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The first time I met Gordie Howe was at a golf course. It was a brief encounter, but it was a useful reminder of what made him Mr. Hockey and what made the rest of us something other than that.

The setting was Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake Orion, before one of those charity scrambles where every group gets a celebrity added to its foursome.

If you were a major sponsor, you got Gordie Howe, an ex-Tiger or a TV anchor. If you were a minor sponsor or your check bounced, you got a newspaper columnist with tendinitis in his right wrist and an elastic sleeve around it that doesn’t really do much to help.

Howe, who died Friday at 88, was a valuable golf partner for more than just a lifetime of good stories to tell. He liked the game and could hit the ball a long way.

There must be a correlation between slap shots and tee shots, because most hockey players can bomb the ball. Former Red Wing Shawn Burr, who died three years ago at 47 after a fall in his home, would stand on the tee box at outings and bet right-handers that he could borrow their driver, turn the club over, hit it left-handed and belt a ball farther than they could. It was a bet you didn’t want to take.

Howe was less flamboyant but equally skilled. Budd Lynch, the late Red Wings announcer who lost his right arm to a tracer in World War II, liked to tell a story about shooting an 82 to beat him one day at Plum Hollow CC in Southfield.

“Gordie,” Lynch said, “was so steamed he wouldn’t talk to me.”

At Indianwood, Howe and I happened to check in at the celebrity desk at the same time. In a proper world, there would have been one line for celebrities and another marked “Alleged Celebrities” or “Outright Disappointments,” but all they had was the one line and there we were.

This was 16 or 17 years ago, which puts him in his early 70s. He looked at the bandage on my wrist, held out his forearm and said, “You got the arth-a-ritis, too?”

I didn’t correct him. Arth-a-ritis, tendinitis, who cares. What I mostly did was gape at the leg of lamb taking up the space between his elbow and his hand. Deep into retirement, he still had forearms so massive that my wrist would have fit into the crevices.

We’d chat a bit at other outings. Neither of us seemed to improve, golf- or inflammation-wise, but it was always nice to be there.

When I could, I’d talk to his partners after the round. They all said the same thing: great guy, good player, not at all impressed with the fact that he was maybe the best hockey player to ever skate.

Oh, and if he hit a couple of bad shots in a row? He’d grumble at himself – not so much that he’d come close to spoiling the mood, but enough to make it clear he cared.

He never stopped competing, age and arth-a-ritis be damned.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

@nealrubin_dn

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