Written by: J.D. Frost
What happens when Bear Bryant and former President Gerald Ford both play in the same charity golf tournament?
In the late 1970s, I was a student at UAB, studying so much that entertainment was a premium. Charles Boswell was a blind golfer, an Alabama native, and an extraordinary hero in many ways. During those years he put together several celebrity golf tournaments, raising money for sight. The year in question there were two big stars, former President Gerald Ford and Alabama coach Bear Bryant.
Arnold Palmer led the group onto the first tee. With him, in the foursome, was the Honorable Gerald Ford. After Richard Nixon’s nauseating attempt to survive the Watergate debacle, it fell to President Gerald Ford to piece the country back together. It was as if God had crafted him for the part. Ford played golf (a sport that has humbled many men) with results that endeared him to the public. Gerald Ford set a presidential record. No one else in that office has hit at least one spectator so many weeks in a row. The standard joke inside the Beltway was wear your headgear when Jerry is teeing it up. Ford’s ability to handle all the ribbing that followed his errant golf shots made him sort of like everyone’s favorite uncle.
When Jimmy Carter won the Presidency in 1976, Gerald Ford took to the links with a passion.
As I watched the former President approach his golf ball, he looked very presidential in a gray sweater. Ford sunk his tee into the ground and the catcalling began. Spectators called out their favorite protect-your-noggan joke. Loud guffaws rang across the links. The Secret Service didn’t draw down on anyone— Ford took it all goodnaturedly, grinning as he practiced his swing. Immediately after the catcalls and jokes, Ford’s drive did not disappoint; it was considerably off line, caroming off into the rough.
No one took the golf ball off the forehead, but the laughter and the catcalls reached a level that was … well, embarrassing. I mean, we’re talking about the former President of the United States. I watched Arnold Palmer tee off after Ford and then made my way across the course.
It so happened that Bear Bryant was playing in the next group I encountered. Golf was one of the few things in Alabama that Coach Bryant could not control. Bryant’s golf shots were renowned for their danger, he was like Ford minus the presidency. In fact, had he and Ford teed it up, I’m not sure who would have been buying rounds at the nineteenth hole. Coach Bryant’s tee shot flew as if it were attached to a rubber band anchored somewhere deep in the right rough. The braintrust who say a baseball does not curve can’t say the same about a golf ball, at least not on that day. Bryant’s ball left the tee box with such sidespin it hissed through the air, curving violently to the right, and coming to rest in the rough of the adjoining hole.
No one said a word.
A crowd quickly formed around the ball. Bryant was mumbling unintelligibly as he readied for his second shot from the right rough. He took a fairway wood (yes, it was actually made of wood back then) and settled over the ball. Then the Bear, a grizzled mountain of a man even as he aged, rocked back and put everything he had into the mighty swing. He put a swing on it that would have flattened a linebacker, the displaced air whistled, his wooden club met the small, white ball in the right rough.
The crowd surrounding him raised their eyes to the heavens. Where oh where would the Bear’s shot land?
Their gaze was far too high.
After a flight of twenty-five yards, the ball having reached an apex of maybe six inches rolled impotently to a stop.
There was not one catcall, not one break-out-your-shinguards joke, and not a single laugh. There was a collective groan, something one might interpret as “too bad.”
No one said a word.
On the Alabama links, the former President was someone whose golf failings were fair game. But Bear Bryant’s bad swings and results? You didn’t dare make fun of the Bear.
Today the Bear is a iconic figure in Alabama, but for me the crowd’s reaction to his bad golf shots told me everything I needed to know about the Bear’s status in Alabama. Even when golf made Bear Bryant human, the people of Alabama treated him like a God. Not so, with Gerald Ford, the man who once had nuclear codes at his own disposal.