It requires patience to understand Philamon Webster Rodgers, or Phil Rodgers-Perdido Bay, as The Professional Golfers' Association lists him. Rodgers (see cover) is 24, with crew-cut blond hair, a face full of freckles and a stomach that gently overlaps his belt. He looks a lot like Jack Nicklaus, so much so that people are always coming up to him and saying, "Hi, Jack." This bugs him. He believes it should be the other way around—but Phil Rodgers would think that, for he is the brashest, loudest, cockiest man in golf.
Rodgers has spent only one full year on the pro tour, but he wouldn't hesitate to tell Arnold Palmer what is wrong with his swing. "I have a mental picture of everyone's swing," he says. "I can tell when a guy is off." Rodgers offers such pronouncements in the kind of booming voice usually reserved for shouting "Fore!" When he says "Good morning" it sounds more like a challenge than a greeting. He has an unsettling habit of interrupting people in mid-sentence with "huh?" or "what?" and his language has made many a gallery blush.
As for his golf game, it is good and he doesn't mind saying so. On the final day of the 1962 Los Angeles Open someone asked one of the pros if he thought Rodgers, who was leading the tournament, might feel the pressure. "Heck, no," said the pro. "He won't feel a thing because he thinks he's three times better than he really is." Rodgers, as if to prove the point, shot a record-breaking 62 to win.
What annoys some pros most of all is that this year Phil Rodgers may be every bit as good as he thinks he is. In 1962 he earned $32,000, 11th best on the circuit. He won tournaments in Los Angeles and Tucson, and finished third in both the British Open—where the press was highly critical of his bumptious behavior—and the U.S. Open. He might very well have won the U.S. Open, where he was only two strokes back, had his tee shot on the 17th hole in the first round not landed in a spruce tree. The ball was stuck in a branch about waist-high and Rodgers, rather than take a two-stroke penalty, elected to swing at it with his sand iron. Three swings later the ball was still nestled in the branch. On the fourth swing it fell, and Rodgers finished the hole with an 8. Now, months later, he can laugh about the incident. He even considered sending Christmas cards showing a golf ball wedged in the branches of a Christmas tree.
January 14, 1963
A vicious game
Though Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open, members of the PGA are divided as to which of the two, Rodgers or Nicklaus, was the best rookie on the pro tour. "Rodgers has more shots," says Bob Goalby. "And he's got confidence you can't believe."
"I've never seen a player with more innate ability," says Paul Runyan, a former PGA champion. Runyan, who teaches at the La Jolla (Calif.) Country Club, is one of the few people whose advice Rodgers will follow. "You play best when you're vicious, Philip," Runyan said to him recently. "If you must wear your cockiness on your sleeve to play well, then do it."
Rodgers is not a big hitter like Nicklaus or Palmer, but he is straight, and long enough. It is his short game, however, that makes him a winner. "That little man can knock down a chip shot or one of those tough putts as well as anybody," says Howie Johnson, a touring pro. "He hasn't been out here long, but he's learned real quick."
Learn he has, but not through any great camaraderie with his fellows. He has few close friends, and when he is on the tour he usually rooms by himself. "I'm the Lone Ranger," he says. "I like to stay in my room, watch television and go to sleep when I want to. I even order dinner in my room."
Food is important to Rodgers, and he eats with intensity. "He's an absolute glutton," says Paul Runyan. "His weight is the only thing that could keep him from being a great golfer." Rodgers is only 5 feet 8—"I'm really 5 feet 7¾," he says, "but 5 feet 8 sounds a lot taller"—and he weighs between 180 and 200 pounds. A typical Rodgers breakfast is juice, fried eggs, a steak, hashed brown potatoes and toast. When he has finished, he will pat his stomach and say, "Agh! I feel like a blimp, fat and sassy."
Runyan recalls sharing a room with Rodgers in Rochester during the 1956 U.S. Open. Rodgers was 18 and an amateur, and Runyan wanted to help Phil cut down on expenses. "I needed a room anyway," says Runyan. "All Phil had to pay was the difference between a single and double, about $2. We ate together every night and I never saw anything like it. My bill would come to $3. Phil's would be about $7. He'd eat everything in sight, shrimp, fruit cocktail, steak—enough for three people. Then he'd lie awake at night burping and belching and wonder why he couldn't sleep."
Overeating hurt Rodgers' golf game during the latter half of 1962. "I had gout," he says. "My toes started to swell. Too much rich food." To get in shape for the 1963 tour he started on a training program of careful eating, calisthenics and running on the beach outside his home—an absolutely Spartan regimen by his standards.
