Grudge Match


Grudge Match

The golf match to end all golf matches (6/2003)

 

Bobby McDougal was the number one ranked golfer in the world. He won his fiftieth tournament a month before his fortieth birthday and had wildly surpassed the play, the records and the legend of a guy named Eldridge. McDougal had won the last four events on the pro tour and seven of the last ten. All of the major records in golf were his.

As well as being a supremely talented athlete and golfer, McDougal was also an egomaniacal, self-centered bastard. His fellow golfers detested him. The press hoped beyond hope that he’d get his comeuppance some day. His fans – well, he didn’t have many fans anymore; he hadn’t signed an autograph in over a year and was brutally rude every chance he got. Bobby McDougal was alone at the top and, frankly, he didn’t mind one bit.

Annie Caldwell was the number one ranked woman golfer in the world. She’d won thirty-seven tournaments and was all of twenty-eight years old. All of the major records in women’s golf were hers.

Annie Caldwell was also a stunningly beautiful woman. Blonde, blue-eyed and statuesque, Caldwell was a former runway model that took up golf as a sophomore at the University of Arizona. That year, she won every competition and finished as the number one ranked player in the Pac 10 conference. She led the Wildcats to three consecutive national championships. The following year, she turned pro. Although she’d traded Vera Wang for Nike five years prior, Caldwell still had the body and the sex appeal to pull down seven figures as a model if she’d wanted to. Unfortunately for the rest of the LPGA, she didn’t want to.

Tommy “The Rat” Figueroa was the senior sportswriter for the Herald. The Rat was a fixture in the sports world, especially the golfing world.

He was there when Bobby Jones became the only player in the world to win the grand slam in golf, when in 1930, he won the four major tournaments of the time: the British Amateur, the British Open, the United States Amateur, and the United States Open.

He was there when Hogan won the U.S. Open every year between 1948 and 1953 except for 1949, when Hogan had been severely injured in an automobile accident and could not compete, and 1952, when he placed third.

He was there when Arnold Palmer became the first person to win the Masters four times, winning in 1958, 1960, 1962, and 1964. He was there to see Palmer’s record comeback win in the 1960 U.S. Open, when he fired a final round of 65 to come from seven strokes off the lead. He was there to witness the stunning growth of “Arnie’s Army.”

He was there when Jack Nicklaus won each of his six Masters’ Championships in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975 and 1986, when he shot a final-round 65. Had he not finished as runner-up in 1964, Nicklaus would have won the Masters an incredible four times in a row.

He was there when Eldridge “Tiger” Woods was once the dominant golfer in the world, once posting the biggest win in Masters history, when he won by 12 strokes and became the youngest winner of that tournament at only 21 years of age.

But now it was that schmuck Bobby McDougal. Figueroa, a silver-haired, cigar-smoking eighty-two years old, loved a good story. McDougal was no longer a good story. If he’d even ever been one, Figueroa thought to himself. McDougal could phone in his story covering a given week’s tournament; they were all the same except for the details about how many strokes behind the next closest competitor was, what McDougal’s final round score was, and so on. Figueroa needed a story, an angle.

On a warm fall Sunday, McDougal won his seventh Master’s. A week later, on an even warmer Sunday, Caldwell won her fifth.   That was when Figueroa had the idea.

Figueroa was not just a talented writer; he was a showman. He quickly settled in on the details. After that, the logistics were easy; McDougal was eager to help, given his love of publicity. Caldwell seemed reluctant, but went along. The event was scheduled for the last Sunday in November.

~~~~~

Four years earlier, McDougal built a new home along the North Carolina coast. The home was a spectacular, custom-built ten thousand square foot glass castle with panoramic views. All of the eastern views looked out over the Atlantic, while all of the western views overlooked a private golf course. Bobby McDougal’s private golf course. Two years of construction, another year of grounds keeping and fifty million dollars later, McDougal had eighteen holes and seven thousand two hundred yards of private green gold.

Five of the holes played along the ocean. Two were par threes that played over large coves between the tee boxes and greens. The final three holes all played along the ocean. The sixteen was a monstrous 595-yard par five, while the seventeenth and eighteenth were narrow par fours that demanded precision.

McDougal had played a total of perhaps a dozen rounds on the course over the past three years. Only one other person had played the course. Once. McDougal hadn’t played it since.

