Judd Whiteman stood in cool spring sunshine on a flat rectangle of manicured grass. New white leather on his left hand and on his feet but a baby blue shirt he’d worn before. You don’t want to risk neck or armpit chafing in your first round as a touring golf professional. About two dozen spectators watched. They applauded as his playing partners were introduced—Kelly Grunewald and Casey Devoll were big time, both having won the Texas State Open. “Now on the tee, from Dallas,” a voice said, but applause for the unknown pro was lighter and less certain. Whiteman took a cleansing breath, like a lady in a Lamaze class.
The pork chop-shaped 10th hole at Victoria Country Club is 414 yards long and bends right. Although he was usually as accurate as a champion archer, Whiteman pulled his shot way left and watched in horror as the little ball soared toward, and then over, the white out-of-bounds stakes. He walked in shocked silence to his bag, got another ball, took another breath. And hit it off the course again in about the same place as his first try. Using a defensive scrape instead of his usual flowing stroke, he finally got a ball in play but—let’s see, three hits plus two penalty strokes—he now lay five. His mind in tatters, he made a 9 on the par-4 hole. Smaller disasters followed, and, at the end, Whiteman had a horrid 86, his highest score since he was kid back home in Sulfur Springs.
After several embarrassing phone calls and a mostly sleepless night, Whiteman arrived at the first tee early the next morning, determined to show everyone that his opening round had been a cruel joke or an utter aberration. But before he could pick up his scorecard, a tournament official approached.
“We have a rule,” the man said in the hushed tone of a funeral home director. “No one who shoots above 85 is allowed to continue. We should have told you yesterday. Sorry.”
Mortified, Whiteman checked out of the Comfort Suites and drove the six hours back to Dallas. Thinking all the way. And starting to go a little crazy.
Crazy is right: insanity is to golf as ticks are to dogs. From stakes too high or circumstances too fraught, even the worst hackers experience sudden surges of overpowering fright. Fight or flight impulses kick in like an IV drip of glacier water, but golf won’t allow either. Instead you get a three-minute walk between panic attacks, time enough to review your life plan and to wonder why you’re not home cutting the grass. The simple, obvious prophylactic is to practice a lot and then play the game without a lot of thinking.
That had always been Judd Whiteman’s approach. He often shot startlingly low scores, such as his 63 in an event for club pros in West Texas. “I’d just hit it, find it, and hit it again,” he says. During his four years as an assistant at Lakewood Country Club, in East Dallas, Whiteman was famous for popping out of the shop after a 12-hour shift to play nine holes as the sun set—and shooting 3 or 4 under par. And he had this casual air, as if the 4-under could have been 6-under if he wanted. You should be on the tour, everybody said. Nah, Whiteman replied. Teeing it up against Tiger Woods had never been his dream.
Nor had he wanted the dream his father assigned to him. When Whiteman was a boy, roping and riding animated the household. His paternal grandfather had been one of the founders of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. For a long time, Jim Whiteman held the world record for steer wrestling: 2.8 seconds. But his son, Judd’s father, had a less than satisfactory career in the sport. His fondest wish was that his two sons would pick up where Grandpa left off, and the whole family would travel from this rodeo to that, an exciting, hopefully rewarding way to live. It didn’t happen. Whiteman’s older brother got deeply into the sport, but little brother didn’t want any part of it. Sometimes he refers to himself as the black sheep in the family.
A black sheep with rhythm. Whiteman liked drums. As a freshman, he played the quad in the Sulfur Springs High School Marching Wildcat Band and hit the high hat, snare, and bass in a blues band. Another set of sticks and things to strike came along when he got a set of clubs for his 14th birthday. He shot par at Sulfur Springs Country Club two years later and went on to a bit of college golf at Paris Junior College and East Texas State. The game obsessed him, for sure—his car headlights enabled nighttime putting practice sessions—but if he had a dream, it was of making music that touched every soul in a dark, smoky room.
But there’s no money in that and not much of a life, so Whiteman took various club pro jobs in East Texas before ascending to his post at Lakewood. Then Whiteman was handed a new future, courtesy of one of the members at the club who was always saying, “You should be on the tour.” A benefactor—let’s call him The Saint—doles out his fortune, always anonymously, to churches and schools and other worthy causes. Now he turned his eye to the talented but self-effacing golf pro. The Saint’s text message came from out of nowhere one night while Whiteman was having one or two in the Cock and Bull, a pub on Gaston Avenue just down the street from the club. “How much would you need to compete for a year?” The Saint asked. Whiteman, not entirely serious, tapped in $100,000 on his cell phone. The reply caused the pro to put down his beer: “When do you want to start?”
