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My Shot: Jim Thorpe

By Guy Yocom Photos by Ben van Hook
May 31, 2007

Jim Thorpe, photographed Feb. 23, 2006, at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla.

Playing golf is just like handling a horse. A good groom or trainer can get up close to a horse and read him just right. He can tell if he's agitated or happy, fit or out of sorts, and most of all if the horse is prepared to give you his all.

Golf is the same way. There are days when the course and your golf swing are friendly and receptive to anything you want to try. There are other days when they're in no mood to be pressed. If you try to get too much out of the course or your swing they rear up and bite you, kick you or just buck you off. You can even damage your game, just like you can damage a horse. On days like that you don't want to give up, but you definitely have to settle for something less than you might like.

I don't go to the track to lose money. Over the years I've done fine. It isn't that complicated, really. You look at how the horses are trending, who the trainers are, the condition of the tracks they've been running, the distances they run at, and the types of races they like to run. You narrow it down to four or five horses, and from there it's like deciding between a 5- and 6-iron. Meaning, you go with your gut.

What happened to make old Thorpy turn it all around? My whole career on the PGA Tour, all I cared about was the 10 inches just before impact. I knew if I could make my clubhead get to square in that short little space, I could make money. It worked pretty well. Then, just before I turned 50, a light came on. I doubled that strip to 20 inches, taking into account the 10 inches after impact. I started hitting through the ball instead of at it. That's when I started playing the best golf of my life. If there's a secret to playing this game, it's to just let the ball get in the way of the clubhead.

When I was 48, I was invited to play in a tournament for high rollers at Foxwoods [Resort Casino] in Connecticut. Carol and I drove down from Buffalo, and while I was on the range, it started pouring rain. The tournament was washed out, but instead of going into the casino — I was too broke to gamble — I stayed out there hitting balls. The only people on the range were me and this little chubby boy at the other end. I wandered over and gave him a little help with his swing. Showed him the right grip and stuff. After we'd finished, Carol and I drove back to Buffalo. When we got home the phone rang. It was a lady from Foxwoods saying Mr. Kenny Reels would like you to come down and have dinner with him the next day. I didn't know who the man was, but I said OK, and we drove back down.

When Kenny Reels arrived, it was like the Red Sea parted for him. It turned out he was the chief of the Indian tribe that owns the casino. He shook my hand and said, "I want to thank you for spending time with my son on the range. The only thing he's talked about since is how he met Jim Thorpe of the PGA Tour." And then he asked if I'd be interested in representing the casino, and would I put together a proposal and send it to him. I agreed, but I left the money part blank. I had no idea what to write in there, but in truth I would have taken it for $3,000 because we were broke.

Kenny called, noted that I hadn't written in a figure, and asked if I'd like him to fill it in for me. He said, "If you like it, fine; if not, good luck to you." When the proposal came back, he'd written in $100,000. I had it back in the mail to him faster than you can say Jack Robinson, and the rest is history. It's turned out to be a deal that, at the time, pretty much saved my life. Strokes of luck like that make a man think, you know?

The most nerve-racking moment for most golfers is on the first tee at the start of an important round. The first time I played with Arnold Palmer, I literally could not get my ball to stay on the tee, and knowing he was watching me just made it worse. So here's what you do to fight first-tee jitters: Always hit first if you can. I used to pray for that. That way you can sneak up to the tee and put the ball on the peg while nobody's watching.

No moment I've had in golf can match the fear and nervousness I feel when I go to a championship prize fight. All that tension that's in the air beforehand; it's just about more than Big Jim can handle. I get sick to my stomach, but I can't tear my eyes off it. The night Mike Tyson fought Larry Holmes, I was only a few rows back from ringside. When the fight got underway, I thought I was gonna die. I knew Tyson was going to knock Holmes out, and the anticipation of that frightened me something fierce. Sure enough, Tyson landed a big left hook to Holmes' head, and this huge halo of sweat flies so far in my direction I couldn't get my cigar lit. I mean, I was scared. Golf can't hold a candle to that, baby.

