The next time you are bunkered by one of those cocktail party golfers, the type who uses a Vardon grip on too many martinis and who boasts how he can putt like Billy Casper and hit sand shots like Gary Player, jolt his ego by asking, "Ah, but can you drive like Jim Dent?" Because nobody can do that. Not even the president of General Motors.
Jim Dent is pro golf's latest Rocket Man. When he gets a good one in his driver's cross hairs it shows up on a NASA scope. Jack Nicklaus once crunched a 325-yard drive and sort of swaggered off to the side while Dent teed up his ball. Then Dent sailed his drive 45 yards past Nicklaus' ball. Pro golfers study Dent on the driving range with the same attention ballplayers used to give Frank Howard in a batting cage.
Right now Dent's game is made up of good news and bad news. The good news is that he can hit the ball 350 yards. The bad news is that he can't always find it. A perfect course for him would be the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Well into his fourth year on the tour, Dent still is struggling to establish himself outside the realm of a sideshow attraction. There are signs he is learning, picking up the nuances of the game and softening his rough edges. He finished second in the Disney World Open in 1972, won $26,000 in 1973 and already has made some $32,000 this year. If he maintains his pace he will become one of the top 60 money-winners and gain an exemption from Monday qualifying for 1975. His best finishes this year have been fifth at Tallahassee, eighth at Philadelphia and 10th at Inverrary. Through last week's American Golf Classic he had made 14 straight 36-hole cuts and cashed checks in 20 of 23 events.
"What you are looking for out here is that one week, that one week that changes your life," says Dent. "Like it did for Rod Curl or for Johnny Miller. Miller won the U.S. Open, and look what it did for him. Made him a different person. That is what everybody hopes for, that one week. And after it happens, you wonder why it took so long. There is a saying: 'You stand in line long enough, your turn will come.' "
Right now the people come to see Jim Dent do his thing, which is destroying the ball. As Dent addresses his tee shot, a sense of expectation runs through the gallery. When the ball takes off, there is a low murmur, as if people cannot believe what they are seeing. Dent's drives regularly travel 300 yards, and there are few par-5 holes that he cannot reach in two. Usually he hits an iron into a par 5, and occasionally he comes upon a par 4 that he can drive. Every couple of years a new big hitter appears on the tour. His general pattern is to hang around a while, go broke and head back to the hometown driving range. But Dent seems likely to stick. There is nothing particularly wrong with the rest of his game; he is not a wretched putter or iron player. He just has to firm up these aspects. "One shot better a tournament would make a big difference," he says.
In a game where the athletes are of normal size, Jack Nicklaus is known as "Big Jack." If you were to walk up to Nicklaus and Dent standing side by side, the inclination would be to call Nicklaus "Jackie" while addressing his companion as "Mr. Dent." Mr. Dent stands 6'2" and weighs 228 pounds. From the waist down he is built like Secretariat. His thighs and hindquarters are huge, and the source of his power.
Jim Dent grew up in circumstances as close and yet as far away from golf as they could be. He was raised poor in Augusta, the home of the Masters. There were eight children in the Dent family, and his mother died when Jim was 10 years old. His father died five years later. Jim's older brother Paul caddied at the Augusta National Golf Club—he once carried President Eisenhower's bag—and it was only natural for Jim to caddie there, too.
During the early mornings in the summer the Augusta National caddies would sneak over to the adjoining Augusta Country Club, and there, back in a corner of the country club layout, they would filch a few holes of golf in the universal manner of caddies. Dent remembers what those rounds were like. "One guy would have a wood, one would have a five-iron, one would have a seven-iron, one a putter. We'd all switch around. Nobody had a full set of clubs in those days. And you had to play quick."
Dent played the Augusta National course only once. Each year the club allows its caddies to golf there on the day after the course is closed for the season. Dent remembers that he played with a friend who one-putted every green by simply "giving" himself every putt. "I didn't putt as well as he did," says Dent. "I must have shot about a 90."
When he was 17 Dent left Augusta. Even though he had several college football scholarship offers, he felt his future was elsewhere. He told Emerson Boozer, a high school teammate, "While you're going to college, I'll be workin'. I'll be so far ahead of you when you get out, you'll never catch up." The two still chuckle over that. "I see Emerson every once in a while, and he's always got that Super Bowl ring on," says Dent.
Dent worked nights in Atlantic City, N.J. as a busboy and waiter, and played golf during the day. "My ambition was to get to Los Angeles," he remembers. "One day I got up, and it was just a beautiful morning. The sun was shining. It was warm. I said, This is it.' I went down and gave my boss two weeks' notice, and I was on my way to L.A. Out there I played golf every day, worked nights, and I heard about this real-estate man named Mose Stevens. They said he helped out young golfers. So I looked him up."
Stevens decided Dent had potential, and still is his sponsor. During his early days as a pro, Dent would practice in the mornings, play in the afternoons and practice some more at a lighted par-3 course at night. He played the United Golf Association tour during the summer, the same black tour that spawned Lee Elder. "Lee was tops in those days," says Dent. "We would get what was left over. It was like we were playing for second all the time. I think one year he won 21 out of 23 tournaments. I used to read the papers about the big tour. You'd see people shooting 75-76-78, and you'd say to yourself, 'Hey, that is easy. I can do that.' And then I found out how easy it wasn't."
Flustered and perplexed, Dent missed qualifying in his first two attempts to get his PGA player's card. In his first try at Palm Beach (Fla.) Gardens in 1968 he shot an 87 in the third round. He was not used to a course with so many sand traps. "It was like getting out of high school and going to college," he says.
Obviously, his background has handicapped him. At 32 he is still learning the game. Says his wife Brenda, "Sometimes I like to think what Jim Dent would have done if he would have had the good clubs and the places to play and the instruction that almost everyone else on the pro tour had. I think what we are hoping for, winning, would already be in our past."
Brenda is a former schoolteacher. As much as anything, she serves as her husband's positive side. Dent is easily dejected on the course, given to bickering with an unmannerly gallery or turning sullen after a poor shot. All those missed wedge shots can build frustration. Brenda prefers to recall the day her husband finished in a tie for second at the Disney World, shooting a 71 in the final round that might have been good enough to win if Nicklaus had not shot a 64. "Jim looked so much like a winner that day," she says. "In the way he walked, in the way he played, everything. He looked just like Nicklaus." Listening, Jim Dent nodded his head in agreement. "Like a winner. That's what it's about."