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the reflection, the review, the reaction next

Golf Thoughts
Milan Babic

"You're an animal . . . you're an animal! Man! YOU ARE AN ANIMAL!" These words came from a WB Network star as he witnessed me consistently hitting drives over the retaining netting and out of the local driving range. I smiled, acknowledging his outburst, but inside I was burning up. Hogan would have put off the curmudgeon by stating that his round had already started. Trevino would have told this etiquette-less sap to shut his mouth.

"Are you practicing for the Clam Bake?" (the ATT-Pebble Beach Pro/Am) asked a cast member from Murphy Brown. This time I politely said no, although in my head I was thinking "No. I'm not famous enough, nor wealthy enough, to ever have the chance to play in that tournament (unlike that Costner fellow slicing and hooking away four stalls down) you hack!"

The sleepy little driving range in Studio City that I frequent is no longer as unassuming as it once was, say, three years ago. It's take-a-number these days, with every Tom, Dick, and Harriet who owns a set of sticks with over-sized metal heads, trying to hit little white balls off of green rubber mats.

Don't try showing up there anymore on a weekend or after work at a decent hour. You'd have better luck trying to scam a table in the front dining room at Spago. But Spago won't have nearly half the star power. Nowadays, you'll see Tom--the short, "Show me the money!" one--or Kevin, or Sylvester, and a host of other industry mafiosi and B-list celebrities. It seems that recently, this Studio City golf range has surpassed AA for where the people from William Morris go to schmooze and close.

Golf has changed, but I don't think it's for the better. It pays to be average, or below average, these days, with the Golf manufactures catering to those who believe that money can buy anything, including a golf swing. And you know what . . . they may be right.

This development is most disturbing for hard-core golfers, you see, because in the prehistoric days of Golf (really the Pre-Ping Era, but for arguments sake we'll take this to be Pre-Callaway Big Bertha), most hackers taking up the sport would pick up a club, flail at some balls, realize they couldn't play to save their lives, and then just quit (god bless 'em). This natural tendency left links open to those, like Jedi masters using "The Force," with the uncanny ability to smack a little white balata ball high into the air using a forged blade, and have it land within ten feet of the target--about 217 yards away--with a prevailing cross wind.

Today, even the lamest B-movie reject can produce some semblance of a golf shot without having a decent golf swing. Inevitably, the louse will succeed at hitting a pro-caliber shot once a round (which is what keeps them coming back) so that real golfers get pushed aside in the name of golf equipment makers' profits.

Is Tiger Woods really worth the $40-plus million in endorsement money? His potential mandates his market value, but these equipment companies aren't paying for it. Get with it people: We are. Tiger is a public works project, just as in the days of FDR, only now it's the golf companies raking in the revenue.

Old School Golfers are now being squeezed into paying $170 green fees, hitting balls at 10 pm on a Friday night (I regularly do this!), or having to find unobtrusive places to play--similar to a wandering white elephant looking for a fresh watering hole. I found one such Mecca about seven years ago. A friend of mine was in UCLA medical school, and was in the middle of a psych rotation at the nearby VA hospital. It turned out that there was a nine-hole golf course there, and that anyone associated with the hospital could play. This usually meant doctors, their guests, military personnel, and medicated mental patients. It was quite a surreal sight to see all of these patients in their white hospital frocks, carrying irons, swinging away (sometimes even at a ball).

But after having to often repossess my ball from one of these fellows who would inevitably abscond with it, I would offer them golf advice and swing tips, and would occasionally give one or two of them a ride back to the hospital in my car. I became a regular (a Colonel Kurtz of sorts), and took full advantage of it, dramatically improving my pitch shot and chip. A hole at the top of the hill of this hidden gem had a magnificent view of the Pacific, with Catalina in the background. To me this place was the essence of what golf should be: a game that is simple, unpolished, and wide open. The greens were more like browns, especially in the summer, but golf should not be about perfection, but rather about the pursuit of perfection.

Golf has become as gridlocked as Highway 101 in rush-hour. It's not Pebble Beach, but now and again I go back to that VA psych hospital course to work on my short game. No actors, no waiters, and no wannabes, just me in the cuckoo's nest dropping four balls and playing nine holes. By the way, I can't believe the Secret Service let President Clinton anywhere near Greg Norman. This guy just may be the most unlucky man in the history of sports. Didn't any of the President's people watch what happened at Augusta last year?

Milan Babic

Los Angeles, California