~~~~~

When the big event came, all the major networks plus Golf Channel and Golf Channel Classic were there in force. Each brought their camera crews and their announcers. In total, there were over sixty cameras, a hundred cameramen and crew, and eight announcers.

“Welcome to the McDonald’s Battle of the Sexes,” an ancient but strangely Dick Clark-esque Gary McCord began when the camera’s red light came on. “We’re here to witness a singularly unique golf event. The two number one players in the world – Bobby McDougal, the number one player on the PGA, and Annie Caldwell, the number one player on the LPGA – are about to compete head to head. It’s the first competition of its kind in the golf world. A veritable ‘battle of the sexes’ bringing back memories of Bobby Riggs vs. Billy Jean King at the Houston Astrodome in 1973.”

McCord continued. “Sure, Annika Sorenstam played in a PGA tournament in 2003 and Babe Zaharias played in three events on the men’s tour in 1945. But this is ‘mano a mano’ – or at least ‘mano a womano’.” McCord’s partner groaned.

Announcers from the other networks were smiling similar introductions into their respective cameras. McDougal and Caldwell were on the first tee ready to start their round.

McDougal had invited several hundred of his “closest friends” to watch the match. None were out on the course; McDougal had insisted that no galleries be on the course during the match. Only the cameramen, their caddies and Tommy Figueroa, the organizer of the event, were allowed. One of the networks rigged up a closed circuit system so the visitors could watch the match unfold from the seven monster-sized televisions embedded in the walls around McDougal’s house.

Annie Caldwell teed off first. As her ball landed gently in the middle of the fairway, she plucked her tee out of the ground and smirked at McDougal. A few moments later, McDougal teed off and found the thick rough left of the first fairway. Caldwell snottily offered, “nice shot, Robert.” The two golfing enemies began walking down the fairway as their round got underway. Storm clouds rolled in off the ocean as the sky darkened.

By the third hole, the sky was dark gray. This even though it wasn’t yet 2:00 p.m. By the fifth hole, a light sprinkle began to fall and the caddies struggled to keep the golfer’s clubs dry. By the eighth hole, the rain was coming down hard.

When Annie Caldwell and Bobby McDougal finished the first nine holes, Caldwell was ahead by two strokes. She was one under par, he was one over. As they walked to the tenth hole, the wind was howling across the course.

Although it was early, a raging party atmosphere had taken hold in McDougal’s house. The booze was flowing freely, many lines of cocaine had been snorted and a dozen or so hard-bodied beautiful people were skinny-dipping in the hot tub. They didn’t seem to mind that they were being pelted by the rain and whipped by the wind. A few couples also didn’t seem to mind that over a hundred people were watching them copulate on the pool deck.

Inside, the rock band was playing and people were dancing in McDougal’s cavernous living room, while others enjoyed the air hockey, ping-pong and pool tables as well as the awesome collection of video games and pinball machines in the game room. One of the networks had arranged for the party to be catered, and voluptuous women wearing skimpy outfits walked around passing out hors d’oeuvres and champagne. Bikini-clad bartenders served mixed drinks, beer and wine at six bars set up around the house.

The powerful, pretty people at the party mingled and did their best to be seen. The crowd was boisterous and guests seemed intent on showing each other up with how loud and obnoxious they could be. Most checked in on the round on one of the TVs now and again. The talk was as much about the weather as the match; truth be told, most didn’t care one bit for watching the bloody boring game.

Back on the course, Caldwell struggled with the wind. On one of the par threes along the ocean, she hooked two balls onto the beach and finished with a triple bogey. While he had difficulty with the wind as well, McDougal faired a bit better. After the fourteenth, the match was tied.

