There is an old man sitting on a folding chair behind the green on the 12th hole at Perdido Bay. His name is Archie. He is wearing a plaid shirt, buttoned at the neck and wrists, and is absently holding a cigar against the cuff of his pants. It is the second day of the 1985 Pensacola Open, and Archie is setting himself on fire.
The smoke rises in a path, following the folds in the old man’s pants and shirt, and then flowers in front of his face, hanging there motionless even as he speaks.
“There’s a lot of the females object to a cigar now’days,” he says, playing to all the females in earshot, “but it’s a sweet smell to the initiated.”
A hundred and sixty yards away, a golfer named Roger Maltbie is standing beside a pond, looking down into the water at his golf ball. There are signs everywhere on the course that say, THE LAKES CONTAIN WASTE WATER EFFLUENT. DO NOT ENTER.
There are 14 other people standing on the bank with him, all looking into the pond, too. Fifteen disappointed people all shake their heads at once. Everybody loves Roger Maltbie.
This is the second time this afternoon that Roger has put a ball into waste-water effluent. He has also hit balls into trees and sand traps and past the security guards—muscular, blonde girls, every one of them with those coffee-table legs, like Mary Lou Retton’s—and even into the tall grass where small swamp animals lie around in the afternoon, airing themselves out after they’ve emerged from the waste-water effluents.
I do not know if this is happening because Roger’s wife has gone to Chicago for a funeral, or because his regular caddie is sick, or because when Roger’s wife goes to Chicago and his caddie is sick, he sometimes goes out at night and drinks with the people who love him.
And everybody loves Roger Maltbie.
“Golf,” Archie says, “is a tricky old game.” And then, before I can stop him, he tells me it’s a lot like life.
It is always somebody setting himself on fire who wants to tell you the meaning of life; have you noticed that?
On the other hand, how are you going to argue that golf isn’ta lot like life? I mean, there are some of us who know what life is like, and some of us who know what hitting a golf ball straight is like, but almost nobody who knows about life and hitting a golf ball straight, too. Those things may not be able to exist in the same body.
Which, as much as anything, I guess, brings us to Roger Maltbie.
One day, while I was in the bathtub having sexual intercourse with my wife—actually, we were just at that place where the girl says, “Wait, my leg…”—this magazine called me on the telephone and said it had a great idea.
“We want to find somebody frustrated,” the magazine said. “A professional golfer, somebody maybe in the top 100 in the world at his sport, who lives on the fringe, never really making it, struggling from week to week to stay in the game.”
I said, “And you’re going to call him up while he’s fucking his wife.”
“Is this a bad time?” the magazine said.
Don’t ever believe that shit that PLAYBOY’s insensitive to modern woman’s sexuality.
“Not at all,” I said. “I was just thinking about golf myself.”
Which was when the missus got up out of the bathtub and disappeared into the bedroom, trailing little wet footprints that would have broken your heart.
“Are you sure this isn’t a bad time?” the magazine said.
“To talk about golf?” I said. “There’s no such thing as a bad time to talk about golf.” Which is more or less the motto I live by.
Somewhere in the house, the missus turned on a hair drier; and while she did that, the magazine and I agreed to find somebody about three fourths fucked up on the golf tour—who could never play as well when it counted as he could when it didn’t, who was still out there chasing something he could never catch—and use him to show readers sitting abandoned in bathtubs all over the world that they aren’t the only ones who can’t get what they want.
And so I called some people who follow the game closer than I do—this includes everybody in the United States and most of Cuba—and laid out what I needed in the way of a fuck-up. A golf writer who was obviously trying to protect the game told me there might be an interesting piece instead in the fact that more and more golfers are spending countless hours in the gym, because touring pros have to be in better condition than the public realizes.
Another golf writer told me about Roger. He said, “There’s this guy with a funny name and a beer belly. He won a tournament his first year on the tour, got drunk and left the check in a bar someplace near Boston, won another tournament the next year and then went into a nine-year slump and didn’t win again until this year.”
Which sounded more like it.
