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Confessions of a Weekend Golfer: Playing with Ernie Els, Gary Player and Johann Rupert

Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 1)

We all arrive at the Seminole Golf Club designed by Donald Ross (one of the top 10 golf courses in America) about 9:15 a.m. and head to the practice range. Stealthily, I sneak off to the last position on the far right side where nobody can see my warm up swings.

About 20 minutes later, we are asked to move to the putting green. It is fast. Very fast. While at the putting green, Ernie's eyes make contact with mine. He smiles and says, "Marvin, don't worry." I feel better. Yes, I am a good sport. Yes, I want it to be a good day. I want to laugh and make good shots, and have fun and "contribute," but if the truth must be told, most of all I want to win. Badly.

Here I meet Gary Player, or as he's commonly known, The Black Knight. He is as nice and gracious a man as I have ever met. And at 70, he has the physique of a 35-year-old. Johann, whom I first met in London 15 years ago, is the consummate amateur having played many of the great courses around the world. He is also the owner of the famous Leopard Creek golf course in South Africa, as well as founder of the Dunhill Links tournament in Scotland. It is clear that Player and Rupert want to win, too. Johann smiles as we reach the first tee and wishes me luck. It is insincere! I know that he is as fierce a competitor as I am and wants to win as badly as I do. By now, we have become pretty good drinking and smoking buddies. In fact, Johann was kind enough after dinner Friday night to bring out a humidor filled with pre-Castro Cubans—that was a very generous gesture. I smoked three! We start the match on the back nine. Ernie Els and Gary Player off the tips. Johann Rupert and Marvin off the Blue tees. I ask, "How many strokes do I get?" and Johann says, "We'll discuss it after we tee off." This is not a good sign. To add to the drama of the day, it is very windy, with gusts of 20 to 30 miles per hour. Scores will be high!

We start the round at Seminole's 10th hole, a par 4, 390 yards, uphill, with water on the left, into the wind. Ernie and Gary drill shots of 280 and 260 yards, Johann puts it out dead center 230, Marvin hits his tee shot into a sand trap, 180 yards out on the right. "Is this the beginning of another long day?" I ask myself. Ernie's second shot, over water, lands on the green 25 feet from the pin. Gary hits his on the green 40 feet away. Johann's shot falls just off. Marvin is in the high grass at the bottom of the hill. Gary putts beautifully to less than a foot from the hole. Ernie lines up and drills the 25-footer into the cup. A birdie. I smile. We're one up, after one.

On the next hole, Gary putts a magnificent 30-footer to tie the score. All even. Ernie comes back with a birdie and so it goes. Through seven, I have not made my move yet!

Marvin R. Shanken
We come to our eighth hole (actually the 17th at Seminole), a par 3 on the back nine, all even. It has a very difficult green perched high on a hill surrounded by multiple traps below. The surface has a steep slope, making the putting extremely dangerous, especially with the swirling winds! No one makes the green, but they all chip on. My first shot goes far right behind some kind of thick fruit bush. My ball is only two to three feet behind so I have no shot except through the bush. Nonetheless, I take a whack at it with my sand wedge; hit it through the bush into a sand trap 15 feet below the green. My third shot gets me onto the green, about 15 feet above the cup. Ernie scores a four. Johann scores a four. Gary makes a spectacular 20-foot uphill putt for par. I am lying three with an impossible downhill putt. Since I get a stroke, if I make this putt, we will push. Gary tells me if I miss the hole it will roll 30 to 40 feet below the green; nothing can stop it. He then gives me the line (yes, my opponent helps me) and speed. I set up, and then tap the ball gently. It rolls steadily down the hill and—swish—it goes into the heart of the cup. Everyone roars with laughter. Ernie gives me a huge high-five. We push. My day is complete. I have helped Ernie on one hole! The pressure is now off.

Is this the true turning point for me? Am I now finally in the zone?

On the next hole (our ninth, but Seminole's number 18), a par 4, Gary makes several stunning shots and pars the hole. Ernie has a chance to tie with a difficult 15-foot uphill putt, but misses. I am out of the hole. We now are one down at the turn.

But stop, I have an idea. I look at Rupert and tell him I want to offer him a deal. "What, Marvin?" he asks. "Let me try Ernie's putt. If I miss the putt, I'll give you a free page of advertising worth $20,000. If I make the putt, we push the hole." Johann, always the businessman, says, "You think you can make the putt that Ernie just missed? Gary, I think we should accept the deal. He'll never make it," says Johann. "Marvin" (he laughs), "we accept your offer." Ernie shakes his head in disbelief. I tell Ernie, "Have faith; I'm The Shotmaker" (the name given to me six years ago by my first golf teacher and friend, Jack McGown).

I study the line. It's uphill about one ball out on the left. Take several practice swings while two of the world's greatest golfers study my form, then I hit it. The ball moves up the hill. It seems like an hour passes. Then it slows down in front of the hole. And on its final rotation, just drops in. Ernie gives me a hug. Gary laughs. Johann realizes he made a shitty deal.

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