Last One In Is The U.S. Open Champ!

Aug. 06, 1984
Aug. 06, 1984

Table of Contents
Aug. 6, 1984

A Fuzzy Fan
Jim Rice
Pro Football

Last One In Is The U.S. Open Champ!

Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, a down-home boy from Indiana, made a big splash by not throwing in the towel in the U.S. Open

Look at all those beautiful faces. That's what winning the Open is all about.
—THE BIG CHEESE, on Fuzzy Zoeller Day, June 27, 1984

This is an article from the Aug. 6, 1984 issue Original Layout

It's not a bad deal. O.K.? The Fuzz Ball is sitting by the swimming pool at his house on the small mountain outside New Albany, Ind. The cash is in the bank, the fish are biting in the pond nearby, the kids are growing up as blonde and beautiful as the wife, and the next time the phone rings it might be the White House. Plus he has the "beauties," his collection of zany friends—"Aren't they beauties?" people say about them. From where he sits, Zoeller can gaze upon a broad vista that encompasses the folks and the land, plain and simple, where he was born, raised and stayed. In the background are the spires of downtown Louisville, Ky. As Zoeller sips a beer, just about the only thing on his mind this June day is whether he should wear sandals or sneakers. No, it's not a bad deal.

Zoeller's spectacular new home is a monument to a smooth putting stroke and a golf game that travels well. About a dozen years ago, when he was just another long knocker struggling to make the tour, he taped a penny to a wall at his family's veneer plant in New Albany. He told his buddies at the plant, "I'll take this down when I make a million dollars." What a card Fuzzy was.

Though he's now an ace on the tour, Fuzzy is still a card. He calls most people Pards or Big Cheese and says "It's not a bad deal" about once every minute, because, after all, it really isn't such a bad deal. Childhood is a state that reality slowly cuts to pieces, but reality hasn't put a glove on Zoeller, who's still filled with the enthusiasm of a kid because he doesn't sweat the small stuff. "Why worry?" he says blithely. "Why drive yourself batty? Things don't ever faze me."

Just a few weeks earlier it had looked as if Zoeller was in trouble. His bad back was acting up and he needed an operation. But instead of going in for surgery, he came out of the bushes to win the U.S. Open golf championship on June 18 at Winged Foot outside New York City, where the crowd went wild for him. The fans cheered him on—"Yeah, Fuzzy!! All right!!"—and drove his Saturday and Sunday playing partner, Hale Irwin, bonkers in the process. Then, when their man whammed Greg Norman in the 18-hole Monday playoff for the title and Zoeller was walking up to the final hole, whistling, loose as ever—like some guy playing in a nine-hole industrial league after an eight-hour day of bolting sheet metal on Fords—they went crazy. "Fuzz-ee! Fuzz-ee! Fuzz-ee!" they chanted. The Fuzz Ball said that the cheers sent chills up and down his spine.

The previous day Zoeller had made history and raised goose bumps with one of the most memorable gestures in sports, something comparable 'to Babe Ruth's pointing at the fence and then knocking the ball over it. Pete Dye, the 58-year-old golf course architect who has spent most of his life around the game, says, "No one, not any of those other guys, even remotely would've thought to do what Fuzzy did. I mean none of them." Zoeller's act took place after Norman had come out of the rough and out of the trees for two miraculous pars on 16 and 17 and then sank a 40-footer at the last hole. No sooner had Norman's putt dropped in than there was ol' Fuzzy back in the 18th fairway waving a white towel as if to say. "Pards, I surrender. But you're a hell of a guy." And then Zoeller nailed a six-iron from 170 yards, burned it right in there, two-putted and walked away whistling, as if to say, "No big deal. We'll have a playoff tomorrow."

The next day, while a taciturn Norman warmed up, Zoeller did a radio interview. Spotting a photographer who had donned a garbage bag to protect himself from the rain, he quipped, "If Michael Jackson sees that, he'll be wearing it next." On the first tee Zoeller pulled a telephone out of his golf bag and asked Norman if he wanted to make his last call. Then the real fun began. Zoeller birdied the first two holes, the second on a 68-foot putt, and from there whistled his way to an eight-stroke win.

