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Coming of Age

For Senior Pro Jim Thorpe life began at Fifty
Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

Jim Thorpe could talk the bark off a tree, the grip off a shaft, the cover off a golf ball. Thorpe has opinions about this, that and the other thing, and doesn't mind offering them. Not even while he's launching drives on the range or putting on the practice green. When Jim Thorpe's talking, chances are that things are pretty good for him.

But he never really imagined how good things could be until he turned 50. That's the magic mark that separates a Senior PGA Tour player from a PGA Tour player. That's the magic number that won the jackpot for Jim Thorpe. That's what really has him talking.

"Man, there is so much money out here, all you got to do is pick it up," says Thorpe. "When I came out, Ray Floyd said, 'Man, it's just laying all over the ground. Pick it up. You won't have any trouble.'"

For Thorpe, there is no more scratching out a living on the regular tour. No more hustling for a buck here and there, on the course, at the racetrack, in the casino, no more asking a friend for a loan now and then, just to keep going. After being an also-ran for so many years, Thorpe is near the head of the pack now. "For too many years I was out there just smelling the roses," said Thorpe. "I'm sick of roses. Now, all I want to do is win."

Win, he has. Through his first three Senior Tour seasons, Thorpe, 53, has won four tournaments and more than four million bucks, more than twice as much as he won on the PGA Tour.

His endorsement contract with Foxwoods Resort Casino, a deal that helped him get through the '90s without going broke, is now triple what it was when he first signed on 10 years ago. He has a six-figure deal with Callaway Golf Co., which pays his yearly expenses. The tournament checks go home to his wife, Carol, in Orlando, Florida. Last year, Carol collected $1.8 million from Jim's tournament earnings.

That success should come to such an affable man seems only fitting. Born the ninth of 12 children of Elbert and Vivian Thorpe of Roxboro, North Carolina, Jim Thorpe has carried around an All-American name that didn't mean automatic success. Thorpe doesn't come from a heralded amateur background, wasn't a college wunderkind, didn't have a guru and an entourage to guide his every move and take care of the details. Let's just say that the difference between Tiger Wood's upbringing and Thorpe's is a country mile.

No, Thorpe's road to success wasn't paved with gold. Sometimes it wasn't paved at all. Thorpe's father didn't shepherd him around the country to play with PGA Tour players like Tiger Woods' father, Earl, did. Jim Thorpe didn't have a swing guru like Butch Harmon, a management team like IMG, a top caddie like Steve "Kiwi" Williams, a private jet.

Jim's management team from the outset of his career has been Carol, and assorted friends. And his road, traveled in old cars, buses and trains, took him not to the U.S. Amateur or the NCAA Championship or the Walker Cup. It led him to Western Avenue Golf Course in Los Angeles, to East Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., to unremembered municipal courses across the country.

"That's what golf was for me, man," says Thorpe, drawing on yet another cigar stolen from the locker of his friend and Senior Tour foe Dana Quigley. "There wasn't much money to be made playing tournament golf for somebody like me. The old Negro Tour didn't pay much money. You had to gamble some at the tournaments to make any real money. I've never been afraid to play anyone for money, and I think that's helped me get to where I am today."

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