Twice in the past four years, while the Palmers, Hogans and Sneads have competed in vain, the venerable and much esteemed Professional Golfers' Association championship has been won by one or the other of a pair of personally engaging and remarkably different brothers from the Cajun country of Louisiana.
In 1957 the PGA, one of the big three of U.S. golf tournaments (the others: the Masters and U.S. Open), went to 29-year-old Lionel Hebert, a development that shocked him as well as everyone else, since it was only his first full year on the tour. A short, plump extrovert, Lionel had then, and still has, the exuberance of a hound dog, the glibness of a southern senator and the rhythm of Dixie in his bones. He would, he has admitted, rather be a trumpet player in a jazz band than a golfer. He has tried both professions; golf pays better.
Last July, Lionel's older brother, Jay, then 37, also won the PGA. A tall, slim introvert with a tropic tan, a marine-straight stride and a dazzling smile, Jay has more the look of a TV western hero than a successful golf competitor. He is the tour's handsomest player and its most eligible bachelor ("I could just pass out," said a blonde, gawking at him during this year's Open). But the smile conceals an unrelenting determination to win. Jay's 1960 PGA victory caused far less wonderment than Lionel's earlier one, for Jay is one of the best, if least known, of the top touring professionals.
Next week, at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago, the PGA will hold another championship, its 43rd. As usual, the logical favorite will be Arnold and the sentimental choices will be Ben and Sam. But don't be surprised if you are carefully informed next week that the winner pronounces his name A-bear.
July 23, 1961
Junius Joseph (commonly Jay, but occasionally Pierre) and Lionel Paul (Frenchy) Hebert come from the crayfish and camellia country of southern Louisiana, where half the population is of French Canadian descent. Their home town, Lafayette, lists 275 Heberts in its phonebook, an Hebert (F. Edward) represents them all in Congress and more than one business advertises its name with a large A and the drawing of a bear to portray graphically the proper French pronunciation of the Hebert name.
Golf's Heberts were the sons of an easygoing Lafayette peace officer, two-term sheriff and sometime politician, Gaston Hebert, who died six years ago. "Pop was a good provider, but no saver," remembers Lionel. "Mom was a typical Cajun farm girl, always putting aside for a rainy day." She taught her sons to work and to expect rain. "I can't remember when I didn't have two jobs," says Lionel.
A gambler's advice
One of the jobs, as it was with Jay also, was caddying at the nine-hole city golf course, a frugal municipal operation where the rough was allowed to grow until it could be mowed for hay and where caddies were permitted to play free one day a week in return for hours of weeding greens.
Lafayette had fewer golfers (50) than caddies (100), at least part of this lack of interest in outdoor sport being accounted for by the area's liberal attitude toward gambling houses. Jay caddied regularly for a prosaic enough local man, a railway clerk, but Lionel's steady customer was a well-regarded professional gambler. "He paid me 50¢ for 18 holes and taught me that I should not bet," recalls Lionel.
Jay played his first golf in the family cow pasture, cutting his own oak shafts to fit into a battered iron head and hitting balls as the cow walked to the barn. Later, when he was 13, he and a group of five caddies traded several dozen golf balls they had found for an unbroken club, a driver.
"We called the driver our community club," says Jay. "One day it was my turn to take it home. I had it in the barn while I was milking my cow, Beauty. I guess Lionel was about 8. He's standing there swinging the community club when my pail fills up. 'Get a pail,' I told Lionel. 'The hell with you, I'm playing golf,' Lionel said. I grabbed for him, and he took the community club and smashed it against the barn. Lionel was a hot-tempered kid."
In spite of such an informal golf upbringing, Jay became, and remained, dedicated to the game. When he was 17 he shot a 60 to set a course record in a city tournament. He started college, then served four years with the Marines in World War II. At Two Jima he was a lieutenant; he was wounded in the left leg after 21 days on the island and spent a year in the hospital. Jay then went to Louisiana State University, graduating in 1948. In 1949 he turned professional, as he always knew he would.
Lionel was quite a different cut of Hebert. "We had two uncles move in with us during the high water in 1929," remembers Jay. One was a drummer, the other, Bill Landry, a trumpet player. The Mississippi receded, but the uncles stayed. "Lionel was always fooling with Uncle Bill's horn," says Jay. "By the time he was 7 he could blow it pretty good. In fact, Lionel was a kid who could always do everything right off. He drove the car when he was 8."
