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Swingin' with the Stars Part 2: Golf nuts Larry Bird and Wayne Gretzky

Jack SheehanBy Jack Sheehan,
Larry Bird
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Larry Bird's medium-long and very straight off the tee, hits crisp iron shots and displays soft hands on short wedge-shots and chips. (Courtesy of LarryBird.com)

As I mentioned in last month's column, there are perks to scribbling for a living in Las Vegas and loving golf as much as life itself, and one of those is the occasional opportunity to slap the pelota in company with the rich and famous.

Years ago, word got to the editors at GOLF magazine that I had some ins with celebrities, and thus I was given the opportunity to take up the reins of an existing feature titled "18 Holes With ... ." The premise was that in an 18-hole round of golf, you can become as familiar with the true character of a personality as you could in a week of business meetings. That's because, as we all know, golf will magnify all those strengths and weaknesses that exist in every person, and will do so in boldface, with capital letters and exclamation points.

If someone is a raving assh**e in everyday life, the chances are small that he'll behave like Nick Price or Peter Jacobsen on the links.

However, I have seen gentlemen and ladies who behave with decorum in their professional lives, yet act like Jack Black on steroids the first time the golf ball meets the hosel of their 5-iron. There's nothing quite like our beloved game to instantly expose that inner brat lurking inside.

0ne of the first celebrity games I arranged was with Larry Bird, who had recently retired from competition with the Boston Celtics and was working as a special assistant in the franchise's front office. Bird had long been my favorite basketball player to watch - for his court knowledge, his passing skills and his lust for the ball in the last minute of a close game. Even though he had only a fraction of the natural skill set of his friend and chief rival Magic Johnson, through hard work and savvy Larry had attained the same lofty levels of accomplishment in his sport: Most Valuable Player awards, world titles and an Olympic gold medal with the Dream Team.

Larry Legend also showed a lot of game on the golf course. The three years since he'd retired had afforded him a lot of time to work on his swing, and the day we played at the Tournament Players Club in Summerlin (current host site of our PGA Tour event), he fashioned a smooth 77 despite four three-putts. He was medium-long and very straight off the tee, hit crisp iron shots and displayed soft hands on short wedge-shots and chips. I would expect no less from a guy with an 89 percent career free-throw shooting percentage, ninth best in NBA history.

When I informed him after our round that the only better score in GOLF celebrity series had been a 76 posted by former Indiana University coach Bobby Knight (who had recruited Bird to Indiana, only to have Larry lay rubber out of Bloomington after three weeks), Bird asked. "Where did Knight shoot it?"

"At the IU campus course," I said.

"That ain't no championship course," Bird said. "Now this here is a great course."

Old rivalries die hard.

Along the way, I talked a little hoops with the three-time NBA MVP, who in his first season helped turn the Boston Celtics from a 29-53 doormat to a league-best 61-21 record and led them to three world titles. Larry told me that (the late) Dennis Johnson was his most valuable teammate, and he scoffed at the notion that had recently been put forth in a Sports Illustrated cover story that Michael Jordan might some day improve his golf game enough to compete on the Senior Tour.

"He's a better baseball player than golfer," he said, "so you can reach your own conclusions."

I asked Bird if he ever played basketball anymore.

"Nah, 13 years in the league were enough," he said. But he recalled an afternoon the previous summer when he had impulsively grabbed a ball and dribbled over to a neighboring playground in his hometown of French Lick, Ind. His wife Dinah followed along.

"I just started shooting around and suddenly started hitting everything," he said, with a pleased smile. "I hit about 10 three-pointers in a row, and Dinah said, 'Maybe you ought to make a comeback.'

"I told her 'Nah, I just wanted to see if I still had it.'"

That night, after a long shift at TPC's 19th hole, our foursome departed to a local restaurant far removed from the Las Vegas Strip, where we hoped to enjoy some privacy.

But 10 minutes after arriving, no less than four basketballs carried by eager fans waving Sharpies arrived at our table, and all hated to interrupt but felt the need to share their favorite Larry Bird story as the rest of us enjoyed our prime rib. Seeing as we'd made the dinner reservation in my name, I couldn't understand how all these roundballs could magically appear in a four-star restaurant. Did people actually keep a spare basketball in their car for just such an occasion?

But Larry said that sort of thing happened all the time.

"Cell phones," he grumbled.

While some celebrities can cower behind shades or slink down in their chairs in public, at six-foot-nine and with the distinctive features that often compared him to Sesame Street's Big Bird, Larry Bird has nowhere to hide.