When McDougal and Caldwell stepped up to the fifteenth tee, a huge, hundred year-old oak tree along the right side of the fairway was struck at its base by a sudden bolt of lightening. After a terrifying creak, the tree fell across the fairway, just a hundred yards ahead of where the two golfers, their caddies and The Rat were standing.

Tommy Figueroa practically shat his pants when the tree fell. A slight, one hundred and thirty pounds, he had been struggling to stay upright in the strong winds for over an hour. He was exhausted; only the sense of drama, of a world-class story unfolding, kept him going.

“You two want to stop?” Figueroa asked this of McDougal and Caldwell. He hoped for an answer he also feared.

The two competitors looked into each other’s eyes and McDougal snapped, “No. We’re going to finish this thing.” Annie Caldwell’s response was, “No. I’ve beaten him once on this course and I’m going to beat him again.”

Figueroa’s mind raced. He leaned into the wind, trying to gather his thoughts, while the two insane golfers teed off.

Once both teed off, the group walked up the fairway and, upon reaching the ten-foot high fallen tree trunk, helped each other over it. Figueroa almost broke his hip as he slid down the far side of the tree.

The winds were now smashing into their faces. Both golfers had long since adapted their play as well as they could, hitting their shots as low as possible.

Waves were now crashing into the rocky crag of a coastline. As they stepped up to the 16th tee, McDougal, Caldwell, Figueroa and the two caddies were sprayed with ocean water as the waves broke on the cliffs to their left.

None of the partygoers noticed that the weather was worsening. As the afternoon progressed, more alcohol was consumed, more lines of cocaine were snorted, and more clothing was removed around the pool. The devil was seen snorting a line of coke with a lawyer from Beverly Hills and a porno “actress”, smiling as he reveled in the wicked collection of future inductees.

The party raged on. The waves, crashing off the rocky shore, began to spray the pool deck.

Sixteen was a joke. Long at 595 yards on a normal day, it was insane on a day when the players were facing a howling, unrelenting wind. Caldwell shot a twelve, which would normally be off the charts, unheard-of bad. But McDougal shot an eleven, so she’d only lost one stroke. She was one down with two to play.

Rat Figueroa was looking like Drowned Rat Figueroa by the time they walked up to the seventeenth tee.

By this time, McDougal’s house was being pounded by the rain, shoved by the monsoon-like wind and whacked by the constant crashing of forty-foot waves. Most of the partygoers walked out on to the deck, to experience the extreme weather up close. All were too far gone to realize just how crazy and stupid they were being.

Caldwell, the more accurate golfer, managed to pull even after the narrow fairway and small green on seventeen.

Figueroa was thrilled by the drama unfolding. The match was all tied up. Only one hole remaining. The vicious, horrific weather. And the intriguing sub-plot that this was, in fact, some kind of rematch between the two golfers. If he lived to tell about it, it was the story of a lifetime. And he’d told some pretty good stories in his life.

Figueroa found himself alternating between concentrating on making sure he wasn’t blown away by the gusting wind, and concentrating on the puzzle of how Annie Caldwell had come to play Bobby McDougal on McDougal’s private course. Rat had heard that McDougal was a freak about not letting anyone play on the course, even after spending all that money on the damn thing. Under what circumstances would Caldwell have played McDougal on the course?

Caldwell was away on eighteen. Her tee shot, smashed by the wind and rain, went about a hundred yards up the fairway.

Figueroa wondered to himself, “Are they friends? Were they once friends?

McDougal’s drive went a bit further – perhaps a hundred and twenty yards – before plunging into a huge puddle that had formed around one of the course’s many drains, all of which were overwhelmed and overflowing.

No, that can’t be it, thought Figueroa. McDougal didn’t have any friends. Certainly none close enough that he’d allow them to play his precious, private course.

Caldwell’s second shot went another hundred yards down the fairway. McDougal’s too.

