KK & Legends
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Every name is legendary. We know their golf exploits, but know little about the person. Twenty years provided an opportunity to get to know each one of these legends. We’re not buddies, but they know my name, and we’ve spent some time together. Early in Murph’s Senior Tour career we were paired with Jack, Arnie, and Lee during one tournament. I was initially in awe but soon realized they were people type people. I’ll try to share the personal side of a legendary pro, I hope you enjoy the insight.
He was my first golf hero. I’m not sure why, he wasn’t the best, but he sure was my favorite. Lee Buck was born poor in 1939 and never knew his father. Lee never knew his first family because golf was his first love. Today, his second family with Claudia is his priority and nothing stands in the way of time spent with Daniel and Olivia. Tournaments, social functions, and corporate outings are distant seconds. His golf schedule winds around their activities or when Claudia is tired of him and tells him to hit the road for awhile.
I was standing on the Eagle Trace practice tee in 1988 working for Phil Blackmar, when Lee and Vin Scully started making their rounds before an NBC broadcast. His chatter was unnerving to some, but soothing to me. He was a caddie at heart and we all loved him around the course. Off the course he was staunchly private, almost hermit like, and didn’t want to be bothered, especially when with his family. God rest the soul who requested an autograph when Lee was out to dinner with friends and family.
In all my years I only saw Lee out once. It was a private social dinner at Ruth Chris and Lee was in cognito. He walked by our table, baseball cap pulled low, and wearing a fake mustache. As he rushed pass, he said, “hello boys, how’s the steaks?”, and disappeared out the door. We weren’t sure it was him until the next day, he was still laughing. “Mitch”, Herman Mitchell, his caddy and close friend were notorious for Taco Bell drive-up and early bedtime so Lee could play nine or hit balls for a couple hours before his tournament tee time.
Lee often told stories about his early tour years. Lee, Orville Moody, and a few old timers would gather with the caddies during rain delays, playing cards and trading stories. Lee used to tell us he never stayed out very late, but there was always ice in his scotch when he woke up. The ice was much better back then and lasted longer. For whatever reason, he said he kept two or three rooms at each tour stop just for convenience sake.
I didn’t see Lee again until Senior Tour years with Murph. They were old “buds”, spent some time together, and I got to know Lee and Herman a bit better. Their banter on the course was pure art. We were paired together quite often before “Mitch’s” health failed and I heard some classic lines. Their jabber and facial expressions were comical, entertained the crowd, and got the best out of Lee’s game.
We were preparing for our second shot on a long par five at the Grand Rapids, MI Elks Club when the argument broke out. Lee was yelling at Herman and he wasn’t giving an inch. “You can’t get that three wood there, old man.” Mitch said. Lee shouted back, “watch me fatso.” And, it went back and forth like that for a spell, the language got worse, and Murph whispered, “watch him knock it on and toss the club at Mitch, he’s done it a hundred times.” Sure enough, as soon as the ball landed safely on the green the club headed Mitch’s direction, and Lee strutted away.
Herman calmly picked up the club, turned to us, smiled wryly and said, “got him again didn’t I Murph.” Seems Lee and Herman had been doing this routine for years. Mitch knew Lee could get the three wood there if he was pissed, and Mitch could pull his strings better than anyone. Herman was a Jekyll and Hyde all the way up the fairway. He’d turn to Lee with a scowl on his face, mumble something, and then turn to us and just laugh. It was always fun being out with those two.
One other quick quick story. They were trying to decide between five or six iron on a par three. We sat there listening to their normal caddy/player conversation and they finally chose the six iron. As Lee was ready to pull the club back, he asked Mitch one more time, “you sure it’s enough?” Mitch mumbled, “boss the only things I’s ever been sure about is I jacked-off that first time and I knows I was going to do it again.” Only the players and caddies heard the comment. Lee was choking, he was laughing so hard as he finished his swing, and the rest of us stumbled off the tee box almost wetting our pants.
The gallery thought we were nuts. Lee and Herman could have been a vaudville routine, they were that good with their lines.
As happy-go-lucky as Lee appears on camera don’t ever cross him outside the ropes. He’s a good guy with a big heart, but oh so protective of his private life. We had just finished a round at the Ford Senior Championship in Dearborn, MI and the autograph seekers were lined up outside the scorers tent. Lee looked at his watch, announced to the crowd “all I got is fifteen minutes and then I’m gone.” Then he started down the line signing anything shoved in his face by the true golf fan. He knew who the professional autograph dealers were, adamantly refused to sign anything for them, and had security toss a few out.
Just before the fifteen minutes were up, he said, “I’m signing four more, that’s it.” A lady down the line yelled, “Lee you’ve got to sign mine.” Lee came back, “lady I don’t have to shit. I ain’t no grocery store, I don’t have to provide you with anything.” He signed four more and bolted. Lee had a family function to attend. Murph said only Lee could get away with such abrasiveness.
