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The Reign of Larry Laoretti

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

(continued from page 1)

Just what has happened is fairly astounding. Once it was common for Laoretti to check the contents of his wallet before deciding the quantity and quality of his cigar purchases. Now, the Senior Tour's traveling annuity carnival for players over the age of 50 assures him of a decent living in exchange for decent playing. His Senior Open victory has provided him with lucrative endorsement contracts with the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, with the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, with clubmaker Spalding and clothing maker La Mode. He is in demand for corporate and charity outings, with bookings now running several months in advance.

"I've died and gone to heaven a thousand times," says Laoretti. "There's no way I could have imagined this would happen. I thought I could make some money out here. But this? This is pretty damn terrific."

In 1960, Laoretti turned professional, right out of the Navy. Over the course of the next 30 years, eight club jobs and two wives, Laoretti did only one thing to distinguish himself: He played golf with a cigar in his mouth. That made him rare, not unique. Charlie Sifford, the first black man to win a PGA event, had been playing with a cigar in his mouth long before Laoretti smoked his first White Owls while stationed in Guam in 1957. Decades of fighting racism in the insular world of golf have left Sifford a cautionary, often bitter man. The cigar that has been Sifford's trademark is seen by many, however cruelly and unfairly, as a beacon warning those who see it from a distance to keep their distance.

Expediency and hygiene are two reasons that Laoretti chooses to keep the cigar in his mouth while he takes a blistering swing or strokes a three-foot putt. Those take precedence over whatever anyone else might imagine to be almost a physical impossibility, what with smoke rising up from the lit end. Putting the cigar down, hitting, then picking it up again would put a serious crimp in Laoretti's pace of play, which is the fastest on the Senior Tour or possibly any other golf tour. His routine is basically puff, hit, walk, puff.

He also expresses some concern that a cigar laying on the very manicured grass of a golf course could pick up chemical traces from the fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides that are used to keep the grass stunningly green and perfect. When, like Laoretti, you go through two or three cigars a round, laying them down 60 or 70, or god forbid, 75 times a round would be a real hassle and would increase their exposure to the elements--and would definitely slow down your play.

For Laoretti, however, the cigar doesn't have any of the more negative symbols that it conjured up when in Sifford's mouth. Unburdened by such weighty social issues, Laoretti's life has been afflicted only by the more mundane concerns of domestic instability and financial insecurity. "I don't think there's anything I'd do different in my life, except maybe have two less wives," says Laoretti. "Sure, there's lot of little things along the way that I would change if I could, but I don't have any regrets. I don't worry about what's past."

Throughout his life, Laoretti has always wrapped a smile around his cigar and kept at least one hand free for a handshake or a pat on the back. His earthy and robust personality has survived divorce and the vagaries of a pernicious, unforgiving game. And his cigar functions not as a beacon of warning but as a warm fire on a cold night. People are just naturally attracted to him, and he to them.

You can see this, even hear this, in the tournament galleries. In the distance is Laoretti, club in hand, cigar in mouth. A puff, then a swing, then a puff. "Hey, isn't that the guy who plays with a cigar?" asks one gallerygoer of the other. "Larry something, Larry Lawrence, what is it, Low-retti?"

Often you will find a number of cigar smokers in the crowd that is following his group. He gives legitimacy to their love, and not incidentally, he gives them a wink, a handshake, an autograph, a cheap joke. Sometimes he gives them a cigar, a Te-Amo Light with its clear plastic wrapper proclaiming "Larry Laoretti, U.S. Senior Open Golf Champion."

The golf course is both Laoretti's element and his habitat. In fact the golf course may be the last vestiges of habitat for the endangered tobaccus Americanas, or the common American cigar smoker. Laoretti says that not once has his cigar smoking caused him a problem, and his newly won visibility has produced only two letters questioning the advisability of being so public with his passion. To which he replies: "I never smoked a cigarette and I don't inhale my cigars."

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