I never lost my temper with my opponent. I was only angry with myself. It always seemed… such an utterly useless and idiotic thing to stand up to a perfectly simple shot, one that I know I can make a hundred times running without a miss—and then mess up the blamed thing, the one time I want to make it! And it is gone forever–an irrevocable crime, that shot.” —Bobby Jones, on his anger and outbursts on the golf course
Equipment manufacturers might want to avert their eyes from the forthcoming paragraphs. This is a story of exorcism, excoriation and execution, and it might be too gruesome to bear.
As Jones so eloquently explained, there is an irresistible dynamic to the game of golf that provokes its practitioners into paroxysms of pique and petulance. Even the most skilled, most levelheaded player can fail to quell the festering frustration and anger percolating inside. The result is an eruption of emotion accompanied by a need for a temporal release. And because there is an implement readily available to help alleviate the growing stress–an implement, mind you, that shares the blame for the poor outcome, if it is not out and out responsible for it–it’s a safe bet that a golf club is going to suffer some kind of untimely demise.
Let’s face it: Killing a golf club is a predictable response when a golfer finds disfavor with the “irrevocable crime” of a poor stroke. The tradition of altering a club’s configuration likely dates to only a few minutes after the first club was invented.
Long before Rory McIlroy drowned his 3-iron for all to see this year at Trump Doral with a perfect helicopter-style launch that would have made the late Tommy Bolt smile, golfers have found amelioration for their bereavement through equipment eradication.
Jones was a serial abuser in his younger years. Gentle Gene Sarazen had his moments. Bolt, nicknamed Terrible Tommy, remains the all-time poster boy for tempestuousness and an unrepentant, unrestrained appetite for destruction. The game has been populated by scores of players whose skills were only slightly superior to their scalding on-course temperaments.
“Eventually the game is going to get to you. The game is going to beat you to death because it’s so hard. I think it’s a natural reaction to beat something in response,” says Paul Goydos, who once fired a 59 in a PGA Tour event but has fired his clubs on countless occasions, sometimes quite imaginatively. “If you don’t feel like taking out your anger on a club from time to time, you’re probably not doing it right.”
“Guys snap,” says 1993 PGA champion Paul Azinger, who had a standing $100 bet every year with Mark Calcavecchia on which man would break a club first. “Anybody who plays golf knows: Guys are hard on themselves,” Azinger says. “But it’s usually a quick burst, and it’s over.” Did the bet ever survive into the Florida Swing? “No, I don’t believe so,” Zinger says with a laugh.
“Destroying a club is almost healthy sometimes,” says Ben Curtis, the 2003 British Open champion, who has been in and out of love with golf since he was 3 years old. “I honestly think that’s what’s missing for me now.
Before I had kids, I had a release. I don’t want my kids–or any other kids–to see me behave that way, throwing a club or what have you, so I’ve stopped. But I think that’s why I haven’t played as well recently. You have to have a release. You play with fire out there, and a little bit of a release keeps the fire under control.”
As Jones said, “Some emotions cannot be endured with a golf club in your hands.” He routinely threw clubs, including a famous display at Brae Burn Country Club in 1917 when, after shanking a shot, he began throwing clubs and balls in all directions as the crowd gasped. Sports writer Grantland Rice once said the young Jones had “the face of an angel and the temper of a timberwolf.”
Jones’ most famous outburst occurred at the Old Course at St. Andrews during the 1921 Open Championship, when he stomped off the par-3 11th hole and tore up his scorecard upon failing after four tries to extricate his ball from the Hill bunker. That year he was guilty of another lapse when he threw a club at the U.S. Open that struck a female spectator in the leg. USGA president Howard F. Whitney reportedly delivered a severe rebuke to the 19-year-old Jones.
The serene, soft-spoken Sarazen once admitted “a bad shot was something to drive me into a tantrum, with the result that my reputation for club-throwing somewhat exceeded my prestige as a golfer.” But Sarazen had imagination, too. After one particularly perplexing round of wayward short putts, he placed the defective putter into a vise and sawed it into three sections. The sin of it was that the club belonged to a club member.
