Coming of Age
For Senior Pro Jim Thorpe life began at Fifty
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02
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He may not have been afraid to play for money, but there have been some dicey moments. "I played this guy and he had a putt to tie me on the last hole and missed," says Thorpe. "He went over to his bag and got out the money to pay me off. Then he went back to his bag, got out a pistol, and went over to his ball and shot it. Pow! Just like that. We used to play matches against a lot of guys who carried guns. It got so it didn't bother you. But you talk about pressure."
The hustling life was a living, and there were times it was a pretty good one. Thorpe recalls the time in the mid-'70s that he was backed by two men against another player with more than $50,000 on the line. If he won, he got a third of the money. And he did win. Now, with more cash than he had ever seen, he had to figure out how to bring the money home to Carol in Baltimore, where they were living, and not have it fall out of his pockets along the way. So he came up with a unique shipping package—the shafts of his golf clubs.
"I had some spare clubs I always carried, so I took off the grip, rolled up the $100 bills and stuck them down the shafts of a few clubs," says Thorpe. "Then I would put the grips back on. I had this Magic Marker and I would write '5' on the shaft if there was $5,000 in it, or '4.5' if there was $4,500 in it. When I got home I just cut those suckers off and out comes all the cash." And the grin gets wider and wider. There is something almost otherworldly about Thorpe's grin. It emanates from a massive body with puffy shoulders and a chest that hasn't yet slipped to his waistline. His pearly whites gleam, the glare alone suggesting that Thorpe is more than a little happy to be on the farther side of 50.
That smile has almost always been there, though in olden times it could mask the hurt of another fallow week on the tour. How curious it was that when the world first heard of Jim Thorpe, as the first-round leader of the 1981 U.S. Open, he had barely enough money for food and expenses. Given the fact he was the first African American to lead a U.S. Open since John Shippen in 1896, Thorpe was invited to be on "Good Morning America" the following day. Grateful though he was for the publicity, the free breakfast served in the studio was a blessing.
At the time the Thorpes were living in Buffalo with relatives. Carol worked for the New York state legislature, but it certainly wasn't enough money to support a household and a golf career, and when Jim went on the tour full time, she had to give up that job to look after the children. There were trips to the pawn shop, a car given to them by relatives sold to raise expense money.
"I really liked my diamond ring, but it stayed in the shop a little too long for me," says Carol. "But I got it back."
Carol Thorpe is the reason that Jim has a PGA career. Tired of the uncertainty of Jim's daily life, Carol saw a PGA event on television one afternoon in 1974 and decided that her husband must try to play with the best or give up the game. "I didn't want him out there just scratching out a living," says Carol. "If he was going to do it, I want him to be doing it with the best players. I knew he was a good player. If he dedicated himself to making it, I knew he would make it."
Thorpe earned his tour card at the 1975 Tour School, and lost it the next season. He won the card back in 1978, and set out to play among the best. For a brief time, he was among the best. He won three tournaments in 1985—86, his first coming at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1985 when he played with, and beat, Jack Nicklaus. Thorpe had the tournament in hand as the pair approached the 18th green. They were walking together, but Nicklaus stopped and said: "This walk is for you." "That's something I'll never forget," says Thorpe. "To win my first tournament, to beat Jack—who is the greatest player who ever lived—and then have Jack say that to me, that was fantastic. I knew then I could play with those guys."
Though he would go on to win twice more, Thorpe's career was stunted by injuries. His outside-inside loopy swing with his flailing helicopter follow-through had taken a toll on his formidable body. Surgery on a thumb and lots of rest for an ailing back took energy from his body and sharpness from his game.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Thorpe fell into despair over the shortcomings of his game. If he let himself down on the course, he could often pick himself up again at a racetrack or casino. Gambling wasn't just a matter of necessity for Thorpe. He swears his gambling jones was never addictive, that it was for pleasure and relaxation. He had a string of trotting horses for a while until Carol looked at the veterinarian's bills.
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