The Hustler : Jim Thorpe Has seen it all and done it all. Now he’s ready to open up and tell all – senior golfer – Interview
Jim Thorpe’s roots run deep among golf’s back roads, where shifty characters operated in the shadows of a genteel game. Paper bags full of cash served as ample enticement for the ninth of 12 siblings as he looked to elevate his name beyond the legendary one he borrowed. That this Jim Thorpe has been a survivor these many years is a testament to determination and the luck of the longest of long shots. n Thorpe’s golf swing is so full of moving parts it appears he’s fighting off a swarm of hornets in a phone booth, yet it wears well on a senior tour full of odd passes and quirky personalities. That swing produced a pair of victories in 2001 and earned Thorpe $1,827,223 in prize money, only a hundred grand less than he made in two decades on the regular tour. Thorpe, who knows what it’s like to lead a U.S. Open with no money in his pocket, has won more than $4 million since joining the over-50-crowd three years ago. n Before Thorpe made the most of his midlife mulligan he was known more for a loss than a triumph. In the 1985 Western Open, an amateur from Oklahoma State named Scott Verplank beat Thorpe in a playoff. Six weeks later Thorpe rebounded to beat Jack Nicklaus for his first PGA Tour victory. n Thorpe’s passion for horse racing and the gaming tables occasionally overshadows what he accomplishes between the ropes. And he has been known for his occasional outbursts of vivid language on the course. Through it all Thorpe remains an original with no shame in his game and no apologies for his lifestyle.
Golf Digest: How did you go from a golf hustler to a guy who’s making millions on the senior tour? Jim Thorpe: In 1973 I met [wife] Carol. She was a rich man’s dream and a poor boy’s prayer. She told me the things I needed to hear . . . not what I wanted to hear. She told it straight.
Back in the early days, Carol would give me $700 to pay the rent, but I went to the golf course with it. I’d get one of those Detroit bankrolls–about 100 one-dollar bills and put $50s on top of it, and everybody at the golf course would come at you, man. I was loaded for bear.
She said, “I’ve got nothing against hustling, but if you’re going to do this, why don’t you do it on the professional level?” She talked me into going to qualifying school. I didn’t think I was ready; I was not ready. Then I started playing the chittlin’ tour–that’s when I met all the black guys who could really play.
How did you get into hustling?
Hanging around Baltimore there were a lot of hustlers. There was a course there called Clifton Park, and there were a lot of games going on–$20, $25 a match. You’d get into these games realizing that your game was superior to theirs, and you’d shoot whatever you had to shoot to win.
I was a hustler. Hell, if I had to shoot 36, I shot 36. If I had to shoot 40, I shot 40. I won the matches before I teed off. Then I started going to Washington [D.C.]. The course there was East Potomac. There was a lot of money there. A guy named Waldo used to wear pants three sizes too big with at least $20,000 in each pocket.
Yep, because I was the best player there. I’d shoot 30-29 and make like $14,000.
Is that the most you ever made in a hustle?
No, I beat a guy in Detroit out of $55,000–and probably shot my worst round of golf, about a 71 or 72. This was early in my tour career, around midseason of the first or second year [1976 or ’77]. I was having a hard time getting financial backing on tour, so I did what my game was suited for–found me some money matches. I figured if this guy wasn’t on tour, he couldn’t beat me. I was right. He played like a dog, and I beat him pretty bad. We played at Radrick Farms in Detroit the first day, then at his club, Toledo Country Club, the next day. He played better, but I still took him. Two or three people put up the money for me, and I’m sure he had the same kind of deal. In the end my backers and I split $55,000. My cut was about $15,000.
You didn’t always win?
Of course I lost sometimes. I was playing this guy at Coffin Golf Club in Indianapolis. I was playing him for $5,000, which was a lot of money. I shoot 33 on the front, he shoots 32. On the back nine we play for another $5,000. I shoot 33, he shoots 32. I said, “You know what, my friend? You’re the best.”
Did you meet all kinds of guys while you were hustling?
Pimps, numbers runners, probably some drug dealers, too. Guys came to the golf course with paper bags of money and wads of cash in rubber bands. I used to talk so much trash to them, they just wanted to beat me out of spite.
Had to be some interesting characters.
There was Potato Pie and Possum. None of these guys ever used their real names.
You used yours–a famous one at that.
