Willie Nelson’s new golf clubs


 Photo by Rob Thomas/The Capital Times

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by Doug Moe

This story has everything — music, celebrity, surprise, mistaken identity and, most important this time of year, golf.

Everyone lives happily ever after in the end, especially Willie Nelson, the legendary singer-songwriter who played a sold-out show in Overture Hall Tuesday night.

Willie got to play golf in La Crosse Wednesday afternoon while the rest of us were working.

I know Willie was planning to play Wednesday because his bassist of more than 40 years, Dan “Bee” Spears, told me. How I happened to be talking on the phone with Spears Wednesday morning is what you might call the rest of the story.

It began around 2 p.m. Tuesday, when a Badger Cab pulled into the parking lot of Nevada Bob’s Golf on West Towne Way.

Joel Zucker owns Nevada Bob’s in Madison. He’s had it for 20 years, the last three in the present location.

Tuesday morning, Zucker received a phone call from Steve Ploch, this area’s account executive for TaylorMade golf equipment.

Ploch had heard through channels that someone with Willie Nelson’s organization would be coming into the store looking for TaylorMade golf clubs for Willie.

Zucker — who sold Nelson a pair of golf shoes in Las Vegas in 1987 — said he’d be happy to set him up.

When the cab pulled into Nevada Bob’s Tuesday afternoon, it was Bee Spears who got out.

Spears has been playing with Nelson since 1968, and that’s not unusual. Most of the band — including drummer Paul English, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and Willie’s pianist older sister, Bobbie — are lifers or close to it.

Spears told Zucker that Nelson hadn’t played golf for a while but had recently hauled out his old set of clubs and was threatening to hit the links.

Spears — a solid eight handicap — wanted to get his friend and boss a new set as a surprise gift.

Zucker provided the whole package: woods, irons, bag.  Spears left grinning.  He also left six tickets to the show.

A group from Nevada Bob’s took in Tuesday night’s performance — great seats, of course — and afterward I happened to run into them in the Ivory Room having a post-concert cocktail.

This is where the mistaken identity comes in, a circumstance we can blame on a generation gap.

A young Nevada Bob’s employee — the former junior golf champion Max Hosking — was in the store when Spears showed up.  All Hosking saw was an older guy with faded jeans and expensive boots — Max later estimated his clothes cost $10 and his boots $1,000 — heard the name Willie Nelson, and assumed Spears was Nelson.  And so at the Ivory Room, Max’s dad, Jeff Hosking, told me Willie had been at Nevada Bob’s.

Well, I knew Willie is a golf nut. I corresponded for years with the late Austin writer Bud Shrake, who co-wrote “Willie,” Nelson’s autobiography. (In one letter Shrake said that Willie had wanted to call the autobiography, “I Didn’t Come Here, and I Ain’t Leavin’.”)

In the book, Nelson and Shrake wrote: “Golf is not only a game, it is an addiction.”

Wednesday morning, I stopped by Nevada Bob’s to try to get the story from Zucker.

No, Joel said, Willie hadn’t personally been in.  He started to explain about Spears, then pulled out a card with a cell phone number on it.   Zucker dialed the number and handed me the phone.  It was Bee Spears.

Spears was in La Crosse, for the band’s show tonight at the La Crosse Center.

I told Spears how much I’d enjoyed the Madison show, and he said the band felt it had gone really well. “That’s one of the nicest halls we’ll play all year,” he said. “The audience makes the show.” He laughed. “We’re just migrant workers, after all.”

He was in the band’s tour bus, Spears said, having just come from Nelson’s personal bus that was parked adjacent, where he’d told Willie about the new clubs. Nelson’s eyes had lighted up.

“We’re going to hit the ball around this afternoon,” Spears said. “Willie is like a kid in a candy store.”

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