Baby I’m a fighter pilot.
Today’s story is a follow up to yesterday’s post. It’s about the summer I spent with the legendary fighter pilot, Rockin’ Ron Senac.
I’ll pick up where I left off yesterday. We leave the Hootie & the Blowfish event in South Carolina in his plane Buttercup and are heading to Shreveport to play the NIKE TOUR Shreveport Open. It is truly an amazing experience to see the southern part of the United States from the co-pilot seat of a Cessna 210. The trees, the rivers, the lakes, the country side. It’s all stunning. Rockin’ Ron kept me entertained throughout the flight telling stories of his youth, playing football at Tulane and then becoming a fighter pilot. He had seen so much in his life, good and bad. On with the bad. He decides that on my second time ever in a Cessna 210 that I should LAND the plane. I said “sure, why not.” We are about 3 miles out from the airport when he hands Buttercup over to me. He’s as calm as can be but I feel like I could puke or drop a deuce at any moment. We are now 1 mile out and he is giving me constant instructions, I’m overwhelmed. He says “baby, it’s time to get the wheels down.” I start to sweat; my hands are getting clammy. We make a turn to line up with the runway and the wind suddenly starts blowing sideways. We had been going downwind most of the trip. Out of nowhere the plane starts gliding off to the right. I’m drifting. He says “don’t worry about it. It’s normal.” I’m like what part of any of this is normal? I’m a professional golfer not a pilot. I manage to get back in line with the runway but then I start to drift again. The plane was flying sideways. I get about 800 yards out from landing, when I finally say “that’s enough, I’m out” and turn the controls back over to Ronnie. He laughs and says “good thing you can hit a golf ball.” In addition to his airplane charter business, Rockin’ Ron also owned a Bed and Breakfast in Abita Springs, LA. His favorite move when we were traveling was to work over the front desk agent at the hotels we stayed at for discounted or free rooms. He would hand over his B&B card and say “come stay at my place baby.” If it was a woman, he would reach out and give her a hug. It worked every time, LOL. Fighter Pilot/Caddy/B&B Owner had its benefits and Ronnie made the most of them everywhere we went. It was a thing of beauty.
His greatness as a caddy continued on the golf course. With three holes left in the Shreveport tournament we were tied for the lead with Jim McGovern. Unfortunately, I laid one of the biggest eggs I have ever laid in my career. I won’t go in to the gory details but let’s just say it was ugly and all my fault. We finished tied for 9th completing the month of play with finishes at 4th, 2nd and 9th (the 9th should have been a 1st). After the round Ronnie is putting a positive spin on everything. I was very quiet and extremely humbled by my disastrous last three holes of the tournament. We get in the air and are flying south back home to New Orleans. Our flight path took us right over the top of the famous Angola State Penitentiary. We knew that there was a golf course located on the prison grounds that the inmates maintained. Ronnie drops the plane down to almost tree top level to take a closer look and says “you keep finishing golf tournaments like you did today and you might end up being the head pro at a course like that.” It was duly noted. My attitude changed immediately. No offense to the inmates or the head pro at Angola Country Club but I wanted to play on the PGA TOUR and Ronnie knew it.
Our next tournament was in Greensboro, NC on the PGA TOUR. I missed the cut (71-74) finishing late on Friday. Our momentum was heading in the wrong direction and Buttercup now wants in on the action. It’s 6:30am Saturday morning and Ronnie revs up the engine for takeoff, something is wrong and he backs off the throttle. He says “I think we have a bad alternator.” Turns out we did. I was glad we didn’t find out that little tidbit of information in the air. We had to stay in Greensboro until Monday morning so that Buttercup could get repaired.