Roger Maltbie. I loved that name; I still love it, even though now, looking back on it, I’d have to say that in a way, Roger has let all of us sitting-in-a-bathtub-looking-at-my-own-dick kind of guys down.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The first sign that something was wrong with Roger showed up early, and I ignored it. A woman with an air of authority that exists only in offices where nobody reads anything but golf magazines told me that she was not about to “turn over Roger Maltbie’s phone number to just anybody.” She said I would have to ask his agent if it was all right to talk with him.
If the question of what a fringe professional golfer struggling from week to week to stay alive on the tour was doing with an agent passed through my head, it didn’t stay long enough for me to notice it. This man had gotten drunk and left his winner’s check in a bar, he was Roger Maltbie and he’d gone stone-cold for a decade.
It took 11 days to get him on the phone. Business deals, public appearances. When I finally caught up with him, he sounded exactly like somebody who’d left a $40,000 check in a bar but not much like somebody who’d been riding a losing streak for ten years since.
So I laid out what I was after, and he said he certainly knew something about frustration and living on the edge: “Until May [1985, when he won the Westchester Open and $90,000], I was exactly what you’re talking about.”
And that didn’t warn me, either, not a half second’s worth.
I said, “Don’t change; I’ll be out there in three days.”
And so I met Roger in a bar at the Hyatt Hotel in San Jose, California. He had yellow hair and a tan, but he didn’t look like the golfers you see on television, which is to say that there is nothing about Roger that makes you want to kill him because you know right away that nothing else is ever going to go wrong in his life.
No, Roger looks like he’s had his share of things go wrong and like he’s had his share of things go right. And he looks like sometimes when things went right, it was for too long, and he had ended up feeling wrong again in the morning.
I said, “You don’t spend endless hours in the gym because golfers have to be in better condition than the public realizes, do you?”
Roger lit a cigarette and pointed with the two fingers holding it toward a window across the room. “If I ran to that window,” he said, studying the distance, “if I made it, you would hear a pitiful wheezing. Why put everybody through that?”
I said, “I see life on the fringe of the P.G.A., watching the Tom Watsons of this world walk off with the 18-foot winners’ checks, hasn’t turned you bitter.”
He said, “Well, I’m not really doing too bad this year….”
“You won a tournament in May, right?”
“That one,” he said, “and then the World Series of Golf.”
I said, “That’s sort of honorary, though. I mean, you didn’t get paid.”
He scratched his head. “A little more than $120,000.”
So I excused myself from the table for a minute and found a telephone and explained to PLAYBOY that things had made a left turn. “I thought you said he was a fuck-up,” the magazine said.
I said, “What can I tell you? He fucked that up, too.”
The numbers at the time, if you are interested in numbers, read like this: It was mid-August 1985, and Roger had won $351,724. He was sixth on the P.G.A. money list for the year—$10,000 shy of being third—and he had just gone over $1,000,000 in career earnings.
I went back to the table and asked him to tell me something human.
“Three hundred and fifty-one thousand dollars by August won’t do it,” I said.
Roger thought it over. “I’m human,” he said. “I’ve got the same feelings as everybody else, but somehow I ended up with golf. When I was a kid, I had a kind of epilepsy. It wasn’t fits, but sometimes there’d be short periods of time when I’d go off somewhere else. That happens while you’re playing third base, it shows. With golf, it didn’t matter.
“That’s how I got into it at first; now I do it for a living. Fresh air, cut grass … golf balls. Somebody carries your bag. Not only that, my caddie’s name is Shitty. I get paid to be on the Michelob Advisory Staff; I get paid for wearing Aureus shirts. And what I do for that is play golf, which is something I’ve done since I was about ten years old, anyway, for free.
“I’m making some money now, but there were years when I didn’t. Nine thousand, 12,000 dollars. You don’t break even out there until you make $65,000 or $70,000. But even when the ball wasn’t going into the cup, when I was frustrated and playing below what I could play, it was still golf. I was happy then without money; I’m happy now that things are going better….”
I leaned closer, so he could see my eyes. “Roger,” I said, “would you like me to be happy, too?”
Roger sighed. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tell you about the house. We found this place a few months ago, out in Los Gatos, kind of set back from the road. Four bedrooms; my wife loved it right away. And it’s reasonable. We paid about $250,000, which isn’t a lot of money for something out there, and moved in. And the day we walked in the door, there was a dark spot on the rug in the den where there wasn’t a dark spot before.
