McGwire latest to test the links

Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, erstwhile outfielder and journeyman professional
golfer, is now a Chicago White Sox broadcaster who does not require a
microphone to do play-by-play when the subject is golf.

"Eighteenth hole
at Shady Canyon," Harrelson says before a game recently at Angel Stadium
in Anaheim, Calif. "All you want from the tips. Wind at us, maybe 10
miles an hour. I hit a good one, probably 295. He steps up and knocks it
105 yards by me. We get to my ball, I take out my rangefinder and zap
his ball.

"A hundred-and-five yards," he says again, for emphasis.

For those scoring at home, that's a 400-yard tee shot into the wind, a
tape-measure job. "You can put it on the board ... YES," to quote
Harrelson's trademark home-run call.

The golfer was Mark McGwire, who once only swung at a slightly larger white ball, the man
who launched baseball's home-run revolution in the 1990s. Three years
removed from hitting the last of 583 career homers, McGwire is the
latest from the baseball world to pursue competitive golf, having taken
his first tentative steps in regional and national amateur events this

McGwire is 41 now, still a stalwart of a man, stronger than a two-club
wind, but with hands so gentle that his two toddlers are content to wile
away hours at home in them. He plays to a scratch handicap at Shady
Canyon GC in Irvine, Calif., his scoring buttressed by a tour-caliber
short game that allowed him to win the ADT Golf Skills Challenge last
year against a field that included Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie and
Padraig Harrington.

Harrelson is effusive in his praise, believing McGwire can succeed at a
second act in another sport where so many have failed.

"I'd be surprised
if he didn't make it," says Harrelson, who is wowed by McGwire's blend
of power and touch.

It is a heady endorsement from a man who once delineated the fundamental
difference in the difficulty of the games: "In baseball you hit your
home run over the rightfield fence, the leftfield fence, the
centerfield fence," Harrelson said. "Nobody cares. In golf everything
has got to be right over second base."

Or, as Sam Snead famously told
Ted Williams as they argued about the same thing, "But you don't have to
go up in the stands and play your foul balls. I do."

There is that, as well as the fact golf usually rejects athletes from
other sports who audaciously regard their skills as transferable.
Michael Jordan once expressed an interest in playing the PGA Tour, as
though his ability to put the ball in the hole in one sport would allow
him to do so successfully in another. A golf course, as he has
discovered, plays better defense than they do in the NBA.

Basketball, at any rate, is inclined to produce more avid golfers than
accomplished ones. Stronger, more frequent efforts to cross over come
from baseball, for the apparent reason their own game ranks second (or
so it seems) among its constituents' favorite sports.

"People don't know this, but golf has always been my first love," says
McGwire, who was introduced to the sport when he was five years old and quit baseball
at Damien High School in La Verne, Calif., when he was a sophomore to
play on the golf team. He won one high school tournament but focused on
baseball his last two years of high school and in college before a
16-year career in the major leagues.

Ballplayers so readily will betray baseball for a round of golf that
managers, including the Yankees' Joe Torre, often forbid them from
bringing their clubs on the road. McGwire recalls team charters delayed
on the tarmac while as many as 15 sets of clubs were loaded onto the

Where there is passion, there is progeny. McGwire is the latest
offspring of baseball's golf lineage that began with (and ends with, the
cynic could argue) former Yankees outfielder Sam Byrd, who won six PGA
Tour events in the '40s and was runner-up to Byron Nelson in the 1945
PGA Championship, setting a standard that might be insurmountable.

Grantland Rice, the poet laureate of American sportswriting, once
proposed to Byrd a book on the differences between his golf swing and
his baseball swing. "It's going to be a darn short book, Granny," said
Byrd, who merely altered the plane to account for the ball being on the
ground and not in the air. Renowned teaching pro Jimmy Ballard, who
later studied under Byrd at an Alabama driving range, says to imagine a
table top. "Sam just took that baseball swing and tilted the table to
hit a golf ball," Ballard says. "He used exactly the same swing, and the
club always went directly down the line. From flat and level to a tilted
plane. He never changed it."

Byrd's action, according to Ballard, was rooted in a lesson Byrd got
from a famous teammate. "Babe Ruth taught him to bat, to hold a towel
under his left armpit and to take batting practice by shifting to his
right leg, then to his left leg. The towel made his elbow stay down
going through the ball. It promoted a flat, level swing. Good hitters
will never let the lead arm separate and drop the towel."

This "connection" became a huge part of Ballard's teaching and was
adopted by other instructors and players. (World No. 1 Vijay Singh
often can be seen hitting practice balls with a towel or headcover
tucked under his left arm.) Unfortunately, says Ballard, "every baseball
player is told he's got to change his swing." And that makes a
successful transition to golf difficult.