When I was young I went by Jimmy Lee Thorpe. My Daddy and his brothers all talked about this Indian who was the greatest athlete who ever lived. Then as a kid I saw something on television–when we finally got one–where they took his trophies or something. I was about 18 when I went to get a new birth certificate, and I told them my name was just Jim Thorpe.
Has it worked well for you?
So well I’ve been misidentified many times. I remember playing golf in California one time and an elderly lady walked up to me and said she used to hang out and drink with my “uncle.” I just went along with it and said, “He was a hell of a man who loved his booze.”
What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you over your name?
They gave me a week’s vacation in Jim Thorpe, Pa. In 1984 I had a chance to win the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. I got these letters from some barbers up there, so I sent them some stuff for a golf tournament. They invited me, and when I got there they had bands and parades, all kinds of stuff. Everybody in town must have been there.
Three years earlier, you led the ’81 U.S. Open at Merion after the first round. What do you remember about that?
I remember going there dead broke. No one knew but me. My wife didn’t even know. We had just bought a house in Buffalo [N.Y.]. If they hadn’t had breakfast at the golf course, I would have had to go without. My credit cards were maxed out. I remember being on “Good Morning America” after the first round, because no African-American had led the U.S. Open. I was very calm. In fact, I was never nervous until late in the second round. In retrospect, I played much too aggressively, started hitting my driver off the tee. It was a learning experience. You have to take what the golf course gives you. You can’t force things.
It was another Open, in 1996 at Oakland Hills, where you played with Ian Baker-Finch when he was struggling to break 90. I believe your line was, “If it’d been me out there, there wouldn’t have been any grass left.”
It was almost like a blind man playing golf. He hit 4-iron off the first tee and missed the ninth fairway off to the right. Had to be 150 yards right of where he started. He’d duck-hook it 50 or 60 yards off the tee. I’m saying to myself, “What in the hell has happened to Baker-Finch, man?” I’m talking to the scorer, I’m talking to my caddie, because I haven’t played with Ian in a long time. I just knew he had lost his game. Beautiful golf swing, but he played like a 20-handicapper. Even duck-hooked it out-of-bounds.
At some point you had to feel sorry for him.
You had to. He’s such a nice man. You just can’t figure out what happened. I have nothing against guys who teach the game, but there’s a case of him getting too much instruction.
Ian won a British Open. He won at Colonial. He was a magnificent ball-striker and he was a wonderful putter. Then you get these troubleshooters who want to build the perfect golf swing. The next thing you know he’s got a perfect golf swing, but he can’t break 100.
What happens to guys like Baker-Finch and Chip Beck?
Whenever you change things for the sake of looking good, you’re asking for trouble. An opera singer can’t stand and sing opera by looking pretty. You got to get on down and get it. Same thing with golf.
Two of your three PGA Tour victories were in match play. Why were you so successful in that format when you often had trouble closing the deal in stroke play?
Match play brings out the guy who has guts, and it exposes those who don’t.
Do you like the gamesmanship of match play?
Oh, yeah. I’ll never forget the Tucson event in 1985 when I got paired with Dan Pohl. I had Herman Mitchell caddieing for me. I was 3 up on Dan and giving him the lip. All of a sudden Dan reversed the gamesmanship and broke my concentration. Next thing I know we’re dead even.
On the 16th hole we both chipped to about two feet. He gave me the putt. I was about to do the same when Herman said, “Jim, don’t give him that.” So I just stood there. I could tell by Dan’s body language he was expecting me to tell him to pick it up; let’s go. But I didn’t give it to him, he missed it, and I ended up winning. As I went to the practice tee Herman said, “Man, that’s your game, talkin’ and jivin’, getting into people’s heads.”
What is it about guys like Herman that you can relate to?
You know that old saying, “You can see more from the outside looking in than you can from the inside looking out”? Well, they can see it for some reason. They know when you’re ready and when you’re not ready. They know what to say and what not to say.
Like a jockey?
Right. Like a jockey. Herman knew. He said, “OK, big boy: Bring it on.”
That only works with thoroughbreds. How did you get into horse breeding and racing?
A guy in Buffalo named Alvin Perks–I called him Mr. P.–used to bet horses, and I used to go with him. He’d win $15,000 to $20,000. That was a nice piece of money. The next thing I knew I had bought two or three horses. I fell in love with it.
