His Career Is Taking Off

Peter Jacobsen's talent as a mimic has overshadowed his golf, but now his success is reaching new heights
May 26, 1985

Peter Jacobsen calls up the fairway to fellow pro Barry Jaeckel, who, playing in the threesome ahead, has just made a hole in one during the second round of the Greater Greensboro Open in early April. When Jaeckel turns around, so does Jacobsen. Using only a fraction of his considerable skills as a mimic, Jacobsen bends over and sends Jaeckel a polyester moon in symbolic tribute. Jaeckel grins and reciprocates with a subtle lunar pose of his own.

"Nice shot, Barry," says Jacobsen.

The gallery's laughter seems free of shock at Jacobsen's behavior, perhaps because some of its members had seen him partly disrobe for a female spectator during the pro-am two days earlier. Somehow, Jacobsen knew that the woman had a poster of him and four other pros showing off their torsos as part of a golf magazine spoof from two years ago entitled Boys of the PGA Tour. "We've never met," Jacobsen told the blushing woman as he lifted his shirttail to his neck, "but I think you'll recognize me with my clothes off."

Is this the kind of flash-dancing a member of the PGA Tour's policy board should engage in? Before answering, consider that galleries, tournament sponsors and the vast majority of his fellow players prize Peter Jacobsen precisely because he can strip away professional golf's pretensions as quickly as he can stick a club in the ground while concluding a dead-on impression of Craig Stadler.

Jacobsen's saving grace, whether he's imitating one of the top players or just being irreverent in general, is that fundamentally he's a golf purist. From an early age, Jacobsen was taught respect for the game's champions and traditions at the venerable Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore. But once he came home, he played for laughs on a backyard putting green, mimicking the mannerisms of an entire family of golfing Jacobsens; the six of them once had a combined handicap of 27. When Jacobsen draws just the right blend from the two influences, the result is inspired caricature: an Arnold Palmer who tests wind direction by plucking a chest hair.

But like any purist, Jacobsen wants to be known as a player, not a pretender. He's pleased that his impressions enhance the average fan's knowledge of the tour and are admired for their craft by actors Jack Lemmon and Bill Murray, but he's prouder that he has won three PGA tournaments and is consistently among the tour's leaders in greens hit in regulation. Mention the fact that his income from playing and entertaining at corporate "outings" usually triples his tournament winnings and Jacobsen will say, "I'd like to equal that up a little."

Last year he came closer, winning two tournaments and $295,025 in the best season of his eight-year career. At 6'3" and 190 pounds, Jacobsen has a long, rhythmic swing that gives him one of the best tee-to-green games on tour. Still, in his first seven years as a pro, he won only one official tournament, the 1980 Buick-Goodwrench Open. Those humbling years are one reason Jacobsen can show his belly and laugh during a pro-am. He has felt painfully exposed by the game countless times.

"Sometimes, golf just leaves you naked," he says, his workaday brashness and energy giving way to a more contemplative mood. "Jack Lemmon [his regular partner in the Bing Crosby pro-am] told me that to be a good actor you have to be able to stand on the stage, take off all your clothes piece by piece and then slowly turn around several times. In golf, you feel completely vulnerable when you miss a three-foot putt, or miss the cut, and you have to be tough enough to survive."

Jacobsen always has, though usually without anyone knowing when it was a struggle. "To a lot of people, Peter was just this happy guy from Oregon," says his wife, Jan, who met him when both were students and golfers at the University of Oregon. Now they have three children, Amy, 4, Kristen, 3, and Mickey, 7 months. "If he shot 80, people figured he would laugh it off," Jan continues. "In that respect, very few people know Peter. He's very serious about golf."

Serious enough to be frustrated by a lucrative career that had landed him securely in the tour's middle echelon. But Jacobsen knew he could play better, and last spring, after turning 30, he decided his game needed a shakeup. "Something was missing," he says. "I wasn't sure what it was, but I was prepared to take a very hard look at myself."

