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THE PUTTER GOD FORGOT

June 18, 1979
June 18, 1979

Table of Contents
June 18, 1979

The Belmont
Jerry Buss
Orville Moody
Baseball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE PUTTER GOD FORGOT

Orville Moody, the 1969 U.S. Open champion, gamely plays on despite that Judas club and a decade of unbelievable frustration

In the last decade or so, Orville Moody's life has been a catalog of calamity and bizarre occurrence. Among other things he lost his life savings in a business venture, escaped from a burning house, employed a caddie who routinely waded through water hazards, and had one of his golfing pay checks snatched away by an insurance company. He endured two divorces, a burglary and chronic sniffles. He also won the U.S. Open, which might have been the worst misfortune of all.

This is an article from the June 18, 1979 issue Original Layout

They're playing the 1979 Open this week, at Toledo, which brings up another point of woe. Moody's not there. His exemption has expired, and he failed to qualify—by one stroke. A man of middle age with hay fever, a hitch in his cross-handed putting stroke and no financial backer—someone like this doesn't even belong on the tour. But at 45, Orville Moody is out there, traveling in a trailer occupied by his present wife, three children and the family dog, worrying about the scarcity of gasoline and the abundance of sidehill putts.

It was 10 years ago, a short time after he came out of the Army as a staff sergeant, that Moody won the Open at the Champions Golf Club in Houston with a downhill 14-inch putt that toppled into the cup on a nudge and a prayer. Later, people thought he was crying from happiness. In truth, it was the damn hay fever.

After that, things were never the same for Moody, who was, and is, a nice, uncomplicated man without a shred of pretense. He signed on with a flamboyant business manager who wanted him to wear red-white-and-blue outfits every day to capitalize on his 14½ years in the Army. His symbol was to be the American eagle. The manager predicted that Moody would make $1 million in five years. An Orville Moody line of golf clubs was surely just down the fairway. He played golf with Bob Hope. The Tonight Show called. He did television commercials. Orville Cleve Moody, a part-Choctaw Indian from the sand greens of Chickasha, Okla., the last of 10 children, a Depression baby, was getting the hero treatment. At the old golf course where he played barefoot as a kid, someone tacked a sign on a tree: ORVILLE MOODY SLEPT HERE. The new champion said confidently, "I'm going to sit back and let the money roll in."

That same year he won the World Series of Golf and was the PGA's Player of the Year. "He was the best shotmaker in the world at the time," says Deane Beman, now commissioner of the pro golf tour. And so the contingency plans he had made to return to the security of the Army, in case he didn't make it on the tour, were forgotten. If only he hadn't won the Open! As Moody sums it up: "When I was in the Army I never had any heartaches at all. And after I won the Open I had quite a few."

Although he holds a lifetime exemption from qualifying for PGA tournaments because of his Open victory, Moody was playing so infrequently a few years ago that he needed a special dispensation just to remain on the tour. From 1974 through 1976 he earned less than $19,000. Last year he missed the cut in his first seven tournaments. Once he enjoyed the company of the captains of industry; his autographed pictures hung in places of honor in their homes. Now the photographs are mostly stashed away in attics and Moody is grateful for the $100 a cap manufacturer gives him whenever he appears on television. One of the few contracts he has now brings him a modest fee for representing the Concord Hotel in the Catskills.

The great ugly taproot of Moody's dilemma is that he can do everything with a putter except putt with it. He can use the club on the tee and hit the ball 230 yards. He can blast out of sand traps with it. But he can't putt with it. The week he won the Open he was the 35th-best putter at Champions. And he knew it. Even in the best of times, he understood that disaster lurked behind every blade of bent grass.

Thus he was never quite comfortable wearing the glittering cloak of celebrity. It takes confidence to be a star, and Moody, dough-faced and pudgy, didn't look confident and didn't feel confident. Bob Hope once quipped that Moody was on the tour for two years before he stopped saluting his caddie. To putt well, you have to be brash and bold. A putting style that says, "Yes, sir!" is in real trouble. Moody's putter is so timid it stutters.

Watching him on the green is a wrenching experience. He has the air of a man facing the guillotine. He squats nervously over the ball, gripping the club cross-handed. Just before he draws the club back his right leg undergoes a series of involuntary tremors, and the putter jerks. As the club comes into the ball, Moody's entire body sways forward. Some pros claim to have seen his putter stub the ground behind the ball and bounce almost completely over it. In his grip, stroke and demeanor, Moody violates every accepted rule of good putting, but it's the only way he knows. He explains that as a young boy he had a brief siege of Saint Vitus' dance, which "probably damaged something." Even now his handwriting is tremulous.

