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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 3)

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."

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.

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."

The sun is shining and Jim Thorpe's talking. He's on the practice range of the Crandon Park Golf Course in Key Biscayne, Florida, site of the Royal Caribbean Classic. It's pro-am day and next to him is a lady amateur with a smooth swing. "You gonna beat your pro, honey," says Thorpe. "You gonna beat him."

The lady smiles back. "I'm playing with Isao Aoki," she says. "You're gonna beat him," says Thorpe. "I beat him, you'll beat him." The lady smiles and Thorpe ushers forth his baritone chuckle. "Man, can you imagine I'm doing this," he says, to himself as much as to those who surround him. "Man, can it be any better?"

Robert Lowell is a freelance writer based in New York.

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