A few months earlier, Jacobsen had received a letter from Chuck Hogan, a 38-year-old golf pro who believes there's more to golf than the search for the perfect swing. Hogan invited Jacobsen to try imagery training at Sports Enhancement Associates, in Eugene, of which he's a co-founder. For Jacobsen, who had always tinkered with his swing when his game went sour, it was time to learn something about the inner game.

Hogan's idea that mental images control bodily reactions is hardly new. A more famous Hogan once said, "I don't mind missing a shot. I just hate to miss one before I hit it." But Chuck Hogan and his partner, Dale Van Dalsem, have some new methods. In five days with Hogan, Jacobsen learned to visualize and sustain confidence-building images.

"Most of them were memories of me playing with my brother David and my dad at Waverley," says Jacobsen. "It made me remember how much I loved just playing the game of golf. I had gotten so used to trying too hard to win and living up to other people's expectations that I had forgotten golf was fun."

As you might expect from someone who can produce the world's only known replica of Lanny Wadkins's lightning-fast golf swing, Jacobsen exhibited an extraordinary ability to see detailed images and believe in them. To overcome a longtime insecurity about his short game, he conjured up a mental scene in which Ben Wright, the acerbic television commentator who once criticized his putting, was hoisted out of a TV tower by a helicopter and carried off into outer space. On the golf course, Jacobsen went beyond simply visualizing himself executing perfect shots. He started to feel himself change sizes, depending on the force needed for a shot. Greens would "talk" to him about which club to hit. Once on the putting surface, he would call in a giant to tramp a trough between his ball and the hole. "There's some other bizarre stuff that's too weird to put into words," he says.

In his first competitive round after the work with Hogan, Jacobsen shot 64 to lead the Colonial National Invitation; he ultimately won in a playoff with Payne Stewart. Two months of solid play later, he took the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open. Although hampered this year by a back injury and an ingrown cuticle on his left thumb that have caused him to miss four events, Jacobsen has finished second twice and won $106,542 in 10 starts.

Positive by nature even before his training with Hogan, Jacobsen is now seeing possibilities everywhere. For one thing, he isn't kidding when he says he wants to play the lead in the movie version of his favorite book, Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom, a minor classic having to do with the metaphysical side of the sport. Jacobsen sees himself as the narrator, whose perception of life changes forever after he plays golf on a mythical Scottish course called Burningbush, with a Zen-inspired golf master named Shivas Irons. "I'm so into this book," says Jacobsen. He lapses into a perfect Scottish brogue while reading from a copy: "And I say to ye all, good friends, that as ye grow in gowf, ye come to see the things ye learn there in every other place." Jacobsen looks up smiling. "Now c'mon," he says. "Am I meant to be in this movie or what?"

Jacobsen said as much in a letter to filmmaker Ronald Colby, who has worked with Francis Ford Coppola. Though Colby is more concerned with the difficult task of getting someone to give him $3 million to make a movie about golf and the supernatural, Jacobsen's letter intrigued him. "Peter certainly seems to have a feeling for the spirit of the book," says Colby. "He might be a natural."

That's the way Lemmon sees Jacobsen. "The guy is really flawless," says the two-time Academy Award winner. "With the right direction, I'm certain Peter could do a very professional job. He has the gifts of timing and observation, and a great sense of what's funny."

Bill Murray is another of Jacobsen's show business fans. The two met when Jacobsen introduced himself to Murray and writer Hunter S. Thompson at the weigh-in for the first Leonard-Duran fight, in Montreal in 1980. When the tour came to the New York area last June for the Westchester Classic and the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Murray and his brother, Ed, were in Jacobsen's gallery.

After Jacobsen shot a final-round 67 at the Open to tie for seventh, he and the Murrays retired to a hospitality tent. There Bill and Peter used a practice net to hit shots and show off for each other. Murray did a variation of Carl, his twisted-lipped character from Caddyshack, whom Jacobsen himself often falls into when he wants to convey something goofy in everyday conversation. Jacobsen recounts the scene with delight. "Murray was so great, he was like...." Here he mimics Carl and goes on: " '...Cinderella story...former actor...now a top pro...about to become...the U.S. Open champion...245 yards out...got a nine-iron....' People outside the tent were laughing, falling over themselves trying to get a look. It was definitely a great moment in sports."

