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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

(continued from page 2)

There was a time, though, when he really hit the jackpot, and it almost cost him his tee time. In 1985, Thorpe was playing in Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, just a few minutes from the Scioto Downs racetrack. After hitting an exotic bet for $54,000, Thorpe took the cash back to his hotel room and called Carol at home in Buffalo.

"I told her to git down here and take this money," said Thorpe.

"I didn't want it around me. I didn't want to lose it. I didn't want to gamble it. This was big money, man." Carol got to Columbus as soon as she could to unburden her husband of the cash. Jim raced to the golf course to make his tee time. He didn't have time to even change his shoes. He hit his first tee shot in his tasseled loafers.

As his PGA Tour career became less profitable, Thorpe found himself in contact, through an old friend, with Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. The casino wanted a visible player to do outings with their high rollers, to schmooze the whales and make it not seem so painful that they had just dropped 50 grand of their own blubber at the craps table. Thorpe seemed the natural. Gregarious was a word invented for him. Combining his social talents with his love for gambling, the job was nothing less than a straight flush.

"I don't think the horses and the gambling were an addiction for him," says longtime friend and agent Mike Lewis. "It was just something he loved to do. Ultimately, it was something that proved to be beneficial for him. It set him apart. Jim didn't have any of those big club company deals, so this was something that made him different."

When Thorpe was running short on cash, he would ask friends for a few grand. When his friend called from Foxwoods, Thorpe was first taken aback. "I told this guy, 'Man, I don't need to go to a casino. That's the last place I need to go,'" says Thorpe. "But I went to talk with them and they fell in love with me and I fell in love with them. I learned to respect these guys [Mashantucket Pequot tribe members]. They went from chopping wood and running bingo parlors to operating one of the biggest casinos in the world. I was making $75,000 a year, which was perfect for me. I have a much better deal now. I do their high-roller tournaments, about 10 times a year. And come to find out, there is some Indian heritage on my father's side of the family."

The Foxwoods deal carried Thorpe throughout the '90s because his golf game could not. He foundered, only making the top 125 exempt list twice. "He was lost," says Lewis. "I don't think there was another golfer who missed more cuts by one shot than him. He could go play the toughest course you ever saw and shoot 65, but he couldn't take that game to a tournament with him. I think he was looking forward to the Senior Tour too soon."

His game soured enough that when it came time for the Senior Tour, Thorpe wasn't exempt by a position in the top 32 in the all-time money list. To be fully qualified he had to go back to qualifying school, the pressure cauldron of professional golf. But Jim Thorpe had played golf against men with pistols in their bags. He had played golf with no money in the bank. And he had played golf against all these tour-school prospects, beating them most of the time. Beat them this one more time, he figured, and he would enter Heaven. He beat them, and the Pearly Gates opened. "I knew if I could make it out here, no one could stop me from making a million dollars," says Thorpe. "My game is much better now than it was back then. I work a lot harder on my game now. I hit balls or putt instead of going to a casino or a track. Not all the time. I still like my fun, but there's no doubt I'm working a lot harder. I want to make sure that in three or four years my family is in a position that I don't have to do this anymore if I don't want to. Carol takes care of the money and says I should be able to walk away. I give her so much credit for what I've been able to do. I dedicate my Senior Tour career to her."

When the gravy train pulled into the station, Jim Thorpe jumped right into the first-class seats. There is plenty of money coming in, plenty of fun to be had. There are outings with the Foxwoods gang, tournaments like the Montecristo Cup, where he has become a regular on the course and at the craps tables. There are new cars, a new house for Carol and daughters Sheronne and Chera. There is respect among his fellow pros, even if he can occasionally frustrate the best of friends.

"I got to think that Thorpie is the most unreliable person in the world when it comes to doing things," says Dana Quigley. "Myself, Jim and Ed Dougherty, when we were playing in California, decided to fly to Vegas for some action. Jim drove all of us in his car to the airport. We had like an 11 o'clock flight back the next day. Ed and I went down to check out at 9 and they told us that Jim had already left. He had flown back and never said a word about it. We had to find a ride from the airport to the golf course. But he's a hell of a guy, a real man's man you might say. You've got to respect him for what he has been able to do, especially being a black man in a white man's sport."


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