If heroes inspire you to do—or, as in my case, not do—something, in sports mine was a teenage golfer named Frank Beard. Our chance encounter at a tournament in Paducah, Kentucky, in the mid-1950s, when we were about 16, changed, in the sport’s idiom, my life’s trajectory. Later, my Russian friends insisted, in their idiom, it had been “fate.”
At the time, I was a Kentucky junior golfer with an obsessive ambition to be a professional player in the mold of Ben Hogan or Dr. Cary Middlecoff. (I did become the PhD kind of doctor.) Being paired with Frank, whom I’d never met, in Paducah ended all that. After two rounds, my reaction was like Bobby Jones’s after watching the young Jack Nicklaus win the Masters: “He plays a game with which I am unfamiliar.”
During those two sweltering summer days, my swing was fairly solid, only occasionally unhinged; Frank’s was relentlessly powerful and grooved. My drives averaged about 250 yards; Frank’s flew that far and then rolled on and on. My wood and long-iron shots were often somewhere in the fairway, but sometimes in deep rough or sand; Frank’s were usually wherever he wanted them to be. I aimed at the green; Frank, it seemed, at the pin. I finished holes with two putts; Frank, with one.
Frank was different in another way. Unlike the rest of us kids, he was virtually silent on the course, playing with intense focus. He also played with a secret. His older half-brother was Ralph Beard Jr., the all-American Kentucky basketball player implicated in the 1951 betting scandal and banned for life by the NBA. Basketball orthodoxy was as unforgiving (and more authentic) in Kentucky as Marxism-Leninism was in Soviet Russia, and its deviationists were also anathematized. Frank, I guessed, had chosen a sport where the name Beard did not resonate.
After Paducah, I knew I had to find a different vocation. For a while, I still played competitive golf, but never again with purpose or passion. The shock therapy administered by Frank opened me to other possibilities, which led to Russia. The rest was, well, fate.
I may have been delusional about my golf game, but not about Frank Beard’s. Turning pro in 1962, he won eleven times on the PGA Tour, leading its money list in 1969. I soon lost track of him. Later, I learned Frank was another kind of hero as well. He played his entire career in such profound emotional stress that it drove him to alcoholism and into self-exile from golf. Eight years later, however, Frank prevailed, as heroes do, returning to the PGA circuit, where he won again, in 1990, this time on the Senior Tour.