At a golf tournament many years ago, I was inspired to make the brilliant joke in a Texas newspaper that if Tommy Bolt had not become a touring pro, he would, in all probability, have been married to Bonnie Parker. The following day when I saw Bolt at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, he asked me who Bonnie Parker was. I guess I got about two sentences deep into the history of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker—ever smiling, naturally, alert for the orbiting wedge—when Bolt said, "Well, son, why don't you just go out and round up them two, and old Tom'll play their low ball."
I loved Tommy Bolt. As a journalist I rated him right up there next to a used, fast-action Royal standard with a new ribbon. And as a golfer I admired his stylish shotmaking more than anyone's but Ben Hogan's. Those of us who knew him and watched him compete in his prime recognized that when Thomas Henry Bolt was right—confident, calm and not blaming Arnold Palmer or the Lord for any short putts that curled away from the cup—no other human being could strike a prettier variety of shots, or land them more softly on the targets, including Ben Hogan.
On the subject of Hogan, whom Tommy always credited with "weakening" his grip, or, in other words, curing what he suspected was a terminal hook, Bolt once said, "Now lookie here at all these baby-faced young mullets on the tour. They come out here dressed up in their Ben Hogan blues and grays. They ought to come to old Tom, and let him show 'em how to match their reds with their pinks and their fuchsias."
This week old Tom is in the news again because the U.S. Open has returned to Southern Hills in Tulsa, where Bolt strung together some of his—and history's—finest golf. It was such a feat that the crusty old USGA has brought Tommy back to this 77th Open as a special entrant. Good for the USGA for remembering that it was in the 1958 Open that Bolt finessed his way through a collection of fairways as narrow as his four-wood and consistently avoided a Bermuda rough more gnarled than his temper could be. He led all the way and won laughing, by what seemed like a whopping four strokes, with a smite-your-forehead score of 283.
June 19, 1977
I must tell you how good that was. Of the game's other big stars in that era, only Julius Boros and Gene Littler were heard from at Southern Hills. And Boros and Littler finished six and seven strokes behind Bolt. It was left to a thoroughgoing unknown named Gary Player to be second. Sam Snead missed the cut. Jimmy Demaret withdrew. Cary Middlecoff shot 300. Ken Venturi shot 302. And Ben Hogan, his wrist slightly sprained after a bout with the rough, was hurtled into a tie for 10th.
Bolt's four rounds were 71-71-69-72. That only sounds routine until you consider that his highest single round, the 72, was at least three shots better than any other competitor's worst round. No one else in the '58 Open escaped without at least one score of 75 or higher.
Another item. The most dangerous and torturous hole at Southern Hills is the par-4 12th: tight driver, long-to-medium iron, trees, water. Hogan selected it on his "All-American golf course." Tommy Bolt birdied 12 the first three rounds and parred it on the last 18, which amounted to more of a triumphant stroll than a round of competitive golf.
This was the Open that furnished Tommy Bolt Story No. 1,032. When he entered the press tent after the second round as the sole owner of the Open lead, he pretended to be angry with a Tulsa reporter because of a misprint in the morning paper. Old Tom was 40 years old at the time, but the paper had said he was 49. The Tulsa writer apologized for the typographical error.
"Typographical error, hell," said Bolt. "It was a perfect four and a perfect nine."
None of us who were privileged to be near him inside the ropes can ever forget old Tom as he closed in on those last few holes of his Southern Hills victory. He did not seem to mind two or three reporters chatting with him among the Open leader's customary entourage of striped ties and USGA armbands.
With at least three holes left to play, he was saying, "Ain't this somethin'? Old Tom's gonna win hisself a Ben Hogan type of tournament. How 'bout that, pard?"
Going up the 18th fairway, after another glorious four-wood shot had put him on the green of what must be one of golf's most merciless par-4 finishing holes, a couple of conversations took place that I can still hear.
First of all, Jimmy Breslin, the poet of Queens who was then with the NEA feature service, was marching along with the rest of us.
"You're going to win it, you ought to throw a club," Breslin said to Bolt.
Bolt mumbled something about a book he had been reading. It was, as I recall, the I'm O.K.—And So Are Your Warts of its day. Tommy said the book had given him inner peace. It was one of the reasons he was winning the Open.
"Inner peace don't sell newspapers." Breslin said. "You don't throw a club, how come you got the name?"
Bolt said if he threw as many golf clubs as everybody wrote, the manufacturers would not have anything else to do but manufacture Tommy Bolt golf clubs.
"You could throw a little one," said Jimmy. "Something you don't need."
Bolt looked around at everyone as if to ask how Jimmy Breslin ever got admitted to a golf tournament.
Jimmy dropped back a few paces and said, "The story don't work."
