June 11, 2007

The Real McCoy

Boo Weekley is making an impact on Tour.

The rattlesnake was fixin' to strike as it crawled between the legs of Tom Weekley's only son, an 11-year-old kid whose knowledge of such critters was as keen as his ability to interpret the tone of his daddy's voice. Tom had brought young Boo to southwest Alabama to hunt squirrels, although there was plenty to shoot at back home on the 80 acres the family owned near Milton, Fla. "My grandma used to grab her pistol when she saw a water moccasin passing through," Boo says, pointing to an area just outside Ed and Abbie Jean Weekley's porch. "I've seen alligators come right up out of the river and go after our cows."

One thing about the rattler: It tends to fight fair. "I'd already heard a couple of them singing that day," Tom recalls. "And it was real dry, so I knew it was time for them to come out." A hundred miles from familiar turf, Boo maintained a few feet of space behind his father as they walked alongside a creek, a 20-gauge shotgun in his hands, a world of adventure at his doorstep.

Just like that, they stopped. "Boo, is that you playin' with me?" Tom asked.

"No, sir. I ain't playin' no games." "Boo?" "Yes, sir." "Do not move!" The two stood dead in their tracks as Tom turned to look over his shoulder. He was sure he had heard something. "Boo, do you love me?" "Yes, Daddy. I love you." "Do you trust me?" "Yes, Daddy." "I want you to pass me that shotgun real slowly." The boy did as he was told. "Do not move!" his father repeated.

He tried his best to stand still over that three-footer to win the Honda Classic in March, but after four years on the competitive fritz and no proven experience from his only prior season on the PGA Tour (2002), after months of marital woes and a divorce that would become official in three weeks, a game of peekaboo with prosperity was too much to handle. "My hands were literally shaking," Weekley says of the missed putt, which led to a playoff won by Mark Wilson. "My nerves and adrenaline totally got the best of me."

A lot of funny things, however, happen to a 33-year-old man nicknamed after a cartoon character--Yogi Bear's humble sidekick, Boo-Boo--a friendly version of a predator from the wilderness, no less. Until the Honda, Weekley was but a speck on pro golf's radar screen, little more than a sequel to former senior-tour sideshow Robert Landers. As a rookie in '02, Boo arrived in the big leagues as a one-hit Q school wonder with all the hillbilly highlights. He wore sneakers and rain pants to fight sore feet and an allergy to cotton. He spoke with a five-alarm twang and did outrageous things to the king's English. The best laughs usually come from the guys who aren't looking for one.

Nobody spent much time wondering if Weekley could actually play. Did it even matter? When word spread that Boo once climbed into a ring to spar with an orangutan at a county fair--the ape knocked him out cold with a single punch--John Daly's reign as the anti-tour pro seemed over. The guy was as country as chicken-fried steak, charmingly naive, a 180-degree departure from the self-absorbed standard.

Then he missed his first 10 cuts and made $95,206 in 24 starts. There was no getting around it: Boo had performed very weakly. "I'd played a lot with Joe Durant, who is one of the best ball-strikers out there," says Jimmy Johnston, who earned all-ACC honors at Georgia Tech before joining Crown Sports Management as a player agent. "I saw [Weekley] and could not believe how purely he hit it."

It was a skill that proved invaluable three Mondays ago in Hilton Head, where a ferocious breeze pushed back the final round of the Verizon Heritage and made consistent contact with the clubface mandatory to play the last 18 holes. Boo's shapeless lasers fared wonderfully in the wind, but a lot of contenders hit it straight and hard. Few in the field, however, probably woke up at dawn as a fifth grader and set out alone in a boat, journeying three or four miles up a river not just to fish, but to read the Braille written by nature on a gusty morning.

Few probably dropped out of college to work in a chemical plant, where Weekley wore three layers of clothing in 110-degree heat and sprayed the crud out of 3,652 holes in each tank, but let's not go overboard. Boo won the Heritage because he holed chips on the 71st and 72nd holes. Because he's always been good, and now, he knows it. Because being scared and running are two different things. "I still have dreams about it," he says of that day in Alabama. "My daddy shot a rattlesnake not a foot and a half off my leg. He picked me up in his arms, and we started to cry."

They gathered themselves. Tom asked his son if he wanted to go home. Mr. Weekley hadn't raised a fool. "I remember thinking he was gonna shoot me because I'd been a bad kid or something," Boo says. "I didn't know that snake was curled up and ready to go."

