By Jim Davis
It was 50 years ago today,
Alan Shepard brought a club to play.
On Feb. 6, 1971, astronaut and Apollo 14 commander Alan B. Shephard took the royal and ancient game where it had never gone before. Golf had come to the moon. Look up at Earth’s little sister today and keep in mind that there are two golf balls on that surface. Not footballs, or tennis balls or baseballs… golf balls. Such is the infectious, consuming nature of the game.
Shepard had sought permission to bring a six-iron on the mission, but was initially turned down by Bob Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spaceflight Center. He thought it a frivolous gesture for the ultra serious nature of the space program. The golfer in Shepard, hearing the voices of generations of the game’s greats, did not despair. It took some doing, but Shepard managed to convince Gilruth, as long as he would keep the whole thing quiet and only do his thing toward the end of mission.
Shepard then asked Jack Harden Sr., the former head pro of the River Oaks CC in Houston, to create a club that he could bring on the spacecraft. Harden took a Wilson Staff Dyna-Power 6-iron (if only it had been a Stewart or Nicoll mid-iron!) and crafted it so that it would attach to the end of one of the collapsible rods used to collect space rocks and other such stuff.
It was nothing for the clever Shepard to stuff the six iron head into one of his socks. No one noticed. The NASA teams who micro-calculate weight to the Nth degree never noticed. The flight came off as planned, never veering from its precisely figured trajectory, the extra weight of the six-iron not a match for the mighty engines of the Saturn rockets. One wonders if Shepard felt the least discomfort of that clubhead against his ankle or toes or whatever. If so, he never mentioned it and the thought of the delicious shot to come must have made up for it.
One can imagine the look on Gilruth’s face when Shepard produced that clubhead and fitted it to that rod. If he had anything to say, it is not recorded. Shepard’s words, however, were. Transcripts of the moment find our hero saying:
“Houston, you might recognize what I have in my hand as the contingency sample return [the shaft]; it just so happens to have a genuine 6-iron on the bottom of it. In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans.”
He then produced not one, but two golf balls that he managed to bring aboard. We are not privy to where these were lodged. Best not to ask.
You couldn’t see his face during all this, because of that spacesuit helmet, but surely Shepard had a monstrous grin. He was about to hit golf balls on the moon! Golf, of all games, has one of the strongest holds on the human psyche. Reams of philosophy have been written on the subject. Suffice it to say, something about the game consumes the smitten and with Shepard on the moon in February 1971, the smitten were about to get a heavenly touch of grace.
With no warm-ups and with the world watching – and a presumably nervous director of the Manned Spaceflight Center sighing at the sight – our golfing hero produced the first ball and dropped it to the lunar surface. It was a clean drop, no penalties invoked. Surely a word could have been spoken at this time: “That was a first small drop for a man, but a giant drop for all mankind”… or some such, you know, for history’s sake.
Four shots did our man produce, all with one arm due to the bulky nature of his space suit, a pressurized suit that did not allow for much motion. Pff. A minor inconvenience to a dedicated golfer. The first two shots were little more than duffs. More moon that ball. Millions of duffers back on the planet nodded in their shared experience. Perhaps Johnny Miller commented on the swing plane. The third shot was an improvement, as our man was getting into the rhythm, finding his game. That one, which Shepard later called a shank – even the first shank on the moon! – traveled about 40 yards by later estimates.
But the fourth, ah, it is still the stuff of legend. Shepard nailed it. “Miles and miles,” the great man said as he watched the ball soar into the distant moony atmosphere. (Great minds, ever at work on the mighty issues that confront humankind, estimated that ball traveled 200 yards. Surely golf practice equipment that mimics a pressurized space suit must eventually be seen at golf retail centers.)
Back on Earth, men and women golfers around the planet erupted into cheers, drinks and tears flowing freely at 19th Holes everywhere. A solemn and yet cheerful occasion, never to be forgot.
The sacred moon club resides at the USGA Museum in New Jersey, donated by Shepard at the 1974 U.S. Open. It seems that later on NASA called Shepard and said they wanted to donate the club to the Smithsonian. Awkward. Hey, that’s government property, they told him. Hold on a sec, Shepard might have said. We were allowed five pounds of personal equipment on the Command Service Module. Hmmm. A replica was commissioned – I bet they could have got a real good one from Tad Moore – and given to the Smithsonian.
As for those golf balls, they are still up there. Lost balls now. Waiting for some future moon golf caddy to find them and bring to the pro shop to end up in a bin of other used balls for sale at a dollar each. It’s likely they are now covered with lunar dust, or pitted by radiation and micrometeorites and whatnot. Shepard never said what brand they were. Didn’t want to stir things up or give the appearance of commercialization.
In an interview shortly before his death in 1998, Shepard said, “It was designed to be a fun thing. Fortunately, it is still a fun thing.”
Now there’s a man who gave golfers the moon and knew that at its core, golf is still, and always will be a “fun thing.”
The next time you gaze up at the full moon, tell me that doesn’t bring a smile to your face.