Every so often one sees a newspaper picture of a pro golfer kissing his putter. Moody never kisses his. The implement he used to use had a pointer on top to help line things up. A player who putts well, it is said, can putt with anything. A bad putter tries gimmicks.

It is a paradox of sport that sometimes an act that looks difficult and complex, like the golf swing off the tee, actually can be learned, while one that seems elementary, such as putting, cannot. Apparently, people either putt well or they don't. Lee Trevino and other master putters have worked with Moody on the practice green, but to no avail.

On a recent spring evening Moody and his third wife, Beverly, a former waitress he met and married 6½ years ago, are having dinner at a steak-and-ale restaurant not far from the home they rent in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. It is the best restaurant in Plano; usually they prefer to go to a Mexican place that serves all you can eat for $2.89.

The day before Moody had missed the cut in the Byron Nelson tournament. The nature of Moody's life is such that while this week he would earn nothing, the week before he tied for third in the Houston Open and took home $14,400, his biggest check since 1973. Last year Moody earned $44,204 on the tour. This season he has made $34,931 and is 65th on the money list. In Houston a fan had whooped and hollered after Moody's shots. He was asked why. "Because I'm short and fat and want to root for someone just like me," the man replied.

Moody quit the tour in 1974 to operate a public course in a suburb of Denver. That venture cost him $200,000, 1½ years of his life and a lot of worry. The problem was simple. The course meandered through the backyards of a subdivision. On every hole there were out-of-bounds markers. A dog bit players, and children took over fairways for football practice. Once Moody ejected an interloper hitting to the second tee—he turned out to have a list of people he planned to shoot. Moody's name was second on the list. Even then he was a runner-up.

In the Plano restaurant, it is a wonder he has any appetite for food. His debts have been such that a lawyer once advised him to declare bankruptcy. On the tour in Florida this spring, before he switched to a travel trailer, he holed up in motels where he had to pay a deposit before making a long-distance phone call. In the Moody home in Plano the dining room is completely bare. Almost all of the family's belongings, including a couple of gold-embroidered gowns given to Beverly by the King of Morocco, were lost in a fire that swept through their house in Lago Vista, Texas at 4 a.m. in March of 1977. A smoke alarm given to the Moodys by Beverly's mother probably saved their lives. Moody drove off to call the fire department. When a fire truck arrived, it broke down. The house was destroyed, but there was one consolation: no jewelry was lost. It was in hock.

Moody figures the fire cost him about $50,000 over the insurance coverage. He has made sizable loans that have never been paid back. Some $1,200 worth of belongings has been stolen from his van. A house occupied by his former wife, Doris, was ravaged in another fire. He had transferred the title to her but the insurance was still in his name, which led to a legal hassle. At last year's Byron Nelson, he was only a shot behind with seven holes to go, but he played the final holes in a stumbling five over par. It was then that the insurance company took his $3,000 pay check.

Moody takes a sip of a soft drink. He is talking about heavyweight fighter Ron Lyle. He had watched Lyle fight on television that afternoon and listened to a description of his arrests, incarcerations and general ill-fortune. "This guy's had more bad luck than me," he says, a bit amazed. A few hours earlier, two of Moody's children had had to make separate trips to the hospital—Jason, who is four, to be treated for an infection he developed after being stung by a bee; Kelley, who is five, to have a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail.

When the waitress takes the dinner orders, Moody says something complimentary to her. Beverly whispers, "He likes to kid those girls. Our children are always coming home and telling me, 'Mom, dad's been beepin' at the girls again.' " Though he has a mumpish face, a gap between his teeth and a receding hairline, women are attracted to him. When Beverly first encountered him, she called her mother and said, "I've just met the nicest man!"

The one deal that was really going to put Moody on easy street after he won the Open involved stocking hundreds of Army PXs around the world with a line of Orville Moody golf clubs and clothing. But as the flavor of Moody's triumph at Houston faded, this and other prospective ventures dried up. Moody survived like a cactus, which is to say, not lushly. "The public," he says, "has a short memory."

Two occurrences years ago convinced him that the tour wasn't going to make him rich. He missed a short putt on the last hole at the Crosby Pro-Am in 1973 that cost him the tournament. The putt dropped him into a three-way tie for first with Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd. Nicklaus won the playoff. Then there was a round he played with Johnny Miller. That day Moody's approach shots nestled inside Miller's 13 times, but Miller shot a 70 while Moody had a 73. Afterward, Moody was distressed to hear Miller complaining about his putting.

Golf fans who take the time to look Moody up find him matter-of-fact and approachable. They banter with him in a mocking style they never would dare use with a big star. (Moody himself looks up enthralled when Arnold Palmer's jet passes overhead.) He has Palmer's autograph. It is on a 1969 U.S. Open program a friend gave him as a memento of his own victory.

