Looking over photos back in New York, it’s clear that the closest I ever got to being Clint Dempsey was on the golf course (and that probably will end once he puts in some practice). The flare that helped get Clint to where he is today might be lacking at the moment as he fights for playing time in a system at Fulham that often works against the instincts he and his brother developed in the name of Maradona in the trailer park, but listening to Clint talk about his game, you know those skills are there if only in hibernation. And I’m not one to wake a sleeping beast. Golf though, well, I figure if I was going to take Clint in something, the frustrating game of golf was my best shot.
My confidence grew after I eeked out a victory during our first round at Hampton Court Palace, a private golf club built on the queen’s land where deer run free by law. We played again after practice on that Wednesday at Richmond Park, a public course where the crab grass ran free. The club pro was like Clint’s local bartender, if he had one, at his favorite bar, if he had one. The guy’s a soccer fan; they chatted about the past weekend’s big victory and the upcoming finale at Portsmouth. Clint was happy to oblige the stop-n-chat, we signed in; he bought a visor.
Three days without the wife and it was golf not drinking. He wasn’t rounding up the boys to party. All of his close friends on the team have families. Wondering about the quiet life Clint leads in what is arguably the soccer capital of the world, I couldn’t think of one American who really lets loose. Fulham had five Americans on the roster last season and not one would you necessarily call a big star. They certainly aren’t superstars. Humble endurance is forced upon the Americans who dare tread the European waters. The need to endure follows almost every career, especially Brian McBride, whose name came up throughout my time in England and with Clint. More than anyone else, McBride has turned humble endurance into stardom. It’s as if every American who comes after McBride will be expected to have his hard head, his tough game. It leads you to question whether this is the right league for Dempsey. There is however plenty of reason for Dempsey to want to emulate McBride.
Whenever I probed Clint’s life in the context of his profession, he pointed to the model McBride set. The stalwart striker found an apprentice in Dempsey by offering seemingly the only thing his family could not: how to live this unusual life. All the way down to the pickle jar Clint watched McBride as he did Ryan before. Dempsey has had to change his game to fit Fulham’s style of play, all the time knowing he can’t be McBride, all the time losing bits and pieces of what makes Clint special. Who knows what this season holds for Dempsey and the Fulham Football Club, but if the path laid this far is any guide, if Clint Dempsey can teach us anything, it’s that everything being equal the person who tries the hardest, who wants it the most, is probably going to succeed no matter how many times they lose. There was never a plan B for Clint. There was only this game of soccer, only what was in front of him to make the most of. One day you’re here and then you’re gone. There is no back up plan, but Clint Dempsey is no fool.
On the golf course, “Erratic but safe” was my answer to Clint’s “straight but off,” and the two methods placed us close on the scorecard. It was a coy competition, neither of us really any good at golf, so the shit talking largely took a back seat to conversation. I wasn’t about to bet on my rental clubs. I had a bit more length, but go figure Dempsey’s touch game was solid for a beginner, keeping him in the match when the less forgiving long irons gave him pause. He found his way into quite a few bunkers but was surprisingly good at getting out. He finished well while my three putts stacked up with trepidation. It was his scrambling offense versus my long defense. In the end Clint had to concede after a tough couple of holes down the back nine put it out of reach. We both beat our scores from the day prior, and before the round was over I was taking solace in that improvement. Clint, not so much.
“Yeah,” Clint said. “I’ll get you next time.”
He was smiling, but the dark of his eyes told me he was serious. It was the first time the competitiveness was directed at me. With the game in the bag I was already thinking that if there ever is a next time for me and Clint, I’m going to need to be a lot better, because you know he will be. Like a loyal hound, I think Clint would die before he let the games end. He grew quiet. I tried to throw him a bone. “This is like the 6th beautiful day in London in a row,” I said. “I’m done pressing my luck.”
“No, no,” he was quick to catch, smiling even bigger. “We’ll do this again.”
“Ok,” I conceded, “but let’s focus on Portsmouth first.”
“Yes, Portsmouth. Gonna be a fight. Gonna be fun. I’m looking forward to that. And beating you at golf.”
I headed to Portsmouth a day before the big game, which by this time we all know they won, not that it changes Clint’s fate with the club. I sent Clint a text from the train, our final communication before I headed back to New York. I told him I was heading down early and that I probably wouldn’t see him again. I thanked him for his time and wished him the best of luck for the weekend. His reply?
“Thanks! It was fun. be easy.”
And few moments later…
“I got you in golf.”
For more from my trip to England, check out my stories from the last two games–Gentle Shifts South, One Last Miracle–of Fulham’s great escape. And view all the photos from my trip to England at TIAS Flickr.