Jerry West criticizes his own golf game
The sound of a driver hitting the golf ball off the tee. The stroke of a putt placing the ball into the hole. The smiles and fist pumps after a birdie.
Jerry West will see all those images as he oversees his third year as the executive director of the Northern Trust Open, harking back to when he first started golfing at age 24.
The muffed drives that veer off the fairway. The efforts to get a ball out of a bunker. The frustration with a ball lipping out of the hole.
All those will remind West of what he's been going through in recent years while playing at Bel-Air Country Club and elsewhere, leading West to make this revelation about his current golf game:
"It pretty much stinks," West said by phone. "I don't really play very much now. Hopefully I can get reengaged. I used to love to hit golf balls. Then I could at least hit the ball where I aimed it. Now I hit places where I don't know how it got there. You can blame no one. In a team game, everyone wants to blame someone for this or someone for that. You just have to look in the mirror and say, 'I put the ball up in that tree or buried it in the bunker. I did it and no one else.'"
West initially took up the sport during his 14-year NBA All-Star career with the Lakers as a way to temper his anxiety, frustration and competitive fire over basketball. With little pressure to succeed on the links and no attention accompanying him, West has often found golf to be a worthy outlet. But then his perfectionist nature and competitive spirit surely kicked into overtime.
"A combination of both, probably," West said in regard to golfing to relax and fuel his competitiveness. "In some respects, I love being around people, but I also have a very solitary side to me. I think in golf you can use your imagination, particularly when you get to the point where you know how you can hit the ball. It's your imagination. That's what fuels a lot of kids growing up. To me, I have to find myself immersed in something I find very difficult. That's the interesting part of it and how addictive it becomes."
It didn't take long for West to develop that fix.
At some point during the 1962-63 or 1963-64 season, West spent one of the team's days off during the playoffs on the links. He still remembers which hole he hit hole-in-one at L.A Country Club (five) and with which club (five-iron). Instead of bragging about his accomplishment, West told the club's personnel not to leak it to the press or tell the Lakers. Coach Fred Schaus had strictly prohibited players from activity during the playoffs, but West countered "I didn't need a lot of rest then." Nonetheless, Schaus fined West an undisclosed amount of money.
"It was pretty embarrassing," West said. "But I thought it was pretty funny myself."
West's hole-in-one last year at the Lakers' Youth Foundation also sparked a few laughs.
The tournament reserved prizes for golfers who finished with hole in ones, including a car for the 4th and 14th hole, a $12,000 watch for the 6th hole and two Lakers tickets for the 16th hole. After West said he trusted advice from Lakers' spokesman John Black to use an 8-iron, West made a hole-in-one 138 yards on the 16th hole, earning him the Laker tickets. Being the Lakers' former GM, West traded the tickets for the $12,000 watch, which he immediately donated for charity.
"That's certainly something you never expect," West said.
But considering West is Mr. Clutch, Laker fans would hardly expect anything else. Even if he remains critical of his performance in a sport he describes as "humbling."
Said West: "It can be one of the most tragic sports of all."
— Mark Medina
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Photo: Jerry West. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times