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The Reign of Larry Laoretti

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

(continued from page 2)

Looking for Senior PGA golfer Larry Laoretti on a sodden, sullen evening in North Miami Beach, the search ends up on Biscayne Boulevard. Such a melodic, fanciful name, a name evoking images of glorious beaches, gracious homes and grand hotels. A name that suggests the turquoise Atlantic and the golden Florida sun. A name that speaks prosperity and whispers of untold riches. But you won't find Laoretti in any of those places. Not here. Not on this stretch of Biscayne Boulevard. Here, it is just a street, an average avenue of Americana, a venue for fast food and slow traffic. And as the journey nears Larry Laoretti's home for the night, the Sea Shanty Restaurant and the Paradise Motel pass by, slightly blurred by the misty windshield.

Suddenly, a little triangular sign jumps out from behind an overhanging live oak tree. KOA, Kampgrounds of America, in black and red on a white background, a campground spelled with a K. Then, it's a turn past the orange road cone marking a sinister hole, and heading east, toward the Atlantic, you know you won't get there. You are looking for Larry Laoretti, and he doesn't stay on the beach.

Larry Laoretti is the champion of the United States Senior Open. He is a visible, viable, valuable member of the PGA's Senior Tour. He could stay along a glorious beach, in a gracious home or a grand hotel. Instead, he chooses to stay at a campground, campground with a K, thank you very much. This week, the 38 feet of American Eagle motor home that is home away from home is in space 87. A battalion of speed bumps slows the search for the slot, and large women carrying plastic baskets of laundry block the roadway. Finally, approaching from the rear of the Eagle, a slight breeze bears the aroma of Laoretti's cigar and the sound of his triumph. "Aha!" he exclaims. "All right!" The cry is unmistakable. It's Laoretti, and he's winning again.

The champion of the United States Senior Open has just forged another heady victory. This one had nothing to do with the game of golf. The clubs in his hands were accompanied by hearts, spades and diamonds. The game was gin, the opponent his caddie and friend Bob O'Brien, the stakes two bucks, with the loser required to do the dishes, which is the most precious part of the triumph.

Laoretti takes a big puff on his Te-Amo Light and raises a rocks glass of red wine to his lips. "How sweet it is, Bob, how sweet it is."

The wine is Carlo Rossi Pisano Light Chianti. Its bouquet is an amalgam of wild berries and landfill. Its attack is mindful of D Day, its finish that of an exhausted marathon runner. "You know, people give me thirty-five and forty dollar bottles of wine all the time," says Laoretti. "I'd rather drink this. The whole jug is $7.99, thank you very much."

Just how many times Larry Laoretti says "thank you very much" is equivalent to how many times he thinks about where he is and where he has been. A little more than three years prior to this February evening, Laoretti stood on the first tee of the Links at Key Biscayne in the first tournament of the 1990 Senior Tour. He had a new wife, Susan, and a new son, Lonnie. He had $110 to his name and a cigar between his teeth. Always, a cigar between his teeth.

Here was a man who had been a club professional for his entire adult life, who had taught swings, sold shirts and looked for Mrs. Weinstein's missing umbrella from Long Island to Las Vegas, from Westchester County north of New York City to Houston and Jupiter in the South. And not once, until the summer of 1989, had he won anything of consequence until he won both the regular and senior divisions of the Florida PGA championship.

These were victories that said only that he was better than he ever was. They did not foretell that within three years Laoretti would win more than $900,000 in prize money and the Senior Open title at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in July 1992. They did not foretell that he would win the curiosity and admiration of the golfing public and a contract with Consolidated Cigar Company that would provide him with cigars for free and pay him to smoke them. Thank you very much.

"Honestly, I thought I could be a better player if I quit my job as a club pro and practiced my game," says Laoretti. "I thought I'd have a chance to qualify for the Senior Tour. Did I think all of this would happen? No way."

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."

And he doesn't smoke around Lonnie, at least not very often.