I made some good money betting horses. I won a trifecta for $52,000 in Columbus, Ohio. I shipped a couple of horses abroad one time. One of them won on a Thursday night and I cashed for $18,000. The other one won on a Friday night, and I cashed for $26,000.
I probably lost a lot of money, too, but I enjoyed it, and I never cried about it. Then one day I had a stakes horse, and Carol and I were driving to where he was racing. Carol was staring out the window. I said to her, “This is stupid, isn’t it?” She said, “Yes.” So I got off the next exit, turned around, got home and sold them all. I had eight at the time.
About two years later I got a bill for $12,000 for a horse that had been dead for four years. I never realized how crooked the business was, especially at the small tracks. So I got out.
But you continued to bet the horses?
Yep. When I was on the regular tour I would go to a lot of racetracks. Not a lot of casinos, but I did go to the racetrack every once in a while. That was my way of relaxing. I wasn’t getting into trouble, wasn’t hurting nobody, wasn’t doing drugs, wasn’t out bar drinking. I get together with some of the guys–Dana Quigley, Ed Dougherty and some others–and go to the casino. It’s not just killing time, it’s a way to relax. Golf can be a grind, and sometimes it’s terrifying. You need some way to block that out.
You like the action?
I love it. Blackjack, craps, the slot machines. When I walk into a casino, I know exactly how much I’m going to lose. If I walk in there with four or five hundred or four or five thousand, I’m not going to lose anything more than that.
Winning is a different story. You want to win as much as you can. I’ve walked into a casino, and in 10 minutes turned around and walked out. Then there were times I went into a casino and stayed for three days.
You’ve said the money you gamble with is discretionary cash.
Found money. I’ll give you a good example. Dana Quigley and I played the Long Island tournament [in 2001]. On Sunday, I told him, “Hey, let’s go to Foxwoods [a Connecticut casino]. I’ll call and get a helicopter.” The thing about it is, we had just done a deal that Monday where we got $7,000 to go out and play 18 holes of golf in a pro-am. The helicopter sent to pick us up, I don’t know what it cost, but it cost us nothing. We had a nice dinner, played the tables three or four hours, dropped about three or four thousand dollars between us, so we got on the helicopter and went back.
I don’t try to hide it from my wife. She knows that the money that I make on the tour and my endorsement checks come directly to her. When I go out there and do Monday outings or a Tuesday shootout or something like that, that’s my money to do with as I please.
Have you ever been envious of Phil Mickelson’s discretionary income and his publicized winnings in Las Vegas on the 2001 Super Bowl and the World Series?
We always talk about what we win, but do we talk about what we lose? As far as I know he’s made two bets.
I love football. I love the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns, but I’m not going to bet $25,000 that they’re going to win a Super Bowl before they go into training camp.
The way I understand it, Phil doesn’t mind betting. If you notice, he takes a lot of chances on the golf course, too. He plays to win. I think that’s good. He entertains himself, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Has the tour ever suggested that you tone down the gambling?
Not really. A couple of players said that we weren’t representing the proper image of the tour. My response to that is that we’re human. We rely on the public and on corporate America, but we’re human beings, and we’re not hurting a soul.
How do you feel about the new plan to popularize the senior tour, including putting microphones on the players?
Hell, that’s bad news for me, man. I’ll be fined every week. If you’re out there playing in a pro-am in a casual atmosphere, being miked is probably OK. But when I’m in the heat of battle, it’s probably not a good idea to have a mike anywhere near me.
Hell, if I said some of the things to the spectators that Trevino says, I wouldn’t be out there.
I understand you taught Vijay Singh a bit about the English language.
I used a few words that are probably not for reading. When [Isao] Aoki first came over, he didn’t know how to curse. So Bob Murphy taught him. Vijay didn’t know how to curse, so I taught him.
Are you looking forward to fans being inside the ropes on the senior tour and answering their questions?
I don’t mind the fans inside the ropes, because you can control that. But I think answering their questions is going to break concentration. Trevino can do that. So can Chi Chi and Fuzzy. But I don’t think Hale Irwin can do it. I know Jim Thorpe can’t do it. Some of us can’t do it and won’t do it.
Miller Barber and Dale Douglass told me when I first came out on the senior tour, “Jim, we’re out here to entertain.” That’s easy to say when you’ve got $10 million or $20 million in the bank. When you’re out here trying to make money, you’re a little more serious.