On to the Shell Houston Open on the PGA TOUR. I start the tournament with rounds of 70-69 and was leader in the clubhouse after the Friday morning wave of play. The media invites us into the press room. Up on the podium I’m asked “how long has your dad been caddying for you?” I answer to the national press “let me introduce you to the famous Lt. Colonel Rockin’ Ron Senac.” And the story of the Masters Sunday fly over was born. The press room was dying laughing. Reporters were immediately interviewing Ronnie, Sports Illustrated asked him to go to the airport to take a picture next to Buttercup. The story hit the papers the next day and Tommy Brennan calls me to say “kill the story if either one of you clowns ever want to play Augusta National.” I’ve never commented on it publicly again until yesterday, 21 years later. Sadly, I shot 81 on Saturday and 76 on Sunday to finish dead last in Houston. From first to worst. The golf Gods did not like that story. The next move Ronnie made would change my life forever. I was playing in a first stage US Open qualifier at Money Hill Golf Club in Abita Springs, LA. The course is located on the Northshore of Lake Ponchartrain about an hour from downtown New Orleans where I lived. We shot 66 and advanced to the regional stage in Columbus, OH. To celebrate our good round Ronnie says “I want to set you up on a date with Elizabeth Portwood who lives here on the Northshore. She’s a dancer but not the kind you are thinking about. She choreographs big shows like the Super Bowl. Her daddy owns the bank.” Well that got my attention (BTW her dad didn’t own the bank, he worked as a financial strategist at the bank, LOL). I said “sure, why not.” Fighter Pilot hit the mark, 2 kids and 21 years later and we are still going strong as Mr. and Mrs. Gibson. 2nd stage US Open Qualifier in Columbus, OH and we have a chance to make it to the big show. It’s 36 holes on two courses in the heat of the summer. Ronnie was carrying the bag for all 36 holes. I birdie the last hole and have to wait 2 hours to find out if I made it through. We sat behind the 18th green and watched nervously as the last group of the qualifiers finished for the day. One player was left out of a 156 man field. There he stood with a 15 footer for birdie. If he misses we are in a playoff to go to the US OPEN, if he makes it, we are out. The top of my head flew off as I watched that putt roll in. Missed it by one shot. Seems to be a reoccurring theme for me. We are now debating on whether to fly to Cleveland that night to play in a NIKE TOUR event. It’s 8pm so I ask Ronnie if we can fly at night. He says “baby, I can fly anywhere at any time.” We don’t get in the air until around 10pm. As we are approaching Cleveland, he says “let’s take a quick tour of downtown. The private airport is located on the south shore of Lake Erie near downtown and I want to get my bearings before landing.” We do a flyover and Ronnie says “let me show you how a fighter pilot lands at midnight.” He calls for tower clearance. No answer. Tells me to get out the flight manual to look up airport hours. Book says tower closes at 11pm. So we go to Unicom which is the channel for uncontrolled airports. Ronnie asks for clearance again. There’s still no answer. I’m thinking these are all standard operating procedures. He proceeds to take the plane into a corkscrew dive from 9,500 feet. We are zooming down to the runway all lined up, beautiful night. As we approach the runway, I see a Learjet with its lights on at the end of the runway. And I yell “what’s that!” Ronnie just whizzes right over the top of the plane and then puts Buttercup down safely. He turns to me and laughs “this airport must be open.” I reply “do you think so Ronnie? That plane was about to take off!” Well, here come the cops. They pull up next to us and ask “what the hell are you doing?” Ronnie tells me to give them the book. Like I had anything to do with this one. The police escort Ronnie into the tower with the book. He comes out a few minutes later all smiles. I ask “what happened?” And he replies, “the book was wrong baby. Don’t ever doubt me, I’m Rockin’ Ron the fighter pilot.” The next day during our practice round I get a call that I’m in the PGA TOUR Memphis St. Jude Classic. We are in the air again. Trying to play both TOURS was taking its toll on us both emotionally and physically. Memphis is another bad week and you can probably guess, I missed the cut by one shot. You could say I was pretty mental at this point. Ronnie asks if I want to fly home that night. I said “hell yes.” He says “we are going to have a rough ride. The weather doesn’t look good.” I didn’t care, I wanted to get out there as soon as possible. We are in the air maybe 10 minutes when I hear the call sign for our plane on the head set. “November-Romeo-755. Please identify yourself.” Ronnie quickly replies with the standard answer, “this is Colonel Rockin’ Ron, November-Romeo-755.” The tower replies “you are in an active FED EX Airplane flight path. You need to change course immediately.” Ronnie replies “we are only going to be here a couple of seconds.” The tower responds “you better get out of there in a couple of seconds because there is a 737 FED EX plane about to be there too.” I just closed my eyes. We get all the way to New Orleans Lakefront Airport. My dad is there to pick me up. We touch down and the plane immediately comes to a stop. I ask Ronnie “what happened.” He looks at me, smiles and says “we ran out of gas baby.” Little did I know the rough ride would not be from dodging thunderstorms but from dodging 737’s and running out of gas 100 yards after landing. I started laughing. We were towed in to the terminal as my father watched in disbelief. He suggested that maybe this experiment had run its course. It was the last time I ever flew on Buttercup.
Note, I did win later that year on the NIKE TOUR with Arkansas on the bag securing my TOUR card for 2000. But I credit Ronnie for keeping me sane during those tough few months. We had a great run. If I could do it all over again I would do it in a heartbeat. Ronnie is just awesome to be around, he’s 86 years old and plays golf every day. And he’s still a Fighter Pilot Baby.