It didn’t seem possible, but the winds kicked up another notch. And began to swirl. The waves were crashing across the eighteenth fairway. The golfers, their caddies and Figueroa all stayed to the far side of the fairway, and, for the most part, were able to time the rhythm of the waves so as to avoid being smacked and knocked over.

After another shot each, the golfers were each about seventy yards from the eighteenth green. The eighteen green was tiny. Fifteen feet across, surrounded by jagged rocks on all sides, it was the epitome of “target golf.” Perhaps only the floating island 17th green in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho defined the concept better. But that green was huge, while McDougal’s 18th was microscopic.

As the golfers walked up the fairway to their balls, they were close enough to the house to see everyone on the deck watching. They couldn’t hear the drunken revelry over the howling of the wind.

The skies darkened. Then the lightening started up again. Suddenly, lightening bolts appeared in the sky every twenty or thirty seconds. The associated thunder boomed just a second or so after each bolt. The storm was indeed close.

The Atlantic became even choppier, more violent. The waves crashing onto the eighteenth hole and into the house were now well over fifty feet high.

Annie Caldwell, who was away, stepped up to her ball. She waited several minutes, trying to time things so that she wouldn’t get clobbered by a tsunami while swinging. She was hoping to get the benefit of the light from a bolt of lightening. Timing it perfectly, she put her approach shot just two feet away from the where the flagstick used to stand. It had been snapped at its base by the wind an hour earlier.

Figueroa continued to wonder to himself, Could they be related? Brother and sister? The twelve-year age difference made it unlikely, although not impossible. Combined with the drastic differences in their physical appearances, the odds were definitely against the two being siblings, he thought.

McDougal’s approach shot wasn’t nearly as good. He shanked it to the right and the ball sailed over towards the rocks that guarded that side of the green. In the darkness, though, nobody could follow the entire flight of the ball. By the time the next bolt of lightening struck, the ball was no longer in the air, no longer visible. Nobody could tell for sure where the ball had come to rest.

Golfer’s – good golfers, anyway – know when they hit a poor shot. McDougal had just hit a poor shot and he knew it. He turned and hurled his seven iron over the cliff and down into the Atlantic.

Figueroa amazed that McDougal had choked, if you could call hitting a poor shot in such horrific conditions choking, continued to mull over the possibilities. Were they secretly married all these years? Nah, couldn’t be. But wait, maybe they were married at one time. Now separated or divorced. He could check it out when he got back to “dry land” as he thought of anywhere but here, smack in the middle of what he’d coined “Hurricane McDougal.”

To build a home like McDougal’s into a cliff involves building the house on a number of supporting columns. The columns were eighteen inch square steel rods that were pile driven thirty feet into the rocks. At the time, when the builder asked McDougal just how safe he wanted the house to be, just how much money he wanted to spend, McDougal had replied that money was no object. He was told that his house was completely safe.

The hurricane-class winds pounded the house. The waves formed by the storm crashed into the columns, and, increasingly, into the walls of the house as well. The waves had been coming down hard on the deck for some time. By this point, the carpeting in all of the rooms along the deck was soaked. In their drunken, drugged state, nobody thought to close the many French doors that ran along the eastern side of McDougal’s house. They probably would have shattered, anyway.

Figueroa began to approach the two golfers to ask them about his theory. A menacing growl from McDougal kept him away.

The two players, their caddies and Rat Figueroa focused their attention on keeping their footing as the walked the narrow path to the eighteenth green. They had to time their crossing to ensure that they weren’t swept away by an incoming wave.

Annie Caldwell was the first to cross the path. As she waited for the others to cross, she saw her ball resting in a huge, muddy divot just a few feet from the cup. She did not see McDougal’s ball on the green. “I’ve beaten the competitive bastard,” she thought to herself. “Again.”

McDougal crossed the path next. He, too, saw Annie’s ball. He, too, did not see his own.

“Don’t worry, Robert. You can always blame the weather,” Annie gloated.

The bitch could be so snotty, McDougal thought to himself. He was about to curse her out when he heard the loud crack from the sky and the even louder crack from underneath his house.

