17th green, approached a four-foot putt and tapped it two inches. He immediately claimed his putter had inadvertently touched the ball and that the stroke did not count. Schwartz rose to the challenge.
"The club hit the ball. Don't make no excuses," he said.
"You are always looking to some technicality to steal something," Silverstein replied.
"You never see me do that," said Schwartz, adding he always plays by the rules.
"Ha!" Silverstein said.
Schwartz did not win the argument, but neither did he stop harassing Silverstein, who up to that point had had the lowest score of the foursome.
On the 18th hole, Schwartz, still fuming over the 17th-green incident, made an excellent nine-iron shot that set him up for an easy par. But Silverstein was rattled. He missed an easy putt that would have won him $20.
"You're a madman, Schwartz," said Silverstein, yelling at his friend across the 18th green.
Heading into the clubhouse, where the argument over the two-inch putt would flare even more angrily, Silverstein smiled and said quietly, "Oh, that Schwartz. He'll be the death of me."