June 11, 2008

Interview: Fuzzy Zoeller

Some plain talk from a fan favorite at age 50

'I know exactly where I'm going. Sometimes I don't know how the hell I'm going to get there.'

'I know exactly where I'm going. Sometimes I don't know how the hell I'm going to get there.'

__Fuzzy Zoeller says the good times never stopped. But when age caught up to him and he entered the late-40s twilight zone between tours, Zoeller pretty much slipped off the game's radar screen. The only time he did crop up in the headlines over the past five years was because of something he wishes had never happened. Now, with the senior tour beckoning in January, Zoeller (who turns 50 on Nov. 11) is about to be revitalized. __

__In his prime after winning the 1984 U.S. Open, Zoeller's game and gallery-friendly comportment made him as popular as any player on the PGA Tour. While there has been some dissent about the hilarity of his humor, there has never been any question that Frank Urban Zoeller (thus the Fuz) is a first-class golfer, with the Open and the 1979 Masters among his 10 tour titles. __

Senior Editor Peter McCleery met twice with Zoeller during his farewell season on the regular tour and found he had plenty of fizz. The second session came at the Tampa Bay Classic, just a day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. The only other time the tone shifted was when the subject of Zoeller's infamous remarks about Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters was brought up. It was a joke that went badly wrong and damaged Zoeller so much that he's reluctant to discuss it. Zoeller's attitude reflects his philosophy of life: Never look back, never look ahead. We managed to get him to do both.

Golf Digest: The senior tour isn't quite as popular as it used to be. Can you save it?

Fuzzy Zoeller: Hell, one person can't rescue it, but we'd like to be able to help. Those guys have got to loosen up and enjoy the game, enjoy the life that they've had. There's a pretty good bunch of people going in the next couple of years. I know Ben [Crenshaw] is looking forward to it. But it'll take a cast of characters to bring it around. Enjoy the game. Smile.

What's your attitude approaching your first year on the senior tour?

You've still got to get the ball in the hole; they don't jump in.

Do you have any goals going in?

You get ideas. A very, very good friend of mine, Rush Limbaugh, says goals are kind of like putting a ceiling over your head. What do you do if you reach your goal? Are you done?

Do you take heart from the fact that Bruce Lietzke and Bobby and Lanny Wadkins all won on the senior tour after long droughts?

I think it's great. Everybody likes the taste of victory. That taste never leaves your mouth. I think that's the thing that keeps us going. Just putting your name in that history book. More than the money, it's getting your name on that trophy, holding that trophy in your hands, knowing you beat the best at what they do.

Why has the senior tour tailed off in popularity the last couple of years?

Arnold's getting older, Jack's getting older. Trevino's getting older, Chi Chi's getting older. Those guys are showmen. Hale Irwin's a great golfer, but as far as a personality-type player, he's more of a ... I like to say computerized. Even though he's done tremendous things for the senior tour.

There's also been criticism of the TV package, with most of the events being shown on a tape-delay basis on a business channel.

Yeah, but you know what? I think that's going to turn out to be a very good deal. Think about this: Who watches the business channel [CNBC]?

Rich guys.

You got it.

What about your schedule? Some of the senior guys play every week.

Well, they're stupid. I'm not going to do that. I still have family at home. My kids aren't grown yet. But I'll play quite a bit. Somewhere around 20 events.

Do you think you'll still dabble on the regular tour?

I'm going strictly to senior golf. Cart golf. Enjoy it and see my old buddies. It's going to be nice to make a cut.

Well, you made three in a row earlier this year.

That's right. I was on a roll early. Then I took a vacation. I'll still play the Masters. I'll play there until I don't feel that I can compete. Might be five years from now, might be three years from now. I'll go to the champions' dinner down at Arnold's place [Bay Hill]. Get another free dinner from Arnold.

You've always interacted with the gallery. But do you see anybody else who does what you do anymore?

There are young guys out here who have a lot of personality. But you know the key to the personality is getting into the winner's circle, to where you can see the other side of them that we as players see.

It really doesn't take much effort to interact with the crowd, does it?

You know, I enjoy people. What the hell, that's about all you can say--I enjoy people. They know they can say something to me and I always give them a little comment back.