“It turns out there’s a problem with underground water; we might have floor rot. Nobody’s been under there yet to see how bad it is. There’s going to be lawyers in it and real-estate people and banks.”
As soon as I saw the spot on the rug, I began to feel that this was going to work out after all. It was big and it was wet and it was fresh. Golfers, of course, cannot swing with people standing behind them; they cannot putt while anything is moving. Roger not only had lawyers and real-estate people and banks in his life now, he had—if I know anything about houses and marriage—lost his conjugal rights.
And if a man cannot concentrate on a motionless white ball on a green background because somewhere an airplane is crossing the sky, how can he concentrate knowing his life isn’t going to be worth living for the 11 years minimum it’s going to take to get this settled?
I said, “Horrible, just horrible.”
But then Donna Maltbie came into the room, and we were right back where we started. First of all, this woman was supposed to be from somewhere around Moline, Illinois—I knew this from talking with Roger. I have been to Moline a lot of times, however, and have never seen anything resembling Mrs. Maltbie.
I mean, there was no beard or anything.
I found myself staring at her—not so much because she was pretty, which isn’t enough of a word, anyway, but trying to figure out what kind of fairy dust they sprinkled over Roger Maltbie that he rolled into one end of Moline, Illinois, and came out the other end with this woman instead of, say, a rash.
Second, there was something in Mrs. Maltbie that was missing in Roger. Something practical. I don’t mean this in an insulting way, but the truth is, left without outside influences, Roger would look at the spot on the rug every morning for the rest of his life, wonder if it was blood from the night before and forget it was there by afternoon.
The truth is, Roger without outside influences is the guy you would sell your underground-water problems to. Roger married to Donna, however, is a different proposition.
He fixed some drinks and we all sat out on the patio. There were still people moving around inside. “House guests,” Donna said. “Friends come in from out of town, Roger invites them over and sometimes they stay for months. When we first got the place, there were people in sleeping bags in the halls.”
Roger smiled and drank Scotch.
“That’s the way Roger’s always been,” she said. And you could see she wasn’t trying to change that. Mrs. Maltbie was going to have somebody’s nuts on the gas grill before the underground-water business was settled, but they weren’t going to be Roger’s. She was practical and, at the same time, working in Roger’s interests.
Take my word for it, that cannot be easy.
“Donna follows me almost every round I play,” he said. “She doesn’t understand the mechanics of the swing—I mean, she can’t tell me I’m doing this or that. But she can pick me up with a couple of words, or she can kick me in the ass…. She keeps my mind on what I’m doing.”
It wasn’t always like that, of course.
Back in 1975, when he was 24 years old and new on the tour, Roger didn’t need anybody to pick him up and he didn’t need anybody to kick him in the ass. He was the P.G.A.’s rookie of the year and, early on, in the space of two weeks, he won tournaments back to back.
After the second win, played at Pleasant Valley, just outside Boston, Maltbie wandered into T.O. Flynn’s tavern in Worcester, where he took everything out of his pockets—money, keys, lint, everything—and laid it all on the bar to make sure nobody else could buy a drink.
“I woke up the next morning,” he said, “and sat up, thinking, Lord, don’t let this be me inside this headache, and put my face in my hands before I opened my eyes. I started out just looking for my feet. I couldn’t see them; or maybe I could see them, but they didn’t look familiar. The light was unnatural—you know what I mean? I closed my eyes, trying to remember what I’d done. I needed a cigarette.
“I found my pants on the floor and reached into the front pockets. They were wet and cold and empty. I checked the back pockets and then my wallet and then my shirt. Not a nickel. I thought, Well, you must have had a good time; then I remembered the check, and that was gone, too.
“Forty thousand dollars. I called up the bar and said, ‘Listen, you didn’t happen to find a check on the floor while you were sweeping up, did you?’
“No, but the guy said he’d keep an eye out for it.
“Then I called the tournament and asked if I could have another one. They did that, and Cuz Mingolla lent me a couple of hundred dollars so I could get to the next stop. Meanwhile, somebody found the check in the sawdust. He called and told me, but I already had a new one coming, so I said, ‘Why don’t you just keep it for a souvenir?’”