Hell, I want to kick ass. It’s my time. Guys like Arnie, Trevino and Chi Chi have gotten $40,000 or $50,000 in appearance money to do an exhibition. Jim Thorpe has never gotten that kind of money. I’m going to be more serious. Allen Doyle is going to be more serious. Bruce Fleisher is going to be more serious.
Do you play any big-money games during pretournament rounds?
No. I play a $5 beer bet with [Allen] Doyle, Dougherty and Quigley, but that’s about it. John Jacobs and his crew might get it up to a $25 nassau. Most of those guys have made their money.
At a 1999 senior tour event near Philadelphia, you’re in the pressroom watching Tom Jenkins try to make a seven-footer to force a playoff. You were overheard urging him to “miss it,” which he did not. Then he beat you on the first playoff hole. Bad karma?
I was back there with a bunch of guys having fun. I was miked–ESPN guys–and Bruce Devlin asked me, “Thorpie, what do you think, thumbs up or down?” I responded with a thumbs down. I’m not going to tell you a lie. If he makes it he makes it, but I wanted him to miss it.
If I’m playing golf with you, I can wish or think anything I want and it’s not going to make a difference. I think I was just having fun. I had a chance to win my first senior tour event, and I didn’t want to go to a playoff. Hell, miss it for me, man.
Tom Weiskopf told us this in a Golf
Digest Interview: “Excluding about a dozen guys, [senior tour players] are the most unhappy group of individuals I’ve ever been around in my life. It’s just pathetic. There are guys you see at the end of the day taking the plastic bag you’re supposed to put your golf shoes in and filling it up with beer or soft drinks to take back to their room or to their buddies. They dress in the dark; you see polyester and Western pockets all over the place. And they’re cheap. I’ve watched some of them tip the locker-room attendant, the guy who shines shoes all week long, as little as $20. I mean they drink $30 worth of soft drinks and beer alone. I just couldn’t believe it.” Was Weiskopf right?
There could be some like that. Maybe some of the older guys before I got there. We have guys who tip $500 or $1,000. Of course, we do some of the things he says. I do it today. I’ll grab a plastic bag and put a couple of sodas in it and take them back to the room if I’m going to watch a basketball game or something. Why not? They’re put there for us. I don’t know if any of the guys are cheap. I’ve seen guys walk out with bags of beer, but I don’t pay that close attention to what guys wear. I think Tom was speaking about some of the older guys. Most of us today are pretty solid.
What we need is better marketing. We have stories out there that aren’t marketed. Look at Dana Quigley, the success of Allen Doyle and Bruce Fleisher. John Mahaffey is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever played golf with in my life. He can imitate anybody.
Your brother Chuck played on tour for a time and was quite a character.
A beautiful golf swing. Arnold Palmer once said of Chuck, “Here’s a guy with a million-dollar golf swing and a 10-cent brain.” He didn’t say it out of disrespect, just the truth. Chuck had tons of talent. Beautiful ball-striker. He smoked marijuana and he drank. Women were a major problem for him. He’s been married probably a half-dozen times or more. He was a good-looking guy–tall and lean. Mouth almighty and tongue everlasting.
I’ll never forget, he shoots 70 or 71 in the L.A. Open. And he told the reporters, “I didn’t really come here to play golf, I came to L.A. to be a movie star.” Just running off at the mouth. Somewhere along the way he did the wrong things. I felt there was a lot of talent wasted.
He threw away his career?
Twice. His regular tour career and senior tour career. I felt like if Chuck had another head on his shoulders, with his talent, he could have been a major force. He had all the shots. Chipping, putting, driving–he could drive it as well as anybody walking. Chuck had the most talent of the five brothers, but I was the one who won out there and made a solid living. When a grown man makes mistakes, especially the same mistake over and over again, you just can’t have much sympathy for him.
Did you learn from Chuck’s mistakes?
I learned not to make the same ones. One of the things that has helped me in life is that I’ve never really worried about what other people thought about me. That’s because I’ve never mistreated anybody. I can’t control what other people think. I can’t control what you do.
We might go play tomorrow. You can hit nine trees, and each time it goes in the fairway. I can hit one tree and it goes out of play. That’s the nature of the game. I used to hear guys talk about my golf swing. It’s the only swing I ever had.
Were any players helpful during your development?