Did any fellow competitor ever ask you to tone down the joking around? I've heard some guys say that you were a little difficult to play with.

Don't care. Tell them to speed up. Get ahead of me.

Some guys don't like the crowd getting into it, saying it affects their play.

Tell them to go look in the mirror. I don't hit their shots for them. Like firing caddies out here--caddies never hit a shot out here; what are you firing the caddie for? I haven't had a caddie in 27 years who ever hit a shot for me. I know they'd like to, but it's never happened.

Who are some of the real fun guys you've really enjoyed out here?

We mentioned two of them, Chi Chi and Lee. Arnold's funny, in his own way. And Jack's got his own dry kind of personality. And you've got your Jacobsens. There's a ton of them. You've got your Jimmy Thorpes, in a different way. You've got Jean Van de Velde. Nobody knows about him. All they know is he threw away the British Open, but he's a guy who loves to give needles and loves to receive needles.

What's the link between you two? You both seem to have the attitude that golf's just a game and shouldn't be taken too seriously.

That's the way we were brought up. It is a game. We're not weirdos or anything, we just have a different way of playing this crazy game that we're trying to make a living at.

Van de Velde got credit for the way he handled the Carnoustie defeat.

Hey, he screwed up. We all screw up. That's water over the dam, baby.

Where did you develop this philosophy of living day to day and having a good time?

From my father and my mother. They've always told me life's very short and you've got to enjoy what you have here, and all the stuff that happened yesterday [the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America] shows you how short life is. It could have happened to any of us.

You're not one to look too far ahead.

I know exactly where I'm going. Sometimes I don't know how the hell I'm going to get there, but I know exactly where I'm going.

Of your 10 victories on tour, which is the most gratifying?

People will say the Masters and the Open, because they're majors. But the one I remember is '85, Bay Hill. Out six months after the major back surgery. After I'd gotten the word from the doctor to go back and hit balls, I'd practiced for a week or two. And I came back and won. What a relief that was, knowing that I could compete.

You used to joke that your prescription for the bad back was "vodka and Advil." You gotta tell 'em something. I do take a lot of Advil. But only when I'm on the road. When I'm home, I'm off.

Is vodka still your drink?

I'll even drink a few beers now and then. But then I might go home and not have anything for two or three weeks, a month.

A lot of the great characters in golf history--Hagen, Demaret--enjoyed their beverages.

That was a little before my time. Back then that was how all the guys played; they carried flasks in their bags. There's nothing wrong with that.

It's changed a lot over the years.

Yeah, but what else did you have to do back then? Think about it.

Now there's the fitness kick on tour.

The last five years, everybody feels that they gotta look their best out there.

Has that hit you yet?

Look at me! [Laughs.] I tell you, every time I get the idea of working out, I have to sit down until the thought leaves. I don't want to go out there and sweat. [Laughs.] Seriously, if I had a good spine, I'd probably do it. But I have no spine.

How traumatic was that first back surgery shortly after winning the U.S. Open in '84?

The only dark time was when they made me lay there in the hospital for two weeks without moving. That was hard. You start doubting--"I'm not going to be able to walk." I thought I was going to get a lunch pail and get a job.

Did you get a lot of opinions about what you should do?

Everybody thought I had protruding disks. And I guess it was in '79 when the disk ruptured. I was in Ohio with my mother and dad at Muirfield. I just stepped out of the car and I went right to the ground. Pain hit me hard. They took me to the hospital and shot me full of cortisone. Cortisone for some people is a very good drug, and for others it's dangerous. My mission was to play golf the next day. That's when I think it just absolutely ruptured. All my lower vertebrae ended up fusing.

It didn't look like you were going to be able to play the Open at Oakland Hills in '85, when you were the defending champion. There was talk you would end up doing TV commentary.

Had options to do a lot of things. But I had to play. I was defending the national championship. [Zoeller tied for ninth.]

__Let's talk about your major wins. You were a Masters rookie in 1979 when you won [the first Augusta rookie to win since Gene Sarazen in 1935]. What do you remember about it? __

Well, being there the first time, getting into position to win. A little help from Ed Sneed, but you know, that's golf. I was fortunate, and I think for any young player going there, it would probably be a good idea to get a local caddie for the first year.

That helped you out?