I'm on the first tee in the final round of the 2001 Senior PGA Championship in New Jersey. I'm tied for the lead with Tom Watson and Bob Gilder, and I'm spitting cotton. When the starter introduces me, he says, "Now on the tee . . . from Heathrow, Fla. . . . please welcome . . . Jim Dent." There was some nervous laughter when he said that, except from Watson, who thought it was just plain funny. When the poor guy realizes his mistake, I can tell he just wants to die. So I kind of mutter so people can hear, "Why the hell couldn't he say Tiger Woods?" That made everybody laugh like crazy, and it relaxed me enough to where I could play my best. Watson got me by a shot that day, but the point is, the best way to ease tension is to laugh.

At New Orleans one year in the 1970s, I was on the range taking a break between bags of balls. I was watching Tom Weiskopf, Lee Trevino and some other top players hitting balls and listening to them talk it up between shots. They were laughing and having a great time. Just then Jack Nicklaus walked onto the range with his caddie, Angelo [Argea]. Trevino calls out, "Jack, nice to see ya! Come over here and hit a few with us." Jack gave them all that little smirk of his and said, "Actually, Lee, I'm here to win this week." He kept walking to the other end of the practice tee and started practicing by himself. Man, those guys got real quiet. They all started paying attention to what they were doing. If ever there was a moment that proved who the best player was — and why — that was it.

A brand-new golf ball has always been a wonderful thing to me. Still is. I love just taking them out of the package. We hunted for balls when I was a kid, and finding one that was almost new was a big thing. Even into my 20s, new balls were sometimes hard to come by. It never left me, and today the biggest proof that I'm wealthy lies in the fact that I get all the new balls I want for free. When I pass them out to friends, I feel like a king. Guys my age are suckers for new balls; if you want to give somebody in their 50s a Christmas present they'll really appreciate, spring for a dozen.

The first hole at Alaqua Country Club in Longwood, Fla., is a dogleg-left par 5 with water down the left side. If you hit a big hook over the corner of the water you can reach the green easy with your second shot. In the pickup game I play in there, we all hit two balls off the first tee. And that first shot, I always hit a low one that starts out to the right and then runs around the corner. My partners say, "Big Jim, why don't you just bomb it over the corner on the fly? That's nothing for you." And I have to tell them, "I can't risk hitting that new ball into the water, man."

Not long after we moved to Florida, I found a church: Crossings Community Church, over in Lake Mary. When I met the pastor, Keith Wilkins, I was drawn to him and knew this was the church for me. I did a little to help the church financially, but then a successful guy on the board, Mike Lewis, suggested we try to do something really significant. I thought about it and prayed some and finally told the congregation I'd donate $250,000. I'd have to do it over a three-year period — I'm not that rich.

I hadn't done much to that point last year and wasn't playing very well, but two weeks later I went to Austin, and before I played I told God to let me have a good week so I could do something for my church. Standing on the first tee, it was like something happened to me inside, because I played like a man on fire. I was right there after two rounds, and Sunday morning I read in the paper that first place paid $247,500. That sent chills down my back.

The last round was just a formality. I shot 68, won the tournament and signed over the whole thing to Pastor Keith. Everything they needed — the baptismal pool, a van, new seats for the sanctuary that weren't rock hard — between Mike Lewis and me, we covered it. The following week, I won again. And this was like God saying, "See? You did the right thing." But I'll tell you, I wasn't off the course long before Carol got in touch with me. "Don't get crazy, now, baby," she said. "You've got kids and a wife to think about, too." So that one stayed with us.

I was in the clubhouse tied for the lead at the Long Island Classic in 2004. The TV cameras are on me while I'm waiting for Bobby Wadkins to finish the 18th hole. He's got a putt for par to stay tied with me, and before he hits it, the camera pans over to me. I give a thumbs-down sign. A few people didn't think that was good sportsmanship, but give me a break. You think I'm gonna sit there and say, "C'mon, Bobby, make the putt"? You think I'm gonna sit there and not think anything? You gotta be crazy. Of course I want him to miss. I like him, and he's a nice guy, but I want to win the tournament, man. It's my business.

