LINKS LETTER, 2006 ANNUAL EDITION

BONDO

By Jim Hiskey

The year: 1957.

The place: Scioto Country Club, Columbus, Ohio.

The players: Two 17-year-old junior golf champions. Big, 200-pounders. Young men who can pound a Titleist a mile.

Jack, the better known of the two, tees off first. Even though he’s beaten all the PGA pros and won the State Open and is recognized as the nation’s top junior, he knows he’ll need his best game to beat Paul, who possesses a golf swing that’s as pure and powerful as Sam Snead’s.

Both play with MacGregor wooden-headed drivers.

Jack’s backswing is upright. As he winds up, his left heel lifts completely off the ground. His right elbow flies skyward. He pauses at the apex of his swing for a mere second. Then suddenly, he drops his left heel to the ground. The force of Jack’s downswing is so powerful that Paul, standing 14 feet behind him and out of Jack’s sight, hears his foot stomp the ground. The bowing shaft drives down with lightning speed. Paul’s head snaps to his right as Jack rockets his ball high into the air, fading slightly to their right and 300 yards down the fairway.

“Good shot,” Paul says, all the time planning to drive a few yards farther no matter how far Jack hits it.

Paul sets his mind on a slow, long swing. He realizes he must drive accurately, too, because Jack’s ball is right in the middle of the fairway.

The big blonds will play nine holes. Seven of these holes will be driving contests.

Paul glances at Jack just as he addresses his drive. He wants to make sure Jack watches. He waggles his club twice then takes the club back in a slow, wide arc. But unlike Jack, he has no pause at the top of his back swing. Paul’s swing resembles a long, lethal snap of a 16-foot leather whip. And effortless. But by the time the clubhead reaches the ball, there’s a loud crack.

The two boys eye Paul’s ball flying high, fading just like Jack’s. It lands 20 yards short of Jack’s ball, bounces high and rolls five yards farther.

Paul glances toward Jack again. Paul smiles.

Jack smiles back.

It’s not uncommon. Paul often outdrives Jack, although Paul believes Jack may be stronger physically.

“Good shot,” Jack says. Jack loves this. Paul is the only one who can give him competition. They’ve played three times together this week. In all three rounds, both of them have scored under par. Often, only one shot separates them.

Today will be another tough test.

When the two juniors are playing, it’s all golf. But on occasion, like today, they joke with each other.

Jack Grout, the head pro and instructor for both of the boys, has sent them out on the back nine and told them to keep out of the way of members, who are accustomed to playing the front nine during the late afternoon.

The boys carry light canvas bags.

Both par the tenth hole.

On the eleventh, a par-5, Jack drives first. He places his shot directly in the middle of the fairway. Paul pulls his drive into the fairway bunker on the left. Jack again plays first and puts his 3-wood 30 yards short.

Though Paul is more than 250 yards away from the green, he believes he’s within reach. But only one club will get there: his 3-wood.

When Jack sees him pull his 3-wood out of his bag, he shakes his head. He’s thinking no one alive can hit a 3-wood out of this steep-faced bunker.

Paul sees things differently.

The ball is sitting up like it’s on grass. He’s sure he can pull off the shot. Taking no time, he places his feet in the sand, waggles the club and fires the ball out of the sand like a cannon ball.

Jack closes his eyes in disbelief.

The ball rips the air, but its trajectory is too low. It bangs into the heavy grass lip of the bunker and rockets into the sky.

Jack watches it arch 20 feet in the air and begin to fall in Paul’s direction.

Paul can’t see it. “Watch out!” Jack yells. Too late. The ball lands squarely on Paul’s head.

Jack breaks out in laughter. Paul grips his head. It hurts. He glances toward Jack, who is breaking up. Paul starts laughing.

Jack shoots two under that day, but after Paul’s bean on the head and bogey on the hole, he birdies four holes and edges his buddy—33 for Paul, 34 for Jack.

It’s the fall of 1957 now. Paul Bondeson loses his golf companion, as Jack receives a golf scholarship at Ohio State University. Jack and Jack’s dad want Paul at Ohio State, too. But Paul isn’t about to go to college. He’s got other dreams. He wants to be an actor, a dream he’s had since his pre-teen days.

After the season ends Paul leaves Columbus and treks to New York City. He finds a place to stay in Greenwich Village, meets some famous actors.

Two years pass.

It’s June 1959. The U.S. Open is being held at Winged Foot Country Club not far from where Paul is living in New York. Paul has played very little golf since Jack moved to Ohio State.

Jack has steadily improved and become golf’s top collegiate player.

Paul, on the other hand, has learned about alcohol and drugs, what it’s like to be penniless and homeless. He knows acting is taking him nowhere.

