A golfer driving cliches seems par for the course


POTOMAC -- Over a swale of impossibly green grass and from behind a stand of gently swaying oaks comes a giant's roar.

Mark Rypien, quarterback of the Washington Redskins, has just walked out onto the final green at the Kemper Open golf tournament.

Rypien was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXVI, and this is what the people must be cheering. It certainly could not be his golf.

Rypien is officially a golf pro by virtue of his having won $75,000 at the Celebrity Golf Classic in Lake Tahoe in 1990. But, like a lot of professional athletes who earn their living in other sports, he golfs out of passion and not out of financial need.

Seventy-five thousand dollars is what he tips his pool boy.

Now, at 10 over par, Rypien bends over the ball. And four guys in fancy sweaters immediately hold up signs that say: "Quiet please."

"Why do they do that?" I ask Don Ruhter, who has piloted our golf cart to a grassy knoll overlooking the hole. "You think he could get four guys in fancy sweaters to shut up the crowd at RFK every time he wanted to throw a pass?"

"It is a convention of the game," Ruhter explains. At least that is what I think he explains. It is sometimes hard to understand him when he speaks through clenched teeth.

Don Ruhter and I shared a house together in college. He was an Evans Scholar, which is a scholarship program for caddies. He was also the best writer and reporter on our college newspaper, which is where I met him.

After a career in journalism, Ruhter went to work for Kemper, where he is now head of advertising and sales promotions, which means that, among other things, his budget pays for this tournament.

He comes to town once a year, and we have a deal: He gets us great seats to see the Orioles and I promise not to come out to see the Kemper.

"It's a wonderful sport to play and a wonderful sport to watch and you'd hate it," he says. "You'd come out, steal Cokes out of the press room, write a dumb column celebrating your own ignorance and you'd think you had done an honest day's work."

"That's untrue and unfair," I say. "I would not steal Cokes out of the press room. I would drink them all right there."

So he lets me come out this year and puts me in a golf cart, and I get to go out to "the links" (this is a technical golf term meaning "the grass").

I begin with some basic questions. "How big is the hole?" I ask.

"The hole?" he says. "You mean in inches?"

"Exactly," I say. "What is the diameter of the hole? And what is the diameter of the ball?"

And that's when I notice Ruhter has this little muscle on the side of his neck that vibrates when his teeth clench.

But he stops the cart by the practice putting green and goes up to a pro named Morris Hatalsky.

"The hole is four and a quarter inches in diameter, and the ball is 1.68 inches in diameter," Hatalsky says without hesitation. Then he goes back to putting.

"That was very impressive," I tell Ruhter. "I'll bet you he is a very successful golfer."

Ruhter digs around under the -- of the golf cart and hands me the PGA Tour Book for 1992. And I learn that Hatalsky earned $106,265 in prize money last year, which I thought was pretty good until I noticed that put him only 132nd on the money list.

Still, a guy who knows his equipment has an unlimited future in my opinion.

I spend the rest of the day riding around and writing down golf cliches. I feel you can't truly know a sport unless you know its cliches.

The best one I heard was: "The greens are harder out there today than the hood of my car!"

After they finish, the pros are ushered into the press room where I spent a lot of time drinking Cokes.

Mark Rypien, who birdied the last hole and finished nine over par (Morris Hatalsky finished 4 under), drew a big crowd of reporters and even managed to earn a spot on my cliche list.

"My club felt like a thousand pounds out there today," he said.

Then he was asked which sport he would play if he could earn the same amount of money playing golf as playing football.

Rypien didn't even have to think hard. "Golf," he said. "It's a little easier on the body."

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