At 10 Lionel had an accident that led him to develop one of golf's worst grips. Playing hide-and-seek, he fell out of a camphor tree. He broke his left arm and injured the wrist. The wrist never healed properly. To protect it, he was forced to turn his left hand beneath the club when he gripped it, keeping the hand from functioning properly in the swing. Chronically tender for years, the wrist was worse in cold weather, getting so sore Lionel couldn't even hold a club, much less swing it.
Like Jay, Lionel attended LSU, but as a music major. He began playing professionally in his uncle's band, became a sign painter, an interior decorator of sorts and a clothing salesman. He served with the Army in 1948 in Yokohama, running a Post Exchange, three beer gardens and, naturally, founding a jazz band.
When he returned to Lafayette, Lionel married pretty Belle Crochet, a local Cajun girl, but he still had no career. Almost casually, though fortunately, Lionel had kept up with his golf, finishing second in the state amateur in 1949. About this time Jay came home from his first year as an assistant professional under Lew Worsham at the plush Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh. Jay had discovered something. "Golf up there isn't anything like it is down here," he told Lionel. "It's the difference between a little country store and the Maison Blanche in New Orleans." Convinced, Lionel, too, turned professional, going to Pittsburgh's Westmoreland Country Club as an assistant to Johnny Bulla.
At the time they became professionals the Heberts knew virtually nothing about competitive golf. They had necessarily taught themselves the game—at 13 they could beat their local pro. They had played in barely a handful of state-level tournaments and won none.
"Say it takes eight years to learn the skills you need to win tournaments," says Jay. "Fellows like Palmer, Littler and Venturi had those years behind them almost by the time they were out of college. At 25 they were finished competitors. Lionel and I had to learn after we turned professional."
By 1956, at the late age of 33, Jay was ready to join the tour. He had applied his characteristic meticulousness to the development of one of the most stylish and flawless swings in golf. He was soon the best long-iron player on the tour. He also became an unusually good manipulator of the ball, hooking, fading, hitting shots high or low as the occasion demanded. Perhaps he overdoes it. "Jay always tries to hit the 100% perfect shot," says one of the game's very best players. "If he had one simple, safe shot he could absolutely depend on in a very critical situation he would win more and finish second less."
Which brings up a sensitive point. Jay's winnings have averaged $33,500 a year for the past three years. He was the fifth-leading money winner in 1960. His average of strokes per round was 70.65 in 1959, the third-best on the tour. Yet he has inexplicably won only six tournaments in six years, while finishing second 16 times.
Sometimes, to be sure, Jay had bad luck. He lost a tournament to Ken Venturi when Venturi's ball hit a rake in a sand trap on the last hole and bounced out of the bunker onto the green. He lost the 1958 Canadian Open when Wes Ellis Jr. birdied four of the last six holes, and he lost last year's Tournament of Champions when he broke the course record at Las Vegas, only to have Jerry Barber break it even more.
"It may be that Jay gets himself too keyed up," says Lionel, "that he hurts himself by trying too hard."
"That's the way I play," answers Jay. "I try to hit every shot the best way I know how, no matter where I stand in a tournament. Then at the end I total up my strokes and say to myself, 'Jay, old man, that's the best you could do!"
Now, at 38, even Jay may be getting a little tired of his self-imposed mental discipline. No top professional plays in more tournaments than he does: "I have no family, no hobbies, and nothing else to do." But he is not completely happy doing it. "When I started I couldn't see having a woman to support because I knew how tough this tour golf was going to be," he said recently in a moment of locker room introspection. "Now I should be married. I'd like to be. You meet a lot of girls out here, but they aren't the kind you want to marry. This is really a gypsy life—lonely. You can't like it."
A golfing Gleason
Meanwhile, he has taken to reading—recently and significantly, that ego-worshiper, Ayn Rand, and Durant's The Pleasures of Philosophy—invested his sizable savings in bowling alleys, real estate and stocks and decided, "I'm going to enjoy myself a little more."
Lionel however, is enjoying himself as he goes along. Jay, after a defeat, thinks the sun won't rise tomorrow, but Lionel knows the sun is always shining. With his Jackie Gleason build and spirit, he jocks his congenial way across the golf scene.
