Monday, January 26, 2015

Ernie Banks

There will be a lot written about Ernie Banks in the next few days and without a doubt it will all be positive. “Mr. Cub” or “Mr. Sunshine” will forever be remembered for his infectious smile and zest for the positive in life. In a day when major league baseball players despise doubleheaders Banks was known for his frequent quip, “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two.”

Even though I grew up in Logansport, Indiana- I was not a Cub fan. The Yankees were my love, but if you wanted to watch baseball in northern Indiana back in the Sixties it was going to be on Channel 9. So, it was Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd calling the games and introducing us to Ernie Banks, Billy Wiiliams and Ron Santo. The Cubs of the Sixties were mostly mediocre. Banks spent his entire career with the Cubs and obviously never played in a World Series.

“Mr. Cub” broke into baseball in 1953 as a shortstop and was a two-time National League MVP in 1958-59. When I saw him play in the Sixties he was well into his career as a first baseman. Banks was clearly the face of the Chicago Cubs and finished his career with 512 home runs.
He was the first African American to wear a Cub uniform. When race relations flared in the Sixties, Banks was a pacifist. Some labeled him as an Uncle Tom because he refused to be vocal at a time when many Black celebrities were.

“My philosophy about race relations is that I’m the man and I’ll set my own patterns in life. I don’t rely on anyone else’s opinions. I look at a man as a human being; I don’t care about his color,” Banks once said. “Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his own will. If a man doesn’t like me because I’m black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere but I’m not going to let him change my life.”

I met Ernie Banks in the mid-1980’s. He came to Linton, IN to play in the Phil Harris Celebrity Golf Tournament. There were lots of Cub fans in Linton, but there were no Blacks in town. Linton had a prejudiced past. There are legendary photos of Black men who hand been hung in Linton during a coal strike fifty years earlier.

The town motto was portrayed on two large signs that bordered the entrances of Humphreys Park at the east edge of the city limits: “You’ll Like Linton.” For 17 years I did like Linton. My golf career started there and it was a great place to raise a family. But, Linton was a blue collar coal mining town and it had its fair share of bigots- even in the 1980’s.

There was a buzz about town when it became known that Banks was coming for Phil’s tournament. It was exciting for this town of 6,000 people to meet one of the all-time greats in baseball history. There were also a few wisecracks that spring in my pro shop about it being one of the few times a Black man would play the Linton links. George Taliaferro, former IU running back, might have been the only Black to play golf there before Banks.  

I remember thinking how great it was that Banks would come to Linton, but also worrying that somebody might say something stupid to offend him. You just never knew. Part of me was jubilant to bring a guy like this to town and the rest of me was kind of scared. Should I tell Banks anything ahead of time? Maybe I should warn him. But, if I did he probably wouldn’t come.
He showed up for a Friday practice round with his famous smile and a set of Ping golf clubs. Banks was wearing beige Sansabelt slacks, a white striped golf shirt and a visor. He wore saddle shoes and I was amazed at how fit he looked for a guy in his mid-50’s. The most amazing part was how well he played given his brief time in golf. We played together that day and there was nothing not to love about him.

Banks never turned away an autograph seeker over the next three days. His smile never faded and he lifted everyone around him. Kids hung on him. Women were charmed and even the older men who weren’t quite sure about hosting this Black baseball player became star struck. In the course of 72 hours Ernie Banks not only had the key to the City, but he had its heart.
On Sunday morning I was approached by the Mayor of Linton, Jimmie K. Wright. He said, “You know you made history last night when you took Ernie to the Elks to eat supper. It was the first time that a Black man has ever stepped foot in the Linton Lodge.”
I didn’t know what to think and asked the Mayor if I was in trouble. He smiled and cracked me on the back. “Not at all,” he said.

As luck would have it, Banks’ team tied for the tournament lead after Sunday’s round. Before the playoff he went to the back of the course to hit some balls. When he returned to the first tee he was greeted by a standing ovation. Hole #1 at Linton was a 135 yard, Par 3. Both teams played the hole simultaneously. Banks became the final player to putt and he drained the winning birdie to the delight of the crowd.

No one can remember who was on the other team. They are still talking about Banks’ putt some 30 years later in Linton. No doubt the putt is longer and the crowd around the #1 green larger with time. Much to the delight of Lintonians, Ernie came back the next year.

More importantly, “Mr. Cub” would be joined by Jim “Mudcat” Grant, the first Black pitcher to win 20 games in the America League; Tommy Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball’s great hitters and Tommy Agee, a star on the 1969 Miracle Mets. 

I last saw Banks in Chicago when the PGA announced Davis Love III as the 2012 Ryder Cup Captain. It was in January of 2011 and “Mr. Cub” was 80 years old. He joined Dan Hampton, Denis Savard, Scottie Pippen and Paul Konerko as Chicago sports legends to welcome Love to town for the upcoming competition at Medinah.  Banks still talked about making that winning putt. 

