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The Quaid Trap

It's ninety degrees in the shade and who knows how much hotter in the sun, but that's where Dennis Quaid is, his shirt soaked with sweat, hitting golf balls. Ostensibly he's just loosening up a bit before teeing off in his celebrity golf tournament, the inaugural Jiffy Lube/ Dennis Quaid Charity Classic, in Austin, Texas, but he might as well be on Mars for all the attention he's paying to anything other than his swing.

Standing over each shot for long seconds, waggling his club, Quaid concentrates with the grim intensity of a man about to jump off a bridge. The carotid arteries in his neck visibly pulse, the muscles in his forearms clench and unclench like rhythmically suctioning creatures from a deep-sea vent, and the planes of his movie-star face twitch and furrow with anxiety. His swing, when it comes, is obviously tutored, but overcontrolled. There's a hitch at the top, his arms stay too rigid through impact and then he tries to rectify matters with substantial post-facto manipulation. Surprisingly, however, most of the shots are quite good—not that Quaid seems inclined to enjoy them. Like a bird dog on point, he tracks each one to ground, transparently disgusted, and immediately drags another ball into position. "Hey, Dennis!" I call out from the gallery. "Lighten up! It's only a game!"

Well, actually, I didn't shout that, but it was all I could do to restrain myself, because watching Quaid play golf, even just hitting on the range, is an uncomfortably tense experience. When Quaid's tee time approached, he reluctantly abandoned his practice, ducked behind a bush to change shirts (triggering a chorus of disappointed cries from women onlookers) and dutifully donned his public persona. On his way to the first tee, he signed a score of autographs and posed for several snapshots, and once there took the mike to thank everyone for coming. "You're doing God's work being here and supporting these great charities," he said earnestly, flashing his Hollywood smile. When one of his playing companions, actor Todd Allen, whiffed his first attempt at a drive, Quaid quickly snatched Allen's ball and tee, threw himself on the turf faceup and teed up the ball in his mouth. "I trust you, Todd. Try it again!" he clowned. The gallery loved it. This was how Hollywood celebrities are supposed to act on the golf course.

But then, when it came time for Quaid himself to hit, the curtain of concentration dropped again. In a flash he was back in that place he had been on the range—fierce, hell-bent, consumed—and that's the way it went all day: a back-and-forth between Quaid the charming celebrity host ("Frequently hydrate, everyone! Frequently hydrate!" he called while walking backward down the first fairway after hitting his drive) and Quaid the grave, obsessed golfer.

Of the two Quaids on display, the latter was far more intriguing. It was impossible not to wonder what was going on back there, behind the curtain.

When you think about Hollywood golfers, you tend to think of smooth, laid-back characters like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and James Garner, all of whom were legitimate, low-single-digit handicappers in their day (see sidebar at right). Hollywood venerates the cool-cat personality type, and it's not a bad temperament for playing top-notch golf, either.

But Quaid isn't like that—except in that he, too, has a low handicap. He claims to be a three. In Hollywood, a town where numbers (such as the break-even point for movies) are often fictitious, any handicap claim must be treated skeptically. But Quaid does seem to have transformed himself from someone who a few years ago couldn't break one hundred into a consistent performer with a handicap at least somewhere in the single digits. He practices religiously, particularly on his short game, and occasionally jaunts to Las Vegas for lessons with Butch Harmon. More frequently he works with a driving-range pro in Los Angeles or the pro at Sherwood Country Club, where he is a member. (He also belongs to Bel-Air Country Club.) When Quaid isn't working, he drops his eleven-year-old son, Jack, at school and plays golf five days a week. When on location, he finds a range to practice on, every day if possible; scares up games with other cast members or local friends; and, when desperate enough, is not above heading out to a muni by himself, sometimes picking up local hackers. During the summers, when he spends long stretches of time on his five-hundred-acre Montana ranch, he hits balls on his property and plays rounds at a nearby woebegone public course that, according to a friend who has teed it up with him there, "has never been mowed except by cows." Quaid doesn't mind: Golf is golf. In short, he's a goner. If he were an insurance executive, he'd be the kind who routinely spends three afternoons a week "developing clients" out of the office.

But golf wasn't always like that for Quaid. His first exposure came as a nine year old growing up in Houston, when his golf-nut father bought him a six-club set. "I really hated the game, to tell you the truth," Quaid told me this past June in the grill room of the host club for his charity event, the Avery Ranch Golf Club. He was wearing dark khaki shorts, flip-flops and a burnt-orange polo shirt; the lines in his forty-nine-year-old face were more deeply etched than I had expected. "I felt like I sucked at it, and actually I did. It was very frustrating. Golf just wasn't my thing at all—except for driving the cart around. That was fun."

Quaid's brother Randy, by contrast, embraced the sport big-time. He played on his high school team and at one point, according to their mother, wanted to become a professional. But Randy, older by four years and big for his age (today he's a hulking six-foot-five), seemed less interested in teaching golf to his punk brother than in beating him up. So Dennis, who was a late developer too small to play football, that preeminent Texas-male rite of passage, gravitated to guitar, baseball, bowling and the drama club.

"My dad was a frustrated actor," Quaid said (his parents divorced when he was twelve), "and my third cousin is Gene Autry, so I guess we had show business in the blood. When my brother started working as an actor [Randy got his breakout role, in The Last Picture Show, when Dennis was still in high school], I guess it didn't seem like such a dream, it seemed more like a great way to get along in life without having to work." This remark ignited Quaid's trademark rascally grin and he barked out a laugh.

After working briefly as a clown at AstroWorld amusement park and doing a stint at the University of Houston—his best friend, actor Brett Cullen, recalls Quaid ridiculously strumming his guitar in a dorm stairwell, trying to pick up girls—he started landing acting jobs himself. Quaid's first big role was as a town toughie in the Oscar-winning Breaking Away (1979), followed by a much-praised turn as Gordo Cooper in The Right Stuff (1983) and a series of starring roles that showed off his high-energy, bad-boy charm and dashing good looks: Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire!, a womanizing detective in The Big Easy, a lapsed football hero in Everybody's All-American. Golf was not part of the equation during these go-go years. "I went out sporadically, just trying to break a hundred or whatever," he said. "But I wasn't involved emotionally, not like I was later. I just really didn't care."

It occurred to me, sitting across the table from Quaid, that he would probably not make a great politician. During most of our conversation he seemed edgy and restless. Part of this, no doubt, was because he knew Cullen was waiting outside to play a few holes of golf after we'd finished, but part of it, too, was that Quaid isn't a natural gabber. He does publicity reluctantly and lacks the gift for putting people around him at ease. In politics he would also have to overcome his liability of being too forthright.

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