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The Reign of Larry Laoretti

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

Looking for Senior PGA golfer Larry Laoretti on a sodden, sullen evening in North Miami Beach, the search ends up on Biscayne Boulevard. Such a melodic, fanciful name, a name evoking images of glorious beaches, gracious homes and grand hotels. A name that suggests the turquoise Atlantic and the golden Florida sun. A name that speaks prosperity and whispers of untold riches. But you won't find Laoretti in any of those places. Not here. Not on this stretch of Biscayne Boulevard. Here, it is just a street, an average avenue of Americana, a venue for fast food and slow traffic. And as the journey nears Larry Laoretti's home for the night, the Sea Shanty Restaurant and the Paradise Motel pass by, slightly blurred by the misty windshield.

Suddenly, a little triangular sign jumps out from behind an overhanging live oak tree. KOA, Kampgrounds of America, in black and red on a white background, a campground spelled with a K. Then, it's a turn past the orange road cone marking a sinister hole, and heading east, toward the Atlantic, you know you won't get there. You are looking for Larry Laoretti, and he doesn't stay on the beach.

Larry Laoretti is the champion of the United States Senior Open. He is a visible, viable, valuable member of the PGA's Senior Tour. He could stay along a glorious beach, in a gracious home or a grand hotel. Instead, he chooses to stay at a campground, campground with a K, thank you very much. This week, the 38 feet of American Eagle motor home that is home away from home is in space 87. A battalion of speed bumps slows the search for the slot, and large women carrying plastic baskets of laundry block the roadway. Finally, approaching from the rear of the Eagle, a slight breeze bears the aroma of Laoretti's cigar and the sound of his triumph. "Aha!" he exclaims. "All right!" The cry is unmistakable. It's Laoretti, and he's winning again.

The champion of the United States Senior Open has just forged another heady victory. This one had nothing to do with the game of golf. The clubs in his hands were accompanied by hearts, spades and diamonds. The game was gin, the opponent his caddie and friend Bob O'Brien, the stakes two bucks, with the loser required to do the dishes, which is the most precious part of the triumph.

Laoretti takes a big puff on his Te-Amo Light and raises a rocks glass of red wine to his lips. "How sweet it is, Bob, how sweet it is."

The wine is Carlo Rossi Pisano Light Chianti. Its bouquet is an amalgam of wild berries and landfill. Its attack is mindful of D Day, its finish that of an exhausted marathon runner. "You know, people give me thirty-five and forty dollar bottles of wine all the time," says Laoretti. "I'd rather drink this. The whole jug is $7.99, thank you very much."

Just how many times Larry Laoretti says "thank you very much" is equivalent to how many times he thinks about where he is and where he has been. A little more than three years prior to this February evening, Laoretti stood on the first tee of the Links at Key Biscayne in the first tournament of the 1990 Senior Tour. He had a new wife, Susan, and a new son, Lonnie. He had $110 to his name and a cigar between his teeth. Always, a cigar between his teeth.

Here was a man who had been a club professional for his entire adult life, who had taught swings, sold shirts and looked for Mrs. Weinstein's missing umbrella from Long Island to Las Vegas, from Westchester County north of New York City to Houston and Jupiter in the South. And not once, until the summer of 1989, had he won anything of consequence until he won both the regular and senior divisions of the Florida PGA championship.

These were victories that said only that he was better than he ever was. They did not foretell that within three years Laoretti would win more than $900,000 in prize money and the Senior Open title at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in July 1992. They did not foretell that he would win the curiosity and admiration of the golfing public and a contract with Consolidated Cigar Company that would provide him with cigars for free and pay him to smoke them. Thank you very much.

"Honestly, I thought I could be a better player if I quit my job as a club pro and practiced my game," says Laoretti. "I thought I'd have a chance to qualify for the Senior Tour. Did I think all of this would happen? No way."

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