"In you go, Susie Q," he will say gleefully as he drops a putt. Or, "Man, I sautéed that iron!" Gastronomical expressions come easily from this 5-foot 8-inch fellow who weighs 195 pounds and revels in good food. His enthusiasm is warming and infectious. Watching him play, you find yourself hoping very much that he will do well.
Since joining the tour, Lionel has won only two tournaments besides the PGA, and one of these was the $15,000 Cajun Classic in his home town of Lafayette. (Jay has also won this tournament; it is now known on the tour as the Hebert Benefit). Yet Lionel is a fine wood player and has an unusually good pivot for a man of his build. Though he is considered to be playing below his potential, he is improving.
One reason is that he has, at last been able to remedy the weakness in his grip. A Pittsburgh doctor "put my hands and feet in buckets of water, and turned on the electricity," says Lionel. "It felt like having a million needles stuck in you." A summer of these treatments, which either cured his wrist or shocked Lionel senseless, left him able to put his left hand on the club properly. Jay has since been helping Lionel with his long irons, the poorest part of Lionel's game (he had been flinching as the clubhead tore into the turf).
In spite of his flamboyant personality, Lionel is a small-town conservative who has never forgotten his mother's financial precepts. He would prefer to spend much more time in Lafayette with his wife and three children—Glenn, 11, Jacqueline, 9, and Mitzi, 4 months—but feels he can't spare many weeks from his source of revenue, the tour. He frets about the heavy expenses of being on the tour ($15,000 a year), worries about losing his ability or health and lectures on the value of insurance at the drop of a putt.
"I am what I call a money player," says Lionel. "Lots of people fool themselves in this world. I try not to. I know deep within myself that I am not a great golfer. So I am careful. I try very hard to make $8,000 or so early in the year. Then I can freewheel a little and play to win if I get close to the top. I feel you have to have that money in the bank to play your best. Otherwise the pressure is too great."
His winnings, which have averaged $17,500 a year, plus his income from endorsements and other sidelines, have enabled him to keep his family and himself in comfortable, if not lavish, style.
Lionel recognizes that golf is only a means to him, while it has been an end to Jay. "Jay won't let anything interfere with his golf," says Lionel. "He won't let you get close to him. He's a funny boy. The older he gets the tougher he gets. My fault is that I am just the opposite. I can't get all revved up about a tournament like he can. I wish I could."
"I don't know how much Lionel suffers inside himself," says Jay. "Frankly, I don't think he suffers much. He can sure fall asleep quicker than any man I know. Now me, I got to lie there and think a little first."
Lionel's attitude is typified by his trumpet playing. If he doesn't bring a trumpet to a golf tournament—he used to carry one that Jimmy Dorsey gave him—somebody always finds one for him. "I love to cater to people, to show them a good time," he says. And he does. During the Las Vegas tournament this year he joined the band each night in the Sky Room at the Desert Inn, taking each trumpet solo with all the fervor that Dixieland jazz demands. "Entertainment. That's how I'd like to make a living," he says.
These two brothers, personally so close that when one of them wins a tournament the other whoops with joy, calls Mom and cries, but still so very different, may now be learning from each other. Jay talks of easing up, and it was Lionel who came storming off the course at the U.S. Open in Jaylike petulance after failing to qualify for the last two rounds. "Is Jay here?" he asked. He was told Jay was waiting in the clubhouse for him. "Well," he said, glaring moodily at the people milling about, paying no attention to him, "it's nice to know somebody cares what happens to you. It's unusual, I assure you." Lionel was mad. He had thought he had a chance to win.
Whether they win or lose, the Heberts are intriguing.
"You ever eat dirty rice?" Jay asked a startled listener the other day.
"No," he was told.
"I wish I had the formula," said Jay. "I'd give it to you right now. My mother fixes it delicious. Her cooking is a cross between French cooking and Italian cooking. Man, that is super cooking. To make dirty rice you grind up liver, pork and beef. You cook it, and cook your rice. Then you put it all together and cook some more. Boil a few crayfish, toss up a salad and bring out that huge bowl of dirty rice. You think you can't feed a heap of folk?
"You got to come down this winter and try it," concluded PGA winner Jay, flashing his brightest smile.
"There is no way you can get better food," said PGA winner Lionel, his smile as broad as Jay's. "No way at all."
Golf got the brothers out of the bayou, but it didn't get the bayou out of the brothers.