That was ten years ago. There was another win the next year, and then Roger went cold. “The way it was before,” he said, “I’d play a bad round or a bad tournament and it wouldn’t bother me. I always knew I’d play better tomorrow. But somewhere in there, I began to get frustrated. Instead of knowing I’d play better, I’d begin to think I hadto play better.
“I worked harder and harder at it; I pressed all the time. Seventy-eight, ’79, ’80, those were the worst years. Without realizing it, I quit having fun. On the course, I mean. I was still the same person; I never was ungrateful to be playing golf for a living. But let me tell you, one day, in a tournament, I actually shot a 92. And I posted it, I didn’t withdraw or get myself disqualified; I signed the score card. I said, ‘I shot it, I’ll sign it.’
“And it wasn’t too long after that I went and talked with this sports psychologist at the University of Virginia. He thought I’d forgotten how to have fun. I said, ‘You know who I am?’ He suggested that I ought to try to remember how it felt when I’d just got on the tour, when I’d go out and have a good time playing. And it was that simple. Once I started thinking of it like that, I began to play again.”
But back to Perdido Bay.
The caddie pulls the ball out of the waste-water effluent and cleans it off. Roger drops it on the other side of the pond and hits an iron through some trees to about 40 yards in front of the green.
Somebody in the crowd says, “Good shot.” Roger smiles. Even though he is all over the course today and is not having as good a time as the sports psychologist at the University of Virginia would like, he takes a certain happiness in the act of hitting the golf ball.
He is, first of all, a natural athlete—something that is not as common on the P.G.A. tour as you might think. His swing is uncluttered, his weight moves by itself through the ball, the club head follows it. And in that moment—free of physical distractions—there is a fresh start. An expectation. Which is at the heart of fun, or nobody would ever be stupid enough to get into a car and drive the family to the Grand Canyon on a vacation.
And the fact that Roger’s expectations are turning bad today does not seem to get in the way of his enthusiasm for the afternoon. At least that’s the way it looks to me.
Archie—you remember Archie—sees it another way. He shakes his head and brushes at the smoke coming from his pants leg. A piece of the cuff falls off. “That fella’s in a lot of trouble,” he says.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I ask him. “It was the caddie who stuck his hand in the water.”
“Mental,” he says and taps himself on the head. “He could take a seven on the hole. He could miss the cut.”
(Which is, in fact, what happens. Roger takes a seven and shoots a 74, leaving him with a 36-hole total of 142. That is even par, and that is one shot too many.)
As I am leaving the green, Archie lights a fresh cigar and smiles an awful black-gummed smile. “I told you,” he says.
And an hour later, Roger walks off the 18th green, shaking his head. He says, “I have been invaded by a foreign body,” but it’s bothering him more than that.
I ask him if it was the substitute caddie, or his wife’s being in Chicago, or the wet spot on the rug back in Los Gatos, or if the magazine had jinxed him.
“I don’t know what it was,” he says, “but it’s embarrassing, being all over the course like I was. I don’t like playing that way, because I can play better.”
I ask Roger how long today will be on his mind. “Until I play better,” he says.
And that is a germ that can grow different ways, of course, but it is at the heart of anything serious. And you’ve got to appreciate it in Roger. Whether it’s a nine-year fuck-up or $351,000 by August, drunk, sober, married or single, it doesn’t matter if there’s a swamp growing under his house—whatever Roger Maltbie is doing, he’s doing it all the way.
And one more thing.
A couple of hours later, I walked into a place called the Flora-Bama, which sits on the state line between Florida and Alabama, and asked the bartender for something to drink.
And while I was waiting, I happened to notice a brass plate fitted into the walnut bar over the garbage can. I asked one of the waitresses what it was for.
“There’s a guy named Roger,” she said. “Everybody loves him, and last year he came in here and drank so much, he fell into the garbage can and couldn’t get out. Go look for yourself.”
And so I did.
It said, ROGER MALTBIE’S TRASH CAN, AWARDED ANNUALLY.
And so, in the end, I am afraid the comfort of the Roger Maltbie story isn’t what we set out to find a long time ago, alone in a bathtub.
Roger isn’t one of us, he’s better.
The heartening part is that everybody loves him anyway.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]