One of Jacobsen's favorite ways of spending an evening is going to comedy clubs. It may be that his understanding of professional entertainers is what makes his own physical and verbal impressions of 40 or 50 professional golfers so good. Jacobsen has an eye for revealing detail and an ear for the rhythm of a joke. "I've been on a bananas and nuts diet," he will say, easily taking on Gary Player's clipped intensity. "And I'll tell you, I've been constipated for two weeks."

Unfortunately, golf fans liked Jacobsen's act with straight man and touring pro D.A. Weibring so much that soon after it started in 1979 the two players were doing 30 dates a year, at pro-ams and banquets. By 1982, Jacobsen says, "I was getting burned out and feeling a little taken advantage of." These days the pair keeps appearances to below 10 a year. Jacobsen reserves most of his impressions for his fellow pros.

"People think Peter must spend hours practicing in front of the mirror, but I swear, the stuff just comes to him," says Weibring. "The other day we were filming something and he just became Don January—the shark smile, the floating walk, the whole thing. It was eerie. And the bigger the audience, the more spontaneous and better he gets."

Jacobsen also seems to pick the right occasion to play his best golf. He went straight from the tour qualifying school in 1976 to his first pro title, the Northern California Open. When his sponsorship contract expired in 1979, he got the necessary cash by winning the Western Australian Open. His first tour win came when he was wondering if traveling with a newborn infant was the best thing for his golf game. After winning, Jacobsen celebrated at the awards ceremony by walking before the throng on the 18th green carrying five-week-old Amy over his head. Amy showed the sure Jacobsen instinct for a laugh by throwing up on him. She's been toddling along ever since, as have her siblings as they appeared.

His most gratifying win was last year's Colonial. The week before the tournament, Jacobsen's father, Erling, learned he had throat cancer. Jacobsen wanted to withdraw, but his father asked him to play. "It sounds a little soapy, but I said, 'O.K., I'll play, but I'm going to win the tournament for you,' " Jacobsen recalls. He made the same prediction to the press after the third round, which found him two shots out of the lead.

When Jacobsen made a five-foot putt on the first playoff hole, Erling, who was in a hospital bed recovering from surgery that removed half his tongue, was overcome. "I guess I cried a little," he says. "It took a lot of guts for Peter to say what he said, then go out and do it. It inspired me." He had to relearn how to eat and talk, but a year after the surgery his cancer is in remission and Erling is working a 40-hour week as a Portland insurance broker.

His son has never wanted to live anywhere else, and recently moved his family into a custom-built five-bedroom home in Lake Oswego, a leafy suburb of Portland. Jacobsen and his older brother, David, who twice tried the tour and last year reached the semifinals of the Mid-Amateur at the Atlanta Athletic Club, own a Portland turf-equipment and golf-cart distributorship. "I like living someplace nobody expects you to be from," says Jacobsen. "My only complaint about Oregon is that people tend to think small."

Jacobsen, however, is a big man when he comes back home, even if he does fail miserably at being selfish with his time. For instance, take the week before he was to defend his title at the Colonial. Instead of simply recharging his batteries with rest and contemplation, he scheduled three exhibitions and a speaking engagement in four days. By Saturday, when he played—for free—in a local charity pro-am, he was exhausted. But when a woman named Sadie introduced herself to Jacobsen as someone who had worked in the same building with his father for 20 years, Peter indulged her as if she were family.

"I don't mean to sound like a crusader," Jacobsen explains. "It's just that so many people in sports say no to people like that. I'd just rather be someone who says yes."

Given a philosophy like that, maybe folks should be imitating him.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOBefore putting, Jacobsen likes to imagine a certain TV announcer being hoisted aloft.
THREE PHOTOSJOHN IACONOJacobsen's golf impersonations include (from left) a limber Tom Kite, a loose-lipped Carl and an unmistakable Arnold Palmer. PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONBothered by an infection in his left thumb, Jacobsen missed the cut at the Masters, but daughter Amy (left) was sitting pretty. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOGolf is a family affair for Jan and Peter, here with their children and Peter's dad, Erling.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)