Lonnie is his three-year-old son. Lonnie provides a focus for his life, as much as his third wife, Susan, provides a steady grip on the matters of family life. It is a family life that Laoretti seeks in the Kampgrounds of America. It is a family life that keeps him out of the glitzy hotels and away from the dandy parties. Well, most of them.

"We just think the motor home is the best thing for Lonnie," says Laoretti. "We have room to bring his toys along with us, he's got room outside to play and other kids to play with. It's not fair to keep a little kid locked up in a hotel room. You're always afraid he going to make noise and make somebody mad in the next room. This is the best way to go. The people in the campgrounds are real nice, down to earth type people. We're comfortable in the camper."

There isn't a shred of pretense to Laoretti. He isn't overwhelmed by fame or addicted to it. He doesn't shy from it, he doesn't seek it out. And while he's comfortable playing with corporate moguls who ante up thousands for the privilege of mis-hitting shots in the same foursome as a champion, he's comfortable with the help. He throws a party for Senior Tour caddies at the end of the year. When he's on Long Island, where he spent most of his career as a club pro, he throws a party for golf course superintendents, or greenskeepers as they once were called. Plenty of lobsters and Carlo Rossi Pisano Light Chianti.

You'll find Carlo Rossi Pisano Light Chianti at his home in Stuart, Florida, in a golf course development called Cobblestone, owned by a man with whom he served in the Navy. Laoretti is the touring professional and director of golf for Cobblestone, and his Senior Open trophy is prominent in the new clubhouse. So is Carlo Rossi Pisano Light Chianti. Not surprisingly, the red wine of his house is also the house red wine. Thank you very much.

Laoretti's home is on the tenth fairway of Cobblestone. The course and its environs are on the fringes of development, set several miles to the west of the Atlantic and only several yards off I-95. Right now, it's an isolated little enclave. "We have to drive five miles just to get a quart of milk," says Laoretti, "and that's why we love it."

Because he lives by the old bromide "a stranger is just a friend I've never met," his circle of friends has been expanding at about the speed of light, certainly faster than he can expand his house and put up new guest quarters. The original guest room also serves as the family office and trophy room. And despite the fact that his Senior Open trophy sits 400 yards away in the clubhouse, there is a decent collection of trophies on the high shelves. Must be 30 or so. Not bad for a mediocre club pro's career, until you realize that most of them are Susan's.

There are Susan's volleyball trophies, softball trophies, sailing trophies, basketball trophies, bowling trophies and three Junior Olympics medals. Her collection would be even larger if several hadn't broken while moving.

One of those moves was to Florida from New Jersey in 1985. Wanting to tune up a discordant golf game, Susan Krulkaski sought the help of the head professional at Indian Creek, a local public course in Jupiter. It was a scruffy little place where the driving range was a pond and golf balls floated. The pro she took lessons from was Larry Laoretti. Susan's heart was the biggest thing Laoretti ever won at the game of golf, the Senior Open notwithstanding.

To Susan's mind, the best thing about Laoretti's success besides solvency is that it allows him to touch so many people. "I knew when I met him that he was an exceptional person," she says. "I knew it, his friends knew it. He's friendly and sincere, he's charismatic. Everywhere we go he's recognized. He's made a hero out of himself to the common man. The best thing about all his success is that everybody knows what an exceptional person he is."

Jeff Siegel is Laoretti's agent, and he is an agent to several other athletes. The one conversation that he's had with every client except Laoretti is the one on how to deal with all kinds of people. "Unless you have a hook you're not marketable," says Siegel. "Larry's hook, first and foremost, is that he's a terrific guy with a terrific personality. He knows naturally how to deal with people. The cigar is his 15th club. It's part of the hook. It's part of his life-style. He takes his golf seriously, but he enjoys life, and the cigar makes a statement about how he enjoys it."

That statement, should it be inscribed in stone, says, "Thank You Very Much."

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday.

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