If I had it to do over again, I'd cut the time I spent practicing my long game in half. I'd spend it around the practice green chipping and putting like I do now. Over and over again, I see tournaments decided by the guy who makes the crucial up-and-down at the end. The short game is where the money is, especially for you amateurs.

Vijay Singh came to the PGA Tour when I was finishing up. This was in 1993 and '94. We became close friends. You know, I never saw a guy work harder on his game than he did. But he didn't practice like he was in a hurry to get somewhere. He was just out there all day, every day, calmly working away like he knew it was going to pay off. Watching him, I remembered a passage from the Bible my mother used to repeat to us all the time: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." It takes a while, but persistence always pays off.

Vijay and I spent our free time sitting around my house. One day he picked up an old copy of Golf Digest and was looking at some stats. "Jim, it says here your first-place check for winning the Milwaukee Open in 1985 was $54,000. Man, that's chump change. I make that just for showing up." I told Vijay that hurt and to lighten up, that times were hard just now, and I didn't think it was funny. He said "Of course, Jim. I'm sorry, I didn't realize." He puts down the issue, but in a few minutes he picks up another one.

"Jim, did you know that I get more money for winning one tournament now than you did the whole year in 1985, when you were fourth on the money list?"

"What's your point, Vijay? You think that's funny?"

"I'm sorry, Jim. I forgot. Please forgive me, I wasn't thinking."

Two minutes later, with no magazine to look at, he says, "By the way, Jim, did you know that I get more in one month from my equipment deal than you did the entire . . . "

I liked to have killed that man. When you hear Vijay's buddies say on TV that Vijay in private has a wonderful sense of humor, this is what they're talking about.

I grew up next to a golf course in Roxboro, N.C. My dad was the greenkeeper there for 56 years. At that golf course, in this little pocket of the world, there was no racism, no prejudice. It existed elsewhere, but not there. The people treated my father and his kids — there were 12 of us — with respect. So I grew up treating people the way I wanted to be treated, and almost always people sensed that and treated me well in return.

Now, many African-Americans didn't have my experience, and as a result they became insecure. And what they continue to see as race issues really are personal issues stemming from that insecurity. There comes a time when you have to stop blaming others for your problems and start digging a successful life out of the ground like everyone else. It's there for you. Just do it. There's a place for welfare in America, but not as a way of life. If a person gets an education — and in this country an education is there for everyone — you can make it happen. I'm proof of that.

It really bothers me to know there were more black players on the tour in the late 1960s and early '70s than there are today. It's mind-boggling because, if anything, there's more opportunity now than when I came up. The loss of caddie programs, competition with other sports, and not enough First Tee outlets hurt, but you know what it comes down to? Golf isn't cool. You can tell kids it's cool, but when they pick up the game it isn't long before they find there's nothing cool about going out in 90-degree heat and hitting 3-iron shots until your hands bleed. There's nothing cool about spending all that time by yourself playing and practicing. What's cool about spending what few bucks you have on equipment, green fees and getting to and from the course? Golf can be fun, but getting real good at it is less "cool" than it is hard, back-breaking work.

When Tiger Woods drives into the rough, he has a wedge left for his second shot. When I drive into the rough, I still have 175 yards to go, and 5-irons and tall grass aren't a good mix. Drive it straight! Never hit your driver with more than 80 percent of your power.

Whatever the worst part of your game is starting out, you'll probably fight that thing your whole life. I've seen it time and again in golf, and it was true with me until about 1986. I'd always been a poor driver of the ball because I rotated the clubface from open to square through impact. But after I had wrist surgery, I couldn't rotate the club anymore. I was forced to block the ball through impact, and as a result I started driving the ball a lot straighter.

