Tom Watson’s phone call came as a shock.
Ray Floyd, retired from his Hall of Fame career, had just come back from a hunting trip when he found a voicemail from Tom Watson, the Ryder Cup captain for this year’s competition at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Floyd had been an avid Ryder Cupper, and devoted his passion and professionalism to it, as he had to every aspect of the game over more than four decades of being fiercely competitive. He left the competitive game in 2007, but his zeal for the Ryder Cup never diminished.
“When they announced Tom, I said, ‘Boy oh boy this is the smartest thing PGA of America has ever done,’ ” says Floyd. “I said, ‘This is a brilliant move.’ Here’s a guy who will get the guys up for it, who will let them understand it’s not just a week out of your life, this is important and this is what it’s all about. I called him and said this was a brilliant move. Then I never thought about it again.
“Then he calls me in January and I had just come back from a hunting trip, there was a voicemail on my cell phone, ‘Raymond call me, it’s important.’ I’m just coming back from hunting and I said, uh uh, I’m going this time. I had kept threatening to go out and go pheasant hunting with him in Kansas. In my mind I’m calling Tom to set up a date to go pheasant hunting. After a little small talk, he says ‘I’d really like for you to help me with this Ryder Cup, be one of my assistant captains.’ I hit about a five-second pause. I couldn’t really say anything. It was so far removed from my thought process. I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ I said, ‘Man, I am in.” ’
And at 71, Ray Floyd became the vice captain of this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“To come back to the game after being so removed from it is pretty special,” says Floyd. “The way it happened, it’s hard to believe.”
Well, maybe not.
Ray Floyd always stood out. When he walked into a locker room, onto the range, onto the first tee, you just knew he was there. Tall, barrel-chested, blue-eyed handsome, well dressed, his aura of confidence was a continual arc of static electricity. Players would turn their heads, offer their handshakes and hope that one day they could be like “Raymond.”
They wanted to be a fierce competitor like he was, though they could never hope to have the “Floyd Stare” in the heat of battle. They would have loved to have his résumé of four major championships and 22 PGA Tour victories. They would love to be what he was, and is—a pro’s pro.
Fellow vice captain Andy North, the television commentator and two-time U.S. Open champ, is thrilled that Floyd will be on board at Gleneagles.
“Everybody knows he’s an unbelievable competitor. He is one of those guys you wanted in your foxhole with you, because he would just fight to the end. I always loved that about Raymond,” says North. “He’s one of the classiest guys I’ve ever been around. I just loved to be around him. He was extremely generous with his time and energy, and financially to a lot of people, a lot of organizations, a lot of causes. He was a guy I always looked up to. He played the game the way it was supposed to be played. He carried himself on and off the golf course the way a player should. I have the ultimate respect for Raymond.”
“Consummate professional. That gets thrown around a lot, but he really was someone the younger pros studied; when he walked into the room, you watched what he did and how he acted,” says Davis Love. “And that’s how you wanted to act. He always treated people fairly, and with respect. Every time he walked up to you to shake hands it was with a smile, no matter how he played. He reminded me a lot of my dad. He held the door open for his wife, she came first, his kids were more important than whatever he was doing on the golf course. Freddie Couples hung around him for a reason. I hung around the two of them for a reason.”
In September of 2012, Ray Floyd moved about the lovely public room of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He stood out that beautiful fall day, but not for the right reasons. There were a couple of hundred people moving about, but Ray Floyd was emotionally by himself. His wife Maria had recently died of bladder cancer, and those around him in the clubhouse that day were there to honor him and the woman who made his life complete, on the course and off. Ray Floyd will tell you without hesitation that it was Maria who made him the consummate professional.
And the consummate professional will now get to devote his attention to the Ryder Cup. He’s played in eight Ryder Cup matches, captaining one team and being an assistant on another. Floyd will be in his professional element even if he’ll be without the woman who turned up his professional flame.
“He is a consummate professional, a man of his word,” says Watson. “He’ll be the first person to credit Maria for the change in his life. It’s a great story how people can change out of the love for each other. I have great admiration for Ray and Maria and what they represented throughout the years together. When I asked him to be my vice captain, he said to me, ‘I’ve been to the Ryder Cup overseas and in America just to spectate,’ because he loved the competition so much. Tells a lot about him as a professional and his respect for the game of golf.”
Ray Floyd’s personal life and professional career comes in two parts—before Maria and after. And he won’t hesitate to credit her with bringing a richness to his life, a deeper meaning, along with a focus on the professionalism of golf. He was the son of a teaching professional, grew up in the game, was accomplished early, but being a “consummate” professional came after he married the former Maria Fraietta in 1973. Floyd had won five times since turning pro in 1961, winning his first PGA Tour event in 1963 and his first major, the PGA, in 1969. He won 17 times after he married Maria.