The Boo of '02 definitely wasn't ready. A scratch player by his midteens, Weekley didn't consider playing the game for a living until he was 23. There were a lot of things for a kid to do on Ed and Abbie Jean's property about 30 miles northeast of Pensacola--when Hurricane Ivan destroyed their house in 2004, the grandparents built a new home next to the ruins. Just because you're scared doesn't mean you run. "We were saved to see Boo become successful," says Abbie Jean, who was rescued from the flood by her son, David.

On this rainy April morning, 20 or so well-fed cows graze in a clearing that borders the Blackwater River, so they're not fleeing trouble, either. Boo's 5-year-old son, Parker, picks blackberries until his fingers are good and purple. If you came here to turn the cartoon character into a pro golfer, you might start by coming to Jellystone. "Like growing up in a state park," says Toggy Pace, one of Boo's best friends since childhood.

By 1999, says Weekley's caddie, Joe Pyland, "Boo was by far the best mini-tour player in this area. Everybody told him not to get married, but he did, then he got her pregnant. If he hadn't done that, we wouldn't be having this conversation. He'd be wearing a green jacket by now." In '99 Boo met his future wife, Karyn, at a golf course in nearby Pace. "He asked me if he could drive my truck," Karyn recalls. "That was his pick-up line."

Less than four months after his son was born, Weekley made it through the final stage of Q school with immeasurable help on the bag from local club pro Jack Slocum, whose son, Heath, also made the big tour in 2002. Boo's best golf buddy and Milton High teammate hasn't finished lower than 80th on the money list since, which seems fair now--while the ultra-focused Slocum spent his childhood grinding toward a pro career, Weekley thought it was a lot more fun to kill birdies than make them.

"He likes to make people laugh," says his mom, Patsy. "Boo had this big, black plastic spider, and you never knew which bed it was going to be in. His sister was checking under her covers until she was a grown-up."

For much of '02 the joke was on Boo. He had no idea how to travel nationally, no concept of tour life, no sense of cost or expenses. He and Pyland still room together in low-budget motel rooms. "I don't feel like I should spend $100 a night on something I'm only gonna sleep and shower in," Weekley says. "All I need is something to cover my head and keep the rain and dew off me. And maybe a little air conditioning when it's hot."

By October the bumpkin had turned back into a pumpkin. Perhaps the lowest point came when Boo used a Port-a-Pottie at a tournament and dropped his courtesy-car keys in the toilet about two hours before a flight. The good news was the airport was only 20 minutes away. The bad news was Weekley didn't have a fishing rod. "I told myself there ain't but one way to get them out of there, and I reckoned I was gonna have to do it the manly way," Boo says. "So I put some snuff up my nose to cut down the smell, stuck my arm in there and reached around until I found 'em."

As recently as April 2006, Weekley might have conducted the same type of search to locate his career. He entered last year with conditional Nationwide Tour status and was trying to make ends meet on the Hooters Tour before finally getting into a Nationwide field in Athens, Ga. He made three consecutive cuts, then had three top-seven finishes in June alone. By season's end, he had 14 top-25s and placed seventh in money, piling up $312,843.

It's no coincidence that Pyland began working for Weekley just as Boo began to emerge from a career-long slump. The caddie, who also played at Milton High, had recently returned from a second stint in Iraq--he served a total of eight years in the U.S. Army. "I know his work ethic is a lot better," Pyland says. "I think my being in the military really helped there. He used to travel with the fishing poles and everything else in the back seat. He has put all that away."

With three top-20s in addition to the win in Hilton Head and the runner-up at the Honda, Weekley ranks 10th in the FedEx Cup standings. In Pyland, he says, "I've finally got somebody who believes in me more than I believe in myself." This is crucial to the mindset of an emotionally fragile golfer whose marriage legally ended the week before the Masters. Boo and Karyn had been struggling for a while, their bond tested by his playing in 38 to 40 events per year, be they mini-tour stops or the West Coast Swing.

Add some classic money problems and an unhealthy dose of frustration and the same guy who once got floored by an orangutan is now getting decked by reality. Weekley is tired of talking about that ape ("It's a true story, but I don't wanna get in any trouble for it," he says), but he's not bashful when it comes to talking about his marital issues. "I drove up to the house [in nearby Jay] during Masters week," he says. "We got a lot of our differences out of the way, cried together, laid everything on the table."

Twenty-two years later, you can't tell the hunted from the hunter. Boo Weekley is fixin' to strike. "I'm gonna ask her to marry me again soon," he adds.