As for me, I proudly reminded Tommy that I had predicted in print he would win before the Open began. Worldly me. The pick had been grounded in the logic that Bolt had taken the Colonial National Invitational. In those days Colonial, old Colonial, once an Open course itself, was considered a splendid gauge for what might happen in our grandest tournament a month later.
So now it was late in the afternoon on Saturday, June 14, 1958. We were walking up the 18th fairway in the boiling heat, and I had just said to a man who was about to win his one and only major championship that because I picked him to win I was surely a semi-intellectual and perhaps even the Joseph Pulitzer of Herb Massey's Cafe and Pinball Emporium.
Bolt looked at me and said, "Yeah, you picked it, all right. Except you did it in that old Fort Worth paper, and nobody saw it but you and your momma."
Terrible-tempered, tempestuous Tommy (Thunder) Bolt. The reputation was only partially earned. Wire services did the rest, just as they made Hogan a lifetime bantamweight, kept Cary Middlecoff a Dr. and insisted Byron Nelson was both a British lord and a mechanical man. Bolt resented his negative fame and at the same time used it for humor.
He liked to claim that no sportswriter ever actually saw him break a golf club—but I did. If I may return to Colonial again, it was on the 15th hole. A mid-iron of some kind. One of those years in the early 1950s. He not only slung it against a fence, which snapped the shaft in half, but he picked up the two pieces, slammed them down again and kicked them. However, after he had read the details of his act in my paper, he said, "You know, son, before you go sayin' that old Tom threw a club, you ought to check and make sure the heat and humidity hadn't made his grips slick."
What Tommy Bolt did best as a golfer, as a hitter of golf balls, was everything—everything but putt consistently well, which must have had something to do with his temperament. He drove straight and played the doglegs like a violin. He may have been the best fairway wood player ever. He was superb with the irons, especially the short irons, and his pace (walk slowly, hit fast), rhythm, tempo and setup were things to behold. Instruction-book stuff.
This business of making the ball light softly on the long shots, which Bolt did better than anyone—well, there is no explaining it other than to say it had something to do with his feeling for the shots, his style and his swing. As he so often said, "Hell, I can poop one into the water, and it don't even splash."
And that graceful swing is still with him. The Bolt cult was delighted to hear, only two weeks ago, of his winning that $100,000 tournament for oldtimers which was played out in Yorba Linda, Calif. It goes in there with all the other senior-type cups he has been collecting since he turned the tour over to the younger and less colorful men—those baby-faced blues and grays.
That Bolt did not win more than 15 tournaments, including the Open, in his 10 good years, and yet remained more or less the underground or locker-room champion of the game, was probably as much a result of timing as of his unpredictable character. His good early years were also some of Hogan's and Snead's best. And later he ran into the rise of Arnold Palmer.
Perhaps old Tom knew he was never destiny's child, and maybe that is why, now and then after blowing a short putt, he would look up at the sky and say, "Why don't You come on down here and play me one time?"
Not that a few putts here and there could not have changed the record of the man who came out of Haworth, Okla., moved through Louisiana and settled in Texas to learn the game. He was very close in a few other Opens, as well as a number of Masters, and twice he reached the semifinals in the old match-play PGA. In that tournament he would go around whipping your Sam Sneads (twice), Gene Littlers, Jack Flecks and Lew Worshams, but he would lose to a Claude Harmon, a Jackson Bradley and even a Charles Prentice.
All of which prompted him to say at one point, "Well, who wants to win some kind of tournament that ain't got nobody in it but mother geese?"
It must certainly please old Tom today, sitting comfortably down there at his course in Tarpon Woods, Fla., that the Bolt stories on the PGA tour now number 5,137. My favorite Bolt story comes rather recently from Ed Sneed, one of the tour's better players, who is both a Bolt devotee and imitator. It is an important story, I think, because it contains a golf lesson; an aspiring pro's first real lesson, in fact.
It seems that a few years ago, when Sneed was still an amateur, he was playing with his pal Tom Weiskopf in a pro-am in Cincinnati, and they were paired with none other than Tommy Bolt and his partner. Bolt said little more than "Hidy" until the foursome arrived at the 2nd tee. It was a par-3 hole, a short-iron shot with water behind the green. Ed Sneed stepped up and hit a high, wild, soaring, right-to-left eight-iron that came down on the back of the green, took a huge bounce and disappeared into the water.
As Bolt teed up his ball and addressed the shot, he said, "Old Ed knows what makes the ball go. Those hooks really go, don't they, son?"
When terrible-tempered, tempestuous Tommy (Thunder) Bolt won the U.S. Open at Southern Hills in 1958, a fellow named Tom Watson was eight years old. Ben Crenshaw was six years old and so was Bruce Lietzke. Jerry Pate, the defending champion this week, was four years old. It is both startling and sad for me to realize that a whole generation of golfers on the tour has missed Tommy Bolt.
This one was for them—and old Tom, too, of course.