Possessing an acute disposition for rage, Bolt, the 1958 U.S. Open champion, so filled the air with flying shafts that the PGA of America instituted the so-called “Tommy Bolt Rule” in 1957, which established fines for thrown implements. The day after the rule went into effect, Bolt flung a putter skyward. Reportedly, he wanted to be the first man fined under “his” rule.
THE COST OF CRIME
Today, such open fits of frustration like McIlroy’s are considered conduct unbecoming and costs the offending tour pro an “intermediate-level” fine, around $2,000 to $10,000. John Daly made a 10 on the par-3 seventh hole during this year’s PGA at Whistling Straits and tossed his 6-iron into Lake Michigan. “I should have thrown the 4-iron–that was the club that got me in trouble first,” Daly said. Reminded that McIlroy threw a club into the water at Doral, Daly replied, “I’ve got him beat by about 180.”
Jeff Sluman, the 1988 PGA champion, is about as even-keeled as anyone in the game. “Usually, we all are pretty much the same. We don’t get that mad. When a club stops working, we usually just put it away. We bench it,” Sluman says. “But,” he adds, “sometimes a club just has to die.”
The golf world witnessed a public execution when McIlroy’s synapses snapped and he flew his 3-iron into the lake adjacent to the eighth hole at Doral’s Blue Course after hooking his approach into the water. A chastened McIlroy was of two minds about it later, admitting it wasn’t “one of my proudest moments.” But in the same breath he said it “felt good at the time. I don’t feel good about it now. It’s frustrating when you feel your game is close and you keep hitting shots like that in the water, things I rarely do.”
Justin Rose could only laugh. Several years earlier he’d done the same thing at Doral, on the same hole. “But I flung it so far that it nearly reached the other side. It was sort of half-submerged in the bank,” Rose recalls. “So we come to the [par-5] 10th hole, and I’ve got a perfect 3-wood distance to the green. I send Fulchy [caddie Mark Fulcher] 50 yards across the fairway, and he wades in and gets it back. I hit the middle of the green. Obviously, it had learned its lesson.” While playing with friends at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North was testing a new driver. But after a series of poor tee shots, including a snap-hook at 18, North marched off the front of the teeing ground, laid his driver on the stone facing, picked up a large rock, and pulverized the clubhead.
He had calmed down by the time he sat down for lunch, but his friends helped him relive the moment. “I ordered a chef salad,” North recalls. “When the waiter took the top off the plate, there were shards of the driver head sprinkled over the top of the salad.”
Ryan Moore lost it at Oakland Hills in the 2008 PGA, and it cost him his favorite club, a 3-wood. He flung it against the canvas-covered fence along the perimeter of the golf course and watched in horror as it broke into three pieces. “I loved that club,” he says. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” Well, because golf.
Even nice guys 86 a few. And without shooting 86.
At the 2006 Memorial Tournament, Curtis, a native of nearby Ostrander, Ohio, who as a kid dreamed of competing at Muirfield Village, executed a 14-club throw-down in the ninth fairway after rinsing his approach short of the green. “I took the whole bag and chucked it,” he says. “Problem was, I still made the cut. Had to make sure they were all OK.”
Steve Stricker went full Judge Smails on the 11th tee at Doral–what is it about Doral, guys?–and flung his driver high into the trees after a poor poke. His wife, Nicki, was on the bag. She said nothing. Steve finally broke the silence. “Don’t get that,” were his only instructions.
Rocco Mediate was so frustrated by his putting at The International in 2000 after hitting 32 greens in regulation and missing the cut that he ground his putter into the cartpath with his metal spikes. “I smashed it. And then I thought, Why did I do that? I like that putter. It was a beautiful Scotty Cameron Big Sur. So the next week at the Buick, I have to put the backup in play, and I made everything for four rounds and won.”
Similarly, Kenny Perry recalls with remarkable clarity succumbing to an outburst at the 1994 New England Classic. On the range well past dinnertime, Perry became so enraged at his seeming incompetence that he picked up his golf bag, raised it over his head, and slammed it on the ground. No clubs were broken–thank goodness for metal shafts–but the strap was toast.