“I won before her. What I feel came from her was the dedication to what I did, to do the best you could do every time,” says Floyd. “When I was not well-off financially, I’d go working on my game and I was blessed with enough talent before Maria that I would play well. Then I’d get some money and lose the discipline. I’d have ups and downs.”
That first decade of Floyd’s career was filled with late nights, young women, a penchant for the horses, high-stakes gambling games, a love affair with the Chicago Cubs, a Rat-Pack life on Tour with fellow carousers like Ken Still and Bob Rosburg. It was a time when pro athletes could still hit the bar, hit on women and live the bachelor life free of media scrutiny and indictments. He was a friend of the renowned stripper Carol Doda, hung out in the infamous Condor Club in San Francisco. There were occasions when he didn’t bother to sleep before teeing off the next morning.
He never regretted that high-flying life, but it all changed when he met Maria in Florida, where she ran a beauty school. Smitten by her looks and her smarts, his life changed almost instantly. And at the Jacksonville Open in 1974, she turned his professional life down the straight and narrow.
Floyd had played a poor opening round and was likely to miss the cut. Rosburg intercepted him along the way and suggested they both withdraw and go to Miami to the horse races, which sounded mighty good to Ray Floyd. It sounded positively blasphemous to Maria. When he told her of his intentions, she drew a line in the sand trap, so to speak.
“She said, ‘I came to Jacksonville to be here through the weekend and I’m staying,’ ” Floyd recalls vividly. “That weekend we had some wonderful conversations and from that day forward I honestly in competition never played a shot that I didn’t give it 100 percent.
“Her comment to me, that hit me like a baseball bat up side the head: ‘If you don’t like what you are doing you are young enough to change careers.’ I was 31 years old. You could have blasted me out of the water with that. That was a hand grenade. All I had ever wanted to be in my whole life was a golf professional on tour.
“She made me realize how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing and how gifted I was to have the talent to be successful. And here I was squandering it. I was a touring professional, but I certainly was not professional. From that moment on, you didn’t know if I was shooting 80 or 65. I tried every shot, stayed focused. Some days you wouldn’t have it, but I wasn’t quitting.”
No, he never did. And his career path, after getting pretty weedy after winning three times in 1969, became more decidedly clear and uphill. Among his wins after his marriage was the 1976 Masters, where he popularized the 5-wood (a club he used to hit high shots into the par 5s.) He won his second PGA title in 1982 in the stifling heat at Southern Hills in Tulsa. Then, in 1986, he won a cavalry charge on the back nine at Shinnecock to win the U.S. Open. Maria had a hand in that victory, too.
The Sunday before, Floyd had played a poor last round at the Westchester Classic to lose it. On the drive from the northern suburbs of New York City to Shinnecock on the east end of Long Island, Maria wanted to know what went wrong. She knew he had played the round desperately, not professionally. The argument became a little heated, even with their three young children in the back of the car, and he wanted to throw her out. But Floyd knew she was right.
Then on Sunday afternoon on back nine at Shinnecock, there were 10 players who had a share of the lead. One would emerge, the one with “The Stare.” That stare was so intent that not only did playing partner Payne Stewart seem to melt from its laser intensity, but Floyd looked right through Maria as he walked off the 10th green. She knew then that he would win. He made three birdies on the back nine, including a sweet one at the par 5 16th and held the trophy in one hand and his daughter Christina in the other at the award ceremony.
He was 43 years and nine months old when he won the Open. He was 49 years and a bit when he won his next and final PGA Tour event, at Doral in 1992. Later in 1992 he won three times on the Senior Tour, and is the only player to have won on the PGA Tour and Senior Tour in the same year. Doral had been a special place for him, and was particularly memorable for his play-off win over Jack Nicklaus in 1980 on the second extra hole where he chipped in for birdie.
Golf can be broken down into its different aspects, and there have been players who excelled at driving or putting or wedge play. Ray Floyd is the best chipper of the ball ever. He would chip balls from just off the green where other players would putt it. He had one of the best pairs of hands to grip a club, and a touch on shots from around the green—pitches, sand shots, chips—that would rank him among the very best.
Sure, his swing was a bit unwieldy, a bit all over the place with a lunge at the end, but it worked for him. Mark Huber caddied for Floyd on the Senior Tour for three seasons, and came to appreciate Floyd’s delicate short game and his intense businesslike approach.
