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When Cooper Griel and I played tennis at the Woodley Country Club, we were only fifty yards from the golf course. I loved the look of that green expanse, and yearned to get on the course—there was a strong tug. But the Woodley Club had a rule you couldn’t play until you were thirteen. On my thirteenth birthday I started, and didn’t pick up a tennis racket for another thirty-five years.
My first rounds were with my mother and my Aunt Helen. They were not good, and I bounced the ball along the ground about a hundred yards. I did the same. One day I made a spectacular shot—on a 170-yard par-three my drive trickled onto the green. Mother and Aunt Helen were ecstatic; I was a little puffed up myself. After a few more rounds with them I started playing alone.
Now the first thing you do when you play golf is grab hold of the club. This is called a grip. I had been taught a grip by Mr. Morris of the Penick Apartments, and it wasn’t a good grip. It was what you would call a strong grip, with the right hand too much under and the left hand too far over. My powers of observation are impoverished so I didn’t notice that other people’s grips were different. I started with Mr. Morris’ grip, and used it till I was twenty-one. The grip had a major disadvantage, it made you hook the ball. It never occurred to me to change the grip—when I started to hook, I changed something else. I brought the club back well on the inside, and then moved my body ahead fast, to get the blade open so that it would be square at impact. It was not easy but, with plenty of practice, I got to do it quite well. And it had one advantage. For my weight, less than 130 pounds, I hit the ball a long way, almost as far as Florian Straussberger and Dr. Blue Harris, the long hitters in Montgomery.
There was a place between the fifth green and the sixth tee, a little plateau of grass that I used to practice from. It was a spot where divots were not apt to bother anybody. I used to hit a bag of balls and my caddy, Perry, I’ll tell you about him later, would bring them back and I’d hit them again, for hours. In those days there was no such thing as a practice green at the Woodley Club. I pitched and putted for hours on the greens themselves. They were Bermuda greens, slow and tough, and nobody minded.
Pretty soon I was shooting in the high forties. One day I got a forty-three. That was my best score for a while. Then I had a thirty-nine—such a big drop that nobody in the clubhouse believed it. That was the beginning of my playing well. By the time I was fifteen I got to the finals of the Woodley Country Club Championship, and almost won it. When I was sixteen I did win it, and won it the next three years.
There were two golf clubs in Montgomery, the Montgomery Country Club and the Woodley Country Club. The Montgomery Club was an eighteen-hole course and the Woodley a nine-hole course. Both were good golf courses. By coincidence, the Montgomery Country Club didn’t have any Jewish members, and by coincidence the members of the Woodley Country Club were all Jewish. That was just the way it was. I wasn’t aware of prejudice in either direction.
Once a year the champion of the Montgomery Club and the champion of the Woodley Club would play a match, considered the City Championship, since there weren’t any other golf courses. I won this twice, from Files Crenshaw at the Woodley Club, and from Dr. Blue Harris at the Montgomery Club. I felt at home at the Montgomery Country Club, and played there many times with my good friends Files Crenshaw, Dr. Blue Harris, Charlie Ball, and the fine pro, Bill Damon.
It was at the Montgomery Country Club that my name was changed. Charlie Ball noted that the barber put a saucer on my head and cut around it. He called me Saucer Head. It must have fit because everybody called me that. My close friends called me Saucer. For the next twenty years, in Montgomery, I was still Saucer Head.
Selma, Ala., is fifty miles from Montgomery. In Selma there were two brothers, Glen and Otis Crisman, both outstanding golfers. Glen won the Alabama State Championship. Later Otey became a pro, and a manufacturer of fine golf clubs. Otey used to drive over to Montgomery to play matches with me, for money. Each of us thought he had the best of it. In our last match, my putting, or rather my putter, received an unusual compliment. I sank a long putt on the fifteenth hole, the third of the day, and Otey asked if he could see my putter. I handed him my old wooden putter. He examined it carefully—then broke it over his knee.
That was sixty years ago. I don’t bear grudges. I forgave Otey last week.
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