Oh, yeah. Jeriah Beard, he just led me around like a seeing-eye dog. "Hit it there; hit it there." He read the greens and just caught me on a week when I was playing well. I still get messages from him all the time.

After you'd finished your round, you didn't think you really had a chance to win, did you?

Tommy Watson and I were standing there in the scoring tent. We had both finished tied, and Ed was playing behind us and he had already bogeyed 16 and he'd missed a short putt at 17. So it puts us within one shot. So now the excitement starts to build. [Sneed missed a six-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to force a three-way playoff.]

What about the first playoff hole?

We all hit great shots on 10.

Had to be hard for Sneed to regroup.

He was kind of shell shocked. But he is such a class individual. I hit an 8-iron about 15 feet below the hole. I had the easiest putt. Both of them were about 12 to 13 feet above the hole, and with the speed of those greens, they've got tough putts. When I missed mine, I said, "I've just blown it." But they missed, too.

Then I hit my tee shot on 11, and it had to hit a sprinkler or something, because it went down there so damn far I couldn't believe it. Had 151 yards left. I'm walking down the fairway and Jeriah's going, "We've got a little 8-iron shot. Concentrate on just a little right of the hole." And he was right. I hit it in there about six feet and made it.

A reporter who was there that day told us your body language on 11 was interesting. You walked slowly behind the other two after the tee shots. Maybe you knew you were going to be hitting last. But he said you carried yourself like you were going to win it.

Well, you never know. But I knew when I hit the tee shot, I hit it pretty hard, and I was a long hitter back then.

__Do you remember somebody saying, "Hey, Fuzzy, move your ass"? __

I had a lot of ass to move. [Laughs.]

You know what, when you're under the heat of conditions like that, you don't hear anything. It's the wildest thing, when you're concentrating and your mind's working, every sound is muffled. It's unbelievable. There are certain times when you've got rabbit ears--you hear everything. You can hear a guy jingling change 10 rows up.

How do you answer those who say that Masters was handed to you?

It's never handed. You had to shoot the scores the first 72 to get to that spot.

You know, when that ball was rolling toward the hole, my mind went through flashbacks of all those years of practice, standing on the putting green, having the opportunity to make the putt for a Masters or a U.S. Open. That's a joke that Hubert Green and I have between us, because Hubert and I are very, very good friends. The joke is that I made my putt, he didn't.

His loss there was the year before.

That's one thing that will drive him crazy, because he always wanted that green jacket, because of his last name being Green. "But I made my putt."

People forget what a good player he was, winning two majors.

He didn't have the picture-perfect golf swing, but I don't know what the hell a picture-perfect swing is. All you want is a swing that repeats. If you're going to loop, loop it every time. Hubert had that repeating swing. He was a gutsy, gutsy performer. You don't win 19 times on the PGA Tour without being gutsy.

Quite a few years later, the second round of the '88 Masters, you shot 66 and came into the press tent and ripped the setup. Did you think the course was that tricked up?

To a point. When you see the best players in the world standing at three feet and their next putt's coming from 45, 50 feet, give me a break.

A lot of people have had criticisms of the course over the years, but they've been reluctant to say anything negative. Why is that?

They're scared. You can't go through life being scared.

Why are they scared? Because it's an invitational tournament and they might not be invited back?

Well, I think it's respect of a place. I mean, I respect it. But when something is a little borderline and nobody wants to listen, it's time to say something.

What do you think about the changes for 2002, lengthening half the holes? Do you like the idea of modernizing Augusta National?

I don't. Adding length is not the answer. What you want to do is have the same obstacle for the long hitters and for guys like myself, who average only about 265, 270 off the tee.

You've got a John Daly or a Tiger Woods or a David Duval hitting 8-irons. You've got a player like myself or a Corey Pavin hitting 5s, 4s and 3s. Now, who do you like in that game? Hello? Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

You've got a green jacket. Who do you normally sit with at the Champions Dinner? Do you and Sam Snead share stories?

Sammy always sits across the table. He's kind of in the middle of the room, because he always tells a joke at the end of the dinner. Sam's always got a good dirty joke. Everybody gets a good laugh and then we leave. I'm usually there with Gary Player and Billy Casper and Gay Brewer, Tommy Aaron, Charlie Coody. Gene Sarazen used to sit down in the corner with us. Kind of nice.

