'Great One' Loses It Over Golf

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Welcome to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where there isn't any ice on the streets or fairways; any fan who has a ticket will not be forced to watch on television; there is no threat of a lockout; and star athletes from other sports have been known to turn into Jell-O while playing with the pros.

This was the event Bing Crosby started back in the days when entertainers were more famous than golfers and tournament payouts were barely in four figures, much less six; when golf still was a game not a business.

Back in 1947, when the tournament was fixed on the Monterey Peninsula, which the author Robert Louis Stevenson described as "the most felicitous meeting of land and sea,'' nobody knew Newt Bassler or even Sam Snead. But actors and athletes, Johnny Weissmuller, Joe DiMaggio, Richard Arlen, brought in the fans.

The cast has changed through the years but the philosophy and spirit, and glorious Pebble Beach along the bluffs of Carmel Bay, remain unalterable.

So even though Phil Mickelson is as famous as anyone on the silver screen - well, to the jock community - the AT&T continues to bring in A-list amateurs, this year Drew Brees, Kevin Costner, Bill Belichick, Bill Murray and Tony Romo among them.

Wayne Gretzky isn't in the field this year, which may be all for the best. The Great One, as he was known, a nine-time MVP in the NHL, lived at Sherwood Country Club outside Los Angeles and was a low handicapper. But the AT&T proved disarming.

"I think Gretzky was the most telling of how nervous even good amateurs get,'' said Davis Love III. He is a two-time winner of the AT&T and the just-announced captain of the 2012 American Ryder Cup team.

"Gretzky was playing with Mike Weir,'' said Love, recalling the pairing of two Canadians, "and they were with us in the last group. And (Gretzky) didn't ever want to finish a hole. He would hit a decent drive and then so, ‘I'll pick up.' Pick up? ‘Yeah, I'm out of the hole. I'm in the rough.' "

A man who could skate through the entire Montreal Canadiens roster to knock a puck in a net, lost his nerve when obligated to knock a golf ball into cup.

"He was so nervous,'' said Love of Gretzky. "You would think one of the best athletes in the history of sports, even if he wasn't a great golfer, the nerves wouldn't be a factor for him. But he was as nervous as he could be. He just didn't want to get in the way and didn't want to have to finish.

"It showed obviously there's a lot of pressure out here. We (the pro golfers) learn to deal with it. Other star athletes get too nervous. But I'm sure I couldn't skate up and down the ice very well with other people watching.''

The AT&T, once known as the Crosby, offers teams of one pro and one amateur who stay together for three rounds over three courses, Pebble, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Shore Course. It begins Thursday, and there's a cut after Saturday's play with the low 60 pros and low 20 pro-am teams making it to Sunday's final round.

"This tournament took the fun out of golf for (Gretzky),'' Love pointed out. Some of these amateurs try so hard to make the cut, and then they go, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I'm going to be playing with him on TV? I don't want to be there.' "

We all have these fantasies, knocking in the winning putt at the U.S. Open or the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. We're always saying, "I could handle Tiger Woods.'' Or Aaron Rodgers. Or LeBron. And then out of our element, we shrink.

Some of the amateurs are brilliant on their home courses or even at Pebble on an August afternoon when the only viewers are seagulls, and if you concede a two-footer nobody tosses in a two-stroke penalty. It's like Karaoke singing in the tavern. But get up on stage and your knees tremble and voice creaks. Tournament play is golf's stage.

"Playing Pebble without grandstands and people is strange,'' said Love, "because I don't ever do it. This becomes your office and what you're used to. We get nervous, but we learn to deal with it. We get good at learning to deal with things.''

For Gretzky, it was dealing with a sweep down a rink. It's the walk to the green that had him giving in to a game where nobody's trying to spear you with a stick, only use a stick to move a dimpled ball.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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