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|Greg Maddux is considered a studious genius on the pitching mound - but on the golf course he's a different cat altogether. (Rob Hatrak/WorldGolf.com)|
LAS VEGAS - One of the perks to parking your soft-spikes in Las Vegas every night, especially if you earn your gruel spinning stories, is the occasional celebrity golf game.
Unlike most regions of the country, and certainly unlike the farming country of eastern Washington where I grew up, we've got celebrities falling out of oleander trees out here in the desert.
"Look over there, hey, that's Beyonce ... oh, there's George Clooney ... say, isn't that the guy who played Doogie Howser? Look, Penn and Teller. And Teller's actually talking!"
Maybe it's because unlike L.A., where paparazzi are lurking behind every potted palm, Las Vegas pretty much gives celebrities room to breathe and indulge their good and bad habits as they please.
Obviously, when they're in Glitter City these famous folk can't spend all their time cruising night clubs or shopping malls, unless they happen to be Paris Hilton, who gets paid deep five figures to celebrate her birthday in a local hot spot about six times a year. That's why so many of them take up golf. It's good for their tans, it resembles exercise, and their PR reps have informed them that in the last 15 years golf has become increasingly cool.
I mean if Justin Timberlake is co-sponsoring the PGA Tour event in Las Vegas next month, and Tiger Woods holds his Tiger Jam charity concert here every year with rock stars and sizzling babes occupying the first 10 rows, then golf has clearly shed any semblance of the checkered-slacks-Ward Cleaver uncool status it occupied when I was a kid.
"June, have you seen my orange alpaca sweater?"
One could even argue that golf has become such an in thing to do these days that there's a threat of being considered uncool unless you twirl the titanium shafts at least a few times each month.
Celebs also understand that as long as they have to do interviews anyway to stay in the public eye, why not tolerate the process in beautiful surroundings.
What I'm driving at is that I can get just about any famous person in the world who plays golf to tee it up with me in Las Vegas. Usually, the only condition is that I arrange a preferred tee time at a golf course that's near the top of some magazine's Best 100 Courses listing.
I've enjoyed about 50 of these celeb games over the last quarter century, with everyone from showroom headliners, A-list actors, U.S. Presidents, standup comics, even a porn star. (I'll save that tale for a different Web site, one that is blocked for eternity on all our home computers - hey, we have innocent children lurking through the hallways at our crib!)
My favorite famous golfer to play with is Las Vegas' own Greg Maddux, who is about to pass Roger Clemens as the winningest right-handed pitcher of the modern era.
Greg is presently trying to help the Los Angeles Dodgers make it to the postseason. At 42, he can still give his team six shutout innings.
While Maddux is considered a studious genius on the pitching mound, where his awareness of hitters' weaknesses and his ability to locate 80 mph sliders and curveballs is legendary, he is a different cat altogether on the links. Fun-loving, bawdy, textbook sophomoric in his humor, Greg will keep a group laughing from the first tee to the clubhouse. The frivolity can be interrupted, however, when he hits a couple bad shots in a row.
A solid two-handicapper with surprising distance off the tee and a feathery touch on the short grass, the guy they call Mad Dog can turn into a pitbull on a moment's notice. Playing at Pebble Beach with him a few years back in the Baseball World Series of Golf - a four-man team event comprising current and former big-leaguers, umpires, and friends - I saw the competitive fire ignite on several occasions.
After hitting three long pull-hooks off the tee in a row, which were met by silence from yours truly and Greg's older brother Mike (who pitched for 14 years in the Show and currently coaches the Milwaukee Brewers staff) Mad Dog thumped his driver so hard in the soft ground that it left a horseshoe-sized print.
"Is anybody gonna give me a f*****g tip or do I have to watch this s**t all day!" he shouted.
As Mike and I paused to consider how to talk Greg down from the ledge, he busted up laughing. The fire went out as quickly as it had ignited. Meantime, Mike went to look for a pitchfork to repair the depression.