A brief debate ensued. Lisa, his wife, was quite reasonably opposed. She’d never heard her husband say anything about wanting to play tournaments for a living. And didn’t this amount to trading security for days chasing prize money and nights in hotel rooms? Those in favor called The Saint’s sponsorship the opportunity of a lifetime and declared that passing it up would lead inevitably to regret. But other friends who’d spent time with really successful touring professionals suspected that Whiteman didn’t possess the me-first personality to succeed, or the desire to travel constantly, or the hunger to play with and beat Tiger, Phil, Ernie, and Vijay. The top pros are often jerks. Whiteman wasn’t a jerk. It all seemed like someone else’s dream.
But he decided to go for it. He quit his job and hit the road and whacked his first two shots off the map that day in Victoria. “What have I done?” the 30-year-old rookie asked himself on the drive home. “What should I do?” He resolved to persevere. He would work out and lose weight, adapt and analyze. Analyze, especially: he’d figure out and memorize every particular of his swing so that he could do field repairs. Until his next tournament on the Tight Lies tour—a high minor league below The Tour—Whiteman practiced at Lakewood, which had given him an honorary membership. But evidence that something had snapped arose immediately. In his second tournament, in Houston, he shot a shaky 82 in the first round, and while enduring an equally ugly second round, he abruptly packed it in. “Guys, I’ll see you next week,” he said as he walked off after 13 holes. He’d never quit during a round in his life.
“I was feeling emotions I wasn’t used to,” Whiteman recalls. “I’d remained scared on tee shots because of the first two. I started searching for something away from who I was.”
He drove to Texarkana to see his instructor, Geoff Jones. Jones, an enthusiastic man with a thorough knowledge of the intricacies of the golf swing, became complicit in Whiteman’s descent into swing dissection. He doesn’t characterize it as descent, of course. Jones says, “You have to get a little technical, because you’ve got to have a map of where your swing is, or should be, in case something goes wrong.” But he agrees that Whiteman probably got a little too wrapped up in the kinesiology. And as the months passed, and they spoke once a week, Jones began to doubt that his talented but confused student could make it.
“You have to have an insatiable desire to succeed as a touring pro,” Jones says. “Wives and girlfriends be damned. But Judd loves his wife, and he’s a homebody. He’s basically a head golf professional at a club.”
After Texas, the tour visited New Mexico and then Louisiana, where Whiteman stayed in a hotel jammed with Katrina evacuees. Eating and living frugally, he’d begun to feel guilty about spending someone else’s money while performing so poorly. During their daily chat, The Saint encouraged his pro to stay positive and to spend more than $65 a night on hostelry. But even a good room was an empty room. “It was so solitary,” Whiteman says. “Dinner by yourself—in two and a half months, I was home five days, and I was sick for four of those.”
Inspired, in a way, by a 102-degree, 80 percent humidity day in Bossier City, and in an effort to change his mojo, Whiteman moved his base of operations north and east. Maybe he’d play better on the regional pro golf tour in New England. But what he called his “driver yips” continued. His tee shots “could go here, here, or here,” he recalls. Endless experimentation on the practice tee yielded no answers, and he felt a growing unease that wasn’t just from his lack of 68s and 70s. The tournaments were poorly run. A fellow competitor from Boston declared loudly and often that a guy from Texas must be carrying a gun and have membership in a gang or the KKK. “I never felt welcome on either tour,” Whiteman says.
He did some crazy things, such as driving into downtown Boston and to midtown Manhattan with no particular goal other than to see big buildings and busy streets. Lisa visited regularly during this period, which helped, but the natural golfer she’d married had become so mired in thinking about how he did what he did that he couldn’t do it anymore. After nine months of the opportunity of a lifetime, Judd Whiteman quit.
He can talk about it now, partly because the Zinfandel at Times Ten Cellars is so good and partly because he’s philosophical about the whole thing. “Regrets? Absolutely not,” he says. “I learned a lot. I grew up a lot.” He also got the recipe for the best soup he’s ever had, from a restaurant in Houma, Louisiana. It’s got baby shrimp, Granny Smith apples, and curry. And if the rest of his life turns out the way he expects it to, Whiteman will be telling the story of his mind-boggling time as a touring pro to the members of his own club. He’s first assistant at Dallas National as this is written, but various search committees are in touch. He’s a genuinely nice man and an excellent golfer. He’ll be a head pro somewhere soon. Matter of time.
“You go play for a living, and it’s different,” Whiteman says in the quiet night. “That’s my challenge to you, to tell people how it’s different and why. Suddenly, you’re not playing golf. Something short-circuits up there.”
What goes wrong when the simple becomes complex? Judd thinks I should be able to explain this, because almost 30 years ago, I was him, a touring pro in the tank. I also went from capable to inept immediately upon becoming really serious about golf. I, too, was adrift, in a dark place, and far from home. And I’ve thought about it ever since.
Why did the moment overwhelm Whiteman and me? We don’t know. So we drink.
Curt Sampson’s book Golf Dads will be published by the Houghton Mifflin in March 2008.