My sickness over golf, and there really is no better way to describe it, became intense in Moscow about seven years ago. A group of us covering the Summer Olympics was touring the Kremlin, and as we walked near its imposing wall one thought kept recurring:
Nine-iron or wedge?
Others could stay riveted to a rare look at the nerve center of a rival culture. Me? I kept wondering what club it would take to loft a golf ball out of the place.
We golf degenerates are legion. Famous and infamous, with our own form of communication. To others sick over golf, Jack Nicklaus recently said that his new Florida neighbor, Greg Norman, lives "about a 3-wood away."
"Three-wood!" Norman said. "More like a 4-iron."
Well, as we all know, Jack isn't as long as he used to be. Besides, one man's 4-iron is another man's driver.
The sickness begins with the purchase of a cheap starter set, often with Sam Snead's autograph, and gets fairly serious after a few pars on a municipal course manicured as delicately as Don King's hair.
Soon, we can be seen relating our passion to non-golfing scenes. We stare off in the distance at picnics, wondering if a 2-iron could be kept low enough to bore under that tree a few yards away and then rise quickly enough to carry a nearby pond.
"It's the kid in you," said veteran touring pro Joe Inman, a 39-year-old adolescent. "If you can't learn to laugh at yourself, and keep laughing, you're in a whole lot of trouble."
Decades later, Inman still returns to the course where he learned golf and remembers childish games such as devising a "hole" that began on the first tee, bent around a tree and ended on the fifth green.
Par was about 12, but sometimes it would take nearly two dozen blows to bend the ball around the tree and through rough thicker than Gary Player's accent.
"You'd bet," Inman said. "Doubling all the time. One shot you'd bet $4,232; a few shots later it'd be $2 million. You knew you'd never pay off 'cause you only had two bucks in your pocket."
The sick golfer ponders possibilities nearly everywhere. At one of those minor events, the World Series, newspaper colleague Bob Verdi passed the batting cage in Yankee Stadium, gazed off toward center field and muttered:
That's the club Verdi figured would hit a real ball out of America's most famous playpen. Surely, dozens of major leaguers have sneaked into stadiums and, from home plate, sent short irons soaring over the highest concrete. Rumor has it a Washingtonian once smacked a golf ball into RFK Stadium.
"I'll be sitting in stands," said Hale Irwin, "and see that it's, say, 360 feet to a certain part of the fence. I'll run that through my mind and figure: 'Hey, that's only a 9-iron.' "
Golf is a measurement for off-the-course distance because the ball can be propelled so far. A mile, for instance, is only three robust par-5s.
Years ago, a local gangsome got to drinking, and thinking, at a bar on Southern Avenue after a round at Fort Dupont. The issue was whether the water tower at Massachusetts and Southern could be driven from the parking lot.
Clubs soon were hustled from car trunks; swings from perhaps a dozen golfers, all in street shoes, were manufactured on hardpan; witnesses stood slack-jawed; houses cringed.
"It was maybe 150 yards to the tower," said one of the participants, Bernie Ockershausen, "and the tower itself has got to be 150 feet high. A very good amateur, Freddie Lukat, was the only one of us to clear it -- with a 4-wood."
Inspired, the gang moved across the street and took aim at the water tower with pitching wedges.
If there were such a thing as a Sick Golfers Hall of Fame, Ben Crenshaw would be the first inductee. He best exemplifies skill and obsession, having played three dream rounds of golf a few years ago -- on the same day.
Early on the morning after the 1983 British Open, Crenshaw played the Old Course at St. Andrews. After that round, he hopped over the water hazard known as the Atlantic Ocean on the Concorde and played Shinnecock Hills, on Long Island. After that round, Crenshaw headed west across America in time to play Pebble Beach before dark.
If you're trying to assess your degree of golf sickness, here are a few symptoms:
Given the choice, a truly sick golfer would rather play a course Nicklaus designed than watch the all-time craftsman perform.
Also, sick golfers often stay away from glittering stars. They relegate Nicklaus and Norman to the masses, choosing instead to follow an obscure shotmaker.
Most golf fans consider it memorable if they see Norman's blond locks or coax an autograph from Lee Trevino; the sick golfer leaves a tournament satisfied only if he has gleaned a tip that will improve his game.
The richest among the gloriously afflicted provide the foundation of the pro tour. Through the Wednesday pro-ams, such as the one completed yesterday at Avenel, they generate a staggering cash flow.
For a paltry $2,200, the sick golfer gets a shirt, some balls, lots of other goodies and the chance to get humbled in public, by the course and a pro partner.
"You nervous?" somebody said on the first tee to one of the amateurs in Norman's group.
"No," the amateur said, "but I soon will be."
Spoken like a man terminally sick. Damn the cost; zip that ego to the bag tags. And hope that the likeness on each ball, suitable for striking, is of Mark Twain, the sourpuss who said that golf is a good walk spoiled.