Carson City, NV (SportsNetwork.com) - At 12:01 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Oct. 1, the U.S. government shut down, presumably in honor of the "Divine 9" media golf tour that began nine hours later in Nevada's state capital. Call it the ultimate show of respect.
On second thought, maybe the shutdown was out of fear that countless federal employees might be in physical danger when a busload of media hacks were unleashed to start spraying drives all over the Carson City countryside.
Whatever the case, it probably wasn't a coincidence that McAvoy Layne, who has made a career out of impersonating and lecturing as Mark Twain the past 25 years, was among the 20 participants who piled onto the party bus outside Carson Station Hotel-Casino -- at dawn's early light -- to begin the annual adventure of playing two holes at nine different golf courses on the same day.
Welcome to the Divine 9, a media-day tour of organized chaos designed to promote the area in and around Carson City as a regional golf destination - a cooperative venture sponsored by the participating courses, as well as the Carson Valley Visitors Authority and the Carson City Convention & Visitors Bureau. (Go to www.divinenine.com for details on how you can purchase an annual pass to play all nine courses for $299 - an amazing value.)
It was the legendary Mark Twain - the pen name used by author, humorist and satirist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) - who once wisecracked, "Golf is a good walk spoiled." It is not known if he said that before or after he had traveled to Carson City by stagecoach in 1861, to try to mine silver and gold in the region, but it's almost as if he knew that someday there would be a Divine 9 media tour wreaking havoc on the local links here.
Suffice to say, there were many errant shots fired during this year's tour as we hacked and chopped our way across the fairways and, more than occasionally, through the sagebrush outside the courses' staked boundaries. Good walk spoiled, indeed. Here's hoping we didn't permanently spoil the fairways and greens for those who followed our spike prints and navigated around our divots.
At the very least, it seemed appropriate that Layne joined us for this year's Divine 9 festivities because he is keeping Clemens' spirit alive as "The Ghost of Mark Twain" (www.ghostoftwain.com) during his performances at the Mark Twain Cultural Center in Incline Village, Nev., and other venues around the world. Among his 2,000-plus career speaking gigs, he has done his MT impersonation at University of Leningrad in Russia, in London, and, of course, the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jumping Jubilee. He also has portrayed the ghost of you- know-who in A&E Network's televised biography of Mark Twain.)
With his thick moustache and curly grayish-white hair, Layne is a dead-ringer (sorry about that pun) for Twain, and he rarely slips out of character. He is 70 but prefers to state his age as 177, which would be Clemens' age if he were still alive. Thanks to McAvoy, reports of Twain's death are still greatly exaggerated.
Layne also expertly emulates Twain's characteristic twang, knows all of Twain's famous lines ("It's good sportsmanship not to pick up lost golf balls while they are still rolling") and has even learned to sign autographs like him.
"But this is the first time I've played golf in this suit," The Ghost of Mark Twain said of his full costume on this day: all-white suit jacket and pants, brown bowtie, brown and white saddle shoes, long gold watch fob hanging out of his pocket, vintage corncob pipe in his mouth on each swing. "I wanted to go full monty here."
As if to accentuate his good-walk-spoiled persona, Layne also brought up the rear on the Divine 9 tour scorecard, proudly carding an 8 (maximum allowed score) on all 18 holes for a perfectly symmetrical 144. But, hey, he made his last putt of the day (wink-wink). And he never got upset, never stopped smiling, never stopped entertaining, on and off the course.
After playing our first two courses of the day - the Lakes and Resort courses at Genoa Lakes Golf Club - The Ghost stood up on the bus as we passed Genoa Bar, where a sign out front proclaims: "Nevada's Oldest Thirst Parlor, since 1853."
"Last time I was in that bar," McAvoy said, pointing, "a guy walked in with an AK47 and yelled, 'OK, which one of you has been sleeping with my wife?!' ... After a long pause, a guy in the back yells, 'You don't have enough ammunition!'"
