David Owen  

David Owen  

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 11 1997 3:30 AM

David Owen  

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       I had breakfast in the Trophy Room of the Augusta National Golf Club with John "Spider" Miller, who is one of four nonprofessionals competing in this year's Masters Tournament. Spider is a 46-year-old beer distributor from the Midwest. He qualified for an invitation to the Masters by winning last year's United States Mid-Amateur Championship. I met him back in January, when he came to Augusta to play a few practice rounds. I was staying at the club at that time in connection with a writing project I've been working on for several months. There weren't many members around, and the two pros and all the assistant pros were busy, so I was recruited to play with him. We teed off at 2:30, shortly after he arrived, and got in 36 holes before it was too dark to continue. That evening we drank a lot of beer--or "product," as Spider calls it--and the next day we played 36 more holes. We would have kept going, but I had to catch my plane home and Spider wanted to hit balls.
       Spider got his nickname in childhood, when he would scramble like a spider over the shelves of his father's hardware store. He is still small and wiry. Every time I have seen him in Augusta he has been smiling so broadly that his ears have been stretched back. Playing in the Masters is by an order of magnitude the coolest thing he has ever done, and he is enjoying every minute. A couple of months ago, he wrote a letter to Arnold Palmer and asked if he might have the honor of playing a practice round with him. Palmer wrote back saying he would be delighted.
       I was standing by the first tee on Tuesday, along with about 10,000 other people, when Spider and Palmer teed off. Also playing with them were Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller. Palmer, Watson, and Zoeller between them have won seven green jackets--heady company. They asked Spider to tee off first. He was so nervous that he could hardly see his ball, but he creamed his drive up the middle of the fairway--which was lined on both sides by fans leaning over the ropes to get a better look--and got a big cheer. Zoeller hit next, then Watson.
       Finally, it was Palmer's turn. He stepped up to his ball, and the huge crowd fell silent. Palmer is the sentimental favorite on every golf course he sets foot on. He had prostate-cancer surgery a couple of months ago, and this could be his last Masters. He waggled his driver and stood looking at his ball for a long time. Then he backed away, looked up at the crowd, and said, "Damn, it's quiet!" When the laughter had died down, he teed off, too, and then he, Watson, Zoeller, and the beer distributor headed down the fairway.

David Owen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor of Golf Digest. His most recent book is My Usual Game: Adventures in Golf.