“Oh, yeah, I lost it,” Perry says. “I didn’t even care. I dragged the bag back to the clubhouse by that broken strap and just flung it into the bag room. Then I came out Thursday morning, took a few swings, made one that felt perfect, and I thought, That’s it! I ended up turning that into four great rounds and winning the golf tournament. Ever since then I always say, you’re never as far away as you think you are.”
Or never far away from rough rage.
“This was a while ago when I was playing in Europe, and I had a very frustrating six to eight weeks, so I went home to Australia to unwind,” says 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “I went out to play at Victoria Golf Club with a few friends for like $5. And I bogeyed the last three holes to lose that $5. I took one of my clubs and just started beating my bag with it. I bet I hit it 100 times. I broke six or seven clubs just hacking at this stand bag. Then I started pulling them out to see which ones were still intact. It was a complete flip-out. I bet it would have been fun to watch.”
IT WASN’T THE CADILLAC’S FAULT
Sometimes, there is collateral damage to report.
Long before Elin Woods underclubbed going for an SUV with a 9-iron, there was Rocky Thompson. After a Monday qualifier for the New Orleans Open, Thompson climbed atop the hood of his Cadillac, still wearing his metal spikes, and proceeded to remodel it with a 7-iron. “We’re all sitting there on the trunks of our cars waiting for the results,” says Gary McCord, who witnessed the carnage. “Next thing you know you hear this God-awful sound, and there’s Rocky flailing away. It was great entertainment.”
David Feherty admits to running over his clubs with his car after triple-bogeying the final hole to lose the 1981 Irish National PGA Championship. “I drove over them lengthwise so that I got all of them from grip to clubhead,” he says. “Unfortunately, I left my watch in there.”
Speaking of Tiger, he has tossed clubs in disgust here and there, but at the 2012 Masters he employed a dropkick to his 9-iron after a poor tee shot at the par-3 16th hole. It would be a 9-iron, right?
Perhaps the most common form of golf-club execution is known as the “Bo Jackson.” For a how-to on snapping a club over your knee, please refer to Kevin Costner’s performance in the film “Tin Cup.” McCord, who appeared in the movie and served as a technical consultant, coached him on the proper technique.
A recitation of various Bo Jacksons would require a listing of phone-book-size proportions. However, we must single out Dustin Johnson’s effort after the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. No one witnessed the moment when Johnson turned his traitorous 2-iron into two irons, but the club had it coming. Its betrayal was unforgivable after steering Johnson’s second shot out-of-bounds on the par-5 14th hole, ending his bid to catch Darren Clarke.
“That was the only time I had ever broken a club,” Johnson says. “I just left it there in the trash can. I never wanted to see that club again.” (There was no report on what happened to Johnson’s putter after this year’s U.S. Open, but we fear the worst.)
PGA Tour rules official Slugger White, a former tour player, has seen his share of throws, slams and breakages. He was even guilty of one at the 1976 Canadian Open when he tried to turn his 7-iron into a sledgehammer on a cartpath. One of his favorite stories happened long ago at a mini-tour event when Frank Conner broke all 14 clubs over his knee in the parking lot. “No one got out alive,” White says with relish.
WHY PUTTERS NEED PROTECTION
Which brings us to putters, the most cherished and reviled club. Some players change putters as often as they change zip codes. Sometimes, a player needs a quick separation, which means locker-room attendants or a lucky member of the gallery might receive a surprise gift. But on many occasions a putter has to be tortured in a manner commensurate with the pain it has inflicted. And let’s be honest: Putters are guilty until proven innocent.
“Putters take the brunt of our frustrations, for good reason,” Goydos says.
Woody Austin performed one of the most famous exhibitions of putter abuse caught on camera in 1997 at Harbour Town. He repeatedly head-butted the shaft while exiting the 14th green. “What people don’t understand is that I wasn’t trying to abuse the putter, I was trying to abuse myself,” Austin says before going on a Paul Harvey rest-of-the-story tangent. “What no one knows about that day is that I was playing with Tom Watson, and on the sixth hole he absolutely tomahawked one into the ground, and his caddie is fighting to get it out, and I think he even had to use another club to dig it out. I mean, like I said, it happens to all of us, even the best of us.”
