What’s in a Song?

Through its lyrics and rhythm, music will forever be inextricably linked to golf

By Michael Bamberger  

LOS ANGELES—Do you wake up with a song in your head? Or go to sleep with one? Or play golf with one? I know you drive with one. We all drive with one. The inventor of the car radio was a genius. Whenever I hear Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” I’m transported to the summer of ’78, driving to Bellport for after-supper golf with my friend Larry Lodi in his mother’s Buick, windows down, volume up.

You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re trying, you’re trying now

A golfer’s anthem. Larry, actually, was a natural. I’ve always had to try. It was never easy for me.

When Rory McIlroy won the British Open at Royal Liverpool in the summer of ’14, his playlist to and fro cycled through David Guetta, Sigma and the late Tim Bergling. (No Beatles, that close to Penny Lane? No Beatles.) Sam Snead once told me his gift for golf and his gift for music came from the same place. He could play banjo and harmonica and could sing. I was drinking a Coke from a glass with Julius Boros’s face imprinted on it as he told me that. Boros’s swing came out of a metronome set at 60. (Adagio, in the trade.) Tiger once cited Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” as his favorite album. OMG. A nod, I suspect, to his father.

HFD, to you and yours.

We hear you’re leaving, that’s OK.

I thought our little wild time had just begun

From an old Steely Dan hit. If it triggers nothing, ask an elder. Does golf run through every song? Pretty much, yes. You’re going good, then you hit a wild time. Your heart races as you march off the tee because you really don’t know if you’re ever going to find it.

At the PGA Championship last month in Rochester, N.Y., my song of the week was “South City Midnight Lady.” No golf in that, but a person cannot live by golf alone. Nope.

South city midnight lady,
I’m much obliged indeed.

I heard it in the car, making the back-road drive from the Fairfield Inn in Lake Geneva to Oak Hill, and it stayed in my head for days. One of the most beautiful songs ever composed. Doobie Brothers, Patrick Simmons presiding. That minor key. The open-faced greenside pitch shot up a slope and down another, the one you never practice. Golf’s minor key.

The week after the PGA, my wife and I went to Cambridge, Mass., dog-sitting two lovely old mutts in a lovely old house. Bonnie Raitt, we learned, lived in the house when she was an undergrad at Radcliffe, circa 1970. I have a whole catalog of Bonnie in my head, but the song running through me for that week was “With Your Love,” by Jefferson Starship.

Don’t know what’s happened

to me since I met you.

The comments, underneath the YouTube postings of some of these old hits, can be painfully poignant. To wit:

“What an absolutely beautiful, dreamy & cosmic song. The musical & lyrical arrangements are truly brilliant, and go way beyond its time, now and then. How could you not look forward to your days as an innocent child when this is what they played on the AM dial? Peace & Love.”

Now and then.

This week, I’m staying at the Marriott LAX. Good hotel and great people. You don’t have enough fingers to count the languages and accents you’ll hear in its elevators. One day, all the housekeepers were part of a poolside staff appreciation luncheon. The lobby playlist has been stuck in the ’70s, which is (as managers with too many good lefthanders like to say) a nice problem to have. For me, anyway.

We’ve already visited Gerry Rafferty. Also Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Bonnie Raitt, Jefferson Starship.

I heard Neil I and Neil II in the lobby. Ask an elder, if you must.

On my way to the Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday, I stopped at Rancho Park, the great public course where the L.A. Open was played regularly from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s. It is often described as the busiest course in the world and it was packed on Saturday, bathed in sunshine. The clubhouse was closed and they hope it will reopen by the 2028 Olympics. Ambitious!

There was not a TV to be found at the course and I might have been the only person there following the Open scores by phone. The tee sheet was filled and so was every hitting bay on the ground level and most of them on the irons-only upper level. Many of the golfers had earbuds, listening to who-knows-what.

I chatted with a most stylish gent who was working it out, Mr. Mason Turner, (below) grooving a decidedly steep downswing. It’s all good. “I’m more of a nine-hole guy,” he said.

IMG 1608 scaled

In the mid-’90s, while in high school in San Francisco, he gave up basketball for spinning tunes as a DJ. “Getting paid to party,” he said. Sounds like a good gig. SMU came later. Now he works in finance, but the music in his head, more often than not, is from the mid-’90s. R. Kelly. Lil’ Kim. Boyz to Men. He played his prom, basement parties, bar mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens. Golf came later.

Rancho Park has great bones and good grass and baked, flat bunkers. It could, as per always, use some TLC. I wonder if Tiger is thinking about fixing it up, putting his mother’s name on it—she drove him to his SoCal junior tournaments—and making it the venue for the Genesis Invitational, now at Riviera. LACC is a spectacular course, but Riviera, to me, is much more of a U.S. Open course. You could move the L.A. Open to LACC for a few years and get Rancho Park tournament-ready and Riviera Open-ready.

Cue the Rihanna song “Work.” I don’t know it, but our daughter does.

I played LACC once, some years ago. (Loved it!) The musician T Bone Burnett was in the game. An amazing person and golfer. Very long and rhythmic with a swing that is perfectly on plane. The last time I played, before flying to Los Angeles for this great tournament, it was with T Bone at home, in Philadelphia. He will sometimes speak of shots with “good acoustics.” You should hear this man pitch the ball. Click-tump, click-tump, click-tump. Ball-earth, every time, descending blow, turning left, his hips making the most graceful dance move. A pitch is a waltz. Rory’s third shot at 14 on Saturday evening, played off the 15th tee. Click-tump. Ball first, then earth, and keep turning.

image 12

On Saturday night, I asked T Bone (above) what music was coming to mind for him, out of this Open.

Aside from “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”?

We hear you’re leaving, that’s OK
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart

Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

Yes, I had been there, too.

From T Bone:

From The Beatles: “Yesterday,” “Fixing a Hole,” “Here there and Everywhere.”

He also cited Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing and playing “South Coast,” with a nod to the lyric, “The lion still rules the barranca.” It works for rhythm and key. A good song, like a swing’s rhythm when it’s working, doesn’t let you get ahead of yourself. You stay in the moment or die.

On Saturday night, I asked Fowler (below, in black) if he ever thought of music on the course.

“Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll randomly have something that pops into my head. I would say rhythm is something I try to focus on a little bit. Sometimes my tendency is to get a little quick. I want to make sure that there’s a good tempo to it. Maybe I’ll try and find a song for [Sunday] and have that playing so I can keep my tempo on point.”

When I got back to the hotel, the song in the lobby was “We Can Work it Out.” The Stevie Wonder version of it.

This golf.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]


5 thoughts on “What’s in a Song?”


    Your articles are always well written and often quite unique.

    A pleasure to read.

    Keep them coming…

  2. In Plimpton’s “The Bogey Man” he cites a conversation with Nicklaus (this is mid-60s mind you) and Jack said that the songs help you play. He once shot a 64 to Moon River. When GP asked him how that sounds on the course, Jack said “a thin monotone” because he couldn’t carry a tune.
    I always have an ear worm in the morning and on the days when I’m headed to the course or range, I hope it’s something that is smooth enough to ease my swing.
    Love your words, Michael.

  3. For many years, my golf walk has followed the beat of the Peter, Paul & Mary song, Stewball.
    Old Stewball was a racehorse
    And I wish he was mine
    He never drank water
    He only drank wine

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