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Demaret: A Great Showman

Three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret was known for loud clothes and funny lines, but his game also spoke volumes

Demaret (left) jokes with Lloyd Mangrum while winning his first Masters in 1940

March 31, 2000

There is more talent than you can count in professional golf these days, but not so many characters. This is a reflection of the times as much as the people. With the corporations crowding in and the money stacking up, there is less gin and more juice, more stock quotes and fewer memorable quotes. Golfers do their curls in a fitness trailer, are in bed before Letterman, and never have to wonder what their swings look like because of the video camera they tote with them, along with the multivitamins, magnets and laptop computer. If he were coming along now, the forces would conspire against Jimmy Demaret being who he was, but no doubt he would make it a good fight, taken late into the night with a big smile, a cold drink and likely, if he were in the mood, a song.

"Get out and live," he said once. "You're dead for an awful long time."

By all accounts, Demaret took his own advice. Although 2000 is the 90th anniversary of Demaret's birth and marks 50 years since he became the first man to win the Masters tournament three times, those who knew him well don't need to be prompted by the calendar to remember. Talk to someone about Demaret--someone who heard the jokes, was warmed by the grin or saw him shimmy into his narrow stance and create a best-selling fiction of a shot that did a fox trot upon landing--and the joy seems as fresh as today's paper.

Demaret, who died of a heart attack in 1983 when he was 73, wasn't the game's first showman and he won't be the last--in so much as the species can exist at all in these perfect turf, exact yardage, courtesy-car times--but the multi-talented Texan carved a singular niche. "He was a wonderful guy, a happy-go-lucky devil," says Sam Snead. "I never met one person who said they didn't like Jimmy Demaret."

He made his mark by combining a winning game with a congenial personality that bulged with generosity and humor. He was a nightclub-quality singer, at ease and not needing many shots when he was alongside Bing Crosby, as he often was. And he was smart, despite having had to drop out of school before he got to junior high to help his disabled father support a family of nine children. "Many people don't know how unbelievably bright he was," says Jack Burke Jr., Demaret's longtime friend and business partner at Champions GC in Houston, which the pair built in the late 1950s. "He had a mind like a Swiss watch, a tremendous mind. He became a pilot, and he could handle boats with big engines. He had a great memory. I don't think people know how complicated he was."

From 1938 through 1957--a lengthy span of success few golfers have achieved--Demaret won 31 PGATour events, tied for 13th place in career victories. Runner-up in the 1948 U.S. Open, he finished one stroke out of the playoff in the national championship in 1957 when he was 47 years old. At 51, in the 1962 Masters, he finished fifth. And when he was 53, he nearly became the oldest-ever winner of a tour event, losing a playoff to 28-year-old Tommy Jacobs at the 1964 Palm Springs Classic.

"Tommy's a good boy and it was nice he could win," Demaret deadpanned afterward. "After all, I've got a lot of years left, and he's about through." Demaret had more wins than Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller or Gary Player, despite the fact that from 1951 forward he played the tour part-time while spending much of each year tending to his duties as a club pro. Demaret's prime was also interrupted by World War II, which he spent in the Navy stationed at Corpus Christi, Texas, playing not an insignificant amount of golf.

"Every war has a slogan," Demaret said. " 'Remember the Alamo,' or 'Remember Pearl Harbor.' Mine was, 'That'll play, admiral.' "

Demaret struck the ball low so it wouldn't be affected by the wind ("You could hang laundry on the 1-irons he hit," says a friend, Bernie Riviere), but no one was unaffected upon meeting Demaret. That long list would include Bob Hope, who borrowed jokes, and Ben Hogan, who learned shots from him. "He was the most underrated golfer in history," Hogan said. "This man played shots I haven't even dreamed of. I learned them. But it was Jimmy who showed them to me first." In the khaki and gray days during and following World War II, Demaret was an Easter parade of color in custom-tailored clothes that could brighten Juneau in January. "Everybody looked like pallbearers," he observed of the monochromatic circuit he joined. "I learned early that color puts life into things." Demaret got a sense of color from watching his father, John, a painter and handyman, mix paints. In time, he married the red-haired Idella Adams, and he turned into a rainbow. "Just before he would step on the first tee," recalls the Demarets' only child, Peggy, "everybody in the gallery would say, 'I wonder what he's going to have on today?' "

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