GOLF'S MISSING LINK

WITH HIS WIT AND EXPERT TV COMMENTARY, GARY MCCORD BRINGS PANACHE TO A PRIM AND PROPER GAME. BUT SOME GOLF PURISTS THINK HE'S OUT OF BOUNDS.

"A short gay leprechaun can do these drills," scoffs McCord. "Of course, anyone can do these drills. That's the point."

It's 5 p.m. McCord grabs a four-iron--his favorite club--plays some air guitar with it, then ambles to his white 1974 Mercedes 450SL.

He's owned the car since 1978. When he lived in California, McCord put a customized "NO WINS" license plate on it. He has the same plate on order in Arizona.

I went as far in golf as I could with what I had. Then, in the late 1970s, I started getting worse. I remember practicing, really paranoid. As soon as something didn't work, I'd try something else. I was in this negative, Band-Aid sort of fix mentality, trying to figure out some sort of swing that could get me through the round. I got lost in this abyss of my ruminations . . . and I didn't have anybody to go to for help. That was my downfall.

--Gary McCord

Gary McCord's mother knows when she suspected he might have a future in golf.

"I was taking a golf class one summer," Ruth McCord says from her home in Riverside, California, "and we practiced on a football field. Gary was about 10. He had this little sawed-off club that his dad had given him. We were trying to hit a shot through the goal posts. Gary says, 'I can do it.' 'Sure, you can.' But he did."

He grew up in a middle-class home in Garden Grove, California, the elder of Don and Ruth McCord's two children. His lifelong love affair with sports started when he was a boy.

McCord was a star baseball pitcher until too many curve balls wrecked his arm. With a few tips from his father, he soon turned to golf as his main sport by the time he was 15 or so.

As a high school freshman, he told the golf coach at Garden Grove High School that he could shoot in the mid-80s. He couldn't break 90, and couldn't make the team. But he kept playing.

"Golfers were considered pencil-necked geeks," he says, "but I played other sports, so I didn't have that marked sign around my neck, 'Nerd.' Something lured me into it. It wasn't structured. All of a sudden, you do what you want to do. And if you put out more effort, you'll do better."

In his sophomore year, the family moved to Riverside, where McCord soon became a fixture at a public course called Fairmont Park. He worked there sometimes to pay his way.

"I'd play 54 holes straight if I had time," McCord says. "Golf became a virus I couldn't get rid of. I didn't have time to get in trouble because I was in sports day and night."

His skill soared, as did his confidence: "When I was 18 or so, sometimes I'd go to the practice green with a ball and no putter. I'd practice picking the ball out of the hole, pick one up stiff-legged, another with a double-kneed dip. Pretty cocky, huh? Pretty Zen."

McCord shone as a prep golfer at Ramona High, winning a scholarship to the University of California-Riverside. But college was not an easy ride, especially because of dramatic changes in his personal life. At 19, he married his 17-year-old girlfriend and became a father. (His only child, daughter Christa, recently gave birth to her fourth daughter.)

It was the mid-'60s, but McCord missed the social turmoil that dominated the era.

"I didn't have a clue what was going on out there," he says. "I had a wife and baby, was going to college, playing on the golf team, doing laundry at night for my scholarship, cleaning a restaurant when I woke up, playing for side money to support my family. I didn't have time to even think about why people were protesting."

As a senior, McCord won the NCAA Division II golf championship. He graduated from Cal-Riverside in 1971 with a degree in economics. That fall, McCord attended the PGA Tour Qualifying School in Florida. Paired with Lanny Wadkins, who's still on the Tour, McCord played terribly and missed the cut.

"I was light-years away from where I had to be," he says. "It was like I'd been isolated in some village. It was either be a local big shot or keep after it. I kept playing in local minitours, figuring stuff out."

In 1973, when McCord was 25, he earned his PGA Tour card.
The Tour in those days was far from the lucrative game it is today. To thrive, pros had to consistently finish in the upper echelon. McCord averaged 96th on the money list from 1975 to 1984, good for an average of $35,000 a year, which left little or nothing after expenses. His second-place finishes at the Greater Milwaukee Open, in 1975 and 1977, were his best showings.

"When I met Gary 20 years ago," says his caddie, Steve Lewison, "he spent a lot of time thinking about what he had just done or what could be rather than being in the here and now. His mind was too active. He plays a better mind game now."

Though he kids incessantly about his ineptitude on the Tour, McCord can't hide the frustration he felt then and occasionally revisits today.

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