Alan Shepard has taken thousands of strokes during his Earth-bound career, but he’ll be remembered for two swings taken far from home.
From The Golf Journal Archives - Of Two Worlds
Nov 19, 2010
By Rich Skyzinski
(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1996 issue of Golf Journal.)
SOMEWHERE on Earth, maybe in a remote desert or atop a bleak, desolate, forsaken mountaintop, there may be a place that vaguely resembles it. No vegetation. No wind. No rain.
A place without sound. Only whitish-gray, almost colorless soil and rocks, piled and strewn as haphazardly as confetti at a parade, for as far as the eye can see.
The terrain moves without rhythm or reason. It rises and falls and staggers in baffling, mysterious directions. Every so often a meteor will dent its surface, horizontally displacing the fine layer of dust that has settled over the land, but it is essentially as untouched today as it was 27 years ago, when man first visited, and the same way it was a million years ago.
On a cliff overlooking the California coast, as the Pacific surf beats mercilessly upon the craggy inlets, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is not only home. He can look into the fog as it sneaks along the coast, creeping onshore and enveloping hills and valleys and entire communities, and ask, What’s out there? But Shepard no longer has to preoccupy himself with answers to the unknown. He has viewed the spaceship Earth from a quarter million miles away. He has been to the promised land.
A quarter century ago, on Feb. 6, 1971, just as the sun was beginning to illuminate the east coast of America and in the final moments before Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell fired up their Apollo 14 spacecraft and departed for Earth, Shepard also made golf history. Using a 6-iron clubhead that had been fashioned onto a retractable instrument used to collect dust and rock samples from the moon, Shepard hit two golf balls that floated majestically into the near-gravity-free lunar sky. Until man visits other parts of the solar system, they will remain the only truly out-of-this-world golf shots ever struck.
Contrary to public opinion and media reports, which called the act frivolous and without genuine purpose, Shepard hit the two shots in the true spirit of science. “All of us who were lucky enough to be on the surface tried to think of something that would demonstrate the lack of gravity, the lack of atmosphere,” he explained. “The classic example of dropping a feather and a lead ball had already been done.
“Then I thought, with the same clubhead speed, the ball’s going to go at least six times as far. There’s absolutely no drag, so if you do happen to spin it, it won’t slice or hook ‘cause there’s no atmosphere to make it turn.”
When his plan had been thought through, he visited Jack Harden, at that time the head pro at River Oaks Country Club in Houston, a course he knew from his days working at the Johnson Space Center. “I swore him to secrecy,” Shepard recalls, “and then I asked him, ‘Is there any way we can make a 6-iron fit on the end of this strange-looking handle?’ Sure enough, he cut off a 6-iron, put a little fitting on it, and we had it.”
Shepard had some idea what the lunar atmosphere would do to restrict his movement, and not wanting to embarrass himself or NASA, he set out to practice before taking the final step – pitching the proposal to his boss.
“I enlisted the secrecy of the fellow who handled the pressure suits,” Shepard explained. “At night, after hours, I would go down to the suit room and put on the full suit, with the oxygen tanks and the radios and all that stuff and practice swinging, which I couldn’t do very well. But at least I got to the point where I was making some contact . . . I wanted to be sure I didn’t fall down, ‘cause I planned to do it in front of the television camera.”
Convinced he could pull it off in a professional, scientific manner, Shepard sought permission from the one person, Bob Gilruth, director of the manned space center, who could scuttle the idea. “I told him what I wanted to do, and Bob said, ‘No, I don’t believe we’re going to do that. It’s far too frivolous.’ ”
Armed with photos he had taken from his sessions in the suit room, Shepard stated his case again, this time adding a caveat. “Finally I said, ‘How would it be if only a handful of people know? That’s all that would have to know. How would it be if we go up on the lunar surface, and if we have any kind of problems – equipment failures, or we’re making mistakes, or the mission’s not going well and NASA’s embarrassed – then I won’t do it. But if everything’s going smoothly and we’re at the very last minute, before we take off I want to whack these two golf balls. I won’t even get them; I’ll leave them up there. And I’m going to pay for the golf balls, I’m going to pay for the clubhead, and there will be no expense to the taxpayer.’
“And he said, ‘Okay, you have a deal.’ And that’s the way we worked it out.”
After a 40-minute delay because of a rainstorm, Apollo 14 left Launch Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy late in the afternoon of Jan. 31,1971. En route to the moon the mission encountered three severe technical problems, including a radar malfunction that allowed the lunar module to land on the surface with just 40 seconds to spare. Once on the moon, however, the mission went rather well.
Shortly after landing, Shepard and Mitchell went on their first excursion of the crater Fra Mauro, spending nearly five hours on the surface, during which time they collected 43 pounds of rock and dust samples and set up a research station.
At the end of their next walk early the next morning, a 4-hour, 35-minute visit, Shepard pulled out the club and the two balls. “The suit was so clumsy, being pressurized, it was impossible to get two hands comfortably on the handle,” he recalled, “and it’s impossible to make any kind of a turn. It was kind of a one-handed chili-dip.
“I shanked the first one; it rolled into a crater about 40 yards away. The sec¬ond one, I kept my head down. I hit it flush and it went at least 200 yards. The reason I know that is that I planned to hit it down-sun, against a black sky so I could follow the trajectory of the ball. That happened to be the direction we paced out 200 meters, for our experimental field, and it landed just past that area. Of course I said it went for several miles, which was a slight exaggeration. I folded up the club, with the clubhead, put it in my pocket climbed up the ladder, closed the door and we took off.”
