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The Quaid Trap

For instance, with no prompting whatsoever, Quaid told me how cocaine was, indirectly, the thing that finally drove him to golf. "I went through rehab for cocaine in my late thirties," he said, "and the week I got out of rehab I went to a golf course and that was it. I totally went from one obsession to another." Meg Ryan seems to have been the impetus behind Quaid's entrance into rehab. The two had become romantically involved in 1988 during the filming of a forgettable flick called D.O.A., but Ryan delivered the ultimatum to Quaid that she wouldn't marry him unless he sobered up. In 1990, Quaid essentially quit working to devote himself to kicking drugs and booze, and golf turned out to be a key part of his regimen. He joined Sherwood, took lessons in the mornings and played in the afternoons. Golf soon occupied much of the same space in his head that cocaine had. "Rather than think about going back and getting loaded, like I did with cocaine, now I think about my swing: what's wrong with it, what I need to improve on, this and that. It's something in my mind, or in the back of my mind, pretty much all the time, which is the way cocaine was. With cocaine you were either looking forward to doing it, or beating yourself up about it, or something—one way or another, you were always aware of it. Golf's a lot like that, only golf's a little healthier."

He considered this for a moment and then restated: "Golf's a lot healthier, in fact."

So Quaid's got that going for him, the cocaine-addiction-substitution thing. He also has a bug of some sort that pushes him hard to improve. "Dennis is a very obsessive guy," observed his friend, actor Peter Jason. "Whatever he takes on, he goes after night and day until he conquers it." Jason doesn't claim to know why Quaid is like that—"Maybe he came in second someplace early in his life," he suggested—but the trait is also apparent in the way he prepares for his movie roles. Quaid threw pitches every day for months, including once a week on the mound at Dodger stadium, before tackling the role of a ballplayer in The Rookie. He lost thirty pounds to play a consumptive in Wyatt Earp and learned to box much better than he had to before portraying a fighter in Tough Enough. Quaid also works out obsessively—running, lifting weights, practicing yoga (he's been to India half a dozen times)—and it shows in his concave abs and muscular physique, as fat free as an apple. "Everything about Dennis is fast twitch," said Fred Griffith, another actor friend.

Quaid's personal style requires vast reserves of energy, and those reserves were taxed to the max during his charity event in Austin. The week didn't go as well as the organizers had hoped. First, there was the heat, probably a mistake of scheduling. Second, quite a few of the celebrities Quaid had been counting on to show up didn't because they chose instead to attend Adam Sandler's wedding in Malibu the same weekend. But Quaid gave it his all nonetheless: He played three rounds of golf in the scorching heat, never refusing to give autographs or pause for photo ops; he appeared on the runway at a fashion show, mike in hand, fervidly thanking everyone for coming; he shook hands with sponsors at a cocktail party and thanked them for coming; he begged for higher bids at a gala auction.

Most exhaustingly, however, he performed twice onstage, once sitting in with the Billy Burnette band at the gala, and the night before with his own band, the Sharks, at downtown Austin nightspot Antones. Quaid has performed intermittently for years, playing guitar and singing rock-and-roll standards with several bands, but suffice it to say he no more resembles Bing Crosby as a singer than he does as a golfer. At Antones, he burst onto the stage, wild and barefoot, wearing sunglasses and a Texas Longhorns cap. Swooping and crouching low with his guitar, he dashed back and forth along the proscenium like a caged dog. After a few songs, he waded out through the crowd and jumped up on the bar to perform. He yelled, he yee-hahhed, he pounded his fist on his heart and extended it out to the crowd, singing love songs for meaning, holding nothing back. And he repeatedly thanked everyone for coming.

Although Quaid denies any second-career ambitions for his music and says he performs just for fun, fun didn't seem to be any more the point of his performance at Antones than fun seems to be the point of his golf. The point seemed more to be to get outside his head, to push himself to the edge of experience where he can only live in the moment. He pushes himself in golf that way, too, loading up each shot with seemingly transcendent significance until there's no room left in his brain for the mundane.

Something else occurred to me while watching Quaid onstage: He was putting himself on the line the way an athlete does. As a kid he missed out on some of the peak athletic experiences his brother Randy had, but as an actor he's been cast as a sportsman more than anyone except perhaps Kevin Costner. He's played a football player twice, a boxer, a baseball pitcher and, coming soon, Richard Petty. Part of the reason might be that deep inside he has an athlete's soul. When other celebrity golfers play it cool on the course, one reason might be to protect themselves: "Hey, this is just for kicks; it doesn't really matter how well I do." But Quaid, like athletes whose jobs require them to risk failure in public, puts it all on the line when he plays golf. In our interview, Quaid acknowledged that he gets nervous when he plays golf in public in a way he doesn't when acting, even onstage. "Because as an actor, I'm a scratch, or I hope even a plus-three," he said. "How well you do in acting is really just someone's opinion, but with sports it's different in that you can actually go out and measure your performance." Quaid said he enjoys that pressure: "It makes me focus. When you learn to use and channel all that anxiety, those butterflies, it actually ends up working for you."

But Quaid is a curious case; maybe most actors are. Even though he is comfortable allowing the public to observe him risking failure, he seems to have hardened himself against its reaction. That curtain he struggles behind on the golf course is made of one-way fabric, perhaps something like Gore-Tex, which lets air and moisture pass from inside to outside but is impenetrable to elements going in the opposite direction.

It would be a mistake to let one stress-filled week at a charity event stand as the sum representation of Dennis Quaid's life as a golfer. He has, for instance, had some notable successes on the celebrity golf circuit.

Playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 1993 with Duffy Waldorf, Quaid birdied eighteen—on TV no less—by knocking a 130-yard shot from the left fairway bunker to four feet and holing the putt. As things turned out, his team needed that shot to make the cut.

Then two summers ago he and his partner, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, won their flight in a two-man club tournament at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island. Quaid, playing as a five-handicap to Kroft's seven, holed a long putt on the second play-off hole to win one of their four matches and made several other spectacular shots in clutch situations. "That was the biggest thrill of my golfing career," Quaid told me.

Kroft characterized Quaid as an "incredibly serious" golfer ("deliberate," "intense" and "totally locked-in" were other words he used), but said that nevertheless he is enormously fun to play with. "For a movie star he's a pretty regular guy, and he's especially a regular guy on the golf course," Kroft said. "He's very friendly and genuine and involved—he's the type of guy who helps everyone around him enjoy the game. He never gets upset when he makes a bad shot, he just accepts it. But he's exuberant when he makes a good one."

Quaid plays most of his golf with friends at Sherwood and other Hollywood-celebrity golf hangouts, like Bel-Air, Los Angeles and Hillcrest country clubs. A frequent foursome at Bel-Air includes James Garner, James Woods and Mac Davis. "The camaraderie is one of the best things about Bel-Air; there's just a great crowd of guys there," Quaid said. Garner concurs. "It's a jovial group," the veteran actor told me in a telephone interview. Garner, now seventy-five, at one point played to scratch and believes Quaid's three handicap is legit: "He can bust it three hundred yards on a good drive. His short game is improving, and already more than passable." But Garner said Quaid lacks a certain finesse ("He hits every shot hard, no matter what") and takes too long over the ball, building up tension. "He waggles forever—ten to twelve times. I call him Sergio. I really don't think he has any idea how long he takes."

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