They don’t make nicknames like they used to.
I’m reminded of this every time I pick up one of Red Smith’s books and read a few pages. Red, the best sportswriter ever to sit down in front of a keyboard, found an endless parade of fascinating characters to write about, many of whom had nicknames like Peahead, Schoolboy, The Beard and Society Kid.
Time has rinsed a lot of color out of our games since then. The Peaheads and Society Kids today go by their real names, for the most part.
One of the best, or most fitting, nicknames I’ve heard in golf was “Big ‘Un.” Dave Smith, an auto dealer from Gastonia who had an excellent career in amateur golf, including two close matches with Jack Nicklaus, was indeed a big ‘un physically and his golf game was a big ‘un. Until George Bayer came along, Smith was the longest hitter I had ever seen.
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He was also a “funny ‘un.” We were watching a football game one day and he exhorted his team to “do sompin’ thrillin’ ”
Another perfect fit was “Towering Inferno,” attached to tall Tom Weiskopf, who had a gorgeous golf game but a temper that threatened to defoliate the countryside. Much like Tommy "Thunder" Bolt, who went about hitting beautiful shots while flinging clubs and turning the air blue.
So, over the years, golf has contributed some colorful nicknames but the current collection doesn’t measure up to some from earlier days like Slammin’ Sam Snead, Bantam Ben Hogan, Lew (Chin) Worsham, Chi Chi Rodriguez.
A personal favorite is “The Missouri Mortician,” a handle somebody hung on old-time golfer Herman Keiser, one that would be more appropriate in a wrestling ring. I also liked “Mysterious Mr. X,” given to Miller Barber when he was among the first to wear sunglasses on the course.
“Shark” was a perfect name for Greg Norman, one drawn from his fishing for great white sharks. His features, his style and his slashing golf game had a hint of shark about them.
“Champagne” Tony Lema was a good one. He got it after buying champagne for the media following a victory.
Gene Sarazen was “Squire.” Jack Nicklaus was “Golden Bear," Arnold Palmer “King.” Julius Boros was “Moose.” Bob Toski was “Mighty Mouse.” Anybody know Frank Zoeller? How about “Fuzzy” Zoeller? Same guy.
Mildred Zaharias, one of the greats of women’s golf and a star in other sports, answered to “Babe.”
Nowadays, we have a Bubba, a Duck, a Lumpy, a Boo. Sergio Garcia was “El Nino” but not so much anymore. Phil Mickelson is called “Lefty” and “Phil The Thrill.”
And, of course, we have “Tiger.” It’s a good one, just not as catchy as “Missouri Mortician.”