After three straight second-place finishes, the Avis of golf has been taking a little time off. Rex Caldwell, ol' No. 2, which is a lot higher than he ever dreamed he'd be, skipped the Hawaiian and San Diego opens the last two weeks, leaving his speciality—the runner-up finish—to lesser mortals.
With his bell-bottoms flying and his Johnny Cash hairdo, Caldwell has come out of golf's boonies to almost win nearly every tournament he has been in this year. Along the way he has collected a fistful of dollars, exhibited a faceful of emotions on national TV and probably set a record for consecutive not quites, tough lucks and next times.
On Jan. 23 Rex, as in hex, lost a sudden-death playoff to Keith Fergus in the Bob Hope Desert Classic when his first extra-hole tee shot landed under the only tree in the Palm Springs desert. The next week in Phoenix, Caldwell came up short after eight holes of a sudden-death playoff with Bob Gilder. And then three weeks ago, in the Bing Crosby, Caldwell again finished second—tied with Calvin Peete, no dramatics in this one—a deuce behind winner Tom Kite.
Being No. 2 is unfamiliar to someone who in eight years and 275 previous PGA Tour tournaments had finished as high as second only once. And even that was with a partner, Chip Beck, in the 1981 World National Team Championship. Caldwell's shortcoming was that his swing was so bad that when it wasn't causing tendinitis in his left hand, it was responsible for his shanks, a terminal illness in golf. "Nobody ever had any respect for my game," says Caldwell. "Not even me. It's amazing when you find out how easy this game is. For me this run has been a fantasy. I love being a celebrity."
For sure, celebs get asked all sorts of questions, such as: Why do you dress in cowboy boots and hats? Caldwell was also queried about his pass� polyester bell-bottoms. "I like the way they fit," he said.
"We call him Tush Caldwell," confided his friend Jana Little.
"Aaaaaw," said Caldwell. "Why'd you tell 'em that?"
Caldwell, who's 32, is one of pro golf's more unconventional personalities. His father, Tom, was an Air Force supply officer at Vandenberg Air Force Base outside Lompoc, Calif. and Rex played golf at nearby San Fernando Valley State College. After school, he worked for a summer at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Stratton, Vt. It was there that Caldwell, then "a solid four handicap," persuaded another student's father to sponsor him on the mini-tour, and he was on his way.
After two years in the scrubs, he joined the PGA circuit in 1975 and was immediately recognized as a garrulous and humorous anomaly in an ocean of golfing stonefaces. "I'm not your stereotyped golf pro," he says. "I say dirt when it's dirt." He also has a penchant for wearing what he calls "my red pimp hat" at tournaments, and he caused apoplexy when he sported frayed jeans as a rookie.
Frayed nerves are what everyone got over the three consecutive weeks of Caldwell's brushes with victory, a journey enlivened by what he calls his "King Kong routine" of celebration. Certain moments linger: At the Hope he came storming from behind, slam-dunking birdies and all but roaring and beating his chest, to pull ahead of Fergus by a stroke late in the final round. The tournament was his, after all those years carrying a flat wallet. Alas, Caldwell missed a seven-foot putt on the final hole that would have wrapped it up. Now zoom the camera in on Caldwell's face as he watches Fergus line up a birdie putt from 20 feet on the 18th hole. If Fergus misses, which seems likely, Caldwell will make his first victory speech.