During the awards ceremony, USGA president Jim Hand, trying for levity, suggested that Zoeller would have to tell his real name so the USGA wouldn't have to put FUZZY on the trophy. The crowd booed. Zoeller took the microphone. "Jim," he said, "let's go with Fuzzy, O.K.? It'll be the only one on there."

Zoeller may seem the class clown, but underneath there's substance. He beat Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in sudden death to win the 1979 Masters; he has been on two Ryder Cup teams; he won the tour's biggest check, for $135,000, at the Las Vegas Pro Celebrity Classic last year, where he shot a 63 and a 64; and now he has won the U.S. Open. His career earnings are now $1,389,972. But that penny remains taped to the veneer plant wall.

Though he addresses the ball as if he were playing for a shank—with the heel of the club about three inches on the far side of the ball—and though his back is often so bad he has to wire it up every day, relaxing the muscles with the electrical stimulation of his "zap machine." Zoeller can play. Says pro Bill Kratzert, a friend since Zoeller's junior golf days in Indiana, "Glamour doesn't appeal to Fuzzy, but he's definitely a superstar. He just handles it differently, which I like."

One of the "beauties" is Paul Lis, a public relations consultant from Chicago who met Zoeller when he grabbed a beer out of Lis's hand as Zoeller played in the Bay Hill tournament in 1983. "We went out that night for drinks," Lis says. "That almost killed me." He became one of Zoeller's biggest boosters. He had 500 A FUZZY FAN buttons printed up and passed them out free. Fuzzy's father has since had thousands more manufactured. "The only people Fuzzy is tough on are his pro-am partners," Lis says. "He rides them horribly. I tell them, 'Why'd you pay two, three thousand dollars for this? He'll do the same to you tonight in some saloon for free.' "

"Without the people, I'd be playing in front of trees for a couple of hundred dollars," Zoeller says. During the pro-am at the Greater Greensboro Open, in the heart of North Carolina basketball country, Zoeller puts on a T shirt with a message designed to stir up the local hoops fans. Last April the front of the shirt read BOBBY KNIGHT SCHOOL OF BASKETBALL. The back read SORRY DEAN.

One of Zoeller's fans, Sue Averdick, a Kentuckian new to the game, sums up Fuzzy's appeal by saying, "He's normal. He acts like a normal human being, not like those other guys." Zoeller chuckled when this was repeated to him at home recently. Then he rummaged around and pulled out a photo of himself and inscribed it, "Dear Sue: I am not normal."

Zoeller has a saying: "Somebody's got to liven up the dance." This year, a week after winning the Open, he played in the Amana Pro-Am in Iowa City, where, he estimates, he "sipped about 20 beers" offered him by people in the gallery. Near the end of his round, a man gave him a hat with a propeller on top of it, and Zoeller wore it while hitting a tee shot. Someone asked how he was. "I'm pumping blood and breathing air. What more do you want for a Monday?" he replied. He shot a 31 on the back nine.

This is golf Zoeller's way. His constant chatter is reminiscent of that of a pepper-pot shortstop. His furry club head covers are a duck and a teddy bear, and he has two putters he calls Betsy and JR, for Betsy Jr. Says Zoeller, "I switch them about once a year just to show them they can be replaced." Says Mike Mazzeo, Zoeller's longtime caddie, "Working for him is a blast."

This year at the Masters, Mazzeo cut his leg in an accident involving a storm door. Zoeller's brother, Eddie, the one Fuzzy calls Pump because of the way he drinks beer, volunteered to caddie. "I don't rake traps and I don't walk in the woods," Pump told Fuzzy.

Early in the round, Fuzzy said to his caddie, "Pump, how far are we?"

"Boy, you're a long way," answered Pump, almost causing Fuzzy to fall down laughing.