I learned a lot of stuff from Lee Trevino, J.C. Snead, Andy Bean. I remember playing with Lee and J.C. at Hilton Head when I was new on tour. The 14th hole is a par 3 across the water, probably no more than an 8-iron. Trevino and J.C. hit 6-iron, eight, 10 feet from the hole.
I knew I was at least a club longer than them, so I hit 7-iron. The ball had a little draw on it and went right over the flagstick. The gallery at the green went like this [swivels his head]. Seemed like the ball never came down. My caddie said, “Man, don’t ever look at what club Lee hits.” Lee said, “Man, I’ve got so many shots.”
And I’ll never forget Sandy Lyle. I was hooking the ball so bad, and Sandy gave me a very nice lesson. I finished second in Phoenix. That was the good thing about the tour–it was like a big, old happy family trying to beat each other. I’ve never seen a fight on the tour, never seen an argument. Of course, there have been discussions over rulings or whatever, but there has always been a lot of respect for one another.
It’s like when we go to a pro-am, they send a bus for us, and J.C. and some of the guys might say, “That’s right, keep on to the back.” I say, “I can deal with it, brother. I’ve been there my entire life. You can’t deal with it.” He says, “Ah, hell, Thorpie, you know I’m just joking.” I say, “I know that.” I can deal with it.
You’re the son of a greenkeeper from Roxboro, N.C. What was it like to grow up black in a white game?
My Dad played a major role in letting his boys know what we were up against. I never went through what Charlie [Sifford], Lee [Elder], Joe Louis and a lot of the other guys went through. There were a lot of nice people at the country club where we grew up. There might have been a lot of racists, too, but I didn’t see it. And we never looked for it.
We weren’t allowed to be on the golf course playing while the members were playing. Later, after the members noticed that some of us could really play, some of them would let us play a few holes. One of them, a guy named Willie Newell, gave me my first set of golf clubs. When I won my first tournament, all he wanted was for me to autograph a dollar and give it to him. He was a heck of a nice guy.
Even at the time of Shoal Creek [the 1990 PGA Championship], I wasn’t there because they didn’t have any black members, I was there because the PGA was paying a million or whatever. I went there to play golf.
You’ve never experienced racism on the golf course?
The pioneers faced a lot of name-calling and death threats; I never experienced any of that.
People might find it hard to believe that you’ve never experienced even covert racism. Ever been mistaken for a caddie?
Even today. “Who you working for?” I say, “Well, I’m lucky enough to be playing.”
Are these fans?
Mostly security people, when you drive up in your courtesy car. Nine times out of 10 I don’t have my credentials. I was playing in a golf tournament years ago in New Orleans and it started to rain. Twenty people must have gone into the clubhouse before me. When I got there, this black guy at the door threw his hand up. I said, “Man, don’t make me have to knock it down. You mean to tell me I’ve been coming in here all week and now this?”
Later on I apologized, because I’m really not that way. I said to him, “Let me tell you what really made me mad: You let 20 or 25 white people come in and didn’t say a word. Then you see me coming in and you damn near want to knock me down.”
Most of the time I smile. One time, though, I was going to West Palm Beach to the missing-kids golf tournament. I always love to go there and listen to Sam Snead tell stories. I was driving 90 miles an hour. Now, I don’t mind getting pulled over, but the cop asked me if the Mercedes I was driving was a rental car. I said, “No, I’m lucky enough to own this one.”
Have you ever had any host clubs on the senior tour that made you feel a little uncomfortable?
No. I think they all have made me feel comfortable. I will say, the first time I played Augusta National  I was very uncomfortable.
Were you treated well there?
They treated me well. Hord Hardin used to run it. When I went to registration there was a note for me to come back to his office. He talked a little bit about it, told me if I had any problems to see him. I never had any problems. I was there to play golf.
Why isn’t there a black-owned and -operated country club?
I just don’t think as a race of people we’re united enough. If I’m wrong, God forgive me, but we’re like crabs in a basket. As soon as one of us climbs up to the top, another one will reach up and pull us back down. We have a lot of resources. I would join a black country club; I wouldn’t care where it was. Someone has to make the initial steps. We can make it work. Hopefully one day Tiger will do it.
I’m sure there are clubs that discriminate against minorities and women. I’ve been to one golf course–somewhere in Virginia, I think–with three friends, and they told us we couldn’t play. I cared so little about it that I barely remember it.