Twenty-five years later, Shepard doesn’t think those balls are likely to be in any recognizable condition, not with temperatures fluctuating between 250 degrees above zero and 150 degrees below. “I think they’ve exploded or melted,” he reasoned, “or a combination of the two.”
Shepard only took up the game a few years before his Apollo 14 mission, primarily because he had no time to start new hobbies and maintain a career as test pilot naval officer and honest-to-goodness American hero.
“I really didn’t develop an interest in golf at a young age,” he says. “My dad played a little bit but he wasn’t a regular golfer. I played a little bit knew the basics of the game, but I guess I never really got serious about it until I got into my 40s.”
Long after he became the first American in space, a historic flight of 15 minutes and 22 seconds that signaled the entrance of the United States in the space race against the Soviet Union, Shepard found lots of time on his hands. He had been training with Frank Borman for the first mission in the Gemini program (the first two-man spacecraft) when he contracted Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear ailment that causes dizziness, nausea and imbalance.
For the next six years he worked at an administrative position, but what he yearned to do was fly. That’s all he ever wanted to do, ever since he was a little boy and Lindbergh made his solo flight to become his hero overnight. Shepard was taking medication for the ear problem, but it wasn’t making enough of an impact. “It never got to the point where NASA was going to let me fly,” he said. “So I decided to take a shot at it. It couldn’t get any worse.”
He heard of a surgeon in Houston doing experimental work on Meniere’s and other ear problems, so that’s where he went. After the trauma of the surgery had worn off, he noticed many of the symptoms were gone; a few months later he improved even more, and a few months after that NASA welcomed Shepard back into its fold of astronauts.
Today Shepard, now 72, still does a fair amount of traveling, but most of it is on commercial aircraft flying at speeds far slower than the 25,000 mph he piloted Apollo 14 en route to the moon. That allows him to play at his home course, Monterey Peninsula Country Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., more often and work on lowering his handicap back into the low teens.
Although his interest in the game was self-generated, he’s picked up some tips from some of the sport’s great names. One of the advantages to spending too much time in Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center, was joining Champions Golf Club.
“Jackie was fairly helpful in the early days,” Shepard recalls of his association with Jackie Burke, who co-founded Champions with Jimmy Demeret. “It wasn’t a regimented type of thing. I’d be out there practicing and Jackie would come along and give me a hint from time to time. I guess that’s where the seriousness of it all started.
“I think what he tried to tell me was that as an engineer, I was too regimented, that I should relax and enjoy the game. I remember that, and even sometimes today I get a little uptight about it and try to remember Jackie’s words of just relaxing and trying to have fun.”
Shepard plays a conservative game of golf, perhaps a fitting trade-off for risking his life in space. “It seemed rather bizarre to most people to go into a small nosecone on top of a rocket,” he says. “I think all the analyses showed that there was a chance that probably one out of 20 flights would result in fatalities. And we were willing to take that risk, figuring that if it happened to somebody it was going to happen to somebody else and not to you.”
Only a handful of people can claim to have earned rewards similar to Shepard’s. “To stand on the surface, which is lighted from the sun, and look up in the sky, which is totally black, and look up and see a planet, which is four times as large as the moon as we see it from here. . .
“And the colors – you can see blue tones from the oceans, white reflected from the icecaps. Depending on the weather, you can see the outline of the continents. It’s just an incredibly beautiful sight... You want to say to the folks down there politically opposed to each other and militarily opposed to each other, ‘Hey, folks, you want to think about taking care of this planet because it is finite.’ ”
Shepard and his wife of 51 years, Louise, have been attracted to the central California coast ever since he was stationed at Mountain View Field, near Palo Alto, early in his naval career. They used to drive down to the Monterey area on weekends, a familiarity that became second nature in later years when he became a semi-regular in the AT&T National Pro-Am. They began to look for a place to live about 10 years ago and finally found a gem: three acres on a wooded tract with a splendid view of the sixth and seventh holes at Pebble Beach and the Pacific beyond.
For the most part, Shepard has enjoyed his experiences in the AT&T. But like any mid-teens handicapper, it’s easy to get out of your element when you’re struggling with your game and thousands of fans are eyeing your every move.
“Frankly,” Shepard admits, “I would be more comfortable over a 20-foot putt with 20,000 people watching than I would driving off the first tee. It varies with me; sometimes I’m able to shut out the distractions and other times I’m not.”
Shepard has felt comfortable with his putter for as long as he can remember. And well he should. It’s the same sleek and simple putter his father used. Original grip and everything.
On the smooth, difficult greens of Monterey Peninsula C.C., he wields the stick with remarkable proficiency. Ten-footers that fell into the bottom of the cup with regularity. Thirty-footers that do the same or stop on the edge.
He claims no secret... no, check that. If you want to know the brand of balls he took to the moon, you’re flat out of luck. “I wanted it to be without any commercial aspects,” he says. “In fact, only one person knows the trade name of the golf balls. That’s me.
“My wife thinks it’s in the will. But it ain’t.”
Shepard, now at home along the Monterey coastline, has viewed the blue tones of the ocean from a rare perspective. (USGA Museum)
The world saw Shepard on the moon for a few hours. What it did not see was the endless training – and his secret plan to turn a piece of equipment into a 6-iron. (USGA Museum)
Shepard still relies upon Jackie Burke’s simple reminder to relax and enjoy. (USGA Museum)