One time I bought a thoroughbred horse named Happy Visitor. The guy I bought him from said his legs were a little sore, and when I took him to the vet to be checked out, the vet said his legs were even worse than the seller had said. On the outside, Happy Visitor looked to be washed up, but I had a feeling about him. I fed him well and rested him a long time before putting him back on the track, and when he became sound he reminded me of Gary Player. He wasn't big, and his form wasn't much, but he had a huge heart. Happy Visitor changed my outlook on golf. He took away all the worries I had about my technique and the fear I had about my swing not holding up under pressure. That horse taught me that golf is 90 percent heart.

Tiger is one tough kid. Having a family is going to affect him, just like it did Nicklaus. It's going to make him even more serious, make him even better. But you know what? I don't think he's gonna get Jack's record [20 major championships]. Tiger has elevated the games of every player out there, and they're all gonna get better yet. There are some kids you haven't heard of who are going to be giving him fits five years from now. What wisdom I've got tells me he isn't going to get there.

Little kids today don't know how to go outside and play. My brothers and I used to cut the limbs off of dogwood trees and shape them into golf clubs. Then we'd wrap these acorn-like things that fell from the trees in aluminum foil. You hit them about 30 yards. We had some great duels with those things.

You know the surest sign that somebody grew up spoiled with a silver spoon in their mouth? When they hit a brand-new ball into the woods and don't bother looking for it. That disgusts me. It's shows a wastefulness and lack of respect for what they have that's hard to put into words. Half the time, I'll go into the woods and look for that ball for them. If I find it, I make a point when I give it back to the guy: "Here's your brand-new ball, man," I'll say and sort of slam it into their hand. Most of the time they don't know what's eating me.

A guy was arguing to me once how every young person in America would really benefit from compulsory military service. He said the discipline, the self-reliance, the respect they learn to show others is amazing. He asked if I'd ever served, and did I agree with him, and I said yes, and yes. I didn't tell him that I'd been discharged after six weeks because I had asthma. I just kept agreeing with him. Heck, the Army turned my late brother Elbert Jr. into a perfect gentleman. It still sounds like a good idea.

The best golfer I ever played with was Greg Norman. Period, end of story. He really had a more complete game than Nicklaus. But under stress, Greg's thinking became clouded. He definitely had some rotten-ass luck, but he also went at too many flags, pulled the wrong club, tried the wrong kind of shot, all kinds of things. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but even watching him on TV I'd say out loud, "What are you doing, man?" If he had a Nicklaus on his bag, he probably would have won 10 majors.

A lot of guys in my spot will look back on their life and career and say, "I'd do it all over again." Not me, man. There were a lot of years of scratching around, hustling, doing a few things wrong and a few right, of hanging out at the racetrack, at the craps tables, living hand to mouth at times. Lots of harrowing stuff. It was fun, but I wouldn't do it again.

Now if I feel that way, how about Carol? I married her when I was 29, and she was pretty brave, buying a ticket to win on me. She never let go of it, even during the times when I was bringing up the rear. She raised two fantastic daughters and kept steering me toward the straight and narrow, which I've yet to find. She's just an angel, straight out.

I had three wins on the PGA Tour, two of them at the Seiko-Tucson Match Play. It was the only match-play tournament every year on tour at the time, and I got it twice. That tournament brought out the hustler in me. I'd give guys the lip a little bit, which they aren't accustomed to at the pro level, and I'd do a little gamesmanship. Against Jack Renner in the final one year, he hit a driver off the first tee, and I just blistered a 1-iron. I stopped at the short ball in the fairway and said to my caddie — so Jack could hear — "This has to be my ball; I only hit a 1-iron." That got inside his head a little, and I handled him fine.

The next year, at one point I went up against Tim Simpson, who was just a fantastic ball-striker. All day I told him what a wonderful ball-striker he was, and all day he hit it inside me. But he couldn't make a putt to save his life, I beat him easily, and my remarks about his ball-striking had a lot to do with that. You know something? If I were in that WGC Match Play deal, I could beat some people.

You want to beat me? Take me to a course with lots of water. I'll play chicken, because I can't stand to risk hitting a new ball into a water hazard. It's like throwing money away, man. Even playing for $100 a hole, I can't make myself take a chance of losing a $4 ball.