There can be surprises from the Alabama coach. One evening he mentioned that “I was just talking to Zach Johnson and…” Nick Saban continued with a message about something that would transfer from golf to football. Perhaps attention to detail. I forget.
But I haven’t forgotten the question I put to Saban. “Coach Saban, are you talking about the Zach Johnson who won The Masters? Are you getting help with your short game, or was he here for some other reason?”Saban was serious for a moment. Yes, it was the Zach Johnson who was a Masters champion. He had been in Tuscaloosa to visit with Crimson Tide Golf Coach Jay Seawell, and had taken the opportunity to drop by Bama’s football practice and to visit with Saban. And then Saban grinned and said, “I probably do need help with my short game, but that’s not what we were talking about. The only game I’m interested in this time of year is our next game.” Johnson, who not only has the green jacket that goes to the winner of The Masters from 2007, but this week earned the silver claret jug, the oldest trophy in golf, for his playoff win in the British Open at St. Andrews. Other fine golfers have had a relationship to Crimson Tide golf, including most prominently former Bama star Jerry Pate. Pate, who won the U.S. Amateur while still a student at The Capstone and won the U.S. Open on the PGA Tour, has been a fixture on the sidelines at big Bama football games under every coach since Paul Bryant, who regarded Pate as something of a lucky charm. Pate also continues to have a close connection to the golf program. He designed the Ol’ Colony course which is Bama’s home course, was a major donor to the excellent practice facility that bears his name, and is part of an annual fund-raising event for Bama golf. Tom Kite, one of the finest golfers in history, is a Texas man, but when his daughter, Stephanie, joined Sarah Patterson’s Bama gymnastics team (performing on the 2002 national championship team and 2003 Southeastern Conference title squad and earning All-America), the father became a Tide fan. Loren Roberts, who earned the nickname “Boss of the Moss” for his putting skills, has often been a spectator at Alabama football games. Davis Love III has been to at least one Bama football game, coming with son Dru who was on a golf recruiting visit. Last February, Dru claimed his first career tournament victory in just the fourth tournament he ever played when he won medalist honors at the 2015 Puerto Rico Classic, finishing with a career-low score of 7-under par 209 (71-69-69)> He won that event on the same day his father was named the United States Ryder Cup captain. Television golf analyst and Golf Channel host David Feherty revealed earlier this year that he is a huge Crimson Tide football fan, and delivered a hilarious (and risqué) account of his introduction to Bama football in 2005. The native of Northern Ireland (now a citizen of the United States) continues to reinforce his Alabama football loyalty with the occasional “Roll Tide!” during his telecasts. Saban recently finished filming an episode for a Feherty show at Saban’s lake home in Georgia. The episode is expected to air on the Golf Channel this fall, likely in September. The connection of golf and football extends particularly to football coaches, almost all of whom play the game, and some of whom are quite accomplished. A favorite trivia question in the Bama past was “What was Steve Sloan’s first head coaching job?” The football fan answers “Vanderbilt.” The bar bet answer is that while he was an Alabama assistant coach in the late 1960s, he was also appointed by Athletics Director Paul Bryant to be the head golf coach. He wasn’t the only Bama assistant football coach who was a fine golfer and who got that double duty. Gene Stallings was Bama’s head golf coach in his early years as an assistant for the Tide in the early 1960s. Conrad Rehling was Alabama’s first full time men’s golf coach (hired in the early 1970s), and he was followed by Dick Spybey and in 2992 by Jay Seawell. One duty of Bama golf coaches over the years has been to fine tune the games of the head football coaches, beginning with Rehling’s lessons to Bryant. Bryant played in his regular group of about eight at Indian Hills Country Club in Tuscaloosa. He lived right off the course near the third and fifth greens. And he also played in numerous celebrity events. He also liked to get away with friends as close as in Jasper at Musgrove and frequently in Southern California with the likes of Bob Hope and John McKay. Saban certainly has had his share of well-known golf partners, including Tom Watson at the seniors event in Birmingham and Tiger Woods when Saban was coaching at Michigan State. One connection of the media to coaches is no longer a part of the Crimson Tide scene. Coach Bryant started the practice of the head coach hosting an annual summer event with media. The Bear Bryant Golf Classic was a two-day event of golf and the opportunity for sportswriters to talk to Bryant and his assistant coaches, ending with a pre-season press conference. Bryant’s event was often at Willow Point, near his Lake Martin cabin. This was a scramble event. I was in a group behind the coach one day when I saw them take a ball out of a trap and then hit onto the green. Later I asked Bill Easterling, the sports editor at the Huntsville Times who had been playing with Bryant, if I had seen correctly. Easterling said, “I told Coach Bryant we couldn’t take a ball out of a trap. He said, ‘Easterling, what’s the name of this tournament?’ I said, ‘Whatever you say, Coach.’” Many described Coach Bryant’s game as “lucky,” but the one time I played with him the most notable thing about his game was his competitiveness. I played often with two of his successors, Ray Perkins and Gene Stallings, and a couple of times with Mike DuBose and Dennis Franchione. Bill Curry and Mike Price were not golfers (and how might Alabama football history have changed if Price had not gone on a golf trip to Pensacola). Ordinarily, coaches limit their golf to late spring and summer. Once upon a time I would meet with the Alabama head football coach on Sundays in their office to get a little something exclusive for our old ’BAMA newsletter. In 1985 I was meeting with Ray Perkins following a win over Southern Miss. Alabama then had an open date before finishing regular season play with Auburn. It was a beautiful day and I said something about it being a nice day for golf. “It is,” Perkins said. “Can you meet me out there in an hour?” Even though I didn’t have the time for it, you don’t turn down an opportunity to play golf with the head football coach, and so we did. It didn’t seem to hurt in the next game, Van Tiffin’s last-play field goal giving the Tide a 25-23 win over the Tigers. Even though Mike Shula and Nick Saban played at the same course I do in Tuscaloosa, NorthRiver, I have never played with either. One day I was out just to do a little practicing (very irregular) and Saban was there, too, warming up before playing. He was with two men who are first name basis friends of mine and we were the only four on the practice range. After a few minutes, Saban said to the others, “Let’s go.” Ordinarily, a fourth player who is known to the other three might be invited to play along. I wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t have time to play that day. I couldn’t help, though, but think of the old joke about the duffer approaching three of his club’s better players who were about to tee off on the first hole and asking if he might join them. “Sorry,” said one of the good players. “We already have our threesome.”