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An Off-the-Record Golf Getaway

Maurice Chevalier is assessing a tricky twelve-foot putt on the sixth green of the Chantaco Golf Club in Saint Jean de Luz, France. He turns to his partner, Jean-Paul Sartre.

"Left to right, I'd say—three inches, maybe six inches. What do you think, Jean-Paul?"

Bad idea.

"What do I think?Ah, mon ami, that is the question, is it not?In the great scheme of things, does it really matter what I think?Will it make a whit of difference in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours?Non, I say, a thousand times non."

"Never mind, J.P. I'll just hit it firmly and hope for the best."

On the far side of the green, looking on with interest, stand their opponents—Yves Saint Laurent, in a dapper ensemble, and the Marquis de Sade, grinning wickedly.

"Zut alors!" the Marquis mutters to Yves. "I want to hurt them so badly."

Ignoring this comment, the silver-maned crooner strokes the putt, which breaks ever so slightly before tumbling into the hole. "Zhank heaven for leetle curls," sings Chevalier, off-key and in a questionable French accent.

Walking to the seventh tee, Saint Laurent flicks a piece of grass off his immaculate plus fours. Sartre, as usual, looks pensive, troubled.

No, this is not the Product of an overheated Francophile golf writer's imagination. This scene actually took place, more or less as reported, in June 2000. I should know; I was there. Who am I, you ask?Cyrano de Bergerac, of course. As I said to Charles de Gaulle at the time . . .

Perhaps a word of explanation is in order. Once or twice a year for the past twenty-five years or so, a group of friends from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean has descended upon an unsuspecting golf destination for a week of golf and—uh, nongolf activities. The Brits in the crowd—roughly half our crew—refer to each event not as a trip but as a Tour with a capital T. Those who attend are "Tourists." And we are not "on vacation"; we are "on Tour."

Some years ago, we Tourists decided that it might be a good idea to adopt Tour names. The rationale has long since been obscured by the mists of time, but it had to do with the desire to leave one's quotidian existence behind and "become a different person" while on Tour. We may be bankers, barristers and writers in our so-called real lives, but for one week a year we assume entirely different personae.

The names were innocuous enough at first—a father's middle name, a paternal grandfather, that sort of thing. Then we progressed to the likes of prime ministers and first ladies. "And now, on the first tee, Martha Washington versus Dolly Madison." There was a dalliance with inanimate objects—beers and cheeses—but it was soon abandoned; Rolling Rock and Stilton don't have built-in personality traits.

Over time, themes and names have become more elaborate—many of them site-specific. Thus, we were famous Scotsmen at Royal Dornoch; lawmen and gunslingers on the links of northwestern England; and Germans when we headquartered in Berlin, Maryland, to tackle the fine new courses that have sprung up around Ocean City.

The naming process can be emotionally charged. Some themes—Beatlemania and Wrestlemania come to mind—are approved by acclamation, while others prompt battles reminiscent of hotly debated Supreme Court nominations. There was an ugly scene at Royal County Down when one camp favored Shakespearean characters while the other lobbied for Roman emperors. Stalemate. And nameless Tourists are an ornery lot, especially at the time of night when port has become the beverage of choice. "I don't care if I end up as Coriolanus or Tiberius," whined one testy Tourist. "I just want to know who I am." Hushed discussions ensued. Cigars were puffed; snifters snifted. Finally, a plume of smoke emanated from the bar. A compromise had been reached. For the next week we would be movie men: A Man for All Seasons, The Man Who Would Be King, Rain Man, and so on. Phew. Identity crises averted.

Once the theme has been agreed upon, the next order of business is the matching of names with their Tourist counterparts. While purportedly a random process, some telltale patterns have emerged over the years. Can it be pure chance that Mean Mr. Mustard and Fat Bastard are the same outspoken New York City litigator?Is it simply serendipity that our talented troubadour from Washington, D.C., should be Neil Young (famous Canadians) one year and Donovan Leitch (Scotsmen) the next?Is it mere happenstance that the Man of La Mancha morphed into Don Quixote (X-Men)?

Landing the right Tour name has its advantages, one of which seems to be success on the golf course. Mike Weir prevailed in one individual competition, as did Old Tom Morris in another. Coincidence?I think not.

Duly christened, we divide ourselves into two teams for the duration, with the losers treating the winners to dinner on the final night. Each group is required to come up with a team name, which is often inspired by Tour names. Colonel Klink, ironically, led Hogan's Heroes to victory last year. Victor Hugo was le capitaine of Les Misérables, a team whose performance on the golf course regrettably lived up (or down) to its name. And when Ian Fleming and Sean Connery found themselves on the same squad at Royal Dornoch, what better team name than Pussies Galore?

Tourists do their best to inhabit their roles, but they are careful not to become too comfortable with their freshly minted monikers because the specter of a possible name change is always lurking. Just about any event, on or off the golf course, can trigger a change. A hole in one transformed Jack (maternal grandfathers) into Crackerjack, while a roadside incident turned Captain Bligh (Captains) into Captain DWI. How Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds became Lucy in the Sky with Dentures is simply too embarrassing to relate.

The aforementioned Marquis de Sade was the beneficiary of a unique name change. A mild-mannered London contractor, the Marquis takes tremendous hacks at the ball and dislodges huge pelts of earth. Inspired by these massive divots, the Tourists ratified a once-in-a-lifetime name change, in which the spelling would alter but the pronunciation would not. Et voilÀ: the Marquis de Sod.

Spelling aside, woe to the Tourist who forgets his own (or another's) alias. Each incorrect appellation triggers a fine—$1 in America, £1 in the United Kingdom. And take it from me, living under an assumed name for a week is not easy. Signing hotel registers can be tricky. Introducing oneself to dour Scottish starters is fraught with danger. And policemen on both sides of the Atlantic have little patience for grown men claiming to be Lady Madonna. For the most part, however, non-Tourists get the joke. Befuddlement usually gives way to amusement and occasionally to honorary Tour names. Over the years, a number of caddies, barmen and singles paired up with one of our three-balls have earned temporary aliases for a few confusing hours or days.

Once "off Tour"—departing the eighteenth green on the last day—Tourists instantly revert to their real names. Unless, for some reason, they don't. Thus, Jeff will always answer to Pebbles (childhood pets), and Craig will forever be Nowhere Man.

Next month we are off to Wales. The naming discussion has not yet taken place, but I have a pretty good idea where we'll end up. . . .

The sun is setting over Swansea Bay as four Tourists stand on the eighteenth green of Royal Porthcawl. Sir Richard Burton growls at his partner, "What the hell is taking that poet so bloody long, Woosie?"

"Dunno," mutters the diminutive Welsh golfer, "but I sure could use a pint."

Meanwhile, Dylan Thomas is crouched behind his ball, trying to read his putt in the deepening gloam. Finally, he addresses the ball and raps it smartly toward the hole. Seriously off-line from the start, it misses by a foot.

Before the bard can even begin to rage, rage against the dying light, his partner intervenes.

"Forget it, Dylan, my darling, and have a spot of sherry in the bar." And flashing a bit of thigh, Catherine Zeta-Jones shoulders her bag and heads for the clubhouse.

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