Rodgers lives in a sunny apartment in Mission Bay Park near San Diego. (Perdido Bay in Florida pays Phil to endorse its name. As yet it doesn't even have a golf course.) In the apartment he has a stereophonic record player that he likes to turn up to full volume and that he leaves on when he goes out. He has a bed as wide as a fairway, a bureau full of cashmere sweaters—22 of them at last count—and an ice bucket with party gags written on it, one of which is: "Try being nice to a girl and what does it get you—married." Rodgers is single.
He also owns a blue Thunderbird that he enjoys driving at dazzling speeds through the La Jolla hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He hopes to build a house in the hills when he has quit the tour. "I want a yacht, too," he says. "Not a little one, a big one. And I want to learn to fish. I've never had much time for that."
Rodgers has never had much time for anything but golf. His father, Harry Rodgers, was always an avid golfer, and Phil, tagging along on trips to the driving range, started early. When he was 8 his father took him to Presidio Hills, a pitch-and-putt course in San Diego owned by a leathery little pro named Al Abrego. Rodgers is left-handed, but Abrego taught him to swing right-handed, probably after some argument. "He was always a positive boy," says Abrego. "Very sure of himself. He wanted to do everything his way. But he was smart, too. Whenever he saw a good player he watched him closely to see what he could learn."
Phil spent the long afternoons of his youth playing and replaying the 18 short holes at Presidio Hills, and this is probably the reason his short game is exceptional. "He was crazy about golf," says Abrego. "He was always the last one to leave." Phil kept a club by his bed that he swung before going to sleep and upon waking up. He hit practice shots by the hour, his father doing the shagging. When he was 10, his father entered him in his first tournament. Phil can still remember his scores—116, 110, 112, 110—and most of the shots he hit. At 11 he won his first tournament. "The trophy was bigger than Phil was," recalls Harry Rodgers.
His parents were divorced when he was 16 and he and his younger brother stayed with their mother, but Phil's father still dominated his golf career. "His father was nervy enough, or interested enough, to see that Phil always played with good players," says Paul Runyan. Harry Rodgers' intense interest may have helped Phil's golf game, but it created friction between the two. Phil still sees his father, but the relationship obviously is cool.
Newspaper clippings from a collection of scrapbooks his mother keeps describe Phil's progress: SAN DIEGO'S NEWEST GOLF STAR...IN THE TRADITION OF BILLY CASPER, GENE LITTLER AND MICKEY WRIGHT. There are RODGERS WINS clips, first about state, then out-of-state tournaments. And finally there are clips about the really important tournaments, the National Collegiate, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open.
Scare 'em and beat 'em
In those same stories, adjectives begin to appear describing the young man, words like brash, bold, cocky. "I used to act cocky on purpose," he says. "I figured I could scare the other kids. I thought I could make them want to beat me so much they'd play bad." It is said that when Phil arrived in Columbus, Ga. for the 1955 International Jaycee tournament, he announced to a crowded clubhouse porch that he would be the winner and that everyone else might as well go home. Rodgers denies this. "A reporter asked me how I expected to do and I told him I expected to win," he says. Rodgers did win, too, by one stroke. "It should have been 10 strokes," he now adds. "I had a lousy last round."
That same year Phil overslept on the first day of the Nevada Junior golf championship. He phoned the golf club. "I'll be a little late for my starting time," he said jauntily. "I'll be there just as soon as I get dressed and have a bite to eat." He was told to be on the first tee in 11 minutes or else he would be withdrawn from the tournament. Rodgers made it in nine, shoelaces untied, munching on a doughnut.
It was in the 1957 National Amateur in Brookline, Mass. that breezy Phil got involved in one of his more unpleasant incidents. He was playing Bob Roos, a San Francisco amateur. On the 12th hole Roos drove down the middle of the fairway, Rodgers into the rough. "Phil took out a wooden club," recalls Roos. "He banged it down in the rough about three or four times. Now I could see the ball. He took out another wood and again banged it down a few times. Then he hit the ball well out on the fairway. I hit my shot and then went over to him. 'I'm sorry, Phil,' I said, 'but I have to call the hole on you. You improved your lie.' He thought it over a minute and then very graciously answered, 'You're right. Bob.' As we walked toward the green, I said, 'Phil, there are people around the green and there is no reason to stir up questions. We might as well hit up and play through for fun.' He agreed this would be wise. We both hit close to the pin and I picked up the balls. Then he challenged me. 'You can't have the hole, because you didn't hole out,' he said. I protested, but eventually we had to call the USGA officials. They ruled in my favor." Rodgers had been willing to give up the hole on the technical possibility that he might have improved his lie, but having been given a chance to get it back on another rule interpretation, he couldn't resist trying.