The comment about Tiger and the dinner started all the controversy back in 1997. How is your relationship with him these days?

Fine.

Have you seen much of him?

No. His locker's right beside me [alphabetically]. It's fun.

Do you feel like there's any lingering hurt from the '97 Masters?

No, I don't. I don't even think about it anymore. Again, that's something that's behind me. I made the wrong statement; I paid my severe price for it and I think it should be done and we go on. But as far as Tiger and I, Tiger and I are fine. There's nothing there. There really isn't anything there.

Do you think, looking back ...

I don't have any comment about it. You can ask all you want. I'm not going there. Why do you want to open up wounds?

We're trying to look back on your entire career.

Let's get on with my career then. Took care of that. I won't talk about it.

__I thought you might like to react to what Earl Woods had to say in the November issue of Golf Digest. [Among those comments: "I think Fuzzy took a bum rap. I don't think it was personal, and I think he got slapped in the face inordinately."] __

Nah. I'm not going to react to it. Go ahead. Next question.

I'm not trying to beat you up on this.

Yeah, you are. You write it, I didn't say it. And it better be right.

Are you more on guard because of what happened?

No. People are people. People like to have fun, tell jokes, laugh. Probably another problem we have in this country is that we're getting so damn ... everything's got to be so politically correct that we're not enjoying ourselves. Now, damn it, I'm going to enjoy myself. I might say the wrong thing, which everybody does, but I'm going to say it. And have a few laughs along the way. I'm not going to keep everybody happy. No, you can't do that. Thank God you weren't with us last night. I was laughing so damn hard, I was crying.

Do you worry that somebody is going to overhear part of what you say and take it the wrong way? There was something that came up right after the Tiger incident where you were joking with another friend of yours.

I wasn't joking with another friend. A friend yelled at me. Victor McBryde. Victor happens to be black and he happens to be a friend of mine. He invited me to lunch, and he's the one who said it all. It's funny how that happened. And there was nothing to the story, but it came out that I said this, I did this--I never said anything. What the hell, it went across the wire that I said a racial slur, which was bogus. I didn't say a damn thing, and Victor felt so bad about it, because he didn't think that little mope would write something like that. It was a free piece of meat out there hanging from a meat pole, and the writer thought he'd make his mark in history. He sent it across the wire and it went all over the world--I did it again. God love him.

All this cost you some money--the Kmart deal, for example.

What's money? Let me tell you about the Kmart deal. Nobody knows this. I was at the end of my contract. And Kmart was not doing well; they weren't going to renew that contract. So it was not that big a loss. I had 13 beautiful years with Kmart. I've never said a bad thing about it.

__Back to your second major victory, the U.S. Open in '84 at Winged Foot. You played very well, especially in the playoff against Greg Norman [Zoeller shot 67 to Norman's 75]. __

I was doing everything well. I'll be honest with you, Greg just happened to be on the receiving end. I was playing so well it wouldn't have made any difference who I was playing against.

Did you see a lot of what Norman was doing on Sunday, making those amazing pars down the stretch?

I saw everything but his second shot on 18. I saw him hit it, but I didn't see where the ball went [into the bleachers right of the green]. The hole doglegs up the hill to the left, and by the time I got to my tee shot, he was already up on the fringe of the green. So I was assuming that he was lying 2, because he drove it right in the middle of the fairway.

So at first you thought the long putt he made there was for a birdie and a one-stroke lead?

Yeah. And I told my caddie, "Dammit, this is not a birdie hole where that pin's at. He just beat my butt here."

So I'm thinking I've got to get my shot close. I still was 177 yards away. That's when the towel came out [Zoeller's famous wave of the white towel in mock surrender]. But then I found out before my second shot--I looked at the USGA guy and said, "Where the hell did he hit his second shot?" He said, "In the bleachers." Greg had a tendency to do that under the heat. But he's done all right over the years.

So many people dwell on his losses instead of the victories.

How many people would have liked to have been in his shoes over the years and had that opportunity to hit those shots? When you're in the heat, you don't always perform, and Greg was in the heat a lot of times. Yeah, he hit a lot of ugly golf shots, but it's hard to perform when you've got that rock in your throat and your stomach's jumping up and down. But he never complained. He's a professional.