"Babe Ruth wasn't a very good
golfer," Ballard says. "Sam could hit his 5-iron farther than Ruth hit
driver, and it drove him crazy. Ruth didn't use the same swing."
Ballard had a favorable first impression of Harrelson following the
latter's retirement from baseball in 1971. He saw a baseball swing that
functioned effectively on a golf course. "Then he went to some famous
teacher who changed his baseball swing, and he was not the same player,"
he says. Harrelson's PGA Tour experiment was filled with futility in
Monday qualifiers -- he did qualify for the 1972 British Open, missing
the 36-hole cut by one shot -- and lasted only 3½ years, a length
commensurate (relatively) with his temper. "I'd go out with 14 clubs and
come back with three," Harrelson says. "I was worse than Thunder [Tommy

Efforts to reform his demeanor were derailed by a once reliable golf
swing that had become entangled in mechanical minutiae introduced by
well-meaning instructors with conflicting philosophies. He worked for a
time with Bob Toski. "He had me hitting the ball great," Harrelson says.

Then he encountered Jack Grout, Jack Nicklaus' instructor. "I started
talking to him, and I got confused, because their theories were
different. Then Nicklaus tried to help me. The next thing you know
you're caught in the middle. It's hard to tell someone, 'I love you, but
leave me alone.'

"The hardest thing Mark is going to have to do is [not] listen to
everybody," Harrelson says. "Because he's such a great guy, he's going
to have a lot of people coming up to give him a little tip, and the next
thing he knows he's tipped out."

McGwire apparently is comfortable enough with instructor Dennis Sheehy --
who also coaches tour pros Per-Ulrik Johansson, Stephen Ames, Neal
Lancaster and Phillip Price -- to dismiss Harrelson's concern as a
potential obstacle. A bigger problem is spotting the field 20 years. "It
doesn't take you 20 years to learn a good golf swing," says former
Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry, who played on the Champions Tour in the late
'80s and early '90s with modest success (one top-10). "The experience is
learning how the ball reacts out of different lies and different grasses
and different sand textures."

If only the bases were loaded. Golf is not so accommodating it will
allow an opportunity to erase so large a deficit with a single swing.
(Although a number of long-drive contest specialists, including Brian
Pavlet, Dan Boever and Pat Maloney, have college or minor league
baseball experience.) Former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike
Schmidt, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench and Bobby Grich, a
six-time all-star second baseman with the California Angels and
Baltimore Orioles, are among those who have whiffed, each failing to
advance beyond stage one of Champions Tour qualifying.

Each of them constructed their reverie from the fragile 68 they
occasionally shot at home, only to discover that it had an aversion to
traveling, particularly when the rough was up and the competition was
keen. Each retreated to the security of the Celebrity Tour, where
they're better able to barter their stardom for a good time.

"A lot of guys can shoot par around their own golf course," says
51-year-old Rick Rhoden, the dominant player on the celebrity circuit
and a former pitcher who actually might have good enough stuff to make
it to the show. "Playing tournament golf is a little different. It's a
lot more difficult than they think it is."

Rhoden has at least caught the scent of success in his courtship of
tournament golf. What stinks, he might have concluded, is the maze
through which nonexempt players must navigate to reach the promised
land. Rhoden missed qualifying for the 2003 Champions Tour by a single
stroke. Then he threatened to win that tour's Allianz Championship in
2003, only to falter on the back nine of the final round to finish T-5.

McGwire's greatest asset ultimately might be the perspective he brings
to his quest, a byproduct of the power hitter's mindset. He is
consciously aware that he is more likely to go down swinging. He is
savvy enough about the game not to consider it the equivalent of a
hanging curve ball.

"I've got too many friends on tour, and I know how
difficult it is to be successful," he says. "I also know how difficult
it is to get there."

When McGwire gazed down the tee line on the range at this year's Western
Amateur, he could have been looking at Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and
Curt Schilling. "To watch these kids, and to think that maybe one percent
will succeed on tour and the rest will all struggle," he says. "I was
flabbergasted at how great they were."

McGwire had rounds of 82 and 76, missing the first cut at the Western by
15 strokes. Earlier in the summer, in high winds, he shot a 75 in the
California State Amateur qualifying to miss by two strokes, and in a
qualifier for the prestigious Southern California Amateur he shot 75 and
missed by four. In other words, McGwire is closer to Cooperstown (two
years removed) than Harbour Town.

Moreover, he has played enough golf with tour players to know that,
unlike Jordan, he would sound foolish were he boldly to declare his
intention to play the PGA or Champions tours. He even declined a
sponsor's invitation to play in the 2004 John Deere Classic. "I'd love
to do it when I'm ready, but I knew I wasn't ready," he says. "I'm not
going to go out there just to go out there. I want to know mentally that
I'll be able to compete."

His intention in the interim is to increase his amateur tournament
participation to satisfy his competitive yearnings -- "That's the only
way you're going to know how good you are," he says -- while depending on
his progress (or lack thereof) to determine how aggressively to pursue
his passion.

There is work to do and two young children determined to keep him from
it. McGwire's compromise is to practice extensively in front of a
mirror, allowing him to get in his swings without grooving bad habits,
something he learned in baseball. He has identified the gap he most
needs to close to contend with better players. "The biggest thing is
shaping the ball," he says. "I can shape the ball, but I can't do it on
command like those guys can."

As for scoring, "I can get up and down
with the best of them, and my putting is pretty good, too."

McGwire, in sum, is ready to carry the banner for baseball's subset of
players who wonder whether their season is deliberately squeezed, more
or less, between Augusta National's spring closing and fall opening.
None are likely ever to play in the Masters, of course, but that won't
stop them from wondering whether they can compete with those who do.

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