Nor does Rodgers hesitate to rule against himself. Last year in the Masters, playing with Byron Nelson, Rodgers penalized himself a stroke when his ball took a half turn as he was about to hit it. "I never saw it move," said Nelson. "That showed me what kind of man he is." And in the U.S. Open, Rodgers thought he should be penalized an additional stroke on the disastrous 17th hole because the ball falling from the spruce tree hit the shaft of his club. Joe Dey, the USGA official, ruled otherwise.
After he finished high school Rodgers entered the University of Houston, a sort of training camp for aspiring pro golfers. In his one varsity season, 1958, he won all three college tournaments he entered—the Border Olympics, Missouri Valley Conference and National Collegiate. "Phil knew more about golf than any kid we've ever had here," says Coach Dave Williams. "But I couldn't understand him. I never knew what the guy was going to say. After he beat Deane Beman in the second round of the National Collegiate in Williamstown, Mass. I went up to shake hands with him. 'That's the last time that'll ever happen,' he yelled to me. 'What do you mean, Phil?' I asked. 'That's the last time I'll ever be over par on this track,' he said. It was, too, and that course has 60 traps."
Rodgers dropped out of Houston and joined the Marines in 1959, but not exactly to see the world. He spent most of his two service years in San Diego playing golf. He turned pro while he was still a Marine and played in a few minor tournaments, but did not join the tour until he was discharged in mid-1961.
Rodgers' Marine duty did little to curb his attitude or his temper, as the pros quickly found out. "He uses some pretty strong language without bothering to see who might be listening," Arnold Palmer once said. One such instance was at the U.S. Open last year. Rodgers had just finished the 13th hole on the final round. "It was the hole that beat me," says Rodgers. "I had just chipped in at 12 and I needed six pars to win. I was all keyed up and I tried to get fancy with my tee shot. I stuck it in a trap, came out six feet from the pin, but missed the putt and ended up with a bogey 4."
As Rodgers came off the green he unleashed a torrent of words that would have shocked a drill sergeant, to say nothing of the sedate gallery at Oakmont. "It's a bad habit of mine," he admits. "I'm trying to break it. When I get hot, I've just got to let it out. Then it's gone."
When Rodgers turned pro he handed over his business affairs to Ted Woolley, a tall, robust man in his early 60s. Woolley is president of Golfcraft, a manufacturer of golf clubs in Escondido, Calif. Rodgers, along with Doug Ford, Lloyd Mangrum and a few other pros, endorses Golfcraft clubs. Woolley also advises Rodgers what tournaments to enter and what other products to associate himself with. Woolley collects Phil's earnings, banks them, and doles out a weekly salary to him. But, above all, Woolley is a friend, a mature influence on a young man.
"I don't think Phil's ill-mannered," says Woolley, "although some people will try to talk me out of it. He's a lonely kid, and I think he needs someone to look out for him. You know what's behind all that bluster of his? Insecurity. He's immature and he's got a lot of growing up to do.
"I'll tell you the sort of thing Phil's apt to do. He got back from Singapore recently and came into the office. He didn't shake hands; he just stood there in the doorway as if he'd been away five minutes. I think he was embarrassed to show any emotion. If it is really defiance he is showing, then it should be kicked out of him. Sooner or later he's got to learn that the world doesn't owe Phil Rodgers a living."
Woolley is rough or gentle with Rodgers, depending on the situation. Recently Phil was angry when it looked as if the PGA would keep him from playing in the Mexican Open. "They can't tell me what to do," he grumbled. "Look," Woolley told him. "If they told Mr. Palmer and Mr. Snead what to do, they can tell you." Later Phil asked him if he could have a new golf umbrella he saw in Woolley's office. "We only give these to good players, Phil," Woolley told him, "but we'll make an exception in your case."
Rodgers has another friend in his secretary, Mrs. Beverley Mungle. She pays Rodgers' bills, answers his mail and makes his reservations when he is on tour. "All I do is play the golf," Phil says. It is at home with her and her husband. Chuck, that Phil appears most at ease. He will wander in at almost any time of day, check the icebox for a soft drink, slouch into an easy chair and disappear behind a newspaper. Mrs. Mungle, like Woolley, takes no funny business from him. Once recently, when Rodgers was slumped behind the paper, she asked him a question. He mumbled his reply. "What did you say?" she asked. He mumbled again. She got up from the couch, reached over the top of the paper, grabbed Rodgers by the hair and pulled hard. "Philamon Webster," she demanded, "what did you say?"
That's the way to handle Phil Rodgers. Despite all the loud talk and superficial bravado, despite all the bluster that may or may not be designed to rattle opponents and win golf tournaments, despite being the Lone Ranger and seeming to like it, this is a pleasant young man when he wants to be. Whenever he tries to be anything else, someone should give his hair a good yank.