In 1978, with the help of a friend at the Augusta National Golf Club, I was approved for a credential to cover the Open championship, the first tournament in history of the game of golf, which was also the first golfing major and for years the sole tournament in the sport.
Many know this tournament as the British Open, but Open officials have always been hell bent on calling this championship “The Open.” Case closed! We, in America, however, prefer to add the word, British, to distinguish between our national open and that of Great Britain.
As a representative of the Athens Banner Herald, I was seated in the international section, someone assuming my affiliation was with a publication in Athens, Greece not Athens, Ga. I was happy for the international grouping which led to one of the most fortuitous friendships of my life.
Seated by the editor of a French golf magazine, I spent much of the week of the championship at St. Andrews peppering my new friend about golf in his country and soaked up all I could about France from a Frenchman’s perspective.
A year or so later, he asked if I could help a French friend, the most accomplished and distinguished sports writer in France, become credentialed for the Masters. I was happy to recommend Denis LaLanne to my friends in Augusta.
LaLanne did gain press access at Augusta and a grand and impactful bonus came about for me. I became the beneficiary of an abiding friendship which would uplift my spirits and warm my heart for decades. Denis LaLanne came early for the Masters and stayed in my home. I took side trips before the British Open to his hometown of Biarritz where he was the most genial of hosts.
As the sports columnist for the French sports daily, L’ Equipe, Denis never stopped working. When he reached mandatory retirement age with L’Equipe, he wrote novels. In one narrative involving the sport he loved dearly, he named a putter the “Bisher and Smith,” for me and Furman Bisher, the late columnist for the Atlanta newspapers.
The three of us enjoyed a warm and sprightly friendship covering the major golf championships. There were additional sports venues available to us such as Wimbledon, the national rugby championship of France, the French Open at Roland Garros, the Grand Slam Tennis venue, and the Tour de France among others. He introduced me to his friends who included me in their socials. I did the same with him in Athens.
As a young boy, evolving into manhood, LaLanne was a track athlete, a hurdler. His hero was Georgia’s Spec Towns, my college coach. Spec’s Olympic photograph hung on his wall in LaLanne’s childhood home in the town of Pau where he grew up. When I took him to meet Towns, LaLanne was visibly moved by the experience
“That was,” he said, “one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me in my life. I will never forget. I kiss you.” He did kiss both of my cheeks, European style, an expression which confirmed his gratefulness for the introduction to his boyhood idol.
Last weekend, my friend Denis, passed away at age 93. His publisher sent me an email with the sad news. My heart is heavy but my spirits are buoyed with the most rewarding of memories, all of which are golden. There is not a single regret. There was no spilled milk in our relationship, yet we had difference of opinions when it came to certain subjects. He was deeply grateful for the Allied invasion at Normandy, but we seldom talked politics.
We preferred trips across the border for dinner in Spain, grilled quail—"quails,” he called them—from my backyard grill, golf at his private club in Biarritz, dinners in nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the wine flowed without end, accompanied by generous toasts and laughter from deep in the heart. I often think about the beauty of this world and the communal warmth of the people across all borders. I cherish the friendships and the landscapes visited. It is one thing to know a country but something especial to get to know its people.
If I could revisit the past, it would be difficult not to give the highest priority to those evenings in Saint-Jean-de-luz, south of Biarritz near the Spanish border. The wine, the laughter, the convivial atmosphere—the good times were of such feel-good emotions that there was no remorse the morning after. No hangover, no wooden head, no slow day to follow.
I have been a frequent traveler to Biarritz to see my treasured friend, and I hope to return again—to honor our friendship and to toast our past, never forgetting the happy times that enlightened and enlivened our lives.