After Lee was semi-retired I worked a couple of Father-Son tournaments for his sons. The first year I worked for Tony, Lee’s spitting image, because Daniel couldn’t make it. Working for Tony and Daniel, I witnessed the father he should have been and the father he is now, not the golfer. There was an emotional distance with mutual respect between Tony and Lee, and Lee’s eyes would fire up every time he talked about Daniel or watched him play golf.
Lee and Tony just went about their business, jabbering all the time. Daniel was as quiet as they were talkative, but had that Trevino confidence and charisma. On our first par three, with a strong right to left wind, I was trying to talk Daniel into a four iron. He said, “naw, I’m going to hold this three iron against the wind.” A chip off the old block and Lee got such a kick out of it. He was proud of both boys, but definitely closer to Daniel.
You ever see a Tour pro chase down an alligator? Daniel and I sat in our cart watching Lee wrap up a small gator in a towel, and then take him pack to the lake. The Merry Mex was having a blast running circles around the four footer, Daniel turned to me and said, “Dad, he’s such a kid sometimes.” That sums up Lee quite nicely.
I was walking in the Tuckaway CC clubhouse; Jack was walking out. He bumped into me, apologized, and I was honored. Apologies should have run from my mouth, but Jack was first. That should have told me all about the man right there in 1982, but I learned more about his character from 1993 through his retirement early in the next century.
We played with him quite a bit, battled down the stretch a few times, and spent brief social moments that I’ve cherished forever. Being in Jack’s presence was like hanging out with your best friend, only he was the greatest golfer in history. He always walked onto the first tee, participated in sincere introductions with everyone-even the caddies, looked you in the eye and remembered your name.
There were little things like invitations for a beer on his plane when the Murphy’s were leaving Puerto Rico. Jack showed me around, told a few stories, and made me feel right at home. He and Barbara treated everyone like family. They, especially Barbara, always had a kind word, a personal question about your family, and a smile.
Their charitable endeavors went beyond the public eye. When “Squeaky”, Jeff Medlin, Nick Price’s caddy at the time, was battling cancer, Barbara and Jack made sure he had the finest doctors and treatment in the Columbus, OH area, and rumour has it Barbara or Jack would call every evening or stop by whenever they could. They didn’t have to do it, they wanted too.
In 1996, Murph was in Tampa’s Outback Steakhouse Classic final group with Jack and Isao Aoki. I’m not quite sure how we stood going into the final round but it was close, and we all had a chance to win. On the par five seventh hole, Murph’s tee shot found the deep bunker left of the fairway. He tried blasting a nine iron from the deep sand, but the ball caught the towering lip then ricocheted past his head. I can’t remember where the ball landed, all that crap flying past his head caused quite a commotion.
Murph thought the ball skimmed his wide-brimmed straw hat. He asked me and everyone else in the area what they thought. Noboby could verify yes or no so Murph called a two shot penalty on himself. Once Jack heard the story he immediately went to the tour officials, camera crew, and spectators pleading for some sort of evidence that would show the ball didn’t strike Murph’s hat. In between shots, for the next three to four holes, Jack pleaded with Murph and tried to nullify the two shot penalty.
Jack went on to win the tournament. He made a long eagle putt on the fifteenth hole after Isao’s debacle on fourteen, and we finished two shots back. Jack’s sportsmanship that day revealed a lot about his character, and taught this old boy how to properly play the game. He wanted to win, but not at any cost. The gallery that day was the largest I’d ever seen, but Jack drew no attention to his unselfish manner. He wasn’t looking for publicity; he just wanted to make sure the game was fair.
After the round Jack gave more attention to Murph’s plight than his win. He carried on about golf and honor; how it was a pleasure to compete with folks like Murph; and Jack let everyone know he wouldn’t have won if Murph had let the self imposed penalty slide. Jack was as much about the honor of golf as he was about winning majors, ask Tony Jacklin.
Finally my last little story involves Lee and Jack. Murph was paired with them during a tournament at Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico. An afternoon thunderstorm blew in, and we spent the next half hour huddled under large umbrellas. We needed a large brolley for the two of us. Anyway, after the rain subsided and the grounds crew started squeegying the green, Murph turned and said, “I’ll bet you anything Jack and Lee will have a squeegy in their hands in the next five minutes.”
I thought he was crazy, but after five minutes of poor effort by the Puerto Rican crew, Lee wanted to show them the proper technique. And when Jack saw Lee demonstrating improperly, he tried to give everyone a lesson. Murph and I sat beside the green and laughed. We were watching two legends with about 25 majors squeegy a green for a hapless Puerto Rican grounds crew. They went at it like they were coming down the stretch at a U.S Open, both trying to get their portion of the green dry first.
Both were competitors, both honorable, and both were people first.
Everyone remembers where they were when JFK was shot; when the Space Shuttle exploded; and, 9/11. October 25, 1999, the day Payne Stewart’s plane made that eerie flight across the Midwest, every golfer and fan turned to the TV, hoping the news wasn’t correct. We had just finished the Kaanapali Classic in Hawaii, and were relaxing on a boat off the Maui coast. A day of sun, fun, snorkeling, and fishing was disrupted by the news from PGA Tour headquarters.