During the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village, Ben Crenshaw banged his putter, Little Ben, on the ground as he exited the sixth green during his match against Eamonn Darcy. Crenshaw blamed rust in the shaft, but disgust abetted the immolation. Using his 1-iron and sand wedge the rest of the way, Crenshaw lost to Darcy, 1 up, as Europe won 15-13 for its first triumph on U.S. soil.
Drownings, not surprisingly, are the surest and most convenient method of disposal. “I wish I had a dollar for every putter that I’ve seen thrown into a water hazard,” Skip Kendall says.
Charley Hoffman pitched his in the water at TPC Sawgrass in 2008 after missing a tap-in on the 13th hole. Azinger flung one in the water at the Honda Classic on the seventh hole at TPC Heron Bay, and on the ninth he found a kid holding it. “I signed it for him and told him, ‘I hope you have more luck than I did.’ ” Mediate has been a party to countless burials at sea, including one conducted during the 2007 Fry’s.com Open in Las Vegas, when he exhorted his caddie, Martin Courtois, to pitch it into the lake at the 12th hole at TPC Summerlin. “We’re waiting for Scott Verplank to putt out, and I said it to Martin twice: ‘Throw the effing putter into the effing lake.’ But I’m thinking he’s not going to do it. All of a sudden I see this thing out of the corner of my eye. He whirly-birded it in. I’m like, ‘Did you really throw that in the water?’ He thinks I’m going to fire him. Why would I fire him? He did what I said.”
One tour veteran, who requested anonymity, simply drowned the head of his putter in his hotel-room toilet bowl overnight. This, of course, after he had deposited his daily constitutional.
Though many choose water, Ernie Els opted for fire. “I burned one,” he admitted sheepishly after turning it into a glorified marshmallow stick. “I stuck it in there, and then I used it to move the embers around. The head melted off, and I just let it roast.”
Andrew Magee can beat Els’ flameout, having ignited several dozen putters in a bonfire behind the home of his good friend and neighbor, McCord. Though they belonged to McCord, Gary didn’t object. He and Magee and a host of other tour players toasted the roasting. “That was after an entire year of bad putting, and he wanted to do a complete purge so that I would start over with something new,” says McCord, who cops a plea of guilty about his sordid past. “I did a Ky Laffoon once,” he says.
What’s a Ky Laffoon? “That’s where you tie a putter to your back bumper and drag that thing on the road.”
Goydos steps forward for a similar transgression. “It was already bent a little bit, somehow,” Goydos says with a grin. “I attached my putter to the back bumper at a mini-tour event, the Golden State Tour, and I dragged it around the parking lot and drove it down the service road. Then I pitched it into the bushes. It added a bit of loft to it by the time I was done with it; turned it into a chipper.”
A few weeks later, Goydos watched one of his playing partners chuck a Spalding 8802 into a tree after three-putting a par 5. The club got stuck, so the player, whom Goydos would not name, tried to free it by throwing his 9-iron at it. Very soon the player had four clubs hanging from the tree. The group was playing out of carts, so Goydos joined up with John Flannery, the third member of the group, to finish the final four holes. “As we were leaving,” Goydos says, “I turned around, and the guy was now ramming the cart into the tree.”
Calcavecchia, however, is the king of the Ky Laffoon platoon. After the final round of the 2006 Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, the 1989 British Open champion decided that seven three-putts warranted action. Speeding down the steep hill from the course to his hotel, Calcavecchia opened his car door, plunged the putter out and dragged it along the pavement at 50 miles per hour. “I made sure I hit the reflectors in the middle of the road, too, for extra punishment,” he says, “but that was stupid, because then I hurt my wrist.”
But he wasn’t done. He pulled off to the side of the road and started throwing the club against a brick wall. “People thought I was going berserk. And I was,” he says, laughing at the memory. “But that’s the game for you.”