Thursday, May 6, 2010

This trip leads to stories on my late friend John Morris on his time at Penn State, the PGA Tour

So here I am at The Players Championship for the first time in 11 years. The last time I was here was (obviously) 1999 when “The Majors,” had just come out and the main reason I came was to do book promotion work since a lot of the golf media was in town for the event. It also helped that The Final Four was in St. Petersburg that year so I stayed until Saturday morning and then made the drive across the state in plenty of time for the semifinals.

In those days I stayed with my friends John and Kitty Morris. John was in charge of public relations for The PGA Tour in those days and was someone I had known since my early days at The Washington Post when he had been Penn State’s sports information director. More important, he had the complete trust of Joe Paterno, so if John told Joe you were okay, Joe would treat you accordingly.

The first time I interviewed Paterno was in 1979. I was the Maryland beat writer for The Post and, back then, Maryland played (and lost to) Penn State every year. I was sent up to State College the week of the game to talk to players and to Paterno. Even back then Paterno could be cranky and he wasn’t in an especially good mood at that point because a couple of players had gotten in trouble during the offseason and the team was off to a lousy start. In fact, it is possible the Nittany Lions had already lost twice going into the Maryland game.

I knew all this when I called John to arrange to see Paterno and the players. “The players are no problem,” John said. “As it happens our two best players, Bruce Clark and Matt Millen, are probably our two best talkers. Joe is going to insist I only schedule you for 15 minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes!” I said. “I need more than 15 minutes.”

“I know,” John said soothingly—soothing was always one of his best things. “Don’t worry. You go in there, get him talking and you’ll get all the time you want. I’ll make sure he doesn’t have anything pressing on the schedule right after you.”

I wasn’t all that happy with that arrangement but John turned out to be right. I asked Paterno something about ethics in college football and off he went for about 45 minutes.

Years later, when John moved to the tour, he played a major role in convincing Deane Beman that it was better to talk to the media than to battle the media and he continually pushed players to be more open and more cooperative. I still remember sitting on one of John’s rookie seminars when he was explaining why a player should always talk to the media before doing anything else if he was asked to do so.

“But what if there’s something I really want to work on over on the range first?” one of the rookies asked.

“Work on it second,” John said. “The range will still be there when you finish with the media. Chances are it won’t be the other way around.”

John always had heart problems. Early in 2000 he announced that he and Kitty were moving to Baltimore because he was on a list at Johns Hopkins for a heart transplant. Over the next 18 months I got to see him often. If he was angry or bitter about his situation he never showed it. His sense of humor never waned even a little bit. He was always a great story teller—and a treasure trove of Paterno stories—and he found one of the best hamburger joints I’ve ever been to right near the Hopkins campus.

They never found him a heart. He died in June, 2001. At his funeral, people were encouraged to just get up and tell stories about John. Paterno stood up at the exact same time as another man. This was coming off one of the bad years that led people at Penn State to try to push him into retirement.

“You go ahead coach,” the other man said.

“Thanks,” Paterno said. “First time I’ve gotten a call in a long time.”

It’s hard even now to drive in the gate at The Tournament Players Club and go past the tour’s offices without thinking of John. Since I was last here for the tournament the clubhouse has been entirely rebuilt and the tour has continued to try to make this tournament as prestigious as it possibly can. The money is huge—the purse is just under $10 million this year—and the golf course has gotten better over time although it will never be great no matter how many testimonials from players are put on the wall of the media building.

Of course back when I used to come semi-regularly the tournament was in March, which meant it had to compete with the NCAA basketball tournament. It was also seen by a lot of players as a warm-up to The Masters, which made the folks at The Tour a little bit nuts. I remember one year when Greg Norman had to withdraw, his agent put out a statement saying, “Greg is very disappointed. He always looks forward to The Players as an ideal warm-up for The Masters.”

Ouch. So now the tournament is in May, which means it isn’t a Masters warm-up and isn’t competing for eyeballs with the basketball tournament. It is, however, HOT—and humid. Of course it can be hot and humid here in March but not AS hot and humid. The players don’t seem to mind the heat. Personally, I can’t stand it, but I’m not playing and no one really cares if I’m miserable walking around the golf course—why should they?

There’s certainly plenty to talk about this week that’s for sure: Has Tiger Woods fired Hank Haney? (Word on the range is yes). Did he really give those golf clubs from his Tiger Slam that showed up on e-bay to his Titleist guy? (Word among the equipment reps is absolutely even though Tiger has semi-denied it). “The clubs are in my garage,” he said. WHICH clubs—there were two sets he used.

Can Phil Mickelson pass Woods this week and become number one in the world? Can Rory McIlroy come close to what he did in Charlotte last week? Can my guy Paul Goydos play well? (Okay maybe only I care about that). When will, “Moment of Glory,” be in bookstores. (next week. Okay, maybe only I care about that one too)?

Anyway, I’m off to do Golf Channel and then get out on the golf course for as long as I can take the heat. The only thing I can promise is that John Morris will be on my mind.


jerseygirl said...

John Morris was a great guy. He helped arrange for Steve to go up to Northwestern when they were playing Penn State during that magical run to the Rose Bowl. He joined Steve on the trip and was gracious was Penn State lost. We miss him and miss seeing Kitty.

Gordon said...

The over/under is 100 for the number of times that Johnny Miller, Dan Hicks or that arrogant idiot Jimmy Roberts uses the phrase "golfs fifth major" this week end. The Players is not a major no matter how many times Deane Beman or Tim Finchem tells us it is! Q school maybe but not any tournament played on a Pete Dye course.

And actually lots of care about the availability of "Moment of Glory"

Mark said...

Speaking of your new book John, I don't know if you have ever told us what kind of feedback the players themselves have given you to your books? Has anyone been memorably complimentary or for that matter, memorably critical? Besides your good friends, I mean.

I look forward to picking up your latest offering.

Bob said...

John -- Thanks for another of your many tributes to John Morris. John is often on my mind as well, so your appreciations always are always welcome, and help me recount many of the memories I shared with John during my 41 years of friendship.

Incidentally, my recollection of Joe's remark at Delta may have been "that's the first time I've been in front of anyone all season."

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your memories of my Dad. He was a good man. I laughed when you said soothing is something he did well. He was a great story teller with that twinkle in his eye. This is a wonderful treasure to share with my sons. Laura