It's all a bit corny, this business about the country boy who stays humble no matter how big he gets, but it's true. Fuzzy learned humility early. His family is prominent in New Albany as one of its main employers, and the Big Cheese could easily have outgrown his britches. What he learned while working in the veneer business for several summers was that you can take a piece of wood, doll it up with a glossy covering, put on some legs and sell it as a dining-room table for $7,000, but underneath it would just be a piece of wood. Underneath, Fuzzy is Fuzzy. His wife, Dianne, wishes he would wear custom-tailored slacks, but Fuzzy insists on the $40 ready-to-wear kind. "Why spend $100 on something that's going to look all beat up in a month?" he says.

A few days after the Open, Zoeller went to Washington. President Reagan greeted Dianne and him in the Oval Office. "We didn't know what to get a guy who had everything," Zoeller told him, proffering a plaque bearing the words: TO PRESIDENT REAGAN FROM FUZZY ZOELLER 1984 U.S. OPEN CHAMP. The boys down at the plant had made it up.

Later, Zoeller spoke to the press corps on the White House lawn. "It was a great honor," he said. "It was only five or six minutes, but it was more than I ever thought a guy from a small town in Indiana could expect." He didn't mention that he had also been taken to Vice-President Bush's office. When Zoeller walked in, Bush had his feet up on his desk. "Perfect!" yelled Zoeller. "Don't move!"

Upon leaving the White House the Zoellers were hungry, so they instructed their limousine driver to take them to a burger joint, where Fuzzy had to borrow money to buy his food. Then the two of them flew home in a private plane, sipping champagne en route. When they landed, they climbed into Fuzzy's four-wheel-drive wagon, the one with all the dust and dirt and outdoors magazines and overflowing ashtrays, and headed home. But first they stopped at a White Castle, a chain that dispenses 240 hamburgers. Fuzzy and Dianne love eating "Whiteys"—their new Tudor home even resembles the architectural style of a White Castle restaurant. The Zoellers picked up their Whiteys and pointed up the hill toward home. It had been quite a day.

Fuzzy Zoeller has lived all of his 32 years in New Albany. Nowadays, few people, and fewer stars, stay in their piddling hometowns after the money gets easy and they've seen the world. But even a big wheel needs spokes, and Zoeller gets a lot of support from his family and his friends and that covers just about everyone in New Albany.

He's their favorite son. At the New Albany Country Club, where he often plays with "the ants," the high handicappers who swarm the fairways chasing after errant shots, there are two plaques noting his achievements. And at the Fuzzy Zoeller Par 3, the little nine-hole course he and his father operate at a loss because they want the kids and the senior golfers to have a place to play, there's a monument to him, a granite block that carries his likeness and lists the tournaments he has won. "Not a bad deal," says Zoeller, looking at it. "And I'm still alive. They got a button at the front desk. They push that, the stone tips forward and they just flip me down in there for burial. I always tell 'em, 'Don't push the button!' "

Ironically for a guy who drinks beer and likes the outdoors and the sarcastic repartee of male companionship, Zoeller is surrounded by females. He and Dianne have three girls, Sunnye, 5, Heidi, 2, and Gretchen, four months. There are also a pregnant beagle named Pepper and two springer spaniels, Molly and J.B. "But J.B. is castrated," says Fuzzy, sounding disgusted. "It's a houseful of hens."

Zoeller spends his days quietly when he's home. The new house sits on 76 acres and is surrounded by hayfields, which are mowed by neighboring farmers, and by dense woods. Zoeller pulls ticks off the dogs, or sits by the pool, or shoots clay pigeons, or makes several trips down to the pond on his property, where he putters around in his boat, trying to outsmart the bass. "They know ol' dad's in town," he chirps, casting. Zoeller's nickname comes from his initials: FUZ, for Frank Urban Zoeller. His father, Frank Sr., is a German-American with all the spunk and diligence stereotypically ascribed to that ethnic group. Last year he suffered a heart attack at a tournament in Orlando, Fla. A few weeks later he went to the Masters to cheer his son on from the clubhouse.

