Only a truly terrible golf shot will land in the dinky, wet-weather creek 80 yards in front of the fifth tee at Congressional Country Club. This means the dinky creek is situated perfectly to catch 95 of Tip O'Neill's every 96 drives.
The speaker of the House must have sensed the impending inevitable collision of his ball with that creek water. As he stood on the fifth tee yesterday surveying potential trouble spots ahead -- every blade of grass loom ominous when you are Tip O'Neill with a driver in hand -- the man from Massachusetts asked. "Water in that creek?"
No one else had even seen the creek, it was so close.
"Maybe some," a man said.
So O'Neill got ready to hit. It is exciting watching Tip O'Neill get ready to hit. He wears exciting slacks. They were blue with an amoeba-patterned design. They looked like they had been curtains in a Victorian mansion in an earlier life. A red-faced, white-haired Irishman with a global stomach, O'Neill begins every half golf swing with the same move; the throws his cigar on the ground.
After that, the speaker's swing is as mysterious as a smoke-filled room. Anything can happen. He looks for all the world like a politician trying to sweep something under a rug. "If I swing the gavel the way I swing a golf club," O'Neill said on the fifth tee, "no wonder the nation's in a helluva mess."
From the back of the tee, in answer to the Democrat's laughing self-analysis, came a strong Republican voice.
"That's right," said Jerry Ford, the pro from the White House.
And Tip O'neill hit his drive into that dinky wet-weather creek.
"Some friends of yours will throw it out of the water before we get there," Ford said, proving he still knows Democrats.
O'Neill, who knows Republicans, retrieved his Don Thomas Supremo cigar and smiled. "No, I don't have six Secret Service men with me."
It is, of course, baseless speculation that Ford bowed out of the presidential sweepstakes this summer when he realized the campaigning would weaken his left hand grip and exacerbate the hook that so troubles him. Yet it is fact that since Ford left the field open for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, he has kept away the darkness of postelectoral depression by playing in every golf tournament he can find.
Jack Nicklaus doesn't play in as many PGA events. Nine times this year, Ford has played in PGA pro-ams.Nicklaus has been out only eight times. Ford's Secret Service guards wear shirts that say "Pebble Beach Golf Links" and "The Springs Country Club." None of them carried machine guns in golf bags, the way Secret Servicemen once did for President Eisenhower at Congressional, but all of them rode in golf carts trailing behind the presidential cart in yesterday's proam for the Kemper Open.
The presidency put a crimp in Jerry Ford's golf game. He played in five pro-ams before succeeding Richard Nixon, whose Watergate helpers once concocted a scheme code-named "Operation Sand Wedge." As president, Ford played in only two pro-ams. Since escaping the Oval Office, be has been in 37 pro-ams and has been made the PGA Tour's only honorary member.
Like Nicklaus, Jerry Ford even has his own tournament now. The fourth annual Jerry Ford Invitational, a pro-celebrity 36-hole event, comes up July 28-29 at Vail, Colo.
All of which brings up a very good question, asked along the No. 1 fairway yesterday by Bob Tietjen, a Congressional member who watched admiringly as Ford whacked a five-iron into the green.
"Why would anybody want to get elected president if he can hit the ball that way?" Tietjen said.
Ford is, at 66, very strong. Once a football player, later a skier, he has an athletic body. Although his golf swing is mechanical and plainly the result of dogged determination rather than a gift from the gods, Ford has the uncommon hacker's attributes of smoothness away from the ball and slowly building speed coming back to it. He can hit a drive 250 yards when he catches it. His iron shots, while often short yesterday, were on line. He can play a little.
The answer to Mr. Tietjen's question is: Better to take a short at ending double-digit inflation than trying to make a 25-foot putt at Congressional.
Ford three-putted the first two holes yesterday. He couldn't get the ball to stop near the hole. The greens were as slick as John Dean. After that early trauma. Ford's putting stroke developed a tremor that was visible from downtown Grand Rapids. Ford used at least 42 putts yesterday, and not all precincts have reported yet.
He had a hard time in the sand. Near the 12th green, he plugged his tee shot on a trap's uphill slope. The group's pro, defending Kemper champion Jerry McGee, gave Ford some advice, as the president had asked him to. One whack, nothing. Two whacks, the ball still in the trap.
"Need any more instruction, Mr. President?" McGee said, falling down in laughter.
"I'll get it, Jerry," Ford said, whereupon, whacking a third time at the cursed pellet, he extracted it from the bunker.
By and by, after excursions into the trees and behind TV towers, those trips interrupted occasionally by a singing 240-yard drive down the middle. Jerry Ford made its to the 18th, where he missed a six-foot putt for a double-bogey 6.
Reporters clamored after him at greenside. They wanted to know what he thought of Ronald Reagan's vice presidential possibilities. He wouldn't say.They wanted to know what he thought the issues this fall would be. "Inflation, the economy, unemployment -- the bread-and-butter issues," he said. They wanted to know if he would be a canidate.
"Jerry's campaigning whereever there's a golf course," Tip O'Neill said. "He had an 86 today."
"That's exaggerating," Ford said modestly.
"Had an 87. A 44 and a 43," O'Neill said.
"I'll take it," Ford said.
Jerry McGee loved the day. "Just think, a little farm boy from Ohio playing with the president. Incredible. I'll treasure how easy he made it for me to play with him."
Tip O'Neill, whose score was somewhere between his weight and George Bush's campaign debt., must have loved the day, too, to tell the media that Jerry Ford shot an 87. Ford shot a 48-54 -- 102.
"It was a great day," O'Neill said, "Jerry didn't-hit a soul."