On the other side of the coin is Champions Golf Club in Houston. Jackie Burke Jr. runs it. He says you come to that club and give him a check for $20,000, he wouldn’t care what damn color you are. That’s the way I look at it.
I believe there are a lot of opportunities. We just have to take advantage of it.
With all that Tiger has done, why are there fewer blacks than ever on the PGA Tour? We’ve been trying to figure that out. Golf requires a lot of hard work. You have to get it yourself. The thing that shocks me and most of the other African-American guys like Charlie Sifford, Jim Dent and Calvin Peete is that I don’t think they want it bad enough. When I first came on tour there were 10 or 12 guys playing.
I remember one time we were on a bus in Hilton Head, S.C., where I was the first alternate. I was complaining about that a little. J.C. Snead said, “Hell, just play better.” That made a lot of sense to me.
You think it’s as simple as blacks not wanting it bad enough?
Put it this way: Instead of looking at the downside of things, when you walk into the fairway and find your drive in a divot, look on the positive side. Figure out a way to knock it on the green. You got to show before you go.
Then there’s the access issue. It’s very easy to grab three or four guys and go to the basketball court or go to a batting cage and pay $3 to hit 100 balls. You can’t do that in golf. You’ve got a $30 green fee looking at you. We need to introduce golf into the schools. We need our own facilities–hotel, golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools–so we can teach our own kids. We need funding for the kids who can’t afford to pay for it. You can send your child there for six weeks during the summer and we’ll teach them golf.
Do you think the tour is doing enough to promote minority involvement in the game?
I think the tour is doing what it can. Parents have to play a major role to make the First Tee program work. They have to take the kids there and get involved in the program themselves. I wish I knew the answer, but it’s just not there.
One of the things that has hurt us is that we don’t have caddie programs anymore. Very few golf courses have caddies, and that’s the way most of us learned the game.
What do you think of Earl Woods?
He’s a hell of a guy. What he did for Tiger, I think he did a magnificent job.
Both Earl and Vijay have told us that Fuzzy Zoeller got a bum rap because of his comments about Tiger at the ’97 Masters. Do you agree?
I’ve known Fuzzy since 1972. I was not offended, even though it was something that probably shouldn’t have been said. People who know Fuzzy knew he was just making a joke. But it was a bad joke.
They say that if it comes out of your mouth it’s somewhere in your heart.
They say that, but I believe there are exceptions. I think what offended most people was the “whatever the hell they serve.” I don’t think he meant harm, but it was a bad thing to say.
What’s your take on Tiger?
To me, Tiger Woods is the fruit of the seeds that guys planted years ago. The stage was set for him. And he was ready when he came.
In the early ’90s you were one of the few African-Americans on the PGA Tour. How did that feel?
For a guy like me who never looked at black and white, I still recognized I was carrying the banner. I missed the conversations with the guys. I thought about being one of the only blacks out there, but I was determined to hold the torch until someone else got out there.
When Tiger came along and took the torch and ran with it, I think a lot of us were hurt when he refused to say he was an African-American. Hell, he was our complexion, and he could have said, “Yes, I’m an African-American.”
You and Tiger cool?
Yep. We talk a little bit. He calls me “Old Man.” I tell him, “Keep living–you’ll get there, brother.”
Who’s the best player you’ve ever seen?
I have to say Jack Nicklaus, because he has the record. I have to say Tiger, because he’s going to break the record. But until he gets 19 majors, it’s still the Bear.
I remember as a rookie sitting on the back of the range and watching Weiskopf, Trevino, Miller, all these guys hit balls. Then Nicklaus would come, and there was something different. He brought that intimidation with him. You could see it in his walk, the way he looked at you, the way he stared down the fairway. He went through the same routine, the same wiggles and waggles that he did on the golf course. Boy, you could tell he came ready. That was the difference.
I’ve seen a lot of great players who didn’t win golf tournaments. We had a lot of black players who were great players, players born before their time–Teddy Rhodes, James Black, my brother Chuck, my brother Elbert, Willie Brown.
The record doesn’t show it, but we had so many great black golfers before I came on the tour, guys who played the chittlin’ tour. Guys like Gordon Chavis, Howard Wheeler, Lefty Brown.
Best wedge player I ever saw was Lefty Brown. I swear to you, this guy could hit wedge shots from 40 or 50 yards and you could not hear them land on the green. We were in a hotel room one time, and Lefty was chipping. Every chip would drop within an inch of the other. He’d say, “Guys, tell me when it gets to a point where you can’t hear them.”
