Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Good Lesson For A Golfer’s Son

By Steve White

I grew up hanging around the Great Southern golf club in Gulfport, MS. My parents lived in the 1950s vintage apartment building next to the tennis court, behind the Spanish-style mansion where original course owner Charlie Stewart lived. By the time we moved there, the Great Southern was owned by the Broadwater Hotel in Biloxi and known as the Sea Course; the hotel also owned a longer, less inspired 18-hole layout, located right behind the resort premises, called the Sun Course.

The Sea Course, known once again today as the Great Southern, sits overlooking the waterfront in Gulfport, along the narrow frontage road that runs just above Highway 90. Based on an original Donald Ross design, the course’s legacy dates back to 1908. It is the oldest course in Mississippi, playing host to early golf greats like Bobby Jones, Frances Ouimet, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, not to mention later immortals such as Ben Hogan, Bryon Nelson and Sam Snead. Members bought the club from the hotel in the early 1990s and soon restored many of the holes to their Golden Age glory. Unfortunately, the clubhouse and several holes near the beach were washed away by Katrina, the latest in a series of hurricanes to strip the land of its lush and once plentiful oaks.

My grandparents -- a marriage in which two distant universes collided – retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast from south Florida around the time I started school. We made the move from a rental house in Mississippi City to the Southern Circle beachfront apartments shortly thereafter. My grandfather, a former professional golfer who spent two decades on tour and close to another two decades as an instructor in the Miami area, wanted to move closer to his only child, my dad. In doing so, he bought two memberships to the club, one for he and my grandmother and one for our financially struggling family of three.

My grandfather’s decision to come back to Mississippi, where he first met my grandmother four decades earlier, proved pivotal in the arc of my young life. The club membership gave me a place to flourish, swimming and roaming the fairways, mostly among the company of my grandfather and my dad and the colorful men with whom they played golf and cards and Ping Pong and, later tennis -- always for money. They were sportsmen, although not in the manner of Long Island bluebloods. My grandfather, the consummate sports professional, spent his life making money at golf, both in official prize checks and often from the more lucrative un-official gambling pot up for grabs amongst his fellow pros.

His cronies, at least during the Sea Course years, fell fall short of the colorful characters described in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “Looking for My Father in Las Vegas” by Pat Jordan. However, out on tour, he had known, and gambled with, some fairly notorious characters including Martin “The Fat Man” Stanovich and Titanic Thompson and later, in south Florida, he had provided golf instruction to the legendary gambling financier Meyer Lansky.

Jordan’s article is a gem, evoking the kind of world that I only glimpsed as a youngster, when he writes of his own less than reputable forefathers. “My uncles were not like the uncles of my childhood friends — tall, blond, smiling men who taught their nephews how to toss a baseball,” he writes. “My uncles were short, dour men in shimmering sharkskin suits. They smoked crooked Toscano cigars and taught me, from the time I was 6, how to palm the ace of spades, how to spot shaved dice and how to pray to God before I went to bed that the Bears would beat the Packers by at least a point and a half. They weren’t really my uncles; they were my father’s gambling cronies.”

Not unlike my own efforts to summon up the ghosts of my past, Jordan goes in search of his father’s essence in the modern Mecca of vice, Las Vegas. He learns a lot about gambling, but in the end is left with his own father’s words as the most reliable coordinates to finding himself.

“My father decided at some point in his life that it was gambling that defined him. It didn’t matter whether that was true or not, it mattered only that to him it was true,” Jordan concludes. “He told me once: 'Find out who you are, kid. And be it.' A good lesson for a gambler’s son.”

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