Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Working on a documentary for ‘Caddy For Life’; Notes on the comments, including good McEnroe story

On Friday, I didn’t have time to write because I had to go to Philadelphia. This afternoon, I head to Florida for four days. The reason is Bruce Edwards.

It is difficult to believe that almost six years have passed since Bruce died of ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease—after a remarkably brave fight that began only 15 months earlier when he was diagnosed at The Mayo Clinic in January of 2003.

Bruce, who caddied for Tom Watson for most of 30 years beginning in 1973, was literally the first person I ever talked to at a golf tournament. It was at The Memorial in 1981 when I had been sent there for the week to, “find some stories,” (to quote my boss George Solomon) to write the next week when The Kemper Open came to Washington.

The first afternoon I was there I spotted Bruce sitting on the putting green. Watson was the No. 1 player in the world at the time so I instantly recognized him, the guy with the easy smile who was always stride-for-stride with Watson walking down the fairways, Watson’s bag looped easily over his shoulder. I introduced myself and we sat and talked for more than two hours about his life, about other caddies and other players. A friendship that lasted until the day he died was born that afternoon.

If you’ve read, ‘Caddy For Life,’ you know that the story I just recounted is how the book begins, so forgive me if some of this seems familiar.

Soon after he was diagnosed, I talked to Bruce at The Masters. The disease was already beginning to ravage his body: he was thin, he admitted that walking the hills at Augusta was tough on his legs and his speech was slurred. He told me that a number of people had suggested he do a book on his experiences as one of the first truly professional caddies on the tour; on his relationship with Watson and on what he was going through. He asked me if I would do the book.

As I’ve said before, I was hesitant at first for a purely selfish reason: I didn’t want to watch a friend die from up close. Make no mistake about ALS. It kills you and it kills you in an awful way, your body collapsing while your mind stays intact. But after about 60 seconds of trying to think of a way to say no, it occurred to me that I had to say yes. Bruce had been a good friend for 22 years.

What’s more, this wasn’t the kind of vanity book people often brought up to me. I swear to God every coach who has ever been fired believes his life story is the next, ‘Season on the Brink.’ I had a coach call me once who had been involved in a major recruiting scandal. I didn’t think his story was close to being a book but, trying to be polite, I said to him, “There might be some interest in your story regionally and there are guys who could write it for you that I know. But if you tell the truth about everything that went on, it might make it impossible for you to coach again.”

There was silence on the phone. And then: “You’re misunderstanding me John. I’m not going to talk about any of that. I just want to write about the highlights of my career.”

The highlight of his career had been reaching ONE sweet sixteen.

Bruce had a real story to tell. I saw it as a three part love story: his love affair with caddying and golf; the love between he and Watson that had grown through the years and the love he and his wife Marsha had for one another. They had dated in the 1970s, gone separate ways for almost 25 years and then re-united shortly before Bruce was diagnosed.

I wrote the book and I’m very glad I did as painful as it was. Bruce and I were scheduled to do a book-signing together in Augusta on April 3rd, 2004 but he never made it there. He died the next morning—the first day of The Masters.

The book ended up being a bestseller and there was a lot of talk about a movie. In fact, ABC was fired up enough about doing it that it commissioned a script. David Himmelstein wrote it and I can tell you it was GREAT. When I read David’s opening scene, which was a description of Bruce and Marsha’s wedding in Hawaii, that was attended by—among others—Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player (Watson was the best man)—I called David and said, “This first scene pisses me off.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I didn’t think of the idea to start the movie with it.”

To make a long story short, the head of ABC Entertainment loved the script. Matt Damon’s production company was going to produce the movie with Damon (a huge golf fan) as executive producer. The movie was going to be co-paid for by ABC and my pals at ESPN, since they would re-run it early and often after it aired on ABC.

But it never happened and, if it wasn’t so damn sad, the reason would be funny: At the start of 2007, Disney slashed ESPN’s movie-making budget because the movies made by ESPN Original Entertainment had been so bad and had lost so much money. The first movie ESPN had made? ‘A Season on the Brink,’ which was absolutely god-awful. When I said it was god-awful at the time the ESPN people went nuts. I got a letter from one guy saying the reason the reviews were so terrible was because I had ripped the movie. If only I had such power.

So, ‘Caddy For Life,’--the movie--never happened.

But now, The Golf Channel is planning to turn it into a documentary, one that will air the week of this year’s U.S. Open—which is at Pebble Beach, the site of Tom and Bruce’s greatest moment, the 1982 Open.

I am, of course, thrilled. TGC has pledged to make a large contribution to, “The Bruce Edwards Foundation,” and after the movie airs Watson will come on to talk about ALS and the desperate need for research money.