Another black guy named George Wallace, who we called Potato Pie, had the greatest short game I’ve ever seen. He could get it up and down from anywhere. He was the first guy I saw chip with 4-irons and 5-irons. Then when he had to stop it, he’d lay that wedge open and draw that thing back.
Who’s the best player you’ve beaten?
Jack Nicklaus, in 1985 at Milwaukee. Six weeks prior to that I had lost to Scott Verplank at the Western Open. I had not won on the regular tour to that point. I don’t know if Scott as an amateur felt as much pressure as I did trying to win a first PGA Tour event. Scott did everything he had to do to keep me from winning. I was very happy at that point, though. He got the trophy, and I got the money, which I really needed–I would have made the trade, anyway.
Six weeks later in Milwaukee I teed off on Sunday with a one-shot lead. I shot 62 on Saturday. Jack played a very good round on Saturday, too. So I’m up by two on Jack and and one on Jeff Sanders. I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep that night.
I had a guy working for me by the name of Big Lee Walker. When I got to the golf course Sunday, Big Lee asked me how I felt. I told him I felt pretty good. He said, “Don’t worry about Nicklaus. We’re just going to play the golf course.” When I made a par on 14, I knew I had a three-shot lead. I told Big Lee Walker, “If I can’t win from here, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Your family has been very supportive from Day One. How important is that support to a professional athlete?
There’s nothing like unity. I can call home whether I’ve shot 80 or 65 and there’s always a positive answer. My wife and I have been together 28 years. She’s taken care of my daughters and my home. We’ve talked on the phone for hours at night, and it never really dawned on me how much work she does. I took everything for granted.
And my daughters have been very supportive. When Tom Jenkins beat me in that playoff, I called home, and my daughter asked me how I did. I said, “Ah, that sucker beat me in a playoff.” She said, “You’ll get him the next time.” When I beat him at the Kroger last year, the first thing she said was, “Dad, you got that sucker back.”
How long to do you hope to play, and what do you want your legacy to be?
In golf we play as long as we can. As long as I’m competitive, I’m going to play. I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “How do you want to be remembered?” Well, we’ll all be remembered for something. Hell, if I’ve got something [criticism] coming, I want it now. Don’t wait and stand over me when I’m still and can’t defend myself and tell me what a jerk I was. Let me know now.
I’d like for people to say, “Jim was a funny guy. Jim was a great guy, a guy who shared what he had and kept what he needed.”
What about as a player?
I’d like to be remembered as a guy who knew the game and respected it, someone who played it to the best of his ability. No, I’ll never be an Arnold Palmer or a Jack Nicklaus or a Tiger Woods. But I was part of a magnificent game, one that could only be controlled by the person pulling the trigger.
That’s the one thing I enjoy about golf: There’s no such thing as backing up or second chances. The decision you make on a 7-iron shot is the final decision. You can’t snatch it out of the air and hit it again. I’d like to be remembered as a guy who enjoyed the camaraderie and had a lot of fun. It’s been a magnificent ride. I have no regrets.
In his book Just Let Me Play, Charlie Sifford said that he played golf all these years and he still believes there’s no place in the game for a black man. Do you agree?
I disagree. Maybe in Charlie’s day that might have been true, but now people applaud when you hit a good shot, no matter who you are. We belong in this game.
Does the game owe you anything?
No way. This game has given me and my family more than we ever dreamed of. Don’t owe me a thing.
Got a question for Jim Thorpe that we didn’t ask? E-mail us at email@example.com and we’ll follow up in a future issue. For highlights from previous Golf Digest Interviews, please visit www.golfdigest.com/features.
RELATED ARTICLE: The Thorpe File
Born: Feb. 1, 1949; Roxboro, N.C.
Residence: Heathrow, Fla.
Weight: 200 pounds.
Family: Wife, Carol; daughters Sheronne (24) and Chera (13).
Turned professional: 1972.
SENIOR TOUR VICTORIES (4):
2000–The Transamerica, Gold Rush Cl.
2001–Kroger Senior Cl., Allianz Ch.
PGA TOUR VICTORIES (3):
1985–Greater Milwaukee Open, Seiko/Tucson Match Play Ch.
1986–Seiko/Tucson Match Play Ch.
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COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group