It was a fun day, but a l-o-n-g day. Fortunately, PR wizard Phil Weidinger, the tournament organizer, kept things moving by announcing these rules: "No driving range ... no practice swings ... no plumb-bobbing ... pick up after (you reach) 8 ... everybody plays the hole at the same time. Keep track of your scores. Keep track of lost balls. We'll keep track of the beers."
My kind of competition.
In fairness to The Ghost, there were more bad shots than quality ones by everybody, especially as darkness approached. Let's just say it's a good thing that Charles Barkley and Bartolo Colon didn't show up for the tour, because it seemed as if most of the tour participants were hitting everything fat.
A few highlights and lowlights:
At the Lakes Course at Genoa, a breathtaking Peter Jacobsen/John Harbottle design, we were greeted in the 48-degree chill of the morning by several deer crossing the 17th fairway. I don't think they were bucks because you're supposed to drive for doe and putt for show. Or something like that.
When we left the course, there were several trays of Bloody Marys waiting near the bus, beginning a non-stop flow of liquid refreshments that were available to quench thirsts, anesthetize the central nervous system and ease the pain of bad golf. The bus featured a bottomless cooler that was nicknamed "Chad," in honor of a former Divine Niner because "it was huge, held a lot of beer and took up a lot space."
Next stop was the Resort Course at Genoa (formerly Sierra Nevada), a Johnny Miller/Harbottle design with spectacular elevation changes, in close proximity to a herd of cattle being driven by a rancher while a formation of geese flew over our heads. The wildlife was plentiful everywhere we went.
Then it was on to Carson Valley Golf Course, a traditional tree-lined track that winds along the Carson River and through century-old cottonwood trees, three of which block the middle of the fairway on the 325-yard, dogleg-left, par-4 14th - one of my favorite holes anywhere.
Next up was Sunridge Golf Club, where 24 acres of water come into play on nine of the holes, including the par-3 4th and par-5 5th, where our group made several big splashes before departing. Then it was on to Empire Ranch Golf Course, the only 27-hole layout in the area, where you can tee it high and let it fly because the fairways are wide and the wind whips constantly.
Five courses down, four to go. On the way to Dayton Valley Golf Club, we stopped at Red's Old 395 Grill to grab pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, but, lamentably, didn't have time to sample the 101 beers from around the world (including 52 on tap). Dayton Valley is a challenging Arnold Palmer design with tour-quality greens and was a PGA Tour qualifying site from 1995 until Q School ended a year ago. Water is in play on 12 of the holes and gusting winds on all 18 that make you hold your breath with the ball in the air.
As we continued to race toward sundown, our penultimate stop was at Eagle Valley Golf Club, to attack two holes on the East Course (wide open and walkable) and two holes on the West Course (forced carries, target golf at its best and diabolical pin placements on lightning-fast greens). Wild mustangs roam just outside the course fences, which is pretty cool. And if you're an octogenarian, you should move close to Eagle Valley, where 80-year-olds line up at 6 a.m. every day to play for free. Nice touch.
Last stop on the tour was Silver Oak Golf Course, which offers impressive views and spectacular elevation changes. We drained our last putts about 11 hours after our first tee shots and then headed to the clubhouse for a farewell dinner and to add up all of the damage.
Here are a few of the ugly totals, courtesy of official scorekeeper Bill Henderson, director of sales and marketing at Carson Valley Inn: 6,577 total yards (par 75), seven scores over 100, 73 double-bogeys, 40 "snowmen", 56 lost balls, 113 beers consumed, 11 hours and 35 minutes elapsed. Average score: 100. Low media score: 86 (your humble sportsnetwork.com correspondent). High score: 144 (dead man walking).
A good time was had by all, especially The Ghost of Mark Twain. "I've never had more fun in a white suit than I did today," he said afterward, smirking. "It's fun being old and dead."
And at 177, he was the only golfer who shot his age. The showoff.
Randall Youngman has been writing about golf for years and is currently a California Golf Magazine contributer after spending 28 years as a sports columnist for the Orange Country Register.