From the Golf Journal Archives - A Test of Friendship In a Year-Long Duel

Jan 20, 2012

Can two friends remain close while they try to show one is the better golfer?

By Patrick Seelig

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1988 issue of Golf Journal.)

IN THE GREAT morality play called golf, competition is the stimulus that drives us all. Throw in a Greek chorus crying “rivalry,” and we have a comedy more absurd than Lysistrata, and a tragedy greater than Phaedra.

For me, 1975 was just such a morality play. In 12 months of intense competition, I learned that friendship was worth more than victory, and the fabric of life was more complex than getting the better of another. I had engaged in a year-long fight-to-the-golfing-death duel that year with Greer Ridge, one of my closest golf buddies, for the bragging rights over who was the better golfer. This was hardly a crown of international acclaim; at best we were a pair of 5-handicappers, good enough to look as if we knew what we were doing, but not so good that anyone who could really play the game would give us a second thought.

To us the year was one long, exciting match, the ultimate competition. Looking back, it’s easy to wonder why we bothered. We were 25 and more or less adults, but playing a year-long golf match hardly seems to be the stuff of maturity. Greer was already a married man, a professional horticulturist at a large farm on the sea islands of South Carolina. I was a rookie reporter in my first job as a sportswriter for a daily newspaper in central South Carolina.

WE HAD GROWN UP together on the municipal golf course in Charleston, honing our games in constant competition with the other kids at the municipal course. We had met at the Muni, and Greer was then a bespectacled but wiry teenager toting a set of fiberglass-shafted golf clubs. He was small, but my he was intense – like a junior Ben Hogan. He’d whirl those fiberglass shafts around his neck, and use every muscle in his body as he thrust at the ball. When his timing was right, the ball would rocket into the sky and settle nearly 280 yards out, but like the younger Hogan, he didn’t always know where the ball was going. When his timing was off, and that could last a whole round or more, the ball would fly off in obtuse angles, soaring into the tall oaks and salt marshes. Still, he was a tough competitor, a match for any of us when he was on his game.

Because of his mammoth drives and his small size, the kids called him Biggie. I was known as Mort, not because my scores were death to my opponents, but because one of the Muni kids had trouble pronouncing the name of my high school – named after revolutionary war hero General William Moultrie. Moultrie became Mort.

My game was control. I had a nasty duck hook that could put me in some situations as equally disagreeable as Biggie’s, but for the most part it was fairways and greens. Putting was my problem. I could hit 12 or 13 greens and still shoot 78.

We weren’t exactly rivals as kids, but when we left high school, he went to Clemson University, and I went to the University of South Carolina. The rivalry between those two schools is bitter. Families feud over the annual football clash, and fathers have disowned sons because they attended the other school.

As expected, Biggie began to live and die Clemson. His blood flowed orange, and he decorated his golf bag with a tiger’s paw. I was a Fighting Gamecock, and therefore a rival.

IT WAS UPON this milieu, in late 1974, that we raised the curtain on our personal morality play. Clemson had just creamed South Carolina in their annual football bash, and Biggie was feeling pretty good. Flush with the fever of victory, he bragged, “I can whip you on the golf course just like the Tigers did the Gamecocks.”

“The hell you say,” I replied. “Let’s see who really is the best. We’ll play for the whole year. The winner will be number one.”

Whenever we played together, or in the same tournament, it would be a match – round-by-round stroke play. Whoever won the most rounds would be the champion. Because we lived in different towns by then, and had trouble getting together for weekend matches, the battleground was, for the most part, the one-day golf tournaments run each Sunday by the South Carolina Golf Association.

Our referee was Spock, really Hugh Davis, my old high school golf teammate and a neutral, because he was a Georgia Tech grad. We called him Spock because he was tall, thin, dark-haired, and resembled Leonard Nimoy, the logical Vulcan of Star Trek. Spock was amused by the idea of our match, and he seemed to relish his role as the Greek chorus. He would interject Vulcan logic when he thought it was necessary, but he wasn’t above prodding our rivalry along with a well-timed comment that would stir us to greater intensity. His logic was welcome, though, because emotion usually clouded our logic to the point where we couldn’t think rationally.

THINGS DIDN’T GO WELL for Biggie early on. I was playing pretty well, and I jumped to a fast, four-round lead. Biggie was downcast, but he was determined, and I on the other hand was pretty confident.

The turning point came at Highland Park Country Club, in Aiken, S.C., just across the Georgia border from Augusta. Since Highland Park was a short and very tight course, it looked as if my controlled drives and irons would boost my lead to five rounds, but a sudden twist of fate brought Biggie’s long-lost game to life.

We were deadlocked after nine holes, and we both hit good drives on the 10th, a par 5. I hit my second shot first, and placed the ball in front of the green, leaving a simple pitch for a probable birdie. Biggie tore into a 4-wood and yanked the ball dead left and out of bounds. Assuming I had won the hole, I began walking toward the green with a smile on my face, but suddenly my smile turned to shock. As it sailed across the street, Biggie’s ball hit a telephone pole, rebounded back onto the course, and settled next to my ball. Talk about tiger rag, this was one tiger that wasn’t going to be held any longer. Biggie pitched close for his birdie, and, unnerved, I missed my putt.

“Got you now, Mort,” he crowed.

He was absolutely right. The rest of the round was his.

He began to pour it on then, winning the next two matches, and suddenly my four-round lead was down to one. Biggie was the confident one now, prowling the course like a stalking tiger. Spock, lingering in the background, gloated. At last the race was on.