The golfing cadre looked up at McDougal’s house. One of the supports had been struck by lightening and had shattered as if made from balsa wood. Bobby McDougal watched in horror as the other columns buckled in turn. It felt like he was watching a movie, filmed entirely in slow motion.

The huge, five thousand square foot mahogany deck tipped forward, away from the house. The partygoers on the deck – most of the people at the party – slid down and over the edge. The devil was going to get to induct his pals sooner than expected.

Such a strange sight, to see hundreds of screaming, naked people fall to their deaths in front of your face. This was McDougal’s thought as he watched in disbelief.

An enormous wave came to shore and crashed through the second story windows of the house. The few couples that had remained upstairs in some of the bedrooms were sucked out to sea in the rush of icy cold Atlantic salt water and shards of glass, as the wave retreated after having done its damage.

Within a minute of having walked up to the 18th green, McDougal’s house was gone. He watched it crumble under the weight of the violent ocean. So upset by the fact that it looked like Annie was going to beat him on his course again, he found himself thinking that he was glad that the house was ruined. He would never want to live here again, to be reminded of the humiliation of losing to Annie not just once, but twice.

McDougal was nothing if not competitive, though. He still held out hope that he could find his ball in the rocks and somehow manage to hole out from there. Maybe Annie would miss her putt and he’d have two shots. You never know. He walked over to the rocks to the right of the green, where he thought his ball had gone.

The two caddies dragged themselves and their bags up to the green. Caldwell went to inspect her divot. Tommy Figueroa walked towards her.

“Annie, were you and Bobby married? Are you still married?”

Annie spun towards Figueroa. Damn him. This was why she didn’t want to play this stupid event. She and Bobby had agreed to keep their marriage private and had been successful all these years. But now the Rat had figured it out.

Before Annie could answer, she saw Rat’s eyes widen. She turned back to look behind her. Her eyes widened, too. Before any of them had a chance to turn and run, Annie Caldwell, Tommy Figueroa and the two caddies were slammed by an enormous wave. All four were dragged out over the cliff and out to sea. It had taken eight seconds.

Figueroa would never learn what Annie’s reply was going to be. Annie would never know what she would have admitted. That she still loved him, but couldn’t stand him. That she missed him but was happy to not have to compete with him all the time.

McDougal was blocked by the rocks on the far side of the green. He got knocked down by the wave and by the time he got back up, the damage had been done. He’d heard the screams just seconds before. Now he heard none.

Alone on the green, McDougal walked towards Annie’s ball. That’s when he saw it.

His ball was at the bottom of the cup. His approach shot had ricocheted off of the rocks and, miraculously, into the hole. He had won.

He had won!

“Ha HAH! I WON! I WON I WON I WON!” he screamed.

“Take that, you bitch!” he added.

McDougal raised his club into the air in triumph.

Then, in a rare moment of clarity he realized that Annie was gone. Dead. And he realized that he still loved her. No, that’s not right. He’d always loved her and knew it. He realized now why she’d divorced him; he’d become so competitive, so obsessed on winning after she’d beat him that day they played on this course years earlier. She just couldn’t take it any longer, he understood now.

“I’m sorry, Annie. I’m so sorry. For everything. I still love you. I’ve always loved you.”

A bolt of lightening cracked. It came down just inches from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted Bobby McDougal. Either Ben Franklin was wrong, or Bobby McDougal was a lucky man. Somehow he didn’t feel lucky.

McDougal dropped to his knees in exhaustion. He crouched forward and put his head to the ground, between his arms. He began to cry.

The lightening stopped. The rain slowed, then stopped. Even the sky lightened somewhat, although it was nearly 4:00 p.m. on a short, fall afternoon.

Bobby McDougal climbed up the cliff where his house had stood just minutes before. He made his way to the driveway, then to the private road that ran in front of his house. He could hear the sirens of the approaching fire trucks that had been sent in response to the disaster witnessed on television. McDougal walked numbly down the road towards the wailing of the approaching sirens.

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