I was privileged to play with former President George H.W. Bush at Shadow Creek shortly after he'd left the White House. The game had been arranged by one of his top advisers, Sig Rogich, and our foursome included Steve Wynn, the hotel magnate who conceived and built The Mirage, Bellagio and the recent palace which bears his name, not to mention the golf course we were playing that day.
On the fifth hole, a 167-yarder that Wynn and designer Tom Fazio refer to as an "abyss hole" because it plays over a 65-foot dug-out pit filled with transplanted Oregon pine trees, President Bush pushed his tee shot right of the green.
When the President asked me where his ball had ended up, I told him he might want to hit another as his original shot had gone down a steep bank and likely into a creek.
"I don't take Mulligans," he said. "I'll find it."
Two Secret Service agents had accompanied us that day, but they were hardly needed as there may be no more secure location in the western United States than Shadow Creek. An uninvited person has about as much chance of crashing the gates of "The Creek" as he does entering the inner sanctum at Fort Knox.
Nevertheless, the men in shades were suddenly pressed into duty when they saw their boss disappear over a cliff in search of his errant tee shot.
"Eagle down!" one shouted to the other. "Eagle down!" As the agents bolted from their electric carts and sprinted across the green to the edge of the abyss, they were greeted by the sight of the 41st President boot-scooting up the muddy hill, proudly displaying four wet golf balls in his hands.
"Found mine and three others," he beamed as he reached level ground.
More than an hour later, as we walked down the 15th fairway, Steve Wynn whispered to me, "Keep your eyes to the sky. We have a surprise for George Bush."
Within seconds, I heard a low hum in the distance. As the hum grew to an ominous rumble, we looked beyond the trees to the south and here they came, sweeping low over our heads: the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds from nearby Nellis Air Base. Six planes descended on us in perfect Delta Formation, one wing dipped in homage to the man who had been their Commander-in-Chief during Desert Storm.
Bush, a former World War II Navy fighter pilot, waved vigorously to them, and I could just make out his words under the roar.
"Damn, I miss the military," he said. "There's a lot of things I don't miss about the job, but I sure miss those guys."
I turned to Rogich, who had just completed a stint as U.S. Ambassador to Iceland, and said, "Does it get any better than this?"
He held out his arm to reveal goose bumps as the Thunderbirds made their second of three passes, this time in a diamond formation. I glanced again at the President and his eyes were misty. I then laid about two pounds of lush sod over my six-iron second shot. Major distractions can do that to a guy.
Before the round was finished, President Bush shared with me a story about how his grandfather, George Herbert Walker, and his father, Prescott S. Bush, were both USGA presidents, and how the Walker Cup matches were named for his grandpa.
"My grandfather once scolded a teenaged Bobby Jones after he'd witnessed him show a temper display in an amateur tournament," the president said. "He told Bobby that he had the potential to be a great ambassador of the game, but not until he learned to control his temper. Years later, Jones credited my grandfather for putting him on the right track."
As we had lunch in the Shadow Creek dining room after the round and were joined there by Barbara Bush and Elaine Wynn, the developer's wife, Steve Wynn announced that he was going to rename the creek where the President had fished out those golf balls.
"From now on," he said, "we'll call it Bush Creek."
"Don't you dare," said the president. "I don't want anybody knowing I hit my ball in there."
Next month: More celebrity golf games and insights into the on-course decorum of Larry Legend, the Great Gretzky and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. Plus a Sherwood C.C. lunch with the original 007 and a near miss with one of the Good Fellas.
August 29, 2008
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 (1993) and Embedded Balls (2005).
The late Jack Stephens fully appreciated the most important things that golf offered him: wonderful recreation, breathtaking scenery, and the most ideal venue on earth to make friends and strengthen friendships. And he always tried to give back to his sport in equal measure, writes Jack Sheehan.
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