BIARRITZ, France – For the first time in almost three decades of a warm and uplifting friendship, Denis LaLanne greeted me with sad eyes. The reason is readily understood, but first, it is appropriate to recall the good times. There were many.
After finding a way to make a summer trip to the British Open an annual affair, I began to meet foreign journalists at the tournament. Some of it had to do with being seated amongst them, owing, I think, to the fact that I represented an Athens news organization. Apparently, there was the assumption by some Open staff members that I was from Greece and not the state of Georgia.
That turned out to be a fortuitous circumstance in that I got to know the editor of an avant garde French golf magazine, France Golf. Denis Machneaud was a genial fellow who came to me with a request at Muirfield in July of 1980. He had a friend who wrote for the French sports daily L’Equipe. “Would you be in a position to help Denis LaLanne become credentialed to cover the Masters golf tournament,” he asked? “If you can, when you come to Paris, I will invite you to my flat for dinner,” he smiled.
After recommending Denis to friends at the Masters tournament, the international-minded Augusta National approved Denis’s request, and he became a regular at the Masters each spring. He had begun covering the U.S. Open and sometimes the PGA. An accomplished writer, LaLanne was L’Equipe’s expert on rugby, golf, and tennis. He not only experienced his own Grand Slam in professional golf many years, he also made the Grand Slam in tennis. By the time I got to know him, he had begun to shy away from making the long trip Down Under for the Australian Open in January.
There were a few years when I would see him at the professional golf majors, Wimbledon, and the French Open. He had returned the favor with assistance at Augusta by getting me credentialed for the French Open at Roland Garros. Also, the Tour de France and the French national rugby championship.
The highlights of those years were always the Masters, when he would come and visit my family in Athens, and I would visit him and his family in Biarritz before moving on to wherever the British Open was to be played. The other events were treasured, but the Masters and the Open were special.
Joining us was Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The pure fun of playing golf early in the morning and then following the competition of the Open Championship in the afternoon, topped off with a filling meal at a charming English pub were glorious times.
There were many spur routes linked to our summers. Denis took me into Spain and once helped arrange for me to run with the bulls at Pamplona. I took him to New Orleans and afterwards a tour of Cajun Country and lunch in Lafayette with Lionel Hebert, the PGA champion. Denis wrote a magazine story from our visit to LaFayette for L’Equipe.
After his retirement, I would only see Denis when I spent time in Biarritz. One summer, he drove me to Oradour to find a survivor of a Nazi attempt to murder an entire town. The Tour de France, Bastille Day, Pamplona, and the upscale night clubs of Paris were all available to enjoy with my friend Denis, the most generous of hosts.
On a recent trip to see him, I thought about those times, as he poured a coffee and said with hurt and resignation, “It hurts so big to lose a child.” His beautiful daughter Frederique passed away recently following a series of surgeries. Our conversation, for the first time lost its energy and its refreshing spontaneity. This time, there was no laughter, no levity — unlike in the past. “I have seen and written about the highest moments in sports, but I’d give it all up for the hurt I suffer,” he said dolefully.
Then, looking nervously at his watch, he uncharacteristically sipped his coffee with alacrity and said with his hollow eyes brimming with tears, “I must go now.”
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]