Paul wants to see Jack again, but doesn’t want Jack to see him in the state he’s in. So he disguises himself with sunglasses, a wide brim hat and a London Fog trench coat. He takes the train north to Westchester.

He finds Jack on the course and hides amidst the gallery. “He’s improved,” Paul whispers to himself. “He’s better than ever.”

On the eleventh hole, Paul walks closer to the fairway. Just then Jack glances toward the gallery. Their eyes meet. Immediately, Paul drops his head and backs away. “I hope to God he didn’t see me like this,” Paul says to himself. But he fears it’s too late. An hour later he’s back on the train heading into the city.

Two more years pass. Paul’s education in alcohol and drugs on the streets of the Big City halts. His mom comes back into his life and persuades him to commit himself to drug rehabilitation at Chattahoochee Mental Hospital in the northwest panhandle of Florida, not far from her home.

Not long after, one of the counselors finds out Paul’s golf skills and makes playing golf on the nine-hole golf course adjacent to the hospital part of his therapy. Soon his swing begins to take shape. Getting back into golf loosens the grip drugs and alcohol have on him.

When he’s released he begins to practice daily. Within six months, he believes he’s ready to compete against the top professionals in the world.

His high school buddy, Jack Nicklaus, has completed his four years at Ohio State and is preparing for the PGA Tour, too.

In just the sixth PGA event of 1962, Paul catches fire, inspired in part by playing a practice round with his childhood idol Ben Hogan, and ties Bob Goalby for the lead after 54 holes. That Saturday night he stays up until 5 am partying.

That Sunday Paul is paired with Billy Casper in the final group. Jack Nicklaus is three shots back and playing in the second to the last group. After ten holes, Paul leads the tournament by three shots.

“I thought I was invincible,” Paul says now. “The eleventh is 380 yards. Playing downward. I thought I could drive the green and I did. Rolled it almost between Nicklaus’s legs.” Paul two putted for a birdie. With seven holes to play he held a solid four-shot lead.

“Then my head starts telling me,” Paul says, “you don’t deserve to win. You’re a drunk. Anyone who stays up all night drinking doesn’t deserve to win.”

On the twelfth, a par-5 hole usually unreachable in two, Paul pulls his tee shot into the bunker. “The lip in front of me isn’t high,” Paul says. “I think I can reach the green, so I choose one of my favorite clubs—a 1-iron.

“I mash it, but it comes out low and buries under the top edge of the bunker. The sand nearly covers the ball. I’m lucky to even get it out and end up with a double bogey. Which I follow up with another double on the 13th. My four shot lead is gone.

“I settle down, par fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen, but Casper has me by a shot as we tee off on eighteen.

“I hit a big drive and have a 9-iron to the green. Casper needs a wood on his second, hits a good shot and makes a par. I play my 9-iron to within ten feet of the hole. I think I can make this putt. When it’s a couple of inches from the hole it’s dead center. But at the last second it dips down into the hole, and lips out.

“I can’t believe it. But when I open my eyes, I can believe it. ‘I don’t deserve to win.’

“I finish second. Nicklaus third. Ben Hogan fourth.”

Though it’s a tough loss, it’s his best tournament ever. Ben Hogan offers him a contract to play his new clubs and MacGregor offers five times Hogan’s offer. Paul’s sponsors want him with MacGregor. Paul concedes. “Another bad choice,” Paul says. “I let my sponsors make the decision. Maybe if I’d gone with Hogan he’d have helped me be a better player and person. I’ll never know.

“I never could shake drinking,” he says now. “I drank myself off Tour. I became an accident ready to happen.”

That accident would happen. But first his addiction to alcohol would plummet him from the glamour of his six years on the PGA Tour to cutting the grass where the tournaments are played.

Though sponsors and media said a great talent had fallen, Paul saw it as a step out of the high-stress life on the PGA Tour, which had fueled his craving for alcohol. Now he was free to be at home with his wife, Shirley, and their three children.

Babe Hiskey, this writer’s brother and a three-time PGA Tour winner, found him a job at El Dorado Country Club in Houston (where he worked before moving to Florida and eventually landing his ideal job at The Floridian, a high-end club owned by billionaire Wayne Huizenga).

“Life improved when I moved to Houston,” Paul says. “I’d quit drinking before, be sober six months then start drinking again. Babe Hiskey saved my life. I tried to shake him, but he’d always show up. No matter how bad a shape I was in. Babe had led me to Jesus Christ about the time we started a Bible study on the PGA Tour, but it wasn’t until he got me to Houston, into the Bible and a good environment, that I really changed.”