Do you think you'll be remembered a lot for waving that towel?

I hope so.

What happened to it?

I gave it to some little boy who said, "I'd like to have that towel." I said, "Here, take it." It was all dirty and cruddy--probably had a cure for some kind of virus on it.

Do you wish you had kept it?

Yeah. But at the time you're not thinking of keeping a towel.

Your playoff with Norman was pretty much over by the second hole.

The eighth hole was where it was.

__Didn't you make a monster putt [a 65-footer] on the second while Norman was making a double bogey? __

He made 6 and I made 3. But a three-shot swing on an Open course is not out of the question.

But by the eighth hole you thought you had it ...

I didn't think, I knew. I hit a driver and a 3-iron to about 10 feet. The door had been locked then.

Did you say anything to him?

We talked all the way around. That's the great thing about Greg: He's a competitor, but we're friends. We're friends out there battling each other for a trophy, for history. And to this day, we had a blast. You know, ABC slowed us down like three times. It would have been done in 2½ hours.

In those days there was no ESPN coverage from the first hole. ABC came on in the late afternoon, joining in progress. But I'd never heard of any such delay.

We could have beat the coverage. Both Greg and I are fast golfers. Just cruising right along. [Editor's note: The USGA strongly denies that the two players were asked to slow down.]

That's quite a contrast between Nick Faldo and Curtis Strange in 1988. They took nearly five hours for their playoff at The Country Club.

Now what the hell are two guys doing out there for five hours? You know they're not talking.

Those two probably weren't. You don't like slow play, do you?

Worst thing that's ever happened.

Why is the tour so slow?

Because we allow it to happen. We're afraid to fine people. Yeah, we come up and slap their hands and say, "Look, you're being timed." Well, why the hell is he being timed? Why did he get there in the first place? When it's time to hit, we've got guys who have to put on our glove, pull out our chest hairs to find out which way the wind's blowing--just a lot of messing around.

The majors have really gotten bad.

It's only because they're allowing it to happen. They let Jack get away with murder. He was always two, three holes behind.

You played much of your career in the prime of Nicklaus. Beyond his talent, why was he always a factor?

Jack never gave anything back to the golf course. And he won a lot of majors by guys just giving it to him. He just happened to be there. It's all about managing your game around the golf course. And he was the best at it.

Jack was also the first player I ever saw who could concentrate for 18 solid holes. I saw Arnold, not really in his prime, and Arnold would waiver at times. Most players do. Everybody would go out there and be really tuned in for 13, 14 holes. But Jack was one who could always do it for all 18 holes.

You mentioned John Daly earlier, and you've been looking out for him for a while. Since we last talked, he remarried and won a tournament. He never seems to slow down.

You're right--that boy's on a one-way street, and I don't know where the hell it's going. But he's happy. When he was having his trouble, he wasn't a happy camper. He didn't like the guy he saw in that mirror. He was sick, and he'll tell you he was sick. He's one of the lucky ones. I know that beast always lies within him, but I believe the boy's got a good grip on it right now.

He's talked about some of the low moments, the '97 drinking incident in Florida where he asked you to take the police officer's gun and shoot him. Is that accurate?

What happened stayed in that ambulance. There were some things said. You have to understand, he was way out there. And he didn't mean what he said. But he was frustrated. Very frustrated. I kept telling him on the way to the hospital, "We're going to get you help, Bub. You're going to be all right." Thank God, we got him up and things are good.

Did you avoid drinking when you were around him back then?

No, I drank around him. I kept telling him, "If this bothers you, I won't do it." Which wouldn't faze me a bit. But he said, "No, you go right ahead. It doesn't bother me."

We'd go out to dinner all the time--I drank scotch and water or vodka and tonic or maybe a cold beer, and he'd have his Diet Coke or water. But he had to learn that the beast is not for him. What the hell--I mean, why should I quit? If he's strong enough, which he is, he's proved he can do it.

Have you ever thought that you had a problem with drinking?

Nah. Never entered into it. You don't have to have drinks to have fun. Fun is just being around good people.

When you think about what Daly has done in the past 10 years, it's pretty mind-boggling.

He's already lived through three bodies. I don't know how many lives that cat's got. He's been through the nine already.