A lot of people thought Frank spoiled Fuzzy when he was a boy. He was a rambunctious kid, not like Frank and his wife Alma's first two children, Eddie and Beverly, or Tommy, Fuzzy's younger brother. Says Frank, "They were perfect, but when he came along, the stuff hit the fan." Women would coo over the little boy. Fuzzy would pinch them, or throw something at them.

"We have a phrase around these parts, 'bore ass,' " says Eddie. "It means getting into trouble, being mean, stuff like that. At Fuzzy's first confession, at age seven, we were all sitting in the church when he went into the booth. Father Quinn asked him what his sins were. We could hear him. 'I bore ass,' said Fuzzy. Father Quinn said, That's not a sin.' Fuzzy said, 'It is the way I do it.'

"Fuzzy was a 12-year man at Holy Family [elementary school]. He couldn't get out of that first grade. He kept running into the same nun."

Later, in high school, between swiping watermelons, siphoning gas out of cars and similiar mischief, Fuzzy occasionally attended class. His buddies were Don Zipp and Ben Snyder. One day Fuzzy and Ben walked into the dean of boys' office to ask to be let out of class. Fuzzy took a novel approach. "I got too much starch in my underwear," he said. "I have to go home and change." The dean didn't even look up. Drily he said, "And I guess they're stiff enough that Ben has to go and help you."

When he wasn't skipping school. Fuzzy was playing pranks, making small wagers and acting as a ringleader of the Lumberjacks, an unofficial group of football cheerleaders who dressed up like hayseeds and rattled the opposition with outlandish behavior. "When I first met him I thought Fuzzy was crazy, and he hasn't changed a bit," says Zipp, now a teacher at Providence High, New Albany's bitter rival. It was in a basketball game against Providence that Fuzzy suffered the back injury, the aftereffects of which still bother him. He went in for a layup, and another player submarined him, tearing the muscles in his lower back. The New Albany girls cried that night when Fuzzy was carted off to the hospital.

The bum back has been one of the few negatives in Zoeller's stroll through life. Another was a brief stint at the University of Houston, where, he admits, he went to play golf instead of attend lectures. The problem was that the Houston coach, Dave Williams, found Zoeller's carefree approach at odds with what Williams saw as a serious business. There wasn't enough Ben Hogan in this young golfer. "He didn't like it when I told an opponent 'Good shot,' " Zoeller recalls. "He said, 'We don't do things that way. It relaxes the other players too much.' " At Houston, Zoeller was stuck in an apartment about 30 miles south of the course the team played on, while the Cougar stars, Bill Rogers and Bruce Lietzke, lived close to where the team practiced. Zoeller fumed because it sometimes took him 3½ hours to get to the course. He also didn't like Williams telephoning him every night at 10 p.m. to check up on him. He left after a year.

Zoeller wasn't a hotshot golfer in those days. He never was able to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, for instance, and he'd never won the Indiana high school tournament. But he was dedicated to the game. "It's all he ever talked about," says Snyder. As a teenager, Zoeller, who had grown up across the street from the Valley View Golf Course, was a long hitter and liked action. The big shot around the area was Frank Beard of Louisville. He led the tour in earnings in 1969, but when he came home, Zoeller and he played even and everyone bet. Zoeller once beat Beard out of $255. Later Zoeller said, "Golf is a game of days, and I can beat anyone on my day."

In 1973 he turned pro and bombed out in the qualifying school; he shrugged and headed for the minitours, where he was a big winner. The next season, hitting a one-iron off the tee, he won his qualifying school and sauntered onto the circuit with his father's financial backing. That's when the party really started. "There were too many late nights and too much drinking," says Zoeller. "But we had fun."

Zoeller's turnaround came in 76 when he married Dianne Thornton, his longtime sweetheart, whom he'd known since the first grade. Zoeller's new responsibility—this was the first time the Fuzz Ball had to care about anything—toned down the festivities. From then on his progress was steady. Last year he won two tournaments and $417,597, just failing to edge Hal Sutton for the money title when his back gave out at the end of the season. "I try to improve a little bit each year," says Zoeller. "I learn something every day. The only difference in a guy who makes it and a guy who doesn't is guts."