In their years in Houston and later in Florida, Paul and Shirley watched their children grow up, made some good investments and even bought a home in the mountains near Murphy, North Carolina, where they planned to retire.

One weekend in 2001 while they were in Murphy, Paul was driving to the local middle school carnival to support a fund raising event.

“The highway into Murphy is four lanes with a median in between the east and west lanes,” Paul says. “A woman driving an old car decides to make a left-turn. Doesn’t see us and crashes into the side of our car. Instinctively, I throw my body over Shirley.”

The crushing force of the collision catapults their car into the air and sends it rolling over and over knocking Paul unconscious. His body is pinned between the dashboard and seat. Shirley, bloody and battered, escapes.

Paul must be cut from the car.

He awakens two days later in the hospital in Murphy. He cannot move anything. Nor feel anything. Except his head, and it won’t move. His doctor informs him his head is locked in a halo—a steel band the width of his forehead, which is wound around the top of his head. His spinal cord has been severed.

Through no fault of his own, Paul is now a quadriplegic. He will never drive a car, never walk and never play golf again. He will need Shirley to bathe, dress and feed him.

Shortly thereafter Babe calls and says that Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gary Player, himself and 20 pros are giving a day to raise some money to help Paul with mounting medical bills.

“When you see Paul, you’re going to be surprised,” Babe tells me at the time. His question makes me curious.

“Because he’s totally paralyzed?” I ask.

“No. Something else.”

“What else could there be?”

“His face.”

“What about his face?”

“He’s got a perpetual smile.” Babe says. “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. He never stops smiling.”

I arrive the Palm Cove Golf and Yacht Club in south Florida a month later just as Shirley is helping Paul get out of their van and into his motorized wheelchair.

“Jimmy Hiskey.” Paul’s cheeks are pink. He’s smiling just as Babe had described. “Thanks for coming. Isn’t this great, having everyone here?”

“Everyone loves you, Paul,” I said, stunned by his bright countenance, so noticeable that I almost ignore his lifeless body. I walk beside him as he motors himself toward the front door of the sprawling clubhouse.

“I can’t get over this,” Paul says, “all these guys coming down here. Your brother, Chi Chi, Gary Player. It’s just great. You know, Jimmy, some of us learn easy, but God had to hit me with a two-by-four to get my attention.”

The next day I get together with Paul and Shirley at the golf range after the players tee off. It’s a bright sunny day. The Florida palm trees are swaying in the warm breeze.

I feel myself smile as I walk up to Paul. But catch myself. Paul is paralyzed, I say to myself. He’s helpless. You should be feeling sad.

“Hey, Jimmy, great to see you.” He’s beaming with joy. Shirley is sitting on a folding chair next to him.

I pull up another chair facing them. We chat about some memories of when we were both on Tour.

I’m eager to find out more about his longtime friendship with Jack Nicklaus.

I ask, “I’ve heard that Jack said, ‘Paul Bondeson had great talent. He hit the ball just like I did, high, long, left-to-right. And if he’d ridded himself of his demons I might not have had the record I had.’ True?”

Paul laughs. “I’ve heard that.”

“Babe tells me you have a perpetual smile,” I say. “You never smiled like this when you were playing the Tour.”

“I was an accident waiting to happen, Jimmy.”

“What’d you mean?”

“I mean I always felt like I never deserved to be a success. I’d been a drunk and if it wasn’t for this woman who stuck with me through it all…” His eyes rolled to Shirley. “I wouldn’t even be alive today.”

Shirley nods.

“I was lucky,” he says. “If the police hadn’t been right there when the car rolled, got an ambulance and cut me out, I’d never have made it.”

“Did you ever wish that you wouldn’t have?” I ask.

“The first thing I remember after waking up was ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been depressed or wished I’d died.”

I leaned back. I could hardly believe what I was hearing.

“For a while I wasn’t sure I would live, but it didn’t matter. Either way, I felt I had a great future. I knew God had a purpose for me.”

“That’s why you’re smiling?”

“You might say that. I’m not conscious that I am smiling. I’m just aware that God has a future for me here as He does in heaven.”

Shirley stands. Paul needs some attention. Food, medicine, I don’t know what. I ask her for one more question.

She nods.

“Is there something else that makes you smile?”

Paul doesn’t answer.

Except for the warm breeze, there is silence.

For a minute or two.

Then he says: “His amazing grace. It is sufficient.”

COPYRIGHT 2006 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Paul Bondeson

    Paul Bondeson, once a young phenom with Jack Nicklaus, played on the PGA Tour in the 1960s, but his career was greatly hindered by alcoholism. In 2001, he was paralyzed in an automobile accident in North Carolina.