Ernie Banks leaves legacies all over the place, but none better than in Linton, Indiana.    

Monday, January 5, 2015

Keegan Bradley

Keegan Bradley has a lot of qualities that make him relatable to the average person. He grew up in modest surroundings living in a trailer with his father Mark, an assistant golf pro at the Portsmouth Country Club in New Hampshire. His first sporting love as a kid was that of a ski racer which twice earned Bradley all-state honors.

He knew that if he was going to see his dad it would be at the golf course. As a kid he hung out at whatever facility his dad was employed at becoming what we in the golf business describe as “a golf course rat.” Bradley improved as a junior golfer, but was labeled as the third-best player on his high school team which landed him an opportunity at St. John’s University, known more for basketball and baseball than golf.
“I remember racing in a ski event in Vermont late one winter. It was warm and kind of rainy. By skiing standards it was a very miserable day,” recalled Bradley. “That was the day I went home and told my dad that I wanted to be a golfer, not a skier.”

After a solid collegiate career where he won nine tournaments Bradley turned pro. He scraped it around on the developmental tours for three seasons and eventually made it to the PGA Tour in 2011 when he was named Rookie of the Year. In that rookie season Bradley made history when he won the PGA Championship joining Francis Ouimet and Ben Curtis as the third player to win a major championship in his first attempt. Maybe more significant was the fact that Bradley became the first golfer to win a major using a long putter.

“No one even mentioned the fact that I used a long putter in any of the interviews I did after I won the PGA. Would a rules’ change would take place? No chance. It was still a fad although the public started using it more,” said Bradley. “Then Webb (Simpson) won the U.S. Open and Ernie (Els) won the British Open and the USGA and R&A decided to change the Rule.”
On January 1, 2016 it will no longer be “legal” to anchor a long putter much to the dismay of a handful of touring professionals and scores of recreational amateurs. Bradley has been forced to adapt and he views this season as career defining.

“Knowing that this is coming has been a challenge. It’s been pretty scary. It’s going to be dramatically different and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been affected by the stress of knowing the change is being forced on me,” says Bradley. “I spent a lot of time perfecting this method and now it’s all down the drain.”
But, Bradley who started anchoring a long putter in 2009 because it “just felt good” is confident that he can overcome the change and continue his successful career as a player. By his own admission he purposely waited until after the Ryder Cup in September to make a serious attempt at changing his putting style. Last month at the Hero World Challenge, Bradley used a 38.5 inch Scotty Cameron Futura X5 Dual Balance putter. His putter head is 50 grams heavier than a standard length putter.

There is also 50 grams of added weight under the top portion of the grip which tends to take the hands and wrists out of the stroke while keeping the putter head on the ideal path. This qualifies Bradley’s putter as a “counterbalanced” model which is what every recreational player who is currently anchoring should consider.
“My first advice to the recreational golfers who now anchor is just figure out how to keep enjoying the game. Try to transition gradually and when you make the switch, have a bunch of different options available,” said Bradley.

Those options would include cutting down the current long putters that are in their golf bags. According to Bradley that will allow them to have heavier putters and the counterbalanced grip can always be installed, which saves the cost of a new putter. That’s the common side of Keegan Bradley helping the average guy save some bucks.

What does separate Bradley from the Average Joe is his $14.1 million in PGA Tour career earnings along with his three Tour wins including the PGA Championship. From 2012-’14 he has two Ryder Cup berths and a spot on the President’s Cup team. Bradley’s violent fist pumps and fixating eyes became the face of the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Medinah.

Bradley has his opinions on the future of the Ryder Cup. “We should talk through all facets. Phil and Tiger have played in a lot of Ryder Cups, but haven’t won many. We should listen to their thoughts on a Captain,” said Bradley.  “I would like to see a Captain like Freddie (Couples) who is super relaxing. He keeps the atmosphere loose and people have fun. It’s a matter of being relaxed,” offered Bradley, a veteran of sorts, but still a kid to many at 28 years old.

Bradley pals around and plays golf with Michael Jordan at his winter home in Jupiter, FL. He is said to have over 50 pairs of Air Jordans in his closet. According to Bradley, Jordan loses a lot and that means many nice dinners for Keegan and his girflfriend.

Bradley is an avid fan of all teams Boston. In casual settings he can almost always be seen wearing a Red Sox cap. He has said that his dream foursome includes his father, Ben Hogan and Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots. He relishes practice rounds and big money games with Phil Mickelson. His best friend on the PGA Tour is Jason Dufner.

Here’s the thing. All of you long putters who have adopted “Anchors Aweigh” as your theme song for 2015. Keegan Bradley is your guy.