Zoeller's hero always has been Arnold Palmer, and at the Masters champions dinner in 1980 Zoeller was a hit for two reasons: He wore cowboy boots, and he presented Palmer with a tube of Grecian Formula. "I always liked Nicklaus, too," says Zoeller. "Two different guys, two different ways of reaching the people. Jack did it by playing. Arnie played, and he gave a little extra." Zoeller, of course, gives that extra, too. Every year he autographs 1,000 pictures to fill kids' requests. At the U.S. Open, he noticed a guy, obviously hung over, lying in the rough. He strolled over and talked to him. Someone asked why. "Hey, Pards," Zoeller answered, "I can relate to that guy."

The day after the Zoellers visited the White House turned out to be beautiful. It was summer, and Fuzzy was back in New Albany. It was a perfect day for the Fuzzy Zoeller Day parade. It started at the Floyd County Bank, across the street from the White Castle. Fuzzy rode in a white Buick convertible with Dianne and the kids, and his family and friends followed in a procession of golf carts.

On the sides of the street stood the citizens of New Albany in all shapes and sizes, with little finery among them, watching the man they're convinced won the U.S. Open partly for them. Adults stood proud and called out to Fuzzy, and he gave them a big smile, a wave and a "Howya doin'? Good to see you." Then the parents turned to their kids and said something like "There he is. He's just the same as he always was." Fuzzy, you see, never went Big Time, never moved to Palm Springs or Miami. Never will.

At one point a group of townsfolk stood in the street and raised golf clubs overhead, forming an arch that the procession passed under. Farther along, a group waved towels wildly overhead, mimicking Zoeller at the Open. There were hand-painted signs and cheering, and a couple of women were crying.

It all ended up at the City-County Building, where a high school combo, the Silken Strings, was playing Back Home Again in Indiana. Town and state politicians, school officials and friends spoke in behalf of the local hero. "Fuzzy makes people feel good, and that's a great gift," said Mayor Charles Hunter. Then the mayor quipped, "I was going to give you a tie clip with the mayoral seal, but I'm not sure I have a seal."

"That's O.K.," Zoeller replied, "I'm not sure I have a tie."

There was one special moment when Beverly, Fuzzy's sister, presented him with a gift from the family, the flag from the second hole where he'd made the 68-foot birdie putt in the playoff with Greg Norman. That putt broke Norman like a dry twig, and it's difficult to understand how it went in. Several times it appeared to stop rolling, but it kept going, until, as if someone were guiding it in, the bail dropped. Maybe it was the collective will of the New Albanites and the others around the world whom Zoeller has touched, that made the putt fall. Taking the flag, Zoeller was choked up for a moment. Then he gave Beverly a hug. She had been the golfer in the family, but she gave it up to get married and raise a family.

Finally it was Fuzzy's turn to speak. As always, he was short and direct. He looked out at the smiling faces and told them how they all had won the Open, how he had thought of them even as he was playing. Said Fuzzy, "In the playoff, I was clicking my heels along about the fourth hole. Like Dorothy, I wished I could go home."

PHOTOZoeller could give lessons on staying cool, both by the pool at home and on the course.TWO PHOTOSNew Albanyites took a cue from Zoeller and waved towels at him as he went by in his parade.TWO PHOTOSFuzzy's females: Dianne and daughters (from left) Heidi, Gretchen and Sunnye, plus two of the dogs. Frank (below, left) helps to run the course where Fuzzy is immortalized in granite.PHOTOAfter a perm, Fuzzy looked fuzzier than usual at the '83 Tucson Open.PHOTOZoeller has to zap the muscles in his lower back when his old basketball injury acts up.PHOTOZoeller thinks the fish know when the lord is back at the "White Castle" he calls home.PHOTOA new Fuzzy fan is President Reagan, who invited the Zoellers to the White House.PHOTOWhether on field or fairway, Zoeller keeps whistlin'.FIVE PHOTOS