AS IF LUCK WERE taunting him, it dangled that elusive match-tying victory in front of Biggie, then yanked it away. At Hampton Country Club, another short, tight layout, he held a one-stroke margin after nine, and he thought he had won when I hooked a drive on a short par 4 into a snake-filled swamp, but I slopped the ball back onto the fairway, pitched my third shot 20 feet short of the cup, and holed the putt for the par. Meantime, straining for a birdie, Biggie had yanked his wedge over the green and bogeyed.

“Revenge for the telephone pole,” I yelled as I went on to halve the match and hold my lead.

SUMMER WAS DRAWING to a close by then, and we both knew Biggie had only a few chances left to catch me. He had one big hope left – the Berkeley invitational, a 54-hole Labor Day tournament we had played in the previous eight years. Biggie had a simple goal – win every round and come out with a one-round lead. I played well the first day, and boosted my lead to two rounds. Biggie won the next day, cutting my lead back to one, and then with me playing badly and Biggie ahead, the third round was cancelled because of an electrical storm.

Now we had a problem, because with football season approaching, and our Sunday one-days coming to a close, the final showdown would be tough to schedule.

AS THE HOLIDAYS approached and the year drew to a close, we decided to have the showdown at the Muni, the very site where Biggie and I had met 10 years earlier. Despite being only three days before the new year, the match was played on one of those warm December days so common in South Carolina. Spock was there to oversee the final resolution, and Biggie and I had our game faces on. This was really blood and death, we thought. Biggie had to win to tie for the year.

Inside, however, I was wondering if I really wanted to win this match. A whole year of our lives had been devoted to what our friends felt was an absurdity. We both enjoyed the head-to-head competition, but I knew that since Biggie was so competitive, it would be tough for him to accept losing. He was my friend, even if he was a rival, so a tie for the year, to me, would be okay. I also knew that throwing the match wouldn’t be right either. If Biggie was to halve me for the year, he’d have to earn it. I decided to go for victory, and if Biggie won fair and square, then no real harm would be done.

The round, like the match all year, was nip and tuck the whole way. Biggie would take the lead, then I would pull even. Grinding with the vengeance of an entire year, I went ahead with two holes to go, but when Biggie birdied the 17th hole, we were all even once again.

Now it was down to the last hole. If Biggie won this one, we’d be even for the year. No easy task under any circumstance. The final hole was a 396-yard par 4 with out-of-bounds on both sides. The fairway was wide enough to hit a driver, however, and that’s exactly what Biggie reached for as he took the honor on the final hole.

It was young Ben Hogan all over again. The look of determination was overwhelming. A cigarette stuck defiantly from his lips as he surveyed his shot. He tossed the cigarette to the ground as he took his stance, drew the club back slowly, and lunged into the ball with all his strength. His timing went haywire. The ball flew directly right, carrying some trees and landing on the front lawn of a house. Alas, there was no telephone pole this time.

We were stunned. Spock and I looked at each other, but didn’t utter a word. Biggie was pale and shaken. None of us dreamed that we would end 1975 with an out-of-bounds shot. Now it was my turn. I thought briefly about snapping one onto the street to bring things square, but I decided that if my duck hook was going to play a role in this match, it would not be intentional.

This time the hook didn’t materialize. Instead, I stroked the ball down the fairway. As my ball rolled true toward the green, Biggie just picked up his bag and walked silently up the fairway to his car, which was parked near the 18th green. The year-long match was mine.

The Victory didn’t taste as sweet as I thought it would. It wasn’t supposed to end this way; a grand victory was supposed to end with a birdie on the final green, not with a blooper onto someone’s front lawn. Even Spock, with all his logic, could only shake his head as we watched Biggie drive away.

BIGGIE AND I NEVER repeated our match of 1975; the intensity was more than either of us wanted to relive. We were, after all, friends first and rivals second. Perhaps as important was the way it ended. We were all upset, but maybe that was what the creators of this tragedy had in mind. Friendship, you see, was worth more than the right to lord victory over the other. We didn’t need a Greek chorus to teach us this moral.

But there was still that competition. We both loved it, but we weren’t willing to risk our friendship for it. We said we’d repeat 1975 in 40 years – as a pair of 65-year-olds dueling it out with a gray-haired Vulcan as referee. By then, 50 years of friendship would be better able to withstand the rigors of competition.

SIX MONTHS LATER I moved from South Carolina. Biggie stayed close to home and earned a reputation as a first-class horticulturist. His competitiveness, it seemed, served him in business.

It was also to save his life.

Two years later, driving back to South Carolina, I stopped by Biggie’s house. I was somewhat shocked at what I saw. Biggie, always rather skinny, looked positively gaunt. His eyes were hollow and he looked tired. Very tired. I didn’t stay long, but I wondered what was wrong. Two weeks later I found out. Biggie had cancer. It was detected in an early stage, but I was scared. The championship of 2015 was in danger.

I called him at the hospital. “Don't worry about it, Mort, I’m gonna be just fine, and when I get out, I’m gonna whip your tail next time we play golf. Just like the Tigers are gonna do to the Gamecocks.”

Well maybe the Tigers won’t whip the Gamecocks, I thought, but Biggie would whip cancer. I knew of his competitiveness firsthand, and there is no out of bounds on this golf course. He’ll win this match.

A decade later, his cancer is in complete remission, and he still wants to whip my tail the rare times we get together during the holidays.

The problem is, he usually does. But, it’s not 2015 yet.

As it sailed across the street, Biggie’s ball hit a telephone pole, rebounded back onto the course, and settled next to my ball. (USGA Museum)

As my ball rolled true toward the green, Biggie just picked up his bag and walked silently up the fairway to his car, which was parked near the 18th green. (USGA Museum)