He seems to be settling down.

Let's put it this way: He's mellowing in his older age. [Laughs.] Finally.

Let's talk about your family. When did you meet your wife, Diane?

In the first grade. And I'm pretty positive she was in love with me then. She won't admit that, but I believe if you'd call her on the phone, she'd say, "Oh, yeah." You know, there's something I don't understand: She looks a lot younger than I do, but she's only nine months younger.

Maybe she takes better care of herself?

Well, yes. She doesn't have to make three-footers and go chase a drive that's 25 or 40 yards off target.

No, I've been blessed. I've got a beautiful wife, four beautiful kids, great friends. I can't make my life any easier.

Are your kids into golf at all?

They all play golf. They sure do.

How did you approach that?

You give the kid an opportunity. I never was forced to do anything.

I explained to my three girls that I thought it would be a good idea if they learned to play the game, not to play as a professional, but to play well and understand the game. Because in corporate America, for a woman to be able to play golf is a big plus. I'm very lucky that my girls all enjoy the game, and they all play very, very well.

My youngest daughter, Gretchen, is the athlete of the bunch. She hopes to play in college. The other day she was filling out all her stuff and she got talking about Michigan and Michigan State. And I said, "Gretchen, honey, if you're going to play golf, you go south of where we live [Indiana]. You gotta go south of this line."

How did you get started in golf?

I lived on a golf course.

And you said your parents were instrumental in starting you.

Through my father, my mother, my neighbors, the pro at the club there, Valley View Golf Club. I had an opportunity. As did my older brother and sister and younger brother, but I was the one who stayed with it.

When did you know it was going to be a big part of your life?

When I was about 7 or 8. I played all the sports: baseball, football, basketball, ran track. But there was something about the game of golf--the challenges are just a little different.

When I was in high school playing on the golf team, everybody thought I was kind of weird. "What are you playing that sissy game for?" It's funny, what goes around, comes around. All the guys who thought I was kind of weird in high school, they're the ones playing golf every day now.

What about your experience at the University of Houston? You were one of the few who didn't sing the praises of the coach, Dave Williams.

Houston's a good school, but yeah, I was not impressed with Dave. In a way, I got tricked into going down there. I was trying to get into an agronomy program. After junior college, there were only four or five schools that had the program I wanted. Then I get this call from Dave Williams at the University of Houston. In a young golfer's eyes, that was No. 1 in the world. He said, "Yes, we have those programs." So I signed. Little did I know until I got down there, they had no programs at all. He looked at me and said, "I got you a job at a golf course."

What the hell do I want a job for? I came down to get some schooling. They had physical education, so that's what I went into.

After missing out at Q school in 1973, you won it in '74. There was an interesting mix of players there--Bobby Wadkins, Rex Caldwell ...

Peter Oosterhuis, Roger Maltbie, [Bruce] Lietzke. A good bunch.

You had played the old mini-tours before that.

Not a lot of people make a lot of money there, but I did quite well. Everybody put up $3,600 and then we played for a purse every week for six weeks.

Now you've got your farm. What do you do when you're around home?

Just about everything. I get on the tractor. I mow. I live on 200 acres, and 50 miles away, I own 350 more acres.

Spend a lot of time mowing, putting out stuff for the wildlife. I hunt, I fish. I do anything I can just to relax.

Your part of the country, on the Indiana/Kentucky border, is best known for horse racing and basketball. Are you into both?

Horse racing only during the Derby.

You don't race horses?

My father-in-law tried that. He said, "You know, it's a great sport. Everybody wants your good ones; nobody wants your bad ones. Those bad ones eat the same as those good ones. They've got the same vet bills."

Are you still good friends with Bobby Knight?

Oh, yeah. I'm heading out there [Texas Tech] for his first game. I miss him, to be honest with you. Good general.

You say you don't like to look back or look ahead, but how would you like to be remembered?

You act like I'm going to die. I don't want to be remembered. What for? Just enjoy the game.

But when you play sport, you'll be remembered for your victories.

Sure, the Masters, the Open, you know ... and whatever happens when I cross that 50-yard line into [senior] cart golf. I don't know. I don't like to think of it as being remembered. I like to make people laugh and have a good time.