“I loved to watch him chip. He never, ever complained about a lie or a shot he mishit,” says Huber. “It was, ‘Okay, we’ll figure it out.’ He’d get this little twinkle in his eye, like ‘Watch this one.’ ”
That cockiness was always tempered by Floyd’s professionalism. Huber, who had known Floyd for a while and was a fellow passionate Cubs fan, saw that from the very start.
“The first time I worked for him was the Senior Tour Championship at the Dunes in Myrtle Beach,” says Huber. “We were talking the schedule, what he expected, the do’s and don’ts. He says, ‘If I ask your opinion, I want you to be able to back it up. And if we are between 5 and 6 iron, I’ve got either shot, you just tell me what you like.’ I remember he hit a drive into the woods, and I was there before him, and I’m trying to figure out is he going up through the trees, can he go around the trees. He just walks up, takes out a 7 iron, chips it back into the fairway and gets it up and down from there for par.
“He called inside the ropes his office. He told me his intensity, his focus was his main strength. ‘I can’t be disturbed when I’m in my office.’ I’d sometimes start to talk about the Cubs, and he’d go ‘Not right now, not right now.’ Then later on he’d bring it up.”
Nick Price’s first and lasting impression of Floyd is that intensity. “When I was starting out and he was toward the end of his career, he was still a gritty force to be reckoned with as a player. He was intimidating on the golf course, not because of his personality, but more because of his intensity as a professional. He was as intense on the course as anyone I ever played with. Raymond was always business on the course, always.”
Huber thinks that Floyd’s office mentality and unwavering focus on the game, combined with a shyness, kept him from connecting to fans. “That real intense focus, I think that’s where some people got a misunderstanding about him, about him being standoffish,” says Huber. “He was actually kind of shy. He liked to be around his buddies, his family. He didn’t understand why people wanted autographs.”
“I’m not introverted but I’m more of a withdrawn person,” says Floyd. “Maria said to me once, ‘You don’t know how to be a star. You don’t use it at all. I should have been the celebrity.’ I’d call a restaurant for a reservation for 8 o’clock and they would say they were full and I’d hang up. She said, ‘Did you tell them your name?’ I would say, ‘No.’ She would call back and say this is so and so, I’m Ray Floyd’s secretary, the golf professional. Could I get a table at 8 o’clock? By all means. I’m not from that ilk.”
Floyd may have a bit of shyness, but when asked he is straightforward about his opinions. Early in 2013 he was asked about the incoming class at the Hall of Fame, which included his friend and protégé, Fred Couples. Couples had won one major tournament, and another inductee, Colin Montgomerie, had never won any. Floyd said the bar had been lowered on inductions, and he wasn’t happy about it.
“What separates players is the major championships,” says Floyd. “You can have a guy who’s won 30 times and didn’t win a major, he didn’t have a satisfied career, I would say,” explains Floyd. “You could get a guy who won 10 times and won a major, I would think he would be more satisfied.”
Tom Watson, for one, was in agreement with Floyd’s stand. “Raymond has always been a very straight up guy. I’ve always admired him for some of the stands he’s taken,” he says. “Just recently he took a stand about the World Golf Hall of Fame. How it wasn’t inducting the quality of player it should have, and had become a popularity contest. And they’ve changed directions and that’s good. Raymond came out and said something that should have been said, and he took a lot of grief for it. But that’s Raymond.”
Watson will expect Floyd to speak up often in his role as Ryder Cup vice captain. As he looks back on his career, Floyd cites his longevity—he won PGA Tour events in four different decades—his four major championships, and the Ryder Cup as defining him as a player and competitor.
This Ryder Cup might be the final golf chapter of Ray Floyd’s incredibly full and admired career.
“His story is an unbelievable story, from a young superstar, one of those great next new guys, to going through the whole single guys routine then getting married and Maria cracking down on him,” says North. “He’s led an incredible full life. He’s never got cheated in anything he’s ever done and you got to love that. And to be able to compete like he did into his 50s was amazing. I mean here’s a senior golfer out there kicking people’s butts.”
He’ll relish being in Scotland in September, but he’ll miss being there without Maria. Floyd spends time hunting, fishing, playing golf with old buddies. The Floyds built a home in Southampton, New York, five minutes from Shinnecock, and he spends part of his summers there. He also has a farm in Vermont where he does some tending of the fields and hunts. He has a wide network of friends who keep him busy, and to this day he’s still the consummate pro. And that, he attributes to Maria.
“I still miss her tremendously,” says Floyd. “The way I deal with it is I know how blessed I was to have her for 39 years. That keeps me going. I was the most blessed person ever for 39 years. When I think about her or talk about her, I get emotional. She was so special. I miss her. She was brilliant, she was the smartest woman I ever met; she might have been the smartest person I ever met.”
Spoken by the consummate pro.
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor to Cigar Aficionado.