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.

"I was very, very narcissistic," he says, "constantly trying to figure out what I could do, always thinking I wasn't good enough. It started growing in me like algae--`You can't, you don't.' But I kept hanging in there. I needed a hook to stay around the game, and I don't mean a golf shot."

McCord became a magician.
"My wife had gotten me some stupid tricks as a present, easy stuff," he says. "Then I met Mike Rogers, one of the best magicians around. He taught me things. I'd practice on the road three or four hours a day. I'd try my stuff on the players. Joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Then I started making a little money during 45-minute cocktail shows at a lounge after a round. I became more comfortable with my magic than with my golf."

In 1985, he was, as usual, short of cash as he flew to the Memorial Tournament in Ohio. The flight turned out to be a lucky one. He's told this story countless times. But it still invigorates him:

"I saw Pat Summerall and Frank Chirkinian on the plane. They're first-class; I'm back there with the terrorists, dead-flat broke, trying to figure out a scam with CBS. I ask Frank if I can help in some way. A few days later, he says, 'Go to 16.' I think I'm gonna be a spotter. Then, boom! Verne [Lundquist] goes, 'Gary, what about this putt?' I look down at the green. There's nobody there. Verne's got this look like the dog just died. I'm thinking it must have been that stuff I did in the '60s. Frank yells in my ear, 'Talk!' I wing it. 'He'll be putting downhill toward the water.' Then I find out we're also calling 12, even though we're sitting at 16. Ohhhh. . . . But I had guessed right. I think, 'What a job--this is like Disneyland.'"

Gary's got the best job in the world now, but we know how tough it was on him on the Tour. It kept grinding on him. He'd just go places and stare. His past helps him now, I think. Frank Chirkinian knew what kind of personality Gary had when he hired him. Now, Frank has to watch him like a baseball manager watches a wild fastball pitcher. "Just let loose. I'll let you know if you go awry." With Gary, you're not going to get just, "This is a 30-foot putt that goes right." It gets so darned boring. My son isn't boring.

--Don McCord
JANUARY 19-22, TUCSON The Northern Telecom Open in Tucson is one of the PGA Tour's first events of the year. It's played at two courses, Tucson National and Starr Pass.

McCord loves to play the early-season tournaments because many of the regular Tour pros aren't at their best yet. He figures it gives him a better opportunity of finishing in the money.

He's playing with Tommy Armour III and Ian Baker-Finch. Armour is a burly, chain-smoking Texan who's had an up-and-down career on the Tour. Baker-Finch is a tall, handsome Australian who won the British Open in 1991 and has done little since. Baker-Finch has hired a psychologist to follow him on the course and soothe his addled psyche.

An announcer introduces the threesome to about 100 spectators who have gathered on a glorious Thursday morning at Tucson National.

"I didn't know McCord still played," one spectator says to another.
"I didn't know he ever played," his friend replies.
McCord gets warm applause, tips his wide-brimmed hat, and outdrives Armour and Baker-Finch. His ball, however, rolls into a bunker. He hits his second shot to within ten feet of the pin, then knocks in his putt for a birdie.

But McCord's putting--ordinarily a strength--fails him. "Wanna putt for me?" he asks a spectator in disgust after missing one on 10.

McCord reaches the 12th four shots over par. Though he's struggling, his mind is clearer on the course than it used to be. He rallies and makes four late birdies in a row to salvage a 72, even par.

Like most of his fellow players, McCord goes to the practice range immediately after the round to hit balls. "Most of the time," he says, "you hit to clear your head, make yourself a little brain-dead in a healthy sort of way."

In the words of golf announcers everywhere, including McCord, he's "flat stroking it," that is, playing marvelously.

But McCord can't escape golf's trolls and gargoyles, either. The imps come out in full force Friday, on the 12th hole at Starr Pass. It starts with a booming drive about 275 yards up the middle. But his second shot on the uphill par-5 hits a cart path and bounces into the desert about 40 yards from the pin.

He still has a shot at the green, but it's a dirt lie over a prickly pear cactus.

McCord's ball nicks the prickly pear and disappears into rough a few yards away. He hacks at the offending cactus with his club once, then again. A hunk flies past an elderly woman's head. Another piece bounces off her husband's chest. McCord offers no apology.

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