The Legend was cordial to all the well-meaning intruders, and he remains to this day tied for first as my favorite celebrity golf game, for his good humor, his competitiveness and his tolerance of the many demands on his time.

Wayne Gretzky rewrites golf's rules

The man he's tied with is The Great One, Wayne Gretzky. I had heard from a mutual friend that Gretzky was the nicest superstar in sports, and he didn't disappoint. He even showed up at Sherwood Country Club outside Los Angeles 90 minutes early for our tee time because, he said, "I thought it would be nice if we could sit down in the locker room and talk before the round, so you could get whatever you need."

Gretzky was still with the Los Angeles Kings when we played, but as it was the off-season he was getting in two to three rounds a week. He'd never taken a formal golf lesson, and it occasionally showed. His head tended to move a bit too much on the downswing and his knees were overactive. He scored 87 that day and admitted his concentration was lacking. His putting was easily the best part of his game. He salvaged a lot of five- and 10-foot pars, and several longer putts caught the lip.

That kind of stick handling is not surprising from a man who could turn a hockey puck on its edge in full skate to squeeze a slap shot between the goalie and the post.

I recall Wayne finding himself in a greenside bunker on the long fourth hole. He instinctively bent down and removed a leaf resting against his ball. Just as quickly, he looked up and asked me if it were okay to do that.

"Fine by me," I said. "You're my partner."

"I mean, is it against the rules?" he asked.

"Uh ... yes," I said. "You can't touch loose impediments in a bunker."

"In that case, here's a quote for your article," he said. "That rule totally sucks."

He then blasted out to 10 feet and made the putt.

"I'm teaching my little boys both hockey and golf," Wayne told me, "and whatever they fall in love with is fine. But when I'm older, I'd rather follow them around a beautiful golf course than freeze my tail off in the stands at a hockey rink."

Sean Connery: A first-class 007 - and golf nut

Some months after my game with the Great One, I got a call that Sean Connery would consider playing a round for the magazine series, but he wanted to meet me first. I had the feeling that reporters were on his "not to be trusted" list.

As the original (and still-the-best) 007 was, like Gretzky, also a member at Sherwood C.C., and I was in L.A. on business, I arranged to meet him for lunch during the week of the Shark Shoot-Out. My wife Carol thought she might be hungry for a sandwich as well, noting that Connery had recently been voted by People magazine "The Sexiest Man Alive."

The Welshman was sporting a beard when we met, having just returned from a movie shoot in England where he was playing King Arthur. We had a pleasant lunch, in which Connery quizzed me about my knowledge of top players competing that day, and swing techniques they were using that might help his own game. He also complained at length about Americans' tendency to inflate their handicaps, and how the only on-course wagering he liked to do was straight up, no strokes allowed.

I was eager to join him the following week for our game, when the night before we were scheduled to play Sean slipped on his steel spikes in the Sherwood cart room and strained his ribcage. Game was off, and the rescheduling never happened.

Playing Cypress Point with Joe Pesci - almost

That wasn't quite as disappointing as the time I arranged a private jet and a Monday tee time on the Monterey Peninsula for a scheduled game with Joe Pesci. The actor had put just one stringent contingency on my request to profile him as a golfer: that I get him on Cypress Point. I had pulled every string, rope, and ripcord I could and had actually managed to arrange for a King Lear (owned by a Pesci fan and prospective member of our foursome) to fly us to the coast for a day on one of the two or three most desirable courses in the world. But that morning, as I was packing to leave for the airport, Pesci's agent called and said the actor hadn't had enough rest the night before and wanted to reschedule.

At that moment I felt truly envious of the sneak attacks Macaulay Culkin was able to put on the actor in "Home Alone." It wasn't the loss of a magazine assignment that galled me. At the time, I had never had the privilege of playing Cypress Point.

Later that day, I rented the movie Casino, the film where the Pesci character gets attacked with a baseball bat and is buried alive in an Indiana cornfield. Made me feel better.

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Wayne Gretzky

An author, professional keynote speaker, celebrity host, and humorist, Jack Sheehan is a 30-year Vegas insider. He is a New York Times best-selling author and screenwriter, with more than 11 books in print, including two with professional golfer Peter Jacobsen, Buried Lies and Embedded Balls.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Swingin

    John Leuthold wrote on: Oct 6, 2008

    Jack, fabulously entertaining article. I have sent it on to many of my buds, whom I know will love it, too...
    Big smiles...


  • GREAT Article

    Karie Hoskins wrote on: Oct 6, 2008

    This is a great article...I love golf, famous people and laughing - Sheehan provides the perfect mix. Keep it up!