Golf's Best Personalities
By John Garrity
According to a song of the 1950s, You've either got or you haven't got style. Another song touts the merits of "PER-son-al-i-ty." The world of tournament golf is as good a laboratory as any to test both propositions, so here's my Top 10 list of male golfers with irresistible personalities.
10. Tony Lema
They called him "Champagne Tony" because he celebrated his victories with magnums of bubbly, and he didn't take offense if you called him a playboy. He was, in the words of Nick Seitz, "a man who went through life at raceway speed." Lema won the British Open and 11 other PGA events between 1962 and '66, and in that span only Arnold Palmer had a more devoted following among golf fans. Lema was only 32 when he died with his wife in a plane crash on July 24, 1966.
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2. Seve Ballesteros
If Ian Fleming had written in Spanish, he could have modeled James Bond on Ballesteros. Seve, a five-time major champion, was bold, dashing, reckless and unabashedly ruthless. "He goes after a golf course like a lion at a zebra," wrote Jim Murray. ("If you ever feel sorry for somebody on a golf course, you better go home," Ballesteros explained. "If you don't kill them, they'll kill you.") But like Bond, Seve had more than a license to kill; he also had an abundance of roguish charm and sex appeal.
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3. Walter Hagen
The Haig was golf's great barnstormer, a self-styled bon vivant who showed up for exhibitions in a dinner jacket with an overnight blonde on one arm and a clingy brunette on the other. (All for effect, he would later claim.) "Golf has never had a showman like him," said Gene Sarazen, his friend and rival. Nor has golf had a freer spender than Hagen, who traveled first class and frequented the finest hotels and eateries. "I never wanted to be a millionaire," he explained in his autobiography. "I just wanted to live like one."
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4. Sam Snead
No golfer between Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods was as iconic as Snead. With his coconut-straw hat and long, syrupy swing, he was the one golfer that even casual fans could identify at a distance or in silhouette. With the help of agent/promoter Fred Corcoran, Snead polished his backwoods persona into a caricature that appealed to fans and marketers alike. "It's called color," wrote Rex Lardner, "and Slammin' Sam Snead has enough color to outfit a couple of rainbow factories."
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5. Lee Trevino
"Super Mex," Trevino will tell you, was just a character he created while winning six majors between 1968 and 1984. "I'm actually a very quiet person off the golf course. I very seldom open my mouth." He'd have a hard time convincing his many fans, who lapped up his folksy aphorisms ("Pressure is playing for $10 when you don't have a dime in your pocket") and lightning-avoidance tips ("Hold up a 1-iron; not even God can hit a 1-iron"). Says Zoeller, "Lee's got more lines than the Illinois Railroad."
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6. Jimmy Demaret
Demaret, left, wore peacock colors when the other pros wore charcoals and whites. He improvised monologues that made Bing Crosby, right, and Phil Harris howl. And if a dance-band leader spotted him in the crowd, he'd graciously take the stage to croon a couple of tunes. "Jimmy's personality was radiant," recalls Ben Crenshaw. "When he entered a room, everybody started having a better time." Demaret had game he was the first three-time winner of the Masters and he had the gift of gab. When told by a tournament director that he couldn't play unless he wore a number on his back, Demaret said, "For that kind of money I'll wear a skirt."
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7. Chi Chi Rodriguez
"You should have seen how little I was as a kid," Rodriguez used to say. "I was so small that I got my start as a ball marker." Fortunately, the little man from Puerto Rico had a flair for showmanship. Who else celebrated a made putt by throwing his hat over the hole? Who else performed a sword dance after a birdie, jamming his putter into an imaginary hilt? There was just one downside to Chi Chi's clowning: it obscured the fact that he was one of the game's most creative shotmakers.
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8. Jumbo Ozaki
Japan's greatest-ever golfer never caught on in the West, but in Japan he is still ichiban, No. 1. He struts about in flamboyant threads that flash and glimmer, leaving sycophants and cowed journalists tumbling in his wake. He's not a big man, but Jumbo has the bearing and menacing smile of a gangster. "He is the Arnold Palmer of Japan," says TV golf analyst Sadao Iwata. "Golfers here dress like him, buy the equipment he plays, and smoke the same brand of cigarettes."
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9. Fuzzy Zoeller
He's the prototypical carefree golfer, so it's hard to believe Zoeller when he says, "There are days when I can hear men tying their shoe laces in the gallery." Zoeller won the 1979 Masters and the 1984 U.S. Open, but he's best known for his casual demeanor and wisecracks. "Maybe Fuzzy plays golf the way everybody should," Dan Jenkins wrote. "Hit it, go find it, hit it again."
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1. Arnold Palmer
"The cameras capture the essence of a person," said legendary TV producer Frank Chirkinian. "They either love you or hate you. And they loved Arnold." And Arnold loved being loved, loved being inside the ropes, loved having everyone's eyes on him as he flicked away his cigarette, hitched his pants, and pulled his club. They called him "the King," and the battalion of fans that followed him was "Arnie's Army." That, friends, is personality.
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