We were on the boat with Joe Terry, PGA Tour official, and Joan Alexander, the PGA Tour’s media representative. The boat was anchored and we were just starting the fun. The girls were lathering up and positioning themselves for sun worship; Joe was setting up rod and tackle; and I was donning the snorkeling gear. It was late morning and Joe wanted to check messages at the office before the day started.
He returned from below five minutes later; his bronzed face ashen and distraught. We all knew something was wrong. “They think Payne Stewart’s plane has malfunctioned and it’s heading for a crash landing in the Dakotas.” The tour office wasn’t confirming the story, but they were pretty sure Payne was on the depressurised plane, and nobody on the flight was alive. The plane’s cabin had lost oxygen and all aboard perished while the plane was on auto-pilot.
We gathered our blank stares, gulped a few times, and packed up. This was the type of spot Payne would have enjoyed with anyone, especially friends, we couldn’t continue our festivities without him. I headed back to our Maui hillside bungalow, tuned in CNN hoping they would tell me different. You never like losing friends, but watching their demise on TV is agonizing. While I was listening to the reporters, Payne Stewart memories drifted in and out. Please tell me this isn’t true.
Payne was a swashbuckler, and his “Plus Fours” announced his presence to the crowd. He was easily recognizable inside the ropes, but that wasn’t the Payne we were going to miss. The practical joker, brash country boy, cocky kid turned family man was our memory. After his first few years on the tour, the caddies nicknamed him AVIS because he finished second so many times. He took the jibe and always had some sarcastic comments for the caddy corp, all in fun.
Payne always carried his harmonica and an ugly set of bucktooth fake teeth. He would pull them out at any time. He’d jump on stage with Duck Soup, whip out his pipes, and entertain the crowd. He was so-so, but he was a showman. Those teeth startled many airline personnel. He’d slide them in as he walked to the ticket counter, or just before the flight attendants made their rounds. There was always an awkward silence when he smiled and started talking. We all got a kick out of it.
Payne stuck bananas in Azinger’s loafers after Paul holed a bunker shot to beat him at the Memorial. He was always messing with someone, but he could take it just as well. During his memorial service his friends were on the dias roasting him as if he was there, and he probably was. His wife, Tracy, turned her head to the sky and said, “let the party begin.” He was always looking for a party.
My first few years I stumbled into a bar outside Westchester CC in New York. As an out-of-towner I slid onto a bar stool quickly avoiding eye contact with the patrons. You don’t want to make a stir or call attention to yourself. I ordered a beer and was looking at the menu, when an elbow poked my left side. I ignored it, but a few minutes later came a gentle shove and a comment, “what the hell(expletive softened) you to good to talk to me?” It was Payne tucked under an old ball cap, tee shirt, and jeans. He was another out-of-towner flying way below the radar.
We had a few beers, discussed anything but golf, and had a great time. We were like high school buddies though he didn’t know me well. He explained one of the reasons he wore the “Plus Fours” while playing was so he could sneak around in public unnoticed. He thouroughly enjoyed being a country boy from Missouri. The slight southern drawl was soothing, and he made a lot of friends before they knew who he was.
His instructor and friend, Chuck Cook, were in the Pebble Beach Tap Room before the 1992 U.S. Open media day. Payne was the defending champion and they were having a few beers with the locals. Nobody recognized Payne, and after awhile introductions were starting. Payne introduced himself; the locals didn’t believe him, thought he was BSing them. Nothing Payne did would convince them. Finally, he asked, “if I bring in the U.S. Open trophy will you fill it with anyhting I choose for the rest of the night?”
They said sure, and Payne produced the trophy from the trunk of his car. “Fill it up with Crystall Champagne, please.” The locals were amused, and luckily rich; the boys had quite a night. There were other similar stories; Payne had many looks, but mainly he just wanted to be one of the guys.
His death wasn’t real till we gathered for the ceremony at Wilshire CC in L.A. the next week. Raymond and Maria Floyd organized the tribute, and the first hole was surrounded with mourners. Raymond couldn’t get throught his eulogy without weeping. The players, caddies, spectators, volunteers, and tournament officials kept waiting for Payne to walk out with his harmonica–he never showed up, but you could feel his presence.
A few weeks after his death, I wrote a letter to Tracy. My daughter Cassie had befriended their daughter Chelsea during her visits to the PGA childcare center. Cass called him the guy in the funny clothes. I wanted Tracy to know Payne was an inspiration to a lot of us. He had matured from a brash, arrogant rookie to an introspective family man seeking a little peace with God. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve but his new found religion was helping. The kids and family had a special place in his life, and it was fun to watch.
I never sent that letter and come across it occassionally. It’s my anchor to Payne and what he represented. It’s a shame the kids never got to know their Dad and the world never got to see the complete Payne Stewart. They saw his golf, but that wasn’t his best attribute. His personality, flair, and penchant for life was special; and only a few of us got to witness Payne in those moments away from golf. He was ohh-so special.