That’s why I was in Philly Friday, to interview Bruce’s sister Gwyn and his old caddying buddies, Neil Oxman and Bill Leahey. On this trip I will do on-cameras with Bruce’s parents and his beloved Aunt Joan in addition to Watson, Gary Crandall (another caddying pal) and finally, Marsha, who still lives in the house that Bruce built with the money he made during his brief time caddying for Greg Norman. He always called it, “The Norman House.”

Friday had a number of emotional moments and I know the next few days will too. But hearing Bruce stories always makes me smile and the cause is certainly a worthy one. Plus, I think the documentary can be very, very good and it would be nice to see one of my books turned into something on screen I can be proud to have taken part in.


Two notes on recent postings: Someone pointed out yesterday that Brett Favre answered every question postgame on Sunday and ducked no one and no issue in the wake of the Saints win over the Vikings.

I have mentioned in the past how much I respect athletes who do that after a crushing defeat, the best example in my experience being Bill Buckner after game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Favre deserves a lot of credit for being a stand-up guy when standing up literally wasn’t easy for him. A lot of athletes in his situation would have used their injury—in this case his left ankle—as an excuse to, “get treatment,” in the training room and duck the media or at least squeeze them since most guys were on tight deadlines with the game ending so late.

So, good for Favre. And, has anyone noticed it took about an hour for ESPN to come out with its first, “ESPN has learned that Brett Favre says, ‘it is highly unlikely,’ he will return next season.

First of all you don’t ask ANY athlete about retiring in the wake of a loss like that because they just aren’t thinking straight. And Favre? What do you think the over-under on the, “ESPN has learned,” updates between now and March 1 is. If you make the number 12, I’ll take the over.

Someone else asked recently if I had any stories about Katherine Graham, the legendary publisher of The Washington Post, who was still very much running the paper when I first got there.

I have quite a few but for now, here’s the most memorable. In 1985, I was sent to Europe to cover The French Open and Wimbledon for the first time and spent that summer covering a lot of tennis. On the morning of the U.S. Open men’s final between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, I was in the press box at the National Tennis Center when I heard Bud Collins say, “John, you have a guest.”

I looked up and here came Mrs. Graham, who played a lot of tennis and was a big tennis fan—one reason why the tennis beat was a big deal at The Post.

“John, I just had to come up and see you before the match,” she said. “I wanted to tell you how much I have LOVED your tennis writing this summer.”

“Well, Mrs. Graham, thank-you, I’m really glad you like it…”

“And what I especially like is the way you write about John McEnroe. I can tell you like him. I do too. Deep down, I think he’s a good guy.”

(I had written a long McEnroe profile during the Open).

“Well, thanks. I agree. If you get to know John he really IS a good guy.”

We talked for a few minutes. Needless to say I was thrilled that Katherine Graham (!!!) had taken time to find me and compliment me on my work.

A little while later the match was ready to start. I was sitting downstairs near the court with my pal Pete Alfano, then of Newsday, later The New York Times. Everyone was seated. McEnroe was getting ready to serve. The umpire called, “play.”

There was one small problem. There was one spectator who hadn’t quite made it to her seat courtside just yet. McEnroe was giving her, “the glare,” which meant he was just about to say something that would no doubt not be polite. I looked at the spectator and gasped: It was Mrs. Graham.

My entire career passed before my eyes. “Yes Mrs. Graham, John’s really a good guy…”
I grabbed Alfano’s shoulder. “Oh my God, I’m done, I’m finished,” I said.

McEnroe was now bouncing a ball off his racquet, waiting and glaring. Mrs. Graham had no clue what was going on. The crowd began to murmur. Finally, after what felt like about an hour, she got to her seat. A few people clapped sarcastically. John—God Bless him—never said a word.

Then he lost in straight sets. A few years later I asked him if he remembered that moment. He did. “If the match had already started I probably would have said something,” he said. “You’re lucky I wasn’t in a bad mood yet.”

Oh God was I lucky.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree, that first ESPN movie of your book on Knight was downright unwatchable. The documentary version of Caddy For Life sounds like it has a chance to be really good - and really hard on the emotions. When is it running?

Bill said...

I bet someone cold write a great book solely about McEnroe's mood swings.....

mitch said...

John, you have talked about how low tennis has sunk,well what about professional bowling. This Sunday a women became the first female to win against the men on the pba tour. And it was one of thier majors. The only way I saw it was I happened to stumble on it because there was no football on at 1:00 Sunday. No media coverage at all. Remember when Annika first played on the mens tour, it was being discussed everywhere. And this women wins a mens major and it was totally ignored. Kind of sad for what was once a slightly popular sport. Can you imagine if Michelle Wie won the Masters,it would be the story of alltme.