This year Moody approached Tom Place, the PGA's public information director, and suggested that it wasn't quite accurate to list him as playing out of Dallas.

"Tom, start registerin' me out of plain ol' Texas," said Moody.

"Sure, Orville. Where in Texas?"

"Plain ol' Texas," said Moody.

"But where in Texas?"

"Plain ol'. P-L-A-N-0."

Plain ol' Orville's penchant for treating everyone fairly and with compassion may have hurt him during his early years on tour. His caddie then was Bob Zerbes, who had been an Army buddy. Zerbes carried a wedge around with him—for protection, he said. There were people, "corporate interests" he called them, who were out to harm him because Moody was siphoning away some of Arnold Palmer's gallery. Zerbes shaved in golf-course parking lots, using a razor, a cup of cold water and an automobile's side-view mirror, slept in fields he called "the Greengrass Motel," and carried alarm clocks everywhere. Once he dropped one and the alarm went off. He finally silenced the racket by stomping on the clock. Moody said: "Bob, why did you do that?" "It doesn't matter," said Zerbes. "I've got two more in my pockets."

For whatever reason—possibly from watching Moody's putts slip past the hole—Zerbes had become increasingly suspicious of his surroundings. He shunned motels because, he told Moody, the Mafia was watching him via television. He was convinced that someone was relaying information to Palmer about the consistency of the greens by holding up soft-drink cases at each hole. On one side, Zerbes said, was printed "Hard," on the other, "Soft." The caddie kept extraordinary and meticulous records of every shot Moody hit. He marched off yardage in diligent fashion. When he came to a lake he simply waded through it, holding his notebook high. The records he kept were stashed in safety deposit boxes around the country.

Moody kept Zerbes on because he was a good caddie and because they had been friends for so long. Moody called him "eccentric." But finally Moody got another caddie.

In the Plano restaurant Beverly took a bite of food and winced. "Darn!" she said. "I think I cracked a tooth." After a trip to the rest room, she returned to say that she had indeed chipped a molar. "I'll have to get that capped."

"Don't be talking about caps," said her husband. "Those caps cost $250."

Moody was only kidding. He has a dry, teasing sense of humor that he has learned to use effectively. There was a 1,050-mile trip to Columbus, Ohio coming up. Maybe Bev would drive part of the way.

If he hadn't won the Open, Moody would be collecting his Army pension now. At the very least he would have gone into the Army Reserves, which would have meant between $600 and $700 a month to him. Instead, he is an old man on the tour, shaving his expenses down to about $30,000 a year, playing in all the exhibitions and pro-ams he can, suffering because he is naturally warm-blooded and has to wear ice-filled hats and gulp salt tablets to endure the summer heat. Often he thinks back to the times in the Army when he regularly won service tournaments by 20 or 30 strokes. "I always had a lot of fun in those days," he says. "It seems all of my troubles started after I got out of the Army. Now I want to get a little ahead and get a club job somewhere. There's been two-three times when I got down pretty low, but it seems like I always win a little money when that happens. But if I get enough ahead, I don't even know if I'll go on in golf. I might get into something else. The thing is, I could still win if I got it all together."

Actually, things do look better for Moody. His performance and check at Houston gave him a little cushion, and his hay fever is under control now thanks to a shot he receives twice a year. In the past, Moody sometimes had to play tournaments wearing a surgical mask because of his hay fever. Naturally the newspapers ran pictures of him, and they had a lot of fun with captions of the Who's the Masked Man kind.

The Ol' Sarge still has the ammo from tee to green, and he has made 10 holes in one, including an ace at this year's Colonial that got him the use of a car for a year. And you should see his trick shots. He can tee off with a paper cup over the ball and outdrive most men, and his wedge shots dance like puppets on a string. He can run it, bump it, cut it, draw it, burn it and nail it better than just about anybody. If only he could putt it.

One of the few things saved from the fire that destroyed his house was a box containing scrapbooks of his career. His U.S. Open trophy, charred and warped from the fire, also survived. Once it was the symbol of his greatest triumph. Now it mirrored his travail. A few months ago, he was rummaging through the scrap-books and pulled out a yellowed newspaper photograph.

"Here, honey, look at this," he said to Beverly. "I was pretty handsome in those days." The face was young and smooth, the body was lean. Moody ran his fingers over text and pictures of 30 years ago.

"Look, here's one from when I played that exhibition with Byron Nelson," he said. So much has happened since then. Still, in lean years and fat, plain Ol' Orville has had what it takes to keep soldiering on.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANCross-handed and understandably worried, Moody practices the art that can't be learned.PHOTOMANNY MILLANIn